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Things I Learned at the ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Premiere; Hanks, Thompson, Sherman & More Talk Disney, Travers and ‘Mary Poppins’

Things I Learned at the 'Saving Mr. Banks' Premiere; Hanks, Thompson, Sherman & More Talk Disney, Travers and 'Mary Poppins'

The Disney company wasn’t sure they were ready to jump on board “Saving Mr. Banks” (December 13), admits motion picture chairman Alan Horn. He wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do, but production head Sean Bailey lobbied hard, and they finally decided that having some control by financing this $35 million Australian/British/US co-production of the origin story of the “Mary Poppins” movie was a good idea.

It’s great to watch what happens when a family picture is so inside the Disney wheelhouse, as the marketing as been inventively spot-on, from sending out “Mary Poppins” Blu-rays and mounting sing-alongs with composer Richard Sherman and Emma Thompson to staging the premiere right on the Disney lot Monday night, where the “Saving Mr. Banks” gang joined up with “Mary Poppins” stars Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews to sing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” in front of the Main Theater. 

This battle of the Titans stars Tom Hanks as mustachioed studio mogul Walt Disney, struggling to wrest control of the movie version of “Mary Poppins” from dyspeptic London-based author P.L. Travers (Thompson), who hated animation and wasn’t even invited to the premiere. She showed up anyway, and wound up a very wealthy woman. 

Based on the 2002 Australian documentary “The Shadow of Mary Poppins” and financed by Disney, this UK/Australian/US co-production is directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) and is gaining momentum in this year’s Oscar race. Two-time Oscar-winning writer-actress Thompson is coming on strong as a Best Actress contender, winning the National Board of Review.

The story flashes back to Travers’ childhood in Australia with her beloved father (Colin Farrell), a failed banker, and unhappy mother (Ruth Wilson). Paul Giamatti stars as the film’s one invented character, a limo driver designed to humanize Travers, and Jason Schwartzman and BK Novak are terrific as the Sherman brothers who melt Travers’ heart with their songs. The writer’s past unlocks the key to the film, as Disney figures out that this semi-autobiographical nanny who flies into 17 Cherry Tree Lane comes to save the banker father of Jane and Michael Banks–not the children. 

After developing the film, Australia’s Essential Media and Entertainment brought the script by Sue Smith to Britain’s Ruby Film (“Jane Eyre,” “Elizabeth”), whose Alison Owen enthusiastically took it on, adding co-writer Kelly Marcel (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) to the mix. BBC Films also came on board. She figured out that the Disney vs. Travers movie creation story had to balance out the backstory–the magic of making art out of tragedy is the secret sauce. And while Travers was a terror for all concerned–“My dear brother Bob and I went through a living hell with this movie,” says Sherman, “for 48 years I hated her guts!”–it’s fun to watch a woman being powerful and fighting for her creation–something Disney himself understands, as he recalls not being willing to give up Mickey Mouse early on in his career. “It’s family,” he said. 

The Disney family assembled on the lot for the afterparty in the Disney commissary, from Horn, who is wrestling with getting “Maleficent” into shape, and Disney CEO Bob Iger, who called Hanks himself to talk him into playing Disney, says Hanks: “If there’s any way you could do this it would really help us out.” Hanks said that he and Emma Thompson just sat opposite each other and nailed their big resolution scene in one afternoon.

Iger was grinning about nabbing the Lucas/Spielberg “Indiana Jones” franchise back from Paramount (which happily accepted some cash) and putting it into development with Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy. “It was not a must have, it was a want to have,” Iger told me. “We can make a great movie.”

Animation czar John Lasseter admits that Disney’s princess musical “Frozen” was a tough nut to crack. The secret: figuring out that the Snow Queen was NOT a villain. Lasseter said he relies on Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo” and its sequel) and Pete Docter (“Up”) to help him run Pixar as he returns Disney Animation to its former glory. They were both at the party, leaving the Pixar troops on their own in Emeryville. 

Check out a “Saving Mr. Banks” DGA Q & A below with Hancock, Hanks, Thompson, writer Kelly Marcel, producer Owen, and Sherman.

Pete Hammond: John Lee, this movie is really about the creative process like I haven’t quite seen on the screen. It’s not about a making of “Mary Poppins” as it is the development and storytellers here. Talk about what attracted you to this film and your approach?

John Lee Hancock: I knew it was extremely well-regarded as a script when it landed on my desk. I knew it was kind of behind-the-scenes of Mary Poppins and I thought, that’s not going to hold my interest necessarily. But it really is about the creative process and it asks the questiion of where stories come from. But it’s also about work product, it’s not just the finished product, it’s the sweat and toil that goes into it, and we can certainly all relate to that. Everything in the movie that you see came from the actual production of “Mary Poppins,” the swatches, the drawings, the sketches. I revel in that stuff. It was really enticing to me because there are few movies that are about that process because let’s face it, it can be, for the most part, fairly boring. Thanks to Kelly Marcel, this was anything but boring to read.

