Opening December 13th, “Saving Mr. Banks” is the extraordinary, untold backstory of how Disney’s classic “Mary Poppins” made it to the screen. In 1961, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) invited author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to his studio in Los Angeles to discuss his continued interest in obtaining the movie rights to her beloved book and character – a pitch he first made to her in the 1940s at the insistence of his daughters because it was their favorite book.
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, the Mary Poppins author said yes and embarked on a two-week sojourn in Los Angeles that would ultimately set the wheels of the beloved film in motion.
At the film’s recent press day, Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, John Lee Hancock, Kelly Marcel and Alison Owen talked about what drew them to the roles, the challenges of playing such iconic characters, how they used the Disney archives to research their characters and help bring them to life on the screen, the difficulties of shooting a film that takes place in various time periods and locations, what Travers might think today if she were to see the film, and more.
QUESTION: Emma, why do you think Pamela Travers, who can be so hurtful and so mean, is also so much fun and irresistibly adorable?
EMMA THOMPSON: That is the first time I’ve heard her called irresistibly adorable, but I’ll take it. 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.
TOM HANKS: That’s a stupid thing to say.
EMMA THOMPSON: Exactly, there you go. How much did we enjoy that? We loved that.
TOM HANKS: So, so rude to celebrate rudeness.
EMMA THOMPSON: We could carry on like this for a long, long time.
Q: For Miss Thompson and Mr. Hanks, you both play very interesting characters. What were the little breadcrumbs that you used to follow the trail to get the essence of who these people were?
TOM HANKS: There is a bit of a vocal cadence and a rhythm that Mr. Disney had that took a while to figure out. But a lot of the little anecdotes we found specifically from the likes of Richard Sherman and were already in the screenplay. For example, like Walt’s cough. Walt smoked three packs a day, and Richard Sherman writes, and it was in the screenplay as well, he said, you always knew when Walt was coming to visit your office, because 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.
EMMA THOMPSON: Well, I liked that you used “breadcrumbs,” because it makes me think of Theseus and the Minotaur and the fact that P.L. Travers was so fascinated with myth and was a searcher all her life. So, it was very breadcrumb-y, my search for her. She went everywhere you can imagine. It was like 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. She was the most extraordinary combination of things. I suppose that was the scary thing, because in films, I don’t know whether my colleagues would agree, but 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. You would not know what you would get from one moment to the next. You could have had a very close moment with her on one day, and I got this from her friends, 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 (Marcel) created and invented with Paul Giamatti’s character, where she says, “You’re the only American I’ve ever liked.” And he says, “Oh, really, how fascinating, why? 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.”
TOM HANKS: And you know what you do with breadcrumbs don’t you? [SINGS] “You feed the birds, tuppence a bag…” [OTHERS JOIN IN] “Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag…”
Q: Emma, I found it a little bit funny, you’ve won an Oscar for a screenplay, and you’ve played a nanny, and here you’re playing a person who is helping in a screenplay about a nanny. How did that affect your approach to this film?
EMMA THOMPSON: Oh, I’ll tell you what is interesting. P.L. Travers used to talk a lot about Buffalo Bill. And while I was playing her, and discovering what she was, 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 that, 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. 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 the 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, an essential myth, what she would have called an essential myth emerges in the female world in the nursery. That’s what comes to mind. I don’t think I’ve answered your question at all. Do forgive me. But it was the interesting thing I thought that I could tell you.
Q: Colin, your rapport with little Annie Rose Buckley is genuinely beautiful. How did you go about creating that special bond with her?
COLIN FARRELL: A stick. A stick alternated with sugar cubes which I got from the horse trainer. And, no, she was just a dream, Annie, to be around. I think people say you shouldn’t work with children or animals, but you must only work with children, because you work eight hours a day and she was a dream. She didn’t exude ambition, and sometimes kids do, of course, and which is not to say she’s not ambitious, and that would be fine if she was, but she didn’t exude ambition. She didn’t seem to be too fazed by any of it, and she was just a really, 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, 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. I mean, I have to accept some responsibility for the emotional inconsistency of P.L. Travers. I think that probably the apple fell a little bit close to the stump on that one.
