Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Rachel Griffiths, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak
Director: John Lee Hancock
Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 125 minutes
Synopsis: Author P.L. Travers travels from London to Hollywood as Walt Disney adapts her novel Mary Poppins for the big screen.
Saving Mr. Banks
Release Date: January 9th, 2014
In 1961, Walt Disney invited 'Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers to his studio in Los Angeles to discuss, in person, his continued interest in obtaining the movie rights to her beloved book and character"a pitch he first made to her in the 1940s. Still hesitant and disinterested after all those years, Travers wanted to tell the Hollywood impresario to go fly a kite but with dwindling sales of her books and a bleak economic future looming, P.L. Travers said yes and embarked on a two-week sojourn in Los Angeles that would ultimately set the wheels of the beloved film in motion.
Now, Walt Disney Pictures presents 'Saving Mr. Banks," a film inspired by this extraordinary, untold backstory of how Disney's classic 'Mary Poppins" made it to the screen, starring two-time Academy Award®–winner Emma Thompson and fellow double Oscar®-winner Tom Hanks.
'Mary Poppins" journey to the screen began the moment Walt Disney's daughters begged him to make a movie of their favorite book, P.L. Travers' 'Mary Poppins." Walt made them a promise to do so, but it was a promise that he didn't realise would take 20 years to keep. In his quest to obtain the rights, Walt comes up against a curmudgeonly, uncompromising writer who has absolutely no intention of letting her beloved magical nanny get mauled by the Hollywood machine. But, as the books stop selling and money grows short, Travers reluctantly agrees to go to Los Angeles to hear Disney's plans for the adaptation.
For those two short weeks in 1961, Walt Disney pulls out all the stops. Armed with imaginative storyboards and chirpy songs from the talented Sherman brothers, Walt launches an all-out onslaught on P.L. Travers, but the prickly author doesn't budge. He soon begins to watch helplessly as Travers becomes increasingly immovable and the rights begin to move further away from his grasp.
It is only when he reaches into his own childhood that Walt discovers the truth about the ghosts that haunt her, and together they set Mary Poppins free to ultimately make one of the most endearing films in cinematic history.
Expounding on the premise of the film, director John Lee Hancock says, 'It's really a fantastic story, but it's not the behind-the-scenes look at the making of -Mary Poppins.' You're not on a sound stage with a young Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Our story takes you back 2-3 years before the actual production of the movie began.
'Walt Disney saw the promise of that movie, which made it worth dealing with P.L. Travers to secure the rights. That's our story, a fantastic story, about a beloved movie, its own story and characters, and the origins of how it became this amazing, groundbreaking film. On a deeper level, it's also about two storytellers and Disney's journey trying to discover why P.L. Travers holds on so dearly and protectively to her story and the image of this father she adored," John Lee Hancock concludes.
A Story Idea Take Flight
While the character of Mary Poppins was born out of the imagination of Australian writer P.L. Travers, the seeds for 'Saving Mr. Banks" were unknowingly planted by another Aussie, a filmmaker named Ian Collie, who commissioned a television documentary in 2002 called 'The Shadow of Mary Poppins."
The film was a 55-minute nonfiction portrait of the life of author P.L. Travers, who was born Helen Lyndon Goff in 1899 in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia. Upon her move to London in the 1920s, she took the pen name P.L. Travers by using her father's first name as her adopted surname, and using initials instead of spelling out -Pamela Lyndon' to maintain a gender anonymity, a somewhat common practice in the 1930s.
Ian Collie, speaking about the genesis of his documentary, says, 'In a local bookshop, I came across a biography of Pamela Travers by Valerie Lawson [a first edition was published in Australia in 1999 under the title 'Out of the Sky She Came: The Life of P.L. Travers"]. Travers was an Australian and I found that fascinating because the story of Mary Poppins is quintessentially English. I thought, wow, an Australian wrote that. As I read the biography, I found that a lot of characters or storylines came out of her childhood experience growing up in rural Queensland and were transposed to this London setting. That in itself was fascinating to me."
Once he completed the documentary, Ian Collie wondered if her story could translate into a dramatic movie. 'In exploring P.L. Travers' childhood years, I thought there were the seeds of a good film there," he says. 'The drama was inherent because of the conflict in the parent-child relationship. You see that relationship in Disney's -Mary Poppins' movie as well. Although P.L. Travers' real life was a slightly darker underpinning of that story."
'The documentary also looked at her as a young girl and then as an older woman," Ian Collie adds about his 2002 effort. 'When she left Australia (1924), she basically transformed herself and left her Australianess behind. She moved to London and became more English than the English. When you listen to her on tape, she's got this Oxbridge sort of accent. She classically reinvented herself. I thought that was a fascinating journey arc from young girl to this older woman. A complete transformation."
Hoping to put his idea in script form, Ian Collie turned to Sue Smith, one of Australia's most prominent and renowned television writers, whose three-decade career has brought her much acclaim and several top Australian film and television prizes for Aussie-born projects like 'Peaches" with Hugo Weaving (2004), 'Bastard Boys" (2007) and 'The Leaving of Liverpool" (1992). It was Smith who came up with the film's title in early drafts of her script.
Because of P.L. Travers' connection to Australia, her birthplace, and London, Ian Collie thought the project should be a joint Aussie-English co-production. Subsequently, Troy Lum of Hopscotch Films introduced Ian Collie to Oscar®-nominated British producer Alison Owen ('Elizabeth"). When Alison Owen received the copy of Ian Collie's documentary plus the feature film script written by Sue Smith, Owen was intrigued…surely Travers was a Brit? After all, Mary Poppins was the quintessential British nanny! And so began the journey of 'Saving Mr. Banks."
'Ian Collie had a script written in Australia by Sue Smith, which was much more of a biopic, if you will, of Pamela Travers," Alison Owen confirms about her initial take on the screenplay. 'The good news was that I saw a great movie in their script. Particularly the relationship between Pamela and Walt, where there clearly was a story, a rounded dramatic movie that I thought could be fabulous."
'But the bad news, of course, was that it would involve lots and lots of Disney material that wasn't in the original script," she notes about the obvious dilemma that could derail the project. 'Rights clearances and such. You couldn't really make the movie without the Shermans' songs and clips from -Mary Poppins.' There was a story in there, but the film that it could be was just a notion at this point. So, the big question was how do we get to that point where we can make something that's so good that Disney would want to be part of it and not shut us down?"
Looking to expand on Ian Collie's idea and Sue Smith's draft, Alison Owen brought Kelly Marcel ('Terra Nova") to work on the screenplay, with the support of BBC Films. 'Kelly Marcel was somebody whom I'd been looking to work with for a while," Alison Owen states about the writer whose script ultimately landed on Hollywood's coveted Black List as one of the 'best unproduced" works in recent years. 'I thought she was a fabulous young writer. I'd been trying out a number of ideas on her, none of which quite sat. But, when I talked to her about this project, she just went for it straight away; felt that it was something she'd love to take on. We commissioned Kelly Marcel to write a draft and, I have to say, she just knocked it out of the park."
'I was really struck by the idea of someone having a life that is dictated by their past," Kelly Marcel offers about her attraction to the character of P.L. Travers. 'That, for me, was really interesting. And, I hadn't known this had all gone on behind the scenes of -Mary Poppins.' That's such an iconic movie and one of my favorites that I've loved since I was a child. The juxtaposition of those two scenarios fascinated me."
