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Saving Mr Banks: There's something about Mary

Saving Mr Banks tells the inside story of how Walt Disney persuaded reluctant author PL Travers to let him film Mary Poppins. Sarah Cooper speaks to the film-makers about a project which, like the story, spanned Australia, the UK and Hollywood.

Back in 1965, Disney’s iconic musical Mary Poppins won five Oscars including best actress for Julie Andrews and best original score.

Half a century later and the studio is back with the behind-the-scenes story — specifically, the reluctance of author PL Travers to hand over the rights to her beloved Mary Poppins books to Walt Disney — which is now generating its own Oscar buzz.

“There are a lot of strange symmetries,” says Sean Bailey, president, Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production, not least that the film’s own behind-the-scenes progression — from Australia, to the UK and into the hands of Disney — mirrors that of its protagonist.

Like Travers, Saving Mr Banks began life in Australia in the form of a documentary, The Shadow Of Mary Poppins. This was produced by Ian Collie, who went on to commission Australian writer Sue Smith to write a dramatic feature version.

Smith’s script found its way onto the desk of UK producer Alison Owen in 2010. “I read it and liked it, but it was much more of a biopic,” says Ruby Films’ managing director Owen, who nevertheless spotted the potential for a project centred around PL Travers’ wranglings with Walt Disney.

‘It was definitely a high stakes game. It had to be a very focused bit of development’

Christine Langan, BBC Films

“The good news was I could see a great story trying to get out, the bad news was that story would be full of Disney intellectual copyright. We couldn’t go to Disney until we had a great script, but we couldn’t go somewhere else to set it up, because everyone would say you would only be able to do it with Disney,” explains Owen.

Nevertheless, she managed to persuade BBC Films to put up some development funding for the project. BBC Films head Christine Langan, who has backed previous Ruby projects including Jane Eyre and Tamara Drewe, says: “I agreed that Pamela Travers was a fascinating figure and that there was definitely a story in there, but it was definitely a high-stakes game. It had to be a very focused bit of development.”

Drawing Disney

Owen had been looking for a project to entice British writer Kelly Marcel, a 2010 Screen International Star Of Tomorrow who, despite having no film credits, had impressed Owen with her writing samples.

“She had a brilliant range, and I could see that she could walk the walk,” says Owen of Marcel, who wrote a new script based on Smith’s in three months in a shed at the bottom of her garden in London, surrounded by old photos of Travers and Disney.

“I started off doing some pretty heavy research and was fascinated at every turn,” says Marcel, who has since become one of the most sought after writers in Hollywood, her latest work being the initial draft of the anticipated screen adaptation of Fifty Shades Of Grey.

With limited funds there was no room for a long development process, but Marcel rose to the challenge. “It was probably the best first draft I’ve ever read of anything,” says Owen, who began sending the script out to agents to whet their appetites and attract some early heat before attempting to present the proposal to Disney.

‘If this had come in as a pitch, I don’t think we would ever have gone there’

Sean Bailey, Walt Disney Studios

In 2011 the script made it onto the Black List — a list of the hottest unmade scripts doing the rounds in Hollywood — and it was around this time that Disney got wind of the project.

“A vice-president here, Tendo Nagenda, called me at home in the fall of 2011,” says Bailey. “He said he had just read the screenplay and that I needed to read it tonight, not only because it was very good but because one of its protagonists was Walt Disney.”

A script that delved into the workings of the Disney machine was a risky enough proposition for the studio, but that Walt Disney himself had never been portrayed before in a dramatic feature upped the stakes even further.

“Occasionally it had come up and we had always dismissed the idea,” explains Bailey, who sat down with his team to look at the repercussions of deciding to either back the project or not.

“We talked through every possibility, and what could happen with the script out there in the world, and ultimately landed on the idea that we should go for it. But only if we could get elements that spoke to the calibre we believed the piece to be,” says Bailey, admitting that it was down to the quality of Marcel’s screenplay that they even considered the project. “If this had come in as a pitch, I don’t think we would ever have gone there.”

One of those essential elements for Disney was director John Lee Hancock, who had already worked with the studio on The Rookie and The Alamo and who wrote and directed the 2009 film The Blind Side, for which Sandra Bullock won the best actress Oscar.

“I had the script sitting on my desk, I knew it was highly regarded, and I knew it was supposedly about the making of Mary Poppins, which as much as I liked, wasn’t on my top 10 list. But when I opened the script and read it I was enchanted by it and I thought ‘Wow, I have to do this’,” says Hancock.

The director was chosen, Owen says, because he “has the ability to move people and make them laugh without making them feel too manipulated”.

An English sensibility

When it came to finding, in Owen’s words, “someone as English as a cup of tea” to play PL Travers, there was one name that came up from the beginning.

“My very first meeting with Alison and the Disney execs, I said I had Emma Thompson in mind, and everybody in the room smiled,” says Hancock, whose first task after securing the directing gig was to take a plane to New Orleans to meet Thompson. “We had a lovely dinner together, and we talked about PL and then she was on board.”

Meanwhile for Walt, Owen felt it was important to secure “an icon to play an icon. You can’t get any more white picket fence and apple pie than Tom [Hanks]. He really sums up those American values.”

“It was one of those rare movies, and this will never happen again, where I got my first choice for every single person,” adds Hancock of the cast which also includes Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson as young Travers’ parents, Paul Giamatti as PL’s driver Ralph, Bradley Whitford as Disney scriptwriter Don DaGradi and Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak as Disney songwriting brothers Bob and Richard Sherman.