Kelly, the juxtaposition here of 1906 and 1961 would seem very, very risky to do if it’s not pulled off just right. Was that a big challenge?

Kelly Marcel: Yeah it was actually. It was really tricky to not make it feel like it was two different films. It’s easy to use words to make things meld into one another, to actually make that work visually is really difficult, and that’s all about John Lee. He did some brilliant things in there that you don’t even notice. He uses windows and curtains and things that remind you of where you’ve just been to take you into the past and back to the future again and really it’s all his genius because it wasn’t in the script.

You’re going from one story to another, if you lose it at any point of the way, you lose your audience. John Lee, talk about the authenticity of the film. This man right next to you, Richard Sherman, I imagine had a few things to say.

Hancock: In rehearsal we were talking about blocking a scene and then ‘I thought, wait a minute, why guess when I can ask? Richard come here.’

Richard what did you think of the movie?

Richard Sherman: I’ve seen it several times, but again I just see it… Everyone in it is just so inspired and it’s all true. All these things did happen. My dear brother Bob, we went through a living hell with this movie. For example, Kelly said, ‘I have a script here that will explain a lot about what Mrs. Travers is and why she is the way she is,’ it wouldn’t have been quite as painful. We thought that woman just hates us. She doesn’t like anything we do. She is impossible.

That tape recording in the end validated everything we’ve just seen.

Sherman: Can you imagine 16 hours of that? There were 20 that weren’t recorded. I always put it out of my mind but now I can see it, and I think that these people have done a magnificent telling of a true story that nobody knows and I’m very proud.

Emma, did you have access to those tapes in your research? How did you develop this irascible character and keep our empathy?

Emma Thompson: I’m afraid I did have access to those tapes. It was interesting though because what was so wonderful about it is there’s so much in people’s voices. You can tell so much. Our moods are always indicated by the ways in which we’re breathing and using our voices. You listen to her voice and you can hear the juddering in it (imitates her) the sense of frustration and rage. Of course overtly she was cooperating and covertly attempting to sabotage everything. Which makes it interesting to play. But it was so revealing, the state of the voice. And what it revealed was not just the imitating but that she was in a state of deep distress most of the time.

You’re an actress and a writer and this movie is about storytelling. Can you personally relate to that?

Thompson: Not really, because I write screenplays which are designed to be handed over. You get them right and then go, ‘you can have it now. It’s your problem now, ha ha ha.’ That’s always how I do it! 

But P.L. had created a character that she didn’t want to let go of. Walt hadn’t wanted to let go of the Mouse, because he saw that they were characters that somehow took the wounded children inside them and tried to pull them out into the light and said, ‘it’s alright to come out into the light. You’re safe with me.’ That’s how I think of those two characters. Can you imagine the child being asked to let go? Her reaction is irrational because it relates to the part of the brain that’s still sort of pre-rational. And that’s why it was so difficult.

Your scenes with Tom Hanks are fantastic. Tom, you really captured Walt Disney without imitating him, which isn’t easy to do. He has never been played onscreen to my knowledge before.

Tom Hanks: Only by Walt Disney himself. He performed as Walt Disney many, many times. One of the first films I saw was a special filmed message to ‘the good people at General Electric, who have provided money for wonderful brand new attraction using audio animatronics, It’s a Small World,’ called the Carousel of Progress.’ Richard and Bob Sherman are there and they sang the song that actually has become my motto and creed (sings, joined by Sherman): “It’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, starting at the end of every day.” So there were oceans, hours and hours of Walt presenting his dream and his idea and Walt getting what he wanted and telling people what they were going to do. The tete-a-tete, mano-a-mano that we were able to have, was perfectly choreographed.

With the physicality you brought to it, you totally believe this is Walt Disney. You obviously talked to Richard Sherman. Did you talk to his family? How did you develop the character?

Hanks: There’s an awful lot of video footage to watch. He utilized his fingers in order to enumerate things. He had a cough that came from his cigarette smoking, and we got that from Richard as well. You know the animation building over at Disney? Those long hallways? Well you’d hear coming through those first set of doors, you’d hear him clearing his throat. There are so many photographs of him showing Vice President Richard Nixon around Disneyland, and U Thant at the U.N. He’s always pointing with these two fingers and that’s because they airbrushed out the cigarette he’s holding in between his two fingers. In this movie we had to make sure we had a PG-13 rated movie instead of an R rated movie so the only thing that was more discussed in the making of the film as far as my three weeks were concerned.

