Director John Lee Hancock’s preceding film was the Oscar-winning The Blind Side, and he now returns with another film that has a more than good chance of being a triumph at the Academy Awards next year, with his brilliant drama Saving Mr. Banks, based around the making of Mary Poppins.
We had the great pleasure of sitting down with Lee Hancock to discuss the title, working with Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks and how fearful he was about making a film with Disney, about Disney. He also tells us what it was like to have composer Richard Sherman around on set, and what other films he’d be interested in exploring on film from a pre-production perspective.
Well I’ll start by saying that the film, deservedly, has been very well-received. Though initially I was a bit worried that the hardened critic may have been put off by the sentimentality…
When you do these kind of movies you know there is always going to be that response. We live in a cynical world. Some people say, I cried, therefore you made me cry, therefore it must be manipulative, therefore you’re a manipulative filmmaker, therefore it’s phoniness, therefore it’s shite. People go there quickly.
This is a great project for you, and the cast is wonderful. It must have been a director’s dream to direct the likes of Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson?
It was, absolutely. I was very fortunate and blessed and I couldn’t believe it, it was like Christmas everyday. We weren’t paying people their rates, everybody was doing it for the love of the project, so it was great.
You tend to make adult dramas – just how different an experience was this for you to do a family orientated film?
It wasn’t that difficult. I still think of it as an adult drama. I think teenagers would like and it would be fine for kids to see, but it might be too heavy for them. It’s one of those hard to describe films, and I’m happy that’s the case. I don’t think there’s anything else quite like it in the market place. I hope that it’s funny, that it’s dramatic, and they’re singing and dancing in it. How does that work?
To an extent, that almost shadows what Mary Poppins was like.
I think that was probably in Kelly’s mind when she wrote the script. To follow P.L. Travers through this, and have it mirror some of the joy and drama of Mary Poppins.
Have you always been a fan of the movie, and had you read the book?
You know, it’s funny, because when I read the script I had seen the movie several times, but it’s not as though it’s on my favourite movies list or anything like that, but I always appreciated the movie and enjoyed certain parts of it more than others. But I had not read the books, so when I read the script and found out about the original story I read all of them. I just feel into the world and was fascinated by it.
Have you gone back and watched it since and discovered a newfound appreciation for it?
Yeah I have. Technology changes on a daily basis, and something that feels so out of this world and new, a few years later not so much. From a movie standpoint when you look at Avatar and you think, oh my God… Now it feels like anybody can do that. Not that they can, but technology is something we’ve seen before and we’re with it. I still do have an appreciation for the animators and Dick Van Dyke and the penguin dancing scenes, and all that. It’s seamless and I’d side with Walt with that one, and say, you know what, the animated penguins are gonna be fantastic. On many other fronts I would side with P.L. though.
If you could go back and make another movie on any other film that exists, from the making of stage, what would you most like to explore?
Gosh. It’s funny because a lot of the more troubled ones have already been done in documentaries, whether it’s the Fitzcarraldo or Apocalypse Now… We’ve gone behind the scenes already. Hmmm. I can say, not that I’d do a movie about it, but the set I’d have loved to visit and have been there to see it made is Citizen Kane, to see with the photography, if somebody is going, really? Just to see how people ponder over how groundbreaking something is, whether they’re going to shoot themselves in the foot. The other, just on a daily basis, Badlands by Terrence Malick, just because I think there is so much intricate perfection and ease in that movie, I would have loved to have been there to see how that happened.
Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney film, about Disney. Were there there any problems faced because of that? Any restrictions?
No. I don’t think this movie could have been made if this had been developed at Disney, but the fact it started off in Australia with Hopscotch and came to Ruby Films in London and BBC Films put the money up for the script, and it was developed outside the walls of Disney, that made it the script that it is. So once it was tossed over the wall, into corporate Disney, they had a decision to make. Do we make this, or not? They decided to make it. That said, I was very fearful every step of the way, as there were so many things that were completely accurate, whether it’s Walt’s portrayal and the smoking and drinking and mild cursing and all that, or whether it was Travers’ jabs at Disney, as a ‘dollar printing machine