However, Kelly Marcel was simultaneously captivated and conflicted by the project's fascinating premise"and the problems that could potentially arise to get it made. 'Every part of me said don't write it because if Disney won't make the movie, it cannot get made," she confides. 'But, I couldn't stop thinking about the story and about P.L. Travers. So, in the end, I just had to write it. I feel it has a really important message about forgiveness and letting things go. And I like to write things that have good takeaways."
Before penning a single word, the English actress-turned-writer burrowed into copious research on both Disney and author Travers, reading five books about the Hollywood genius, including Neal Gabler's authoritative, 912-page study, 'Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" (2007), which devotes several pages to the backstory of the Disney-Travers conflict.
Kelly Marcel also turned to the aforementioned Lawson tome, 'Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers," which many feel is the encyclopedic biography on Travers' life and work (and appeared in two separate editions"the original in 1999, which producer Collie spotted in his local bookshop, and a revised American version in 2006, published in concert with the Broadway opening of the Disney musical based on the 1964 movie). Lawson, also an Aussie native like her subject, consigned a complete, 40-page chapter to the Mary Poppins episode, calling it -The Americanization of Mary.'
The detailed research provided a foundation for Kelly Marcel's own words, but also afforded great insight into both of these personalities and their combative history together during those early weeks of 1961. It also put Disney's 1964 masterpiece in an entirely different light for the thirtysomething Brit. 'In this film, I like to think that Pamela could see her own catharsis coming through Walt's film, and she didn't want to let it go," the screenwriter elaborates. 'She had held on to her past for so long and Walt's movie was bringing out so much for her that she became self-destructive to stop herself from feeling the pain that she would inevitably feel at the end of it."
'This story offers incredible context to what the author P.L Travers went through in her own life that led to the birth of the character of Mary Poppins," chimes in actor Colin Farrell, who plays P.L. Travers' troubled father in the 1906 flashback sequences. 'The tragedies that befell her at a very young age and the emotional pain and trauma that she went through that came out in her work. This story goes back to show you Emma Thompson's character, P.L. Travers, the writer of -Mary Poppins, as a child in rural Australia in 1906. Kelly's ability with clarity of narrative in these two aspects of P.L.'s life, the flashbacks and contemporary story in 1961, is amazing. Just like her script, which achieves a level of emotion that is not self-indulgent or preachy, but quite astonishing."
As the script began generating excitement around Hollywood, director John Lee Hancock's agent obtained a copy 'to see if I might be interested in reading it," the filmmaker, also a noted screenwriter, says. 'They were hunting for and interviewing directors. I had another project at the time which looked like it might go, but I read the script and loved it so, so much."
Without any expectations about winning the assignment, the modest John Lee Hancock met with Alison Owen to discuss Kelly Marcel's script, telling her 'what I loved about it, along with ideas about visually shaping the 1961 story and intertwining it with the 1906 Australia story, which is the origin story for -Mary Poppins' from Travers own childhood."
'When I read it and thought about how I would want to film it, I didn't want it to seem just like a 1961 Los Angeles story with flashbacks to her childhood in 1906 Australia," John Lee Hancock relates about how he would seamlessly marry the two distinct eras depicted in Kelly Marcel's screenplay. 'You want them to be like strands of DNA from the same species. Is this a 1961 story with flashbacks? Or is it a 1906 story with flash forwards? How reliable is her memory of these things if it is a flashback at all? How do they inform each other? How does the 1906 story inform both the origin of -Mary Poppins' and the two weeks in Hollywood in 1961 when P.L. butts heads with Walt Disney?"
'Disney spends a lot of the movie trying to figure out what P.L. Travers' issues are, beyond the fact that she doesn't like animation," John Lee Hancock goes on about the story and relationship between his two protagonists. 'Trying to figure out where she's coming from and why she's making this negotiation so incredibly difficult."
'And, when he does figure it out, he spends a lot of time trying to win her over, manipulating her to get his way, and she wins over and over again," John Lee Hancock continues about the story's arc. 'He capitulates, which was so unlike Walt, and which he is not necessarily happy about, trying to get her to come on board. He then realises that he's been talking to the wrong person. He needs to find out more about her, who she is, and what her relationship with her father was, and that becomes the key. He realises that they have a somewhat shared past in their relationships with their fathers. He must convince her that the idea of turning something dark or even tragic into something that has a message that lives on and saves you from that dark past is the stuff of storytellers. And that's what they have in common."
'P.L. Travers is burdened by her past in our film, one that she cannot escape," actor Tom Hanks, who plays the iconic Walt Disney, adds, picking up on John Lee Hancock's comments. 'There is an aspect to the pain and the guilt that she feels from the memory and loss of this very special man, her father. When Walt is able to verbalise to her how he dealt with such pain in missing his own father, that's when she finally understands."
'Walt Disney is so different from her, with his money and Disneyland and his dancing penguins, that I think she felt that she had nothing in common with him, so therefore this was never going to work out," Tom Hanks elaborates. 'But then, she realises that his reasons to make the movie equal the reasons she wrote her books. I think she then makes her peace with the reality of giving up control. Never in the movie does she talk to Walt Disney as an equal, until that moment. I think the movie attempts to interpret our past and how the jobs we do, in this case the art that these two create"Walt Disney with his films, P.L. Travers with her books"address and heal those scars and those wounds by taking on the past and turning it into something that is not a burden."
Adds Emma Thompson, who plays the prickly author, 'I think that P.L. Travers felt that Disney was making her version of the world somewhat dishonest because he was denying the darkness. Disney, who had experienced enough darkness of his own, wanted to create a world for children that was not dark. The books have a very particular atmosphere and are rather different to the movie, which has Disney's and the Sherman brothers' extraordinary, bubbly-champagne-like life force. Americans have a kind of energy and life force that's very, very different to P.L.'s and to her designedly and forcefully British outlook."
Before landing a director, a cast, even before she approached Disney, Alison Owen wanted to share the script with songwriter Richard Sherman, who suffered through the burden of dealing with the irrational Travers during this brief period 50 years ago. 'I sent the script to Richard Sherman before we'd even gone to Disney because he was another person whose approval I wanted," Alison Owen confirms. 'To have his endorsement that we were telling the story authentically. It's to the spirit rather than to the letter, like all these stories are, but Richard Sherman read it and really felt that it told the story as it actually happened. He was very happy to endorse it and to help us as we went on this journey. I can't tell you how gratifying it's been to have him along with us."
'Kelly Marcel wrote this wonderful screenplay," echoes songwriter Richard Sherman, who helped Marcel make it as accurate as possible, especially in some of the dialogue, which she would not have found in any of the biographies she read. 'There were certain phrases we used around the studio working with Walt. She would not have known that through any research. Once she incorporated my suggested changes into the screenplay, I was all lumped up. Very moved by the whole story as she captured it in her words."
'This movie is a very honest picture; it tells it the way it was," Richard Sherman notes about a significant moment in his career, both the frustration of dealing with Travers, and the ultimate joy and triumph in the 1964 film's grand success. 'Nobody in the world really knows this story. We've always said she was difficult, but this is the first time it's actually been talked about. Walt got a couple of songwriters and a story man together to create a film that he knew he could sell to the world. Walt knew what he had. But, he couldn't convince Mrs. Travers, and that's the story."
With Richard Sherman's endorsement that they were telling the story with truth and integrity, Alison Owen felt comfortable planning her strategy to get Disney involved. She carefully submitted the screenplay to an executive at Disney and after the script went all the way to the top decision-makers for review, Disney decided to get wholeheartedly behind the project. The machine started in motion, with Tom Hanks being directly courted by Disney and Disney taking the lead in getting Disney family approval.
