Saving Mr. Banks: A Cast and Crew Roundtable

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The immovable object (Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers) meets the irresistible force (Tom Hanks as Walt Disney) in  Saving Mr. Banks.
The immovable object (Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers) meets the irresistible force (Tom Hanks as Walt Disney) in Saving Mr. Banks.

The Beverly Hills Hotel plays a significant part in Disney’s new film, Saving Mr. Banks, so it’s only appropriate that the cast should assemble there to talk about their roles in the movie, and that’s exactly what happened in November. Stars Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrel, Jason Schwartzman, B. J. Novak and Bradley Whitford, Director John Lee Hancock , Writer Kelly Marcel and Producer Alison Owen gathered in a ballroom at the legendary hotel to answer questions from a group of reporters.

Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of Walt Disney’s effort to film Mary Poppins; author P.L. Travers reluctantly travels to Los Angeles to meet with Disney and consider his offer, which she had previously rejected for 20 years. The intractable Travers and the relentless Disney clash repeatedly over differences major and minor; she objects to the use of animation, the casting of Dick Van Dyke, the inclusion of singing and dancing, and even whether the father in the story should have a mustache. Songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak) and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) bear the brunt of Travers’ constant objections, while Disney tries to figure out some way of getting her to sign the contract. Through a series of flashbacks, we come to understand more of the forces that shaped Travers into the formidable woman she is.

Screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) endures another script conference with Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson).
Screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) endures another script conference with Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson).

Thompson described the appeal of characters like P. L. Travers, people who are difficult and unpleasant in real life but entertaining to watch, explaining, “is it not rather nice for all of us, who’ve been so well brought up, and we’re all so bloody polite all the time, Americans particularly, to see someone being rude? It’s bliss, isn’t it? I think we act quite a lot of the time in sort of conflict with what we really feel.”

Portraying an actual person, particularly one who is well-known, can be challenging. Tom Hanks talked a bit about creating his version of Walt Disney, saying,”there is a bit of a vocal cadence and a rhythm that Mr. Disney had that took a while to figure out.” Many details about Disney were already present in the screenplay, he said, “for example, Walt’s cough. You know, Walt smoked three packs a day, and Richard Sherman said you always knew when Walt was coming to visit your office, ’cause you could hear him coughing from down by the elevator.” (Walt Disney died of lung cancer in 1966.) Hanks did research in the archives at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and spoke with Disney’s friends, employees and family members, including Diane Disney Miller and composer Richard Sherman, to develop his performance. “I had a lot of video and audio that I could work with; the only handicap was a lot of it is Walt Disney playing Walt Disney. But even in some of that, there’s an ocean of cadence to the man, and that true sense that he believed everything that he said about his projects, and he completely embraced the possibilities of wonder in the movies that he was going to make as well as the rides he was going to come up with, and the things that he was going to build. So I had a great road map in order to search it out.”

Visiting “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

Along with attempting to capture the mannerisms, Hanks had the additional challenge of trying to resemble Disney. As he describes it, “We had the most discussed, photographed, analyzed, diagrammed, tested mustache on the planet. I mean, I think actually documents went to the United States government to discuss the angle of the shave, how much mustache was going to be there. I don’t look too much like him, but there is a line, there is an angular figure you can get, by way of the boxiness of the suits, and the playing around with various pieces of hair in order to get there. I had a little bit of luck in that Walt Disney at this time in his life was very much already Walt Disney. He is the accomplished artist, industrialist, that he was. The nature of the surprises, that came down to the fact was really, coming from Diane, about how much of just a regular Dad this guy was. I mean, Disneyland itself came about because he used to spend every Saturday with his two daughters. And after a while, here in L.A., he ran out of places that he could take his daughters. There was the pony rides over where the Beverly Center is now, and there was the merry-go-round in Griffith Park, but after that, that was it. And he was sitting eating peanuts on a park bench in Griffith Park and the girls were on the merry-go-round, he said, “God, there really should be a place Dads can take their daughters on a Saturday in L.A.” And from that, Disneyland was born.”

