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On Friday, November 8th, I attended the press conference for the upcoming Disney film “Saving Mr. Banks” at the beautiful historic Beverly Hills Hotel. I was fortunate enough to see the film prior to the press conference at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank (where much of the story and filming took place), and the Hotel was also relevant because it was featured in the film. As I pulled up the long driveway off Sunset Blvd, I felt as though I had suddenly been transported 50 years into the past. This was going to be a treat.
The movie tells the life story of P.L. Travers, the author behind “Mary Poppins,” and her resistance against selling the story’s rights to Walt Disney. Walt tried for 20 years to woo and convince the author to let him make “Mary Poppins” into a motion picture. But P.L. Travers feared the story would become “Disney-fied” and lose its intended meaning. Through the course of the movie, we see pre-production on the film in 1961 Burbank simultaneously mixed in with flashbacks to P.L. Travers’ childhood in 1906 Australia. This dual-storyline allows the audience to learn the significance of the story in her life, and what inspired her to write it.
The film stars two-time Academy Award® winner Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers and two-time Academy Award® winner Tom Hanks as Walt Disney himself. The film co-stars Colin Farrell as the author’s father, Robert Goff Travers; Jason Schwartzman & B.J. Novak as songwriters Richard & Robert Sherman; and Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi. Also at the conference was director John Lee Hancock, writer Kelly Marcel, and producer Alison Owen. Those who also co-starred in the film, but were not present, were Paul Giamatti, Ruth Wilson, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker, and newcomer Annie Rose Buckley.
When asked about playing P.L. Travers, a gruff character that is often difficult to read, Emma Thompson replied, “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 conflict with what we really feel.” “She was like going into a maze. And around some corners you’d find this terrible monster and around another corner you’d find a sort-of beaten child. She was the most extraordinary combination of things and I suppose that was the scary thing because in films…we often get to play people who are emotionally or at least morally consistent in some way. And she wasn’t inconsistent in any way, you would not know what you would get from one moment to the next.”
Tom Hanks is the first actor to play Walt Disney in a motion picture. Many believe that this is an impossible role to take on, given his iconic status. But Tom did his best, and while he admittedly says he bears little resemblance, he tried to capture Walt’s essence. “There is a bit of a vocal cadence and a rhythm that Mr. Disney had and it took a while to figure out. But a lot of the little anecdotes that we found, specifically from the likes of Richard Sherman, were already in the screenplay. 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.’ So you’re able to put that kind of stuff into it and it just ends up being one of the delightful cards in the deck.” “Richard Sherman was a never-ending fountain of stories, facts, anecdotes, bits and pieces of everything that had happened. Diane Disney Miller (his daughter) gave me unlimited access to the archives and the Museum in San Francisco. We made a couple of visits there so I had a lot of video and audio that I could work with.” “He believed everything that he said about his projects, he completely embraced the possibilities of wonder in the movies he was going to make as well as the rides he was going to come up with and the things he was going to build. I had a great roadmap in order to search it out.”
Colin Farrell only appears in the 1906 timeline of the film, and his character’s actions and battle with alcoholism directly influence the creation of the book “Mary Poppins.” When asked about working with the young actress Annie Rose Buckley who portrayed P.L. as a young girl, Farrell had only positive things to say. “She was just a dream to be around. I know people say you shouldn’t work with children or animals, but you most ONLY work with children because you work eight hours a day [laughter]. And she was a dream, from what I could tell she didn’t exude ambition and sometimes kids do of course, which is not to say that she’s not ambitious and that would be fine if she was. But she didn’t exude ambition and she didn’t seem too phased by any of it. She was just a really sweet presence to be around and to see how beautiful and open her face was on the monitor. And just in being around her was kind of like…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.”
“Mary Poppins,” now celebrating its 50th Anniversary, has become a fan favorite for generation after generation. The movie won five Academy Awards® out of its thirteen nominations. When asked about its significance in the actors’ lives, Jason Schwartzman spoke about the impact it had on his childhood. “It meant a lot to me growing up. I saw it a lot of times and in fact, I knew most all of the songs from the movie. In fact, that’s what I remembered the most. It’s funny, just how much when you’re little, a movie and things can affect you. When I got the part in the movie, I started looking through archives and photos and you’d see all these behind the scenes snapshots of the movie being made. 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. It was only recently that I realized it was all made up. That’s how deep into my body it had gone and how much I believed it was all real. And in many ways…I wish I hadn’t ever seen those photos of Cherry Tree Lane on Burbank Blvd. It means a lot to me, this movie, I loved it very much.”
B.J. Novak also chimed in on what it meant to him. “I thought I had seen ‘Mary Poppins.’ I knew all the songs, I knew all the characters. I had absorbed it without ever having seen it, I didn’t realize that until we all went to your (Farrell’s) house and watched it. And I realized there’s so many scenes and complicated and dark shadings and directions that I had never associated with that film. It’s a very…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. So it was something for me…all these Disney films feel like they are in your DNA growing up. These songs, the Sherman Brother’s songs especially, you just feel they 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.”
One of the film’s most nostalgic moments is when Walt Disney invites P.L. Travers to Disneyland, in an effort to remind her why he wants to make the film. Seldom has a movie had the chance to film inside the Anaheim property, and never has a movie featured Walt Disney as a character when doing so. Director John Lee Hancock talked about what it was like to have this unique opportunity. “We were very prepared for Disneyland, kind of military precision, they were very helpful down there. We knew when we could come in before it opened and we knew at 9:17am we needed to be on Main Street and ‘here’ by ‘there.’ And we went down there and scouted it many many times with lenses because if you would pan ‘this far’ over here would be something from 1981, pan to the left and its 1969. So trying to solve those problems without spending money and being there on Main Street before the park opened, and the sun is just coming up and everyone is moving stuff around. And I remember a moment there where…I thought, ‘Damn, this is cool. I’ve got a great job.’ And then I looked over and there was Tom sitting there and I go, ‘This is Walt Disney!’ It’s all too great…it was fantastic.”
Overall, the cast seemed delighted to have been able to make “Saving Mr. Banks.” Given the significance of “Mary Poppins” and Disney-culture in today’s world, the film was a fitting tribute to a largely unknown backstory. Fans of the book, the original film, and Disney history will be delighted to see it brought to life. I anticipate that the film will earn many nominations come awards season. The film hits limited theaters December 13th, with a wide release on December 20th. Stayed tuned for my full movie review of “Saving Mr. Banks” in the coming weeks.