Q: For Miss Thompson and Mr. Hancock and anybody else who might want to weigh in, P.L. Travers made it very clear in the film what she thought of Disney’s “Mary Poppins.” How do you think she would have responded to “Saving Mr. Banks?”
EMMA THOMPSON: You take this one. Go on.
TOM HANKS: Silently.
JOHN LEE HANCOCK: Yeah.
BRADLEY WHITFORD: Dead. [LAUGHTER]
TOM HANKS: Too much? [LAUGHTER]
BRADLEY WHITFORD: Just to the edge.
EMMA THOMPSON: I’ve been asked this question a few times, and I reckon 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, to the culture, and wanted to have it preserved. I think what she would say about this is, “Absolutely ridiculous film. Uh, I have [STUTTERS] n-n-n-no relationship whatsoever to what was happening. Uh, but, you know, it’s about me. And, I thought that the clothes were really rather nice.” That’s what she would have said. Don’t you think?
JOHN LEE HANCOCK: Oh, God, yeah.
Q: Mr. Hanks and Miss Thompson, could you talk a little bit about the challenges of playing such iconic characters and the research you did? How did talking to people that knew them help inform your performances?
TOM HANKS: There is a lot of anecdotal information that kept coming to us. There were people who knew Walt, and they still have access to the studio, because I think they still have their cards that let them onstage. They searched us out. Richard Sherman was a never-ending, literally, never-ending fountain of stories, of facts, of anecdotes, of bits and pieces of everything that had happened. And Diane Disney Miller, Walt’s daughter, gave me unlimited access to the archives and the museum in San Francisco. I made a couple of visits there. I had a lot of video and audio that I could work with, which the only handicap there was a lot of it is Walt Disney playing Walt Disney. But even in some of that and plenty of others, there is an ocean of cadence to the man and that true sense that he believed everything that he said about his projects. 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 lot. I had a great road map in order to search it out.
Q: Emma and Tom, both of your characters are obsessed with this book and its characters. In your own lives, is there something that you have either wanted to do as an actor or that you hoped to produce?
EMMA THOMPSON: Just off the top of my head, which is probably the best place to start, for me as a child, it was always Sherlock Holmes, with whom I was deeply in love, and who I wanted really to be. But that’s the problem, isn’t it, if you’re a female, that a lot of the heroic models are, in fact, male. So, one of my first questions to everybody as I was getting older is, “What’s, who’s the female hero? Who is she? What does she do? What does she actually do?”
TOM HANKS: I always wanted to play Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, just because he’s kind of a buffoon that gets to wear a uniform, and I thought, “Well, that would be fun.” So maybe we got something.
EMMA THOMPSON: Yeah. Let’s do it.
Q: Emma, in “Love, Actually” and this, you have two memorable scenes where you have no dialogue. Is that harder on you, because there are no words to fall back on, or is it easier for you to get those emotions across because you don’t have to worry about the words?
EMMA THOMPSON: Oh, scenes without words are bliss to do. Reacting scenes are wonderful to do. I think we’d all feel the same way about that. I mean, not because one is frightened of words or learning words or using words, of course not, but just because it’s a different kind of [experience]. You’re not so active somehow. Yes. It’s not even that you’re passive, but you’re just responding. The scene that you’re talking about at the end, John, we didn’t know how to do that quite, because she’s having a huge reaction. It’s like an elemental reaction she’s never had before in her life. What was interesting to me about it was the thing that made it work which was the clip from “Mary Poppins.” That’s what did it. And so, that’s what I was responding to. That was nice.
JOHN LEE HANCOCK: You know what was fascinating about that, though, because I remember that day obviously very clearly in the Chinese Theater. We were talking about it and how this would progress, and the number of cameras, and you told me, “I’m not sure where the bridge will be built, but once I know, I can cross it again and again.” 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,” which she did, that was amazing.
EMMA THOMPSON: I’d forgotten that. How interesting. Gosh. Who knew?
