“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Famed catchy lyrics to a Mary Poppins song written by the legendary Sherman Brothers. Set in 1961, Saving Mr. Banks is a sentimental story of how the wily genius Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) persuaded the grumpy British dame, PL Travers (Emma Thompson) to come to Los Angeles to sign away the screen rights to her novel, Mary Poppins.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), this was a project ‘Uncle Walt’ had been working on for twenty years ever since his children (little at the time) fell in love with the books about the magical nanny. The film sees Colin Farrell (In Bruges) as her doting father, Travers; Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) and BJ Novak (The Office) as the iconic songwriting duo the Sherman Brothers (who brought us Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Jungle Book lyrics/tunes).; Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) as genius screenwriter, Don DaGradi and Paul Giamatti (Sideways) as Ralph, the driver who befriends Travers during her LA visit.
A bit of a control freak, Travers insisted on everything being recorded on reel to reel which gave the actors a ‘true’ feeling of the creative differences which went on during those two weeks of meetings with the author. Travers even turns her nose up to any “musical numbers” and those “silly cartoons” upon which the studio has built its empire on. Thankfully, Disney didn’t pay any attention. You can watch the video interview with Schwartzman/Novak/Whitford above and/or read the transcript below. We recommend that you mime the words ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ at the same time. (A word by the way, the Sherman Brothers made up!)
Can you imagine a childhood without Disney?
Jason Schwartzman: Gosh!
Bradley Whitford: You know you really can’t, you realize, these songs and this story was in our bones. It was a joyous and unavoidable part of childhood.
BJ Novak: And the interesting part of this film is that it shows you that it wasn’t born full formed, it actually went through an adult, very complicated, emotional, difficult, funny process to become this childhood classic.
Jason Schwartzman: You think Mary Poppins… you don’t imagine it being written. You don’t imagine it being made. You don’t imagine it being cast. You just think it was there.
Bradley Whitford: Yeah, you certainly don’t imagine, heavy emotional conflicts surrounding discussions about the motivations of the characters and how they should be played.
PL Travers didn’t want the screen version to be a musical or animated…
Bradley Whitford: (Laughs) Other than that, she was fine!
Jason Schwartzman: Yeah,she was board.
BJ Novak: That’s what’s so funny about this film unexpectedly is that you have this real life situation where this woman arrives. She wrote this very charming humorous book called Mary Poppins. These guys wrote these wonderful songs and this guy wrote this funny script. It’s all there and she hates absolutely everything and doesn’t want it to be a musical at all!
So let’s talk about the Sherman brothers who were the perfect ying/yang of songwriting and music. Their legacy includes: Jungle Book and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. What research did you do?
Jason Schwartzman: The tapes and Richard Sherman, that was the ultimate (research) for all of us. Getting to sit with him and he made himself totally available to all of us whenever we needed it. For me personally, it was very important to learn the songs and to play them as accurately as possible and as much as possible in the movie. So getting to go to his house and sit there with him and he would show me the chords and show me how it was done and just his memory. And when he tells the stories, he goes there. He’s a great storyteller. So listening to him explain how much was on the line for these guys, it was the best research possible and listening to the tapes really puts you in the room.
BJ Novak: We also spoke to a lot of people who knew them back then and it was very interesting to calibrate the exact similarities and differences between the brothers, because they are on the same page, they want the same thing and they’re a team, but personality wise, Robert who I play was much more reserved. And much more of a pessimist in life and his approach to everything was more blunt and short tempered, where Richard is much more optimistic. It was fun calibrating that as brothers.
Jason Schwartzman: Yeah.
Bradley Whitford: Which is often in my experience a necessary combination of contrast you see embodied in these two brothers. You have to have somebody who basically assumes that this is not going to work and will tell you why and then you have to have the helium of the optimist.
Lastly, what was it like working with two Hollywood legends, Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson?
Bradley Whitford : They are two people who I don’t think you will ever find a bad story about because they both bring a lot of joy. I think they both have a tremendous sense of gratitude for the position they are in rather than, sometimes you see an attitude of entitlement. They were a joy.
- Saving Mr. Banks Interview: Colin Farrell
- Saving Mr. Banks Interview: John Lee Hancock
- Saving Mr. Banks Review
Saving Mr. Banks opens in theaters December 20, 2013.