With 'Saving Mr. Banks" finding its ideal home, filmmakers went to work enthusiastically to bring the film to the screen.
After acquiring the script for 'Saving Mr. Banks," the Disney Studio referenced 500 pages of documents from the development of 'Mary Poppins""from treatment and script drafts to correspondence between key players in the production of the film"to aid in the telling of the story. The studio also offered the services of its prodigious Archives Department to assist the filmmakers and the talent.
Tom Hanks reminds us, '-Saving Mr. Banks' is about the making of -Mary Poppins', not about the filming of Mary Poppins.' It's about the translation of -Mary Poppins' from book to screen. It's about the creative process, of how Travers' character started on paper first before it became the classic movie. I think this is actually a new take on that sort of story idea. What were the secrets behind this great movie that everybody loves? Well, it has a checkered past. It's not just about somebody who broke their foot while they were shooting the film. It's about somebody who broke the spirit of the people in the room when they were writing that movie. And, that was Pamela Travers."
The Cast and Characters
When the filmmakers sat down to discuss the casting for 'Saving Mr. Banks," they drew up a list of their dream cast. As fate would have it, they were able to sign the talent they wanted, who were all happy to join the production.
The first choice to play 'Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers was two-time Oscar® winner Emma Thompson. 'When you've got somebody like Emma Thompson, she has a very large toolbox," director Hancock proclaims about his leading lady and her abilities to tackle such a challenging role. 'Anytime you're taking on a character that is that complicated and that sad, there's a weight that goes along with it. Emma Thompson confided in me that it was tough to wake up and play P.L. Travers every day. And it would be great when we were done so she would have hopefully done P.L. proud. She is so incredibly talented."
Emma Thompson says of the curmudgeonly P.L. Travers, 'She was a wonderful case study, requiring so many different shades. She's one of the most complicated people I've ever encountered."
She adds, 'I've never played anyone more full of contradictions, which makes it fascinating because she oscillates all the time. Her early life interfered so radically and so successfully with her capacity to have relationships and particularly with her relationships with men. Her father had been so emotionally unstable and unreliable that for her, love was always a very tricky thing. There was a brokenness and an emptiness and a sadness in her."
Describing Travers at the point of her entry into the story for 'Saving Mr. Banks" when she gets to Los Angeles, Emma Thompson says, 'She hated the script. She didn't much like the Sherman Brothers. Actually, she appeared to hate everything, but whether she actually did or not is another matter. What she was dealing with were her own issues, which were deep and complex. Her relationship with Mary Poppins was the same really in a sense as Walt Disney's with Mickey Mouse. Mary Poppins had saved her in a way from the wounds of her own childhood, in the same way as Mickey Mouse had saved Walt. So, it wasn't as if she was giving this character up with any degree of ease. She felt as though a part of her very soul was being taken away and turned into something that it really wasn't and she found that psychologically difficult."
Emma Thompson also points out another facet of the patchwork quilt that was P. L. Travers. 'She was a bit of an intellectual snob," comments Emma Thompson. 'I don't think there's any question about that and indeed she was an extremely original and clever, talented woman. She was unusual in the sense that she had relationships with highly intellectual men at a time when it was not always easy for women to get access to them."
Although Travers sought out the company of charming men in her lifetime, Thompson notes, 'Walt's charm was probably easier for her to resist. She would not have thought of him as an intellectual."
'Pamela's a tough old stick," producer Ian Collie adds about the film's main character. 'She is, in a sense, not an easy woman to like because she is so controlling and seems to be so humorless. And Emma Thompson, of course, portrays all those qualities. But, Emma Thompson also brings a certain warmth and just a hint of vulnerability where you want to give Pamela a big hug. That's the skill of a great actor, to bring that empathy for what is a tough, unsympathetic old character. Emma Thompson was perfect casting."
Emma Thompson has her own take on her character and the story. 'It's about artists," comments Thompson. 'Why they do it and how interesting the relationship between the artist and their childhood is. A lot of children's authors have had terrible childhoods. What I loved about it was that is was about how early suffering informs what you write, what you make and what you produce as an artist."
In preparation to take on the persona of P.L. Travers, Emma Thompson listened to tapes of the sessions in Los Angeles between the songwriting team of Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman, Walt Disney and Travers, all of which had been saved in the Disney Archives. 'The tapes remind me of the myth of Sisyphus because it's like listening to people push something very, very heavy up a hill and then get to the top and just watch the whole thing roll back down again. It's really hard work listening to those tapes because P.L. is so awful and so irritating. Just listening to them makes you want to throw something heavy at her.
'But there are lots of little clues about what was really going on as well," Emma Thompson continues. 'She's often performing and there's a stuttering quality to the tapes that makes it very difficult to listen to because she's dealing with letting something out of herself that she just doesn't really want to communicate. There's a lot of straight negation and a lot of bullying. Of course, no one could say anything. Don DaGradi and the Sherman brothers were stuck in a room with her for weeks on end and just couldn't say anything because she had to be handled with kid gloves. So, it was a nightmare for them and the tapes are a nightmare to listen to. But they were very, very useful."
Tom Hanks enjoyed the experience of working with Emma Thompson and watching her bring forth the very difficult and complex P.L. Travers. 'Every time I've seen Emma Thompson, I say, how does she do that? How does she make it look so easy? With the work that we did, there was always something going on between us. There was always a secret that Pamela had that Disney himself did not see until literally the end. There's a scene where Walt Disney is saying, -Will you please share with me why this isn't a good experience for you? The emotion that Emma Thompson had to bring to a woman who was about to break into tears over something she could not communicate shows the quality of an actress who is forever at the absolute top of her game. She is so far removed from the old English biddy who lives in the townhouse in London, yet her finger is on the absolute pulse of all the Englishness that goes on with that."
And Tom Hanks himself seems to also embody Walt Disney. Says director John Lee Hancock, 'This film portrays a side of Disney we haven't seen before," John Lee Hancockreveals. 'It's not the Walt we know from -The Wonderful World of Disney,' which was fun to explore. But, someone had to play Walt Disney, become Walt Disney. Who would that be? There was really only one person that all of us could think of"Tom. I wasn't trying to put a rubber mask on Tom Hank and make him look exactly like Disney. I wanted Walt Disney to come from inside. Tom Hank is such a fine actor that that's where he begins his work"from the inside.
'Tom Hank grew his own mustache," John Lee Hancock continues in describing Tom Hanks' physical 'transformation" for the role. 'There's a lot of voice work, the way he walks, the body position, the way he holds his hands, the way he touches his mustache. How he phrases things and lets sentences roll off the end. He simply became Walt Disney to me and I was completely amazed."
'I don't look or sound anything like Walt Disney," Tom Hanks affirms in responding to John Lee Hancock's comments. 'In addition to growing a mustache and parting my hair, the job at hand was to somehow capture all that whimsy that is in his eyes as well as all of the acumen that goes along with that. You can't do an imitation of Walt Disney. There is a cadence to the way he sounds that comes from, I feel, his enthusiasm for what was in his head. He is an institution without a doubt and worthy of the museum that his family built for him up in the Presidio in San Francisco."
'I went up to the museum and spent an entire day there," Tom Hanks confirms about part of the research required for his portrayal of the Hollywood legend. 'Diane Disney and the staff there were incredibly welcoming and helpful. I heard every single piece of audio and saw every piece of film in the place about Walt's entire history. He invented an art form that anybody can imitate it, but no one can do better. Just helped tremendously."