Q: For Tom Hanks, you have two grandchildren and this is the Mr. Banks side of you that we don’t know. So, do you take them to Disneyland, for example? What is it like to be Tom Hanks as a grandfather?
EMMA THOMPSON: Old.
TOM HANKS: We did go. I have taken them to Disneyland. On the day that we shot in Disneyland, they came. 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.
Q: For Mr. Hancock, this is only the third time in history a film has been shot partially in Disneyland. What kind of challenges did you face?
JOHN LEE HANCOCK: 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 9:17 we needed to be on Main Street, and here by there. We carefully went down there and scouted it many, many times with lenses, because if you would pan this far over here, it would be something from 1981, pan to the left and it’s 1969. So, we were 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 everybody’s moving stuff around. I remember a moment there where you’re so worried and prepared for the day, and you’ve got that ahead of you, “Are we gonna do it, we gonna get everything done?” But then there was just that moment with the sun coming up, and 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 and it’s all too great.” So, it was fantastic.
Q: Obviously, Mary Poppins meant a lot to Walt Disney. I’m curious to know for everyone on the panel, what did Mary Poppins mean to you before making this film?
TOM HANKS: Jason Schwartzman.
JASON SCHWARTZMAN: Well, 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, I started looking through archives and photos, and I’d see all these behind-the-film, 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, 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. In many ways, I wish I hadn’t ever seen those photos. Do you know what I mean? It’s like you don’t want to see “Jaws,” how “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 Cherry Tree Lane on Burbank Boulevard, because it’s deep in my [DNA]. It means a lot to me, this movie. I loved it very much.
B.J. NOVAK: We talked last night about this, because 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. I didn’t realize that until we all went to your house and watched it, and 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. So it was something for me, and we talked about this, all these Disney films, they feel like they’re in your DNA.
JASON SCHWARTZMAN: Yeah.
B.J. NOVAK: Growing up, these songs, the Sherman Brother songs especially, you just felt 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. And that was so interesting about making this movie, seeing all the drafts.
JASON SCHWARTZMAN: Yeah.
B.J. NOVAK: Let alone the scenes that I had never even known were there.
Q: Mr. Hanks, what have you learned about Walt Disney after doing the movie that you didn’t know before, and how challenging was it for you to have to look and sound like him?
TOM HANKS: 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 and 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 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 is very much already Walt Disney. He is the accomplished artist and industrialist that he was. The nature of the surprises, that came down to the fact that that 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. After a while, here in L.A., he ran out of places that he could take his two daughters. There were 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. He was sitting eating peanuts on a park bench in Griffith Park and the girls were on the merry-go-round, and 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. So he had that connection through a very tight family. His brother Roy, his Mom and Dad who were a part of his life as soon as he had money, that was it. And also, the fact that he was sadly a victim of the times. He smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and he died of lung cancer. That’s just another one of the grim realities. That’s the way the world operated back then.
Q: Mr. Hanks, as a storyteller who is also a director and producer, how do you relate to the conflict of Mr. Disney who wants to tell this marvelous story that he has in his mind but has to deal every day with the author? How do you relate with the struggle of creating something day-by-day as a filmmaker?
TOM HANKS: Well, as everybody here is more or less some version of a person who has tried to see a story brought to [life], it’s something that starts in your head and you see possibilities for it, and it’s just one damn thing after another. I mean, it seems like you’re always coming across somebody like this hell-in-a-gasbag right here that just says “No-no-no-no-no, it’s not gonna happen.” And Walt Disney, at this point, was pretty much used to getting his way because everybody loved him and he’s the guy who invented Mickey Mouse. And listen, in the creative process, which is really what this movie is about, you come to loggerheads and you just have to keep the process moving forward, even if that requires jumping on a plane and flying to London and knocking on hell-in-a-gasbag’s door. It’s just what the creative process requires sometimes, and it’s a good thing. It’s fun. Otherwise, you know, it’d be too much work.
Q: Kelly, did you find any irony in being the writer on a film about the writer, and did you find that you had to make some sacrifices along the way that you didn’t want to make? Did you ever feel like P.L. Travers at any point?