Emma Thompson found Travers to be a complicated character; she compared the research process to going into a maze, “and round some corners, you’d find this terrible monster, and round another corner you’d find a sort of beaten child, so she was the most extraordinary combination of things.” Thompson explained, “we often get to play people who are emotionally or at least morally consistent in some way, and she wasn’t consistent in any way. So you would not know what you would get from one moment to the next.” Friends of Travers told her that “you could have had a very close moment with her on one day, and then the next day, they might have gone to see her and she would have treated them as if… it’s like that moment that Kelly created and invented with Paul Giamatti’s character, where she says, ‘You know, you’re the only American I’ve ever liked,’ and he says, “Oh, really, how fascinating, and will you tell me why?” And she says, “No. I don’t want to tell you any more about that. Now you’re just asking too much. Go away.”

Thompson described Travers as a searcher; she studied Zen, was very interested in mythology, and was fascinated by the American West. “I’ll tell you what is interesting. P.L. Travers, she used to talk a lot about Buffalo Bill. And while I was researching her, I found out that she referred to Mary Poppins in very similar ways. She had understood that, there was a spot of Zen mastery in the way in which she worked, but also, and this is my theory, but I think that, because women have traditionally been locked out of the superstructures or the power structures that we all live in, Buffalo Bill’s a very good example, because I’ve always thought that “Nanny McPhee” was essentially a Western, only set in a domestic environment, and she felt the same way about Mary Poppins. So there’s a very real connection in the sense that, the outsider comes into a place where there is difficulty and solves the problem using unorthodox methods, and then must leave. That’s a Western. And because women don’t have that kind of power, the Western form, which is a myth, what she would have called an essential myth, emerges in the female world in the nursery.”

The Goff family arriving at their new home in Allora, Australia.
The Goff family arriving at their new home in Allora, Australia.

In the flashback scenes, Helen Goff, the young Australian girl who will become P.L. Travers (played by Annie Rose Buckley), has a warm and loving relationship with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell); when asked how he created that bond between them, Farrell quickly replied, “A stick. A stick, alternated with sugar cubes. Which I got from the horse trainer.” He went on to say “she was just a dream, Annie, to be around.” He went on to praise her performance, saying “to see how beautiful and open her face was on the monitor and just in being around her was kind’a like, it was the most exquisite of canvases, upon which the later life of P.L. Travers was born, as she witnessed what her father was putting himself through and thereby putting everyone else in the family through as well.”

Since it is well-known that Travers hated the Disney version of her story and refused to allow any more of her books to be adapted to film, the question was raised as to what Travers might have thought about Saving Mr. Banks. Hanks replied that she would respond silently, with Bradley Whitford chiming in, “because she’s dead.” Thompson then added her thoughts, explaining that “this is a woman who kept on saying, ‘I don’t want anything; I don’t want a biography, I don’t want anything like that, I don’t want anyone to do or know anything about me.’ Meanwhile, she kept everything she wrote and sent it to the archives at Brisbane University. So she felt, I’m certain, that she was an important contributor to the artistic culture, and wanted, I think, to have it preserved. I think that what she would say about this is, ‘Absolutely ridiculous film. No-no-no-no relationship whatsoever to what was happening. But, you know, it’s about me, at last, and I thought that the clothes were really rather nice.’ I think that’s what she would have said.”

There is a scene late in the film in which Emma Thompson has a very emotional moment without any dialog; Director John Lee Hancock described the process of filming that scene: “I remember that day obviously very clearly, in the Chinese Theater, and we were talking about it and how this would progress, and the number of cameras, and you [Thompson] told me, ‘I’m not sure where the bridge will be built, but once I know, I can cross it again and again.’ And I thought that was just fascinating, because I’m not an actor, but to witness that in terms of, ‘I’m not sure where that’s going to be, or how it’s going to happen, but once I know how the bricks lay and how we cross the river, I can go there again and again,’ and she did, which was amazing.”