Tom Hanks came away from that visit with important insight into Walt Disney's character. He explains, 'Walt was hands on every step of the way, yet he always used the word 'we.' He never said, 'I had an idea' or 'I did it this way.' I thought that was great. There was an inclusiveness to everything he did. It went from the early cartoons in Kansas City all the way to his theme parks."
Explaining the essence of Disney that he was trying to capture on screen, Tom Hanks says, 'Walt's head was so full of magnificent ideas that he could not help make everybody else excited about them. And that's what I was going for. I wanted to convey his pride and joy about the studio and what was coming out of it. There is a tactile connection to every word he says that has to come out of release."
Producer Alison Owen comments, 'I just can't think of anyone else but Tom Hanks to have played Walt Disney. Both are American icons. I don't know what we would have done if Tom Hanks hadn't played Walt because I really can't think of anyone else who could play him and embody him in such a way."
Tom Hanks has a real American spirit inside him," adds actor B.J. Novak about his co-star, with whom he shared several scenes in the studio rehearsal hall where the Sherman brothers demo some of their early compositions for Travers. 'He also has a real creativity that somehow doesn't seem crazy or inaccessible or out-of-reach. A creativity that seems normal and relatable, much like how Walt Disney probably was, or certainly how we think of Walt Disney. He's just charming in in the script. Walt Disney wins everyone over with his charm and optimism and, I think, that's also the Tom Hanks way."
'Tom Hanks gave an incredible performance as Walt," concludes the one man connected to the project who knew Disney better than anyone else"songwriter Richard Sherman. 'Bob and I had a relationship with Walt that was unlike most of the people that worked for him. We were very close. I think music is the thing that brought us together. He loved music and used to like to have me play for him."
'And, with Tom Hanks's performance, I was looking at Walt and myself, it was just weird and wonderful," Sherman says. 'It was wonderful. I think Tom Hanks is the only actor I can imagine in the whole world who could play Walt Disney and really be him. Walt had incredible charisma. Just a remarkable man. And, Tom Hanks blew me away with the way he did it because he has that similar personality. He played Walt so wonderfully."
Emma Thompson looked forward to working with Tom Hanks, as the two of them have always wanted to do a film together. She says, 'We have known each other for a long time, so when this was being cast I rang him up and said, -This is just so perfect.'
'Tom Hanks is fascinated by Disney and knows a lot about him. There's something faintly similar to the pair of them"their enduring popularity and their sort of everyman quality and a huge kind of a charm," she concludes.
Versatile actor Paul Giamatti took on the role of P.L. Travers' friendly limousine driver, Ralph, the only fictional character in the film…and the only American Emma Thompson's character P.L. Travers liked in the film. 'They have a nice relationship," says Paul Giamatti. 'You see another side of her. You see a lot of her difficult side and you see her be less difficult with Ralph. She's completely blunt with him but he gets right away who she is, and he understands and he's totally cool with it. It's easy to like him and I think she can't resist after a while, so she comes to like him."
Emma Thompson adds, 'Ralph is a beautifully realised character. He's terribly cheery and annoying immediately and Pamela's fantastically rude to him on a regular basis for quite a long time. It doesn't dent this cheeriness at all. He doesn't take it personally. It's his genuine humility and respect for everyone that slowly wins her round. While it never, ever becomes sentimental, this relationship between them is the only softening, on the surface certainly, of her relationship with America."
Describing Emma Thompson's portrayal of the curmudgeonly author, Paul Giamatti says, 'Emma Thompson plays P.L. Travers so she is hilariously awful. She's just very, very, British and has no filter, no editing device. P.L. did not have great social skills, but was deeply in love with her own creation and terrified for its safety. It's like her child that she's very protective of and you see enough about her past to understand why she's such a defensive person. But it is very funny and Emma Thompson is super funny in the role."
If treasures belong in museums, someone needs to book a place for the legendary songwriter Richard Sherman, who waxed nostalgic, with memories both good and less so, as he consulted during the film's production. Not only about revisiting those moments in 1961 (and the 1964 premiere, which director Hancock also stages in the film), but the personalities with whom he shared these experiences all those years ago.
Talking first about writer and storyboard genius Don DaGradi, Sherman states, 'Don DaGradi was incredible. He was one of the most brilliant story men at the studio if not the entire industry. He was the senior citizen in the group because Don had been at Disney for 20-25 years. Bob and I were the new kids on the block in 1961 and he chaperoned us, looked out for us and guided us."
Playing screenwriter Don DaGradi is Bradley Whitford, who gives some insight into the man he plays in the film, who was formerly an animator. 'This was a huge shot that Walt gave him, promoting him from simply being an animator to being co-writer of the script," explains Bradley Whitford. 'It was a huge break for him, and that's part of what was so excruciating for Don and the Sherman brothers when they were confronted with this brick wall called P.L. Travers."
'Part of the problem with adapting -Mary Poppins' is the books are a series of episodic events," actor Whitford explains. 'The books don't have the beginning, middle and end that every screenwriter or story person looks for. So, these three guys had to manufacture it. Walt knew he wanted to do something unprecedented"including animation with live-action, which was a radical thing to do back then, and something that terrified Travers."
'By all accounts, Don DaGradi felt incredibly fortunate to spend his life telling stories, animating stories," the actor goes on to say about his real-life character, who died in 1991, thus not affording Whitford the opportunity to pick his brain about the era. 'There was a lot of joy in his work. There was a gratitude in his personality."
To play famed 'Mary Poppins" composers Richard and Robert Sherman, the filmmakers tapped Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak. 'Bob was the yin and I was the yang," Richard Sherman observes about the relationship with his older brother, who passed away at the age of 86 only six months before filming began on 'Saving Mr. Banks" last year. 'I mean, we were two different people, but we believed the same way. We really were a very strong team. We sort of tolerated each other, as brothers do. But, we loved each other. Bob's inner fires were different than mine."
In watching actor B.J. Novak play his older sibling in the film, Sherman calls it 'magnificent" casting. 'He was absolutely right on it because he is more of an introverted personality," says Sherman. 'Very thoughtful about what he is going to say before he says it and doesn't mince words, just like Bob. And, strangely, B.J. is the same age as Bob was when this happened back in 1961, just as Jason is the same age as I was back then."
'I knew nothing about the Sherman Brothers when I started on this," admits B.J. Novak, one of the creative forces behind NBC's hit sitcom, 'The Office." 'Bob and Richard Sherman were the team that wrote all the songs that you remember from a certain Disney era. All the -Mary Poppins' songs. Later, -Bedknobs and Broomsticks' and -Winnie the Pooh'. Most famously, -It's a Small World' ride and other theme-park songs. They were studio guys. They were professional, salaried musicians, which was Richard's dream come true."
B.J. Novak says about Bob Sherman's character. 'Bob took things much more personally. He did not sugar coat anything. He had been in WWII. He had been through a lot of disappointments in his life. He was the much more serious older brother of the two, but he was very straightforward, very sincere and very talented. According to Richard and every other bit of research that I did, this was a very happy time, in general, for both brothers. I think this is really the height of their careers."
B.J. Novak adds, 'People were excited when I told them that Jason Schwartzman and I play brothers in the film. I think there's something in temperament and in looks that feels compatible. I will also say that I am by nature a bit of a serious, more introverted guy, like Bob. Much more so than Jason Schwartzman, who is such a pure sunshine individual. I think it's pretty funny that we played brothers of that exact dynamic."
To which co-star Jason Schwartzman replies, 'When John Lee Hancock said we've cast B.J. Novak as your brother, it was a very exciting moment because I thought, that's great because we share a physical resemblance. And judging a book by its cover, B.J.'s pretty reserved and serious, which is very similar to Bob. But, he's also super funny and a great writer."