‘Pretty much everything that happened in the rehearsal room in the film really happened’

Kelly Marcel, screenwriter

Being able to tap into the memories of the real Richard Sherman — who was a regular visitor to the set, not to mention the instigator of several sing-along sessions during the film’s publicity tour — proved to be “the most incredible secret weapon in the world”, says Marcel, who also had access to the tapes from the rehearsal room where Travers thrashed out the script with DaGradi and the Shermans.

“Pretty much everything that happened in the rehearsal room in the film really happened, although I haven’t written it word for word. Her childhood is also what really happened, but much more imagined,” says Marcel, who had a light bulb moment after reading a book revealing Walt Disney’s relationship with his own disciplinarian father, which, in the film, is what finally convinces Travers to hand over her film rights after a 20-year battle.

“I didn’t find that out until really late into the writing process,” Marcel continues. “I had kept hitting this wall at the end of the script, thinking why does she give him the rights? And then I picked up this book, which was like the 16th I had read, and it was gold. Because they had the same father in very different ways. The minute that speech went into the script then I knew it was a film.”

Setting the scene

Shooting took place for 11 weeks in 2012 in Los Angeles — largely at the Disney Studios in Burbank and in Simi Valley, which doubles for Allora, Australia and appears via a series of flashbacks as Travers revisits a traumatic time during her childhood with her alcoholic father, whom she adored.

Owen had been determined to shoot those scenes in Australia, but a trip out there to cast a young PL Travers — played by Australian newcomer Annie Buckley — revealed that most of the old architecture had not been preserved.

“When we came back [to Los Angeles] we realised that the rolling sheep country hills of Simi Valley [just outside Los Angeles] looked a lot like the rolling sheep country hills of Allora, plus Simi Valley gave us 360-degree views without any anachronisms,” says Hancock.

However, Owen was insistent that the exterior shots of Travers’ London home should be shot in London, at her actual Chelsea home. “I didn’t want to do it on a backlot, because it would have looked a bit chocolate boxy. You can’t make a movie about a woman who didn’t want her book Disney-fied and then do a movie about her life and Disney-fy it.”

While the film moves seamlessly between 1961 Los Angeles and 1906 rural Australia on screen, in reality it was “actually like doing two movies”, says Owen. “It was two completely different places and casts, there was no interception at all. The only time the full cast met each other was at the read-through and at the wrap party.”

Meanwhile when it came to capturing Los Angeles in the 1960s, it was about choosing meticulously what went into each frame. “If you were to pan an inch right you would get a 1990s building,” Hancock explains.

‘When I opened the script and read it I was enchanted by it and I thought ‘“Wow, I have to do this”’

John Lee Hancock, director

The shoot at Disneyland was overseen by producer Phil Steuer, Hancock’s producer on The Rookie and, says Owen, it was “like an army manoeuvre”.

“We had people working through the night so we were ready to turn over as soon as the sun rose and take advantage of all the light before they opened Disneyland. Once the gates were open and the crowds came in, we had Main Street cordoned off down the centre, so people could only walk down one side. We had to be minute-perfect on everything,” adds Owen, who also describes it as “the most fantastically exciting day of filming I’ve ever done”.

Saving Mr Banks shot on a budget of $35m, which by Disney standards is small, but the buzz surrounding the project meant the team was able to attract top behind-the-scenes talent in the form of DoP John Schwartzman, production designer Michael Corenblith and costume designer Daniel Orlandi, all of whom had collaborated with Hancock before.

“Everybody who came on board the movie worked for a lot less than their usual rate because they wanted to be involved in it. We were getting A-plus talent for D-minus prices, which adds a lot to the look,” says the director.

Following its world premiere as the closing film for the BFI London Film Festival, Saving Mr Banks has already opened in the UK (on November 29) and opens wide in the US on December 20.

“I’m just hoping that both audiences and critics will respond to the material and laugh and cry as we have in the making of it,” says Owen. “It’s about fathers and daughters, and the art of storytelling and the culture clash between American and English values.”

“Pamela is flying the flag for Britain in terms of her adventures in Hollywood. We have a great depth of creative talent in the UK and that relationship and collaboration with the US is endlessly fascinating,” adds Langan, who in her role as executive producer managed to negotiate with Disney to secure the UK TV rights to the film for the BBC.

Given its subject matter, it is not surprising that the film has an extra special resonance for the Disney team too. “To see those scenes getting shot and to be reminded of the legacy of the place, and the great talents that have come here before, it is absolutely a special thing,” says Bailey.

In recent years movies that use the creative process as a backdrop — notably The Artist and Argo — have fared particularly well at the Oscars and Saving Mr Banks is considered to be a serious contender for best original screenplay, and best actress for Thompson.

“Obviously it would be lovely, but the thing that I love to do has already been done,” says Marcel who admits that, having been through the entire process, she can relate to Travers’ reluctance to hand over Mary Poppins.

“It’s a weird experience to go from having something that just belongs to you, to sharing it with a whole bunch of people and trusting that they are going to do what’s right with it. I can only imagine how difficult that was for her.”

It is on record that PL Travers cried when she saw Mary Poppins on the screen for the first time. Whether it was because it moved her, or because she disapproved of the animated penguins we don’t know, but publicly she maintained that she was unhappy with the end result.

So would she have approved of Saving Mr Banks? Says Marcel: “Publicly I think she would have gone out there and said, ‘utterly ridiculous, dreadful, none of it ever happened’. Privately, it would have tickled her that there was a movie about her life. I think she would have absolutely loved it.”

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