Affable, charismatic and visionary, Walt Disney was also a shrewd businessman who always managed to get what he wanted. But he met his match in willpower when he set to wrangling with the disapproving, disagreeable but also cash-strapped author P.L. Travers for the rights to her creation Mary Poppins.
Their behind-the-scenes clash, ultimately resulting in one of Disney’s most beloved films, serves as the focal point of “Saving Mr. Banks,” which challenged the filmmakers and cast to breathe realistic life into both an adored pop culture icon and a temperamental figure less familiar to the masses.
Prior to taking on the era-jumping tale of the childhood family secrets that informed both Travers’ relationship with her closely guarded nanny creation and her notorious squabbling with Disney, director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) admits that he was merely fond of the top-grossing, award-winning 1964 movie that fanned the conflict.
“’Mary Poppins’ certainly wouldn't be in my top ten,” Hancock admits. “I never read the Mary Poppins books, I didn't know anything about this true origin story and all those things, so I thought that was probably not going to be for me.” But after the reading the screenplay by Kelly Marcel, which had won widespread praise within industry circles before ultimately being purchased by the Disney studio, Hancock was intrigued by the film's focus on the creative process.
"You rarely get movies that are about the creative process, and this is one, so I was down for it – I went in and begged and pleaded to get the job,” Hancock says.
The filmmaker was especially pleased that the Disney studio gave him a wide berth in trying to create a faithful portrait of its namesake. “Walt is such a brand and such an icon, and I felt the script was a very fair portrayal of him as a human being for these two weeks in 1961. It presented him as the artist who became a mogul, instead of that brand and everything. He smokes a cigarette. He loves a scotch mist at 5 o'clock. He'll gently curse if he gets a little angry. Those kinds of things, as silly as it sounds, I felt were really important.”
Hancock found his Walt Disney in Tom Hanks, who despite a lack of great physical resemblance to the visionary – familiar to generations from his much re-run television appearances in the 50s and 60s – was game to try to channel his essence.
“We had the most discussed, photographed, analyzed, diagrammed, tested mustache on the planet,” laughs Hanks, who did try to find visual and vocal touchstones to aid in his portrayal.
“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, like Walt's cough: Walt smoked three packs a day, and Richard Sherman said, "You always knew when Walt was coming to visit your office because you could hear him coughing from down by the elevator."
But primarily Hanks turned to “a lot of anecdotal information that kept coming to us from people who knew Walt. [‘Mary Poppins’ co-composer/lyricist] Richard Sherman was a literally never-ending fountain of stories, of facts, of anecdotes, of bits and pieces of everything that had happened.” The Disney family also opened its extensive San Francisco-based archive to Hanks for his research.
Emma Thompson had a more confounding road to travel to inform her Golden Globe-nominated portrayal of the mercurial Travers. “She was like going into a maze: around some corners, you'd find this terrible monster and then around another corner, you'd find a beaten child,” Thompson says. “She was the most extraordinary combination of things, and I suppose that the was 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 consistent in any way."
As production on “Mary Poppins” commenced, Travers’ role as a consultant led to seemingly ceaseless series of creative showdowns with Disney, songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman and screenwriter Don DeGrady. “We heard, but we didn't know it was as bad as we see in [‘Saving Mr. Banks’],” recalls “Poppins” star Dick Van Dyke. “We knew there was some disapproval of us, but, God, I had no idea!”
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel said that a collection of recordings from the creative meetings held in the Disney archives shed a revelatory light on Travers’ behind-the-scenes battles. “We already had a story, but what we didn't have was historical accuracy in terms of what really happened in that room. So to have the tapes of what really happened in that room, with Richard Sherman sitting there, was unbelievable. Once I had listened to 39 hours of tape, which was torture, it just gave it a whole other layer of depth and reality that hadn't been there before.”
“It was a gold mine,” agrees Hancock. “There are little snippets that you listen to and you go 'Oh, man, she was a pistol!' When Richard Sherman would listen along, you could see the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. He would just go, 'Oh, that was awful!' Just the memory of it all.”
Ultimately, though, Sherman found a catharsis for his contentious encounters with Travers some 50 years later as a result of the film. “There was a lot of crying from Richard Sherman during this process,” says Marcel. “He really had a horrible time in that room, as did his brother Bob and Walt. But when I met Richard for the first time, he was crying and he said to me, 'I didn't know – I didn't know she had that childhood, and that she was just a little girl.' And he just said, 'I wish I'd known, because maybe I could have helped her.' And up until that point, he just hated her because she'd been horrible to him. It was incredibly moving to see this man get this kind of closure after all this time.”
As the story and film coalesced, it became clear to Marcel that Travers and Disney had more in common that either imagined, stemming from the extreme hardships both had experienced as children. “I always knew about P.L.'s childhood; what I didn't know was that Walt had that childhood,” says Marcel. “I'd read many, many, many books about Walt, but there's not a lot about his childhood because it was hard, and Walt, I don't think, wanted to talk about that stuff in his life.”
“With Walt Disney and with her, they create something inside them that's designed – it's not even conscious – as a way of healing something, some terrible kind of a wound that was opened when they were very little,” agrees Thompson. “And Mary Poppins was a way of soothing herself, in the same way as Mickey Mouse was a way that Walt had of soothing himself.