'They were up against a real force of nature in this woman, P.L Travers," Jason Schwartzman says of the brothers' relationship with the obstinate author. 'Sort of a mysterious woman who had very specific ideas about her work, how it should be handled. She was very protective of it when she came to L.A. She meets the Sherman Brothers and the first thing she says to them is -I don't think this should be a musical'."
In watching Jason Schwartzman ('Moonrise Kingdom," 'Rushmore") bring his younger persona to life before the movie cameras 50 years later, you understand Sherman's observation that it was like watching a home movie. 'He's great, he's wonderful," gushes Sherman about Jason Schwartzman. 'A very musically talented young man. He is a drummer, plays piano and writes songs. He's full of energy and that's exactly the kind of a person that I was. And think still am."
'Jason Schwartzman is already a musician, plays the piano," notes director Hancock. 'I knew that would be helpful for us because we played a lot of (the music) in the rehearsal room scenes. And, he learned to play like Dick Sherman by spending hour after hour after hour with Dick, learning to play in that jaunty fashion that Dick does."
'I can't imagine what it's like to be Richard Sherman watching people playing him and seeing Walt Disney walk into a room. Pretty wild," actor Jason Schwartzman admits about playing the role of the only person in Marcel's story still alive, one who also spent several weeks with the production and was the company's living, breathing encyclopedia to the era depicted in the film.
'Getting the access to Richard Sherman personally while getting to view certain original documents from this era was great," says Jason Schwartzman.
Jason Schwartzman sheds light on an aspect of the story that strikes many as surprising when he states, 'They recorded all of these meetings between the Sherman brothers and P.L. Travers. It is all on tape, hours and hours of it, that she demanded be done. I was able to get all of the recordings and a transcript of the treatment that they were reading through. Listening to the audio and holding the treatment in my hand as if I was in the room with them was just so much fun."
In order to better understand Travers' eccentric, erratic behavior during her trip to the Disney studio in 1961, Marcel delves back a half century to the author's childhood in rural Australia. As her adventure unfolds in Los Angeles, Marcel chose to portray her origins, and those of her iconic character of Mary Poppins, to illustrate and explain this bizarre conduct in her dealings with Disney and his creative team, using flashbacks, scattered throughout the story, from 1961 Hollywood to 1906 Australia.
Director John Lee Hancock began his nine-week shoot with the flashback sequences set in Maryborough and Allora, Australia, which featured an entirely different cast playing four key characters that represent forebearers to the 1961 story"Travers' alcoholic father, Travers Robert Goff (the inspiration for Mr. Banks in her book); his tormented, self-destructive wife, Margaret; her sister, Aunt Ellie (who, like the famous nanny whom she inspired, comes not to comfort Ginty and her two younger sisters, but the ailing, terminally ill father); and, especially, the young, aspiring seven-year-old writer, Helen Lyndon Goff, nicknamed Ginty during her childhood.
For the part of Travers Goff, P.L. Travers' troubled father played in flashback, the filmmakers reached out to Colin Farrell. 'When we got Colin Farrell to play Travers Goff, you talk about an Irish poet," John Lee Hancock states admiringly. 'He's such a brilliant actor and so soulful and full that I knew that this aspect of our story would really come to life. When you've got a father like Colin Farrell, the little girl would adore him for all he does and all he is. And forgive him his sins. Giving us better insight and understanding into this father-daughter story."
'Mary Poppins, in the book, comes into the Banks home to make sense and order of chaos and discord," notes Colin Farrell, hinting at the parallels between Travers' book and Hancock's film. 'She is that breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale environment, kind of a breath of life in in a place where death is slowly encroaching. In this film, I play the father, Travers Goff, to the daughter, Ginty, the writer of Mary Poppins later in her life."
'The nanny comes into the Banks household apparently to save the children," the actor continues. 'But, it's really to save the father, to awaken him emotionally to the life that he has and the gifts and the blessings that he has around him. That's the most tragic thing about that character in the book, and my character in the film. He has a beautiful life. Travers has these three daughters that he loves and adores, and a wife that he loves, but he can't experience that as deeply as he wishes."
'There's something indescribable, something tragically uncertain, about how he feels in his own life," Colin Farrell adds. 'There's a bit of that in Mr. Banks in -Mary Poppins' as well. And, it was a character that I felt was very different from anything I've ever approached or been asked to do. I would have been very upset if this one didn't work out for me. I really love this film. I love this story; I'm so over the moon to have been a part of it. I think there's so much heart in this film."
John Lee Hancock did an extensive search to find the child actress to personify the young Pamela Travers, calling it 'a difficult bit of casting. We were looking for the young version of Emma Thompson. You want someone that looks somewhat like her if possible. More importantly, this little girl is in every flashback scene and has to kind of carry the day."
Finally they settled on 11-year old Australian actress Annie Buckley to play Ginty. 'There was something about Annie, so natural and unspoiled, so guileless and innocent, that I felt if we could capture that quality on screen, the audience would forgive the older Pamela Travers everything," says John Lee Hancock. 'To see such openness, trust and hope let down by those she loves, and watch as she puts an iron case around her heart to never get let down again, would make us weep for Pamela instead of judging her."
'There was just such promise in Annie Buckley's eyes and in her face," John Lee Hancock effuses. 'When she looks at Travers Goff, it's just an undying love and that's kind of the heartbeat of this story."
He adds, 'Annie Buckley knew how to play emotional moments and that's something that made her wise beyond her years. She was very much a child, but she understood what we were after in terms of emotional moments. You could just see her act with her entire body, not just her face and her mouth saying lines."
Summing up the young star, Colin Farrell, who shared every scene in which he appears in the film with the young Annie Buckley, says, 'Annie Buckley's wonderful, just magnetic and astute. Such a kind and sweet person, so beautiful with a face that looks like it's from a different time period. I mean that in the most flattering way. It's a huge role for someone like this because she is really the first finger on the first page who continues to turn very important pages throughout the story of P.L. Travers and her past experience of guilt and shame. I just loved working with her!"
Ruth Wilson came on board to play Margaret Goff, P.L. Travers' mother in the flashback story. Explaining her character, Wilson says, 'Margaret perhaps married below her station. She married this very poetic, charismatic guy who offered her the world and promised every dream. However, reality hit hard and life with Travers turned out harder than she ever imagined."
'You see her gradual decline throughout the piece, having to deal with an alcoholic husband with three children living in isolation with no family or friends to support her," the English beauty continues about the arc of her character in the 1906 flashback sequences. 'You see her unravel within the process of the film, alongside the unraveling of Travers as well. The erosion of both parents leads Ginty to take the reins as sort of the parent in the relationship."
The filmmakers and actors wanted to bring rawness with heart to the flashbacks scenes depicting where P.L. came from and Ruth Wilson feels they achieved this. 'These flashbacks show the harsh life that this family, the Goffs, lived," explains Ruth Wilson. 'It affects the rest of Ginty's life. It created the woman that we end up seeing in Emma Thompson's character. So, you need to believe what and where she came from and you need to be able to respond and connect with what she had to go through to understand why she has become who she is. That also feeds into the relationship with Walt Disney and who this man is. It's a vital part of the overall story because it sets up Emma's journey in the 1961 scenes."
Rachel Griffiths, with whom Hancock had worked on 'The Rookie," takes on the role of Aunt Ellie, Margaret Goff's sister and the model for P.L. Travers famous nanny in the flashback scenes. Kathy Baker plays Tommie, an associate and sounding board for Walt Disney at the studio, and Melanie Paxson rounds out the cast playing Disney's assistant, Dolly.