More than the mustache, which was the most designed, examined, photographed mustache on the history of the planet. It was mine, but my god, they put me through hell with it. At Disney, I would just walk into a room and everyone started looking at my mustache and five people would come over and talk about it. I kept saying, ‘I’m here guys, I’m here.’ John was really worried he didn’t want too much skin showing on the bottom of my nose, on the top of the mustache, because that would look too much like Ricky Ricardo. 

Talk about the shoot. 

Hancock: We shot the Australia portion first and then we shot around LA and Disneyland. The third portion of the film was back in rehearsal. The train station is the Lucky Baldwin Train Station in Arcadia, not too far from the race track. If you pan the camera an inch you would be seeing a freeway. It was very carefully planned out.

Alison, the process started with you a long time ago in 2002 as a documentary.

Alison Owen: The original producer was an Australian guy called Ian Collie, who was a documentary producer and he produced a piece called “The Shadow of Mary Poppins” that was really an attempt by Ian to reclaim Australia. The story was that she was very Australian and everyone has this conception that Mary Poppins was quintessentially British, so that was the angle of the documentary. He then commissioned very smartly an Australian writer to do a feature version of that documentary and that was what landed on my desk. Ian’s idea was to do a sort of British/Australian coproduction and it was much more…Walt Disney was barely a character. It was fine as far as it went but I could see there was a better story there waiting to get out and in the course of that I had been wanting to work with Kelly for a long time…

How can you do that story when you don’t have Disney?

Owen: That’s the good news, is that it was a great story. The bad news was that that story was full of Disney’s intellectual property. It was kind of nuts to go ahead really.

Was Richard on your side before you went to Disney?

Owen: That’s right…all through this movie. I was at a film festival and I was talking to this lovely old lady who was a jazz pianist. So I was eking out all these great stories and I told her about this project I was doing and she said, ‘Oh, I live next door to Richard Sherman.’ It was the craziest thing…That’s what happened.

Sherman: When I read Kelly’s script, I was blown away because I really knew nothing about Pamela’s backstory, I knew nothing about what made her who she was. She was spending so much time trying to apologize to her father and trying to make things better. It was such a heartrending story. I was moved by it and for 48 years I hated her guts. I felt very strongly I wanted to help this poor little girl. I was honored to be consulted so I helped give the voices of Bob Sherman and Dick Sherman to the project. Our attitudes, all these little nooks and crannies, and Kelly just sopped them up and put them into the script seamlessly and all of a sudden it became very real. I’m just a wreck. It knocked me out, it was so beautifully done.

Audience: During the last monologue, how did you put together doing Disney without Disneyfying Disney?

Hanks: Well I have to give it to Kelly’s screenplay. This was not one of those projects where we played around with the dialogue. We had a Gutenberg Bible of a blueprint to go through. This was all coming out of her and John. So I felt my job was to reconcile all the anecdotes so that they would be somehow connected. This is about the creative process, but it’s also about the creators and in this case, Walt Disney and Pamela Travers are people who were shaped by what their world was like when they were somewhere around the age of six, seven or eight. 

You cannot discount the impact that environment and parents and loved ones have on kids who are that age. Those three years shape us, we’re either enjoying the benefits we enjoyed at that age or we’re trying to reconcile the lack of security that we had at that age for the rest of our lives. And the fact that Walt Disney tells at that point are absolutely true, this was what Walt’s life was like, despite how tough it was, how poor they were, back when if you didn’t have 25 cents it means the family might not eat that night is true. When Walt says, ‘I’m not trying to make you cry. I’m trying to tell you about my sad childhood. I love my father, he was a wonderful man.’ Somehow he had that security that was given to him by his parents, while Pamela Travers had a whole different set of circumstances. I worked on the exteriors. But after that it’s all about the filmmakers, this is all about John Lee certainly, this is all about what Kelly wrote.

Audience: Emma Thompson, for 80 percent of the film you played a very frosty, shrill, bitchy character. How did you prepare?

Thompson: One morning my husband woke up and said to me, ‘Isn’t it weird, you’ve played a magical nanny, and you play someone who’s written a magical nanny?’ How did I prepare to be unpleasant? It’s just really letting out one’s natural instincts. There is an authenticity to her which is rather delightful. We’re all so bloody well brought up aren’t we? We’re taught to say please and thank you and we have to do things that we don’t want to do a lot of the time, and be nice about it. She just wasn’t having any of it. She just didn’t want to be there and she was very honest about it. And when I spoke to people who knew her, they said, ‘well she was difficult but you did at least know where you were.’ I find people like that rather bracing. It’s when people are nice all the time that you don’t really know what’s going on. That’s all I’m going to say.

TOH review is here; Thompson BAFTA Q & A here.

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