KELLY MARCEL: Actually, weirdly no. I’ve been asked this question a lot, and this particular process was beautiful from day one, really. Unlike what Tom was just saying, nobody said, “No.” Everybody said, “Yes,” all the way through, including all of these amazing people sitting at this table, which still blows my mind. It’s, “My God, Colin Farrell.”
COLIN FARRELL: I know, I know.
KELLY MARCEL: Hi.
COLIN FARRELL: It’s very nice meeting you.
KELLY MARCEL: So no, it was a great process. And at one point, 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. 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.
COLIN FARRELL: But no lifetime pass for the theme park, either, which is-
KELLY MARCEL: No.
COLIN FARRELL: Kinda stingy.
KELLY MARCEL: But I still get to sit next to Colin Farrell.
Q: This was an amazing film with brilliant characters and an interesting structure. Was it difficult to combine these episodes in L.A. and London and the flashbacks which are like a film within a film?
JOHN LEE HANCOCK: Kelly’s script laid it out pretty much like it is in the movie. I thought it worked very well on the page, so you want to make sure that you give your best effort to accomplish it on the screen. I think the most difficult part for me was just wrapping my brain around the idea that it’s not just 1961 Los Angeles and 1906 Australia, but that these two time frames start to fold over each other at some point, and even to the point where Richard and Robert Sherman’s lyrics are ending up in her memories in her father’s mouth, which makes her not an incredibly reliable narrator of these, which is why they’re stylized to a point like childhood memories are. So that was a difficult thing to think about. But all of us talked about it, and Kelly and I in prep spent a lot of time talking about the way one scene would influence the next, and how this would hopefully, brick after brick, add up to one plus one equaling three.
Q: So much of this movie is about the pre-production process, and it skips the entire production and goes straight to the premiere. Was the production ever on the table as something to be added into the film?
KELLY MARCEL: No, there was never a point that we talked about putting the production of the film into it, I don’t think, was there, Alison?
ALISON OWEN: No.
KELLY MARCEL: No. I mean, it’s going to be a 20-hour movie if we try and add that bit as well with a whole new cast. It wouldn’t have worked. I quite like that time jump.
Q: Mr. Hanks, it must have occurred to you this is your second “Saving” movie, and you’re a funny guy. Did you have any thoughts on that, and will you do a third “Saving” movie?
TOM HANKS: I like to think of it as a trilogy. There’s got to be some era of history that we can explore. It seems to be moving forward. I’d like to play, “Saving John DeLorean.” I have no idea. That’s the John DeLorean who invented the car, okay, never mind. I got nothing. I did my best with that.
Q: Emma, is there a possibility of yet another Nanny McPhee movie?
EMMA THOMPSON: The second one, we had a lovely time making it, and it went down very well in my country, and I came here, I’ve just told this story with Tom. And we came here and we did what we’re all doing now, which is sort of big old two week tour of all the States, and it was just wonderful, because I had never been to many of the States, and everybody was very enthusiastic. The film played beautifully, and I got to the end of the tour, and I was pretty tired. I was on my way home, and I was in New York just packing my bags, literally packing my bag to go home, and the phone rang. I said, “Oh, hello,” you know. “How’s it going?” This was opening weekend. “Well, uh…” I said, “What? What?” “Well, it’s, you know, the-the-the box office, it’s not as good as we wanted it to be.” I said, “Okay. What do you mean?” “We wanted, we projected-,” this is what happens these days, okay? Just so you know. “We projected that it would take 14 million dollars. It only took 9.7.” I don’t understand what that means. I go, “Gosh, 9.7 million dollars, that seems like quite a lot of money, really. Um, but, anyway, you seem to be suicidal.” So I better take that as evidence that there won’t be another one. And that’s how it works. So it doesn’t matter how good the movie is. What matters is what it takes during the opening weekend. So, you guys should know that, because it’s slightly distressing sometimes.
TOM HANKS: I am hoping to make “Saving Nanny McPhee,” which would really be, the way I count it, six birds with one stone, three and three, and I don’t know, that’s what I’m hoping.