The Making Of 'Saving Mr. Banks'
'Saving Mr. Banks" filmed almost entirely in the Los Angeles area"with one day of shooting in London"in key locations that included Disneyland in Anaheim (only the third feature film ever to shoot there in the park's 58-year history), TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly Grauman's) in Hollywood (where the 1964 premiere of 'Mary Poppins" took place), the Disney Studios in Burbank (which opened in 1939 and where the 1964 movie filmed in its entirety) and the 10,000 acre Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley, which doubled for the film's early 20th-century Australian landscape. The nine-week shoot concluded in late November 2012.
When production began in September 2012 on location at LA's popular botanic gardens, The Arboretum in Arcadia, just east of Pasadena, John Lee Hancock had divided his shoot, like a play in three acts, into a trio of distinct, three-week sections: the 1906 Australian flashback sequences; Travers' arrival in Los Angeles, her solitary, agonizing stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel and her developing friendship with her limo driver, Ralph; and her introduction to Walt Disney and her collaborations and confrontations with the Shermans and Don DaGradi in the studio rehearsal suite.
In the real world, Travers fretted over how credible Disney's film adaptation of her books would become. In John Lee Hancock's 'reel" world, authenticity defined the entire production team's approach to the project, beginning with visits to the Disney museum in San Francisco's Presidio. There production designer Michael Corenblith performed research to accurately recreate Walt Disney's office on the studio lot.
'It's just the most magnificent legacy of Walt," producer Owen enthuses about the museum. 'After going there the first time, Kelly Marcel and I really felt like, -Oh my gosh, they're letting us make this movie about this real legend.' I've become a fully paid-up member of the Walt Disney Fan Club. This is a guy who created two industries in his lifetime"the animation industry and the theme-park industry. His daughter, Diane, was so gracious and so pleased that we'd come up to the museum and wanted to learn about Walt and things that we needed advice on, particularly Walt's office."
While production designer Michael Corenblith began construction on the Disney office set, the company camped out for its first three weeks at the 10,000 acre Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley, California, about 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
Corenblith, working with John Lee Hancock for the third time, also had to create an environment for the flashback story that depicts P.L. Travers' early life in Australia. 'The ability to tell an Australia, 1906 story that was so integral and is integrated into the Los Angeles, 1961 story, was one of the big pleasures, and one of the big design challenges as well," states the production designer. 'But also, one of the tastiest things in this box of chocolates that we cooked up on this film."
John Lee Hancock needed a vast landscape of rolling hills and shrubbery to duplicate the remote Australian outback a century ago. During his casting trips to Australia, Hancock and Owen 'went to Maryborough and Allora in Australia to get a firsthand look at the locations," per Corenblith. 'They actually stood on the streets where the Goffs lived."
'I was also blessed because Travers is so revered in Australia, so her house has been preserved," the designer relates about research that proved invaluable for his set builds. 'I had access to what Pamela's houses in Allora and Maryborough looked like. We actually saw photographs of these (places) and so we were able to do a pretty high-fidelity replication of the Allora house and its architecture."
On this sprawling property, Corenblith and his longtime set decorator, Susan Benjamin ('The Blind Side," 'Frost/Nixon") also got to build a carnival fairgrounds set. The carnival included a working, vintage 1920s carousel they rented from an area prop house, a set piece that would become an ongoing motif in Marcel's story in the contemporary 1961 scenes, when Disney hosts Travers on a tour of Disneyland, and takes her on his famous King Arthur Carousel in the theme park's Fantasyland.
Before filming the Australian flashback scenes, actor Colin Farrell realised he would not get a chance to meet the other cast members who populated the 1961 portion of the story. Since Colin Farrell admired the work of his other cast members, he suggested to John Lee Hancock that he host a dinner at his Hollywood home. 'We got a good gang, about 25 people," recalls Colin Farrell. 'Guys I wouldn't have met like Bradley Whitford and Paul Giamatti. I just thought it could also be a nice way for everyone to watch -Mary Poppins' as well. So, we had dinner then started the movie in the background. Once people saw it on the screen, bit-by-bit they ended up going in the room to watch it. It was fun."
After staging some additional Aussie scenes on the Universal Studios backlot (the 'Western Street" site adjacent to the old 'Back to the Future" backdrops, with dusty old facades portraying Goff's bank), Hancock began his second act at the Ontario Airport in San Bernadino County, some 50 miles east of Los Angeles. There, the filmmaker used one of their shuttered terminals to replicate both interiors and exteriors of LAX, circa 1961, when Travers first lands in Los Angeles.
Once again, Corenblith and set decorator Benjamin worked their magic in posting signage of several defunct airlines (Pan Am, Eastern) to bring the viewer back 50 years. And, while the filmmakers had considered highlighting Pan American Airways (the nation's largest international carrier from 1927-91), with its sleek, circular blue-and-white logo, producer Owen insisted that 'we emphasise the culture clash, in a visual sense, between the U.S. and England."
'So, we went to great lengths to make sure that the plane Pamela traveled on was British, when in actual fact it would have been much cheaper and easier for us to do Pan Am," she relates. 'But, we didn't want to do Pan Am, we wanted to have the clash of her coming from a British house to this foreign land of Hollywood."
During this midway portion of the shoot, the schedule called for a week's work inside and outside of the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Disney housed his guest during her stay in L.A. When the storied and exclusive inn was unavailable to the production, location manager Ullman found another stately mansion-like facility, the Langham Hotel, whose interior suites would easily double for the affluent hostel with its signature pink-and-green color palette.
Production booked an entire wing of the facility to double for its equally historic neighbor some 20 miles away. Over the course of three days, John Lee Hancock and Thompson staged several moments in the story that reflect Travers' unhappy mood resulting from her difficult collaborations with Disney and his creative team. Those, in turn, spawn her memories of her childhood 55 years before as she tosses and turns sleeplessly in her plush hotel suite.
As the second phase of the production schedule wound down, the company moved to another famous street in town"Hollywood Boulevard, a popular tourist spot for its Walk-of-Fame sidewalk stars, and one of the avenue's historic movie palaces, Grauman's Chinese Theatre, another vintage landmark that dates back to 1927.
Grauman's Chinese Theatre (now called TCL Chinese Theatre) on Hollywood Boulevard is the ultimate showbiz attraction in Los Angeles. Some two million fans flock annually to its famous forecourt outside the front entrance to witness Hollywood royalty at their feet"the handprints and footprints of some of moviedom's acting aristocracy. Dubbed the most famous movie palace in the world, it attracts thousands daily to see its architecture and unique cement squares that sport signatures from such screen luminaries as Mary Pickford, Elizabeth Taylor, Gary Cooper and even Tom Hanks!
On August 27, 1964, Disney staged the world premiere of 'Mary Poppins" there to rousing fanfare and success. Designer Corenblith had the monumental task of recreating that momentous evening by redressing the cinema back almost 50 years while location manager Ullman had the challenge of working with the city's Chamber of Commerce to shut Hollywood Boulevard down for a two-block stretch to stage the late night shoot in late October.
'The major elements of the Chinese Theatre are exactly as they were in 1964," Corenblith confirms. 'The major design elements of that premiere were large photo blowups of the cast. Again, through the Disney archives, we found the actual publicity stills that these had been cut and pasted from. So, we were able to go all the way back to the original source material and engage in more or less exactly the same process as the artists who put together the premiere in 1964. That was really fantastic."