Hanks spoke about taking his grandchildren to Disneyland, saying “I have taken them to Disneyland, on the day that we shot in Disneyland. They came, and an interesting thing happens as a grandparent, that you see no reason whatsoever that your granddaughter shouldn’t be delighted to take a ride on the Winnie the Pooh Adventure. It’s Winnie the Pooh! It’s fun! It’s Pooh Bear! It’s Kanga and Roo and Owl; it’s Christopher Robin. It’s gonna be a blast. She’s gonna remember this the rest of her life, her ride on Winnie the Pooh’s Great Adventure. My granddaughter was terrified by the noise, the big spinning bears. She will now be haunted for the rest of her days by this first image of Winnie the Pooh in a loud, short, herky-jerky ride that her grandfather forced her to do on the day he played Walt Disney in Disneyland. That is just a sample of the fantastic job I do as a grandparent. Thank you.”

Only three films have ever been allowed to film inside Disneyland: the 1962 Tony Curtis comedy 40 Pounds of Trouble, Tom Hanks’ 1996 film That Thing You Do!, and now Saving Mr. Banks. (The recent indie film Escape from Tomorrow was filmed without permission from the Walt Disney Company). Since they couldn’t shut down the amusement park for the day, and since Disneyland has changed a great deal since 1964, filming had to be very carefully planned. Hancock described the process as “kind of military precision.” Despite the difficulties, he said, “they were very helpful down there. We knew when we could come in before it opened. And we knew at 9:17 we needed to be on Main Street, and here by there, and we carefully went down there and scouted it many, many times with lenses, because if you would, you know, pan this far over here, it would be something from 1981, pan to the left and it’s 1969.”

Jason Schwartzman, who plays Richard Sherman, spoke of his affection for Mary Poppins. “It meant a lot to me, this movie, growing up. I saw it a lot of times, and, in fact, I knew most all the songs from the movie. In fact, that’s what I remembered the most, I think. It’s funny just how much when you’re little, a movie and things can affect you, and when I got the part in the movie, and I started looking through archives and photos, and you’d see all these behind-the-scenes snapshots of the movie being made, and it was only then that it occurred to me that it was shot in Burbank. Because I experienced it as a young person thinking it was in England, and it was only recently that I realized that it was all made up. That’s how deep into my body it had gone, and how much I believed that it was all real. And in many ways, like, I wish I hadn’t ever seen those photos. Do you know what I mean? Like, you don’t want to see Jaws, how, you know, Jaws is, like, there’s photos of guys smoking cigarettes by Jaws? I wish I had never seen those photos. And I wish I had never seen the, you know, Cherry Tree Lane on Burbank Boulevard, ’cause it’s deep in my, it means a lot to me, this movie. I loved it very much.”

Continuing along the same lines, B.J. Novak, who plays Robert Sherman, discussed having recently seen Mary Poppins for the first time. “I thought I had seen Mary Poppins. I knew all the songs. I knew the characters. I had absorbed it without ever having seen it.” Colin Farrell had thrown a party for the cast that included a screening of the film, and it was then that Novak discovered he had never actually seen it. “I realized there were so many scenes and complicated and dark shadings and directions that I had never associated with that film. The film itself is so much odder than we remember and so much more complicated, let alone the story of the film when you know the context of it.” He went on to talk about the pervasive nature of the Disney library, commenting “all these Disney films, they feel like they’re in your DNA; these songs, the Sherman Brother songs especially, you just feel they just came from heaven fully formed. We went to the archives and saw drafts with different lyrics and different script pages, and it’s so odd to think that this ever could have been any different. And that was so interesting about making this movie, seeing all the drafts, let alone the scenes that I had never even known were there.”

Screenwriter Kelly Marcel spoke about the writing process, whether there was any difficulty with the studio or compromises that needed to be made, and whether she ever felt like P.L. Travers, having to fight for her version of the story. She said the experience was exactly the opposite. “Nobody said ‘no.’ Everybody said yes all the way through, including all of these amazing people sitting at this table, which sort of still blows my mind.”

“I did think, at one point,” she relates, “Alison and I did think that Disney would probably give us a cease and desist order, and not make the movie. But, in fact, they embraced us with open arms. And I don’t think John Lee and I ever felt the hand of the studio on our shoulder. They really trusted us to go ahead and make it the way that we wanted to make it. So, no, we didn’t make any compromises and I don’t feel like P.L. Travers.”

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