'We also had to create the red carpet line from the curb up to the door," he continues, 'which is a very emotional and big moment in the movie for Pamela, walking down the aisle as it were. Back then, there was an awning at the theater with colored lights and cherry blossoms. Well, that awning isn't there anymore. So, I had the idea of replicating at least the colonnade by doing trees with cherry blossoms in them. And, our staging of the red carpet event that evening was just magical. It was also a great night to be with Richard Sherman, who was so emotional."
Before staging the red carpet sequence in front of the theater, the production began its day inside the 1200-seat auditorium, where John Lee Hancock filmed the black-tie audience watching clips from 'Mary Poppins" (much to the delight of all working that day). The key scene focused mostly on Travers' reaction to the finished film.
Before settling into the Santa Clarita Studios facility northwest of Los Angeles, where Corenblith erected the studio wing that housed Disney's office, trophy case (complete with two dozen actual Oscar® trophies brought up from the display at Walt Disney World® Resort) and the music rehearsal room, the company filmed exteriors on the actual Disney Burbank studio lot for three days in early November. One can imagine what Tom Hanks thought, in the guise of Disney, as he walked the sacred grounds of a place the man brought to life over 70 years before. Similar emotions he might have experienced on the company's next location"Disneyland in Anaheim, another of the entrepreneur's great achievements.
While Disney's dynasty has long been dubbed 'The Magic Kingdom," one can sense the history and enchantment throughout its 51 studio acres in Burbank, where streets are named for all of his famous characters, Sherman's melodies can be heard in the hallways of various buildings, and the Seven Dwarfs, carved into the facade of the Team Disney-Michael Eisner Building, watch over the place like ornamental custodians of this entertainment empire. The facility also includes one of Los Angeles' largest sound stages (Stage 2), now christened the 'Julie Andrews Stage" because the 31,000 square foot building housed much of the filming of 'Mary Poppins" in 1963.
The step-back-in-time quality of the Walt Disney Studios' lot was not lost on actor Paul Giamatti, who comments, 'The studio lot is really like a time capsule. You don't really have to do much to it at all. It's totally great. It's a good time period and a fun time period to do. The skinny ties and the cars and all these period things on the lot are great."
Cinematographer John Schwartzman, who grew up in Los Angeles, was able to find inspiration on the Disney lot that informed his lighting for 'Saving Mr. Banks." He comments, 'My inspiration was just walking around the Disney lot, which I have worked at many times. And that lot hasn't changed much since Walt built it. That in of itself, just walking by the animation building and ink and paint, those were the visual cues."
John Schwartzman, who reunites with director John Lee Hancock for the first time in over a dozen years (he guided the camerawork and lighting on his 2002 directorial debut, 'The Rookie") chose to shoot 'Saving Mr. Banks," in this digitally-saturated age, on film, just like 'Mary Poppins" was done 50 years ago.
'There's an elegance to film that certainly digital will achieve, but hasn't quite gotten yet," the veteran cinematographer says. 'We had to work very quickly early on in our schedule because we had our young girl, Annie, who could only work six hours a day because she was a minor. I needed to be able to trust my instincts, which were honed in the world of shooting film as opposed to digital. I'm so happy we shot on film. It just felt right."
Recognizing the distinction between the film's two eras (1906 Australia, 1961 Hollywood), John Schwartzman brought a unique identity to each period through his camera work and lighting, saying, 'There's not a lot of color in the 1906 Australia scenes. And that was because of where they lived. It was kind of a dust bowl part of Australia, very rural. So all the color was bleached out of the movie."
'Then, there's Hollywood, which Kelly [Marcel] wrote as smelling of sweat and chlorine and sunshine everywhere," he explains further. 'So, one of the things that we've done with all the sets is to drive a strong sense of sunlight through the windows. Ms. Travers, who's from London, would be used to a gray and overcast environment. When we shot her Shawfield Street flat, we made sure not to have any hard light, which is what one would think of if they've been to Great Britain."
Emma Thompson reflects on how the light in Los Angeles might have affected her character P.L. Travers. 'The light reminds her of Australia," notes Emma Thompson. 'So she's immediately flung back into her memories of that bright, bright desert light and that starts to interfere with her psychologically."
The company spent two early November days at Disneyland in Anaheim where, after filming concluded for the day, many stayed in the park to enjoy the rides and attractions.
In addition to filming on Main Street and the park's Grand Entrance (starting at 6:30 a.m. so as not to disrupt the theme park's anticipated crowds at the opening bell of 10 a.m.), the company closed down Fantasyland for an afternoon to film key sequences at Sleeping Beauty's Castle and on the King Arthur Carousel in which Disney tries to convince P.L. that 'there's a child in all of us."
'We did shoot at Disneyland," says director John Lee Hancock. 'The script reads that Walt takes P.L. to Disneyland for a day and that sounded really fun," the director continues. 'You then get into the military precision of trying to plan for this because it's supposed to be 1961. So, we scouted Disneyland. It seemed like I went down there twenty times, picking specific shots and places to shoot where it looked like 1961. And Michael Corenblith, our brilliant production designer, did so much work that ends up in frame that really reminds us of what Disneyland looked like in 1961. When you're there and you're shooting, that's when you realize you have the best job in the world."
Michael Corenblith did not have to redress or fabricate much, if anything, at Disneyland because 'Disneyland is remarkably unchanged from when it was opened in 1955. Walt was creating these archetypal situations, particularly Main Street, to really encapsulate his experience in his small-town Missouri (town), where he grew up. So, there was really very little that has changed from that. And, the entrance to the park, while so iconic, still remains exactly the same, with the exception of the attraction posters, which we added"big colorful posters that talked about the rides. What we discovered was that those existed in 1955 because people did not know what to expect in coming to Disneyland when it first opened."
What Michael Corenblith and the filmmakers also discovered was that 'Saving Mr. Banks" was just the third feature film to shoot at Disneyland in the park's 58-year history. The other two films marked the directorial debuts of their respective filmmakers"the 1962 comedy '40 Pounds of Trouble," helmed by Norman Jewison; and a nostalgic homage to the pop music sounds of the 1960s, Tom Hanks' own feature debut, 1996's 'That Thing You Do," the last film to shoot at Disneyland.
While Disneyland's magical realm required no magical touch from Corenblith's designs, he was very instrumental (working with his longtime art director, Lauren Polizzi) in recreating Disney's studio offices and rehearsal room. The talented designer had an absolute blast recreating Disney's office, saying, 'I've been working on the Disney lot since -Down and Out in Beverly Hills' almost 30 years ago. I have a long association with the studio and this lot and its architecture. I'm a child of the '50s, grew up watching -Mickey Mouse Club' and -Wonderful World of Color' and -Wonderful World of Disney.'"
'So, having grown up seeing Walt Disney in Walt Disney's office"what was supposed to be his office but was actually a soundstage set for -Wonderful World of Disney'"gave me a sort of familiarity with Walt's office and environments from the time I was a little boy. The opportunity to get to imagine and create Walt Disney's offices for a major motion picture was a pretty incredible thought and responsibility."
Michael Corenblith states, 'This picture gave me the great opportunity to work in three really different architectural vocabularies and vernaculars, starting in the 1930s with Disney's office. The Disney lot, the furniture, the typefaces, were all designed by one individual whose name is Kem Weber, whom we revere. Really more of an Art Deco or Modern architectural, industrial designer, and so this is a vocabulary that I really fell in love with."
'Even though our movie is set in 1961, we certainly play a lot of those tropes, particularly at LAX," adds the designer, who recreated The Alamo for Hancock's 2004 epic, the Houston Space Center for Ron Howard's 1995 Best Picture nominee, 'Apollo 13," and Howard's Whoville for his 2000 family film, 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas."
'But, the Disney offices really kind of float above and beyond time and space in many ways," he relates. 'They looked fantastic in 1938 when they were built, they look equally fantastic in 2012, because this type of architecture is really timeless, really classic."
'And, Walt was always so incredibly attuned to having everything archived," Michael Corenblith explains about the company's vast libraries that assisted greatly in his research for everything he recreated for the film. 'In an executive suite two doors from Walt's office were the offices of the archivist. So, I had a great head start because they documented everything in photographs, even where every single piece of furniture sat. And the rooms were completely and archivally photographed, almost like you'd photograph a crime scene in some ways."
While Michael Corenblith and the set decorator had to 'dress" Disney's stately office set with exact reproductions of his furniture plus assorted knickknacks he treasured, longtime Corenblith collaborator, veteran costume designer Daniel Orlandi, had the challenge and great privilege of dressing actor Hanks in those threads that would emulate what the Hollywood legend actually wore during this era.
'Michael Corenblith and I have worked together many times and actually have done a lot of projects about real people," Daniel Orlandi says. 'We both are meticulous in our research and we share our research and our knowledge and our thoughts about the characters and how to tell the story with the director and the cinematographer. And, we have a great working relationship. A nice shorthand.
For the legendary Walt Disney, Daniel Orlandi says, 'For his public persona, he almost always was in a gray suit. A gray sharkskin suit in the -60s. It was a tweedier suit in the '50s. He very rarely deviated from that. All of the historians said that Disney wore a suit every day to work. And, that's what we gave Tom Hanks. It was interesting that he wore a tie quite frequently from Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs, where he had a home. A little community with very modest houses that are still there today. So, he has a Smoke Tree insignia that we really wanted to show."
In dressing Disney's creative team, Orlandi was offered great insights from Richard Sherman. 'Richard Sherman was a great help," affirms Daniel Orlandi. 'He had a lot of insight into Walt and what the Sherman brothers and Don DaGradi wore to work every day. In the film, we have Jason Schwartzman as Richard Sherman wearing a bright red vest that Pamela points out specifically because the legend is that she did not want the color red in the movie -Mary Poppins.'"
John Lee Hancock confirms the anecdote about Travers' demands to remove the color red by saying, 'The craziest demand is that she declared that she was simply off the color. In our film, Walt confronts her in front of the Shermans and Don DaGradi and capitulates. And they're aghast. They've never seen Walt give in to anything like that."
'I don't think it had anything to do with the color red," John Lee Hancock surmises. 'It was just a demand that she was making and if he couldn't give in on something as simple as no red in the picture, then they would have many more fights. Then she should just go back to London. So he gives in, at least momentarily, on the color red which was a silly and crazy demand."
Although P.L. Travers made many demands in the film, Emma Thompson counts the 'no red" one as her personal favorite. 'She just turned up one day and said, -I've gone off the colour red and you can't have any red in the film.' Disney replied, -But it's set in London. There are pillar boxes and there are postboxes and buses and a British flag.' This was witnessed by the Sherman brothers with Walt Disney finally going, -Okay, okay. No red, no red.' Of course it all changed and there was plenty of red in the movie. But she really tested those guys."
For John Lee Hancock's film, 'There's no red in Emma Thompson's wardrobe," Daniel Orlandi confirms. 'Of course, when you see the movie -Mary Poppins,' Mr. Banks is in a bright red velvet smoking jacket in his first scene," points out Daniel Orlandi about who actually won the final argument.
The sequence portraying Travers' demand to eliminate the color red took place in the last stage set in which Hancock filmed"the rehearsal studio where the Shermans and DaGradi staged their storyboard displays and musical numbers to win the author over and get her to sign a contract with their boss.
Once John Lee Hancock's schedule took his cast and crew into the Disney rehearsal studios in mid-November during the final two weeks of production, Richard Sherman visited the set everyday to assist with authenticity and revel in watching the director's talented cast recreate the musical numbers he recalls staging for Travers back in 1961.
'Michael Corenblith took the feeling of a rehearsal room and combined that with the feeling of our office and put them together, so that we could have one room to tell this movie story," comments Sherman. 'And it really worked very well. I felt very much at home in that room."
Before production began, John Lee Hancock and Disney's musical supervisor, Monica Zierhut, brought some of the cast over to the legendary Capitol Records Building, at the famous crossroads of Hollywood and Vine, to pre-record tracks of some of the Shermans' songs from 'Mary Poppins" for playback purposes on those days when production staged the scenes with the brothers and DaGradi singing for Travers. The group spent a joyous afternoon in one of the Capitol sound studios singing snippets of such songs featured in 'Saving Mr. Banks" as 'A Spoonful of Sugar," 'Feed the Birds," 'Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" and 'Let's Go Fly A Kite," the 1964 film's final, infectious tune and the song.
Emma Thompson notes her character's reaction to 'Let's Go Fly a Kite""and her own. 'When P.L. Travers hears -Let's Go Fly a Kite,' something about it speaks to her. She loved it because the one point that she made about the Mr. Banks character was that he was too mean and she desperately wanted him to represent to her the ideal father, the father that she hadn't had; a father who, yes, might have his difficulties but was never unkind. When he takes them to fly the kite, he takes her as well and that's why it's so moving. It's a remarkable song. It's probably the most uplifting song anybody's ever written. Every time I hear it I cry."
After Sherman watched several takes of actors Schwartzman, Novak, Whitford, actress Melanie Paxson (as Disney's chirpy secretary, Dolly) and Thompson dance-and-sing to 'Let's Go Fly a Kite," he shared some wonderful anecdotes about one of the songs on the 'Mary Poppins" score. Notably, a touching one about 'Feed the Birds."
'Jason sings -Feed the Birds' very well by the way. Sings it beautifully," Sherman rhapsodises. 'And, Walt loved that song, -Feed the Birds.' He knew that that was the keynote of what we had in -Mary Poppins,' the message that it doesn't take much to give love. And that's what Bob and I were saying without saying it in those words. It doesn't cost much to buy a bag of breadcrumbs. We had touched Walt with this very spiritual note. Every once in a while, he would call us up and say play that. He didn't even have to say -Feed the Birds.' He would say play it and we would go to his office and play it for him."
'Dick still has the greatest amount of enthusiasm for the process and the history of it all," hails Tom Hanks about Sherman. 'He was a sweet guy to have around, just a fount of knowledge…the anecdotes that only he knows." Adds John Lee Hancock, 'The songs are so terrific. The fact that we still hum them and sing them and know them immediately speaks to the genius of the Sherman brothers."
As the 150 or so cast-and-crew members gathered around as production wound down in the rehearsal studio set, all still infected from the joyous days of playback of 'Let's Go Fly a Kite," Richard Sherman, unbeknownst to most everyone gathered, took a seat on the piano bench, and began playing the song, asking everyone there to join in a sing-a-long. Instantaneously, dozens grabbed their cell phones and began recording the spontaneous music video to hold on to their own unique connection to 'Mary Poppins."
When Disney's 'Saving Mr. Banks" opens later this fall, audiences will delight in a movie that gives them not only a rare glimpse of the behind-the-scenes tug-of-war that ultimately brought 'Mary Poppins" to the screen but also a glimpse of the creative geniuses it took to envision the classic film"everyone from a cantankerous, difficult author to an ever-optimistic, visionary entrepreneur.
Saving Mr. Banks
Release Date: January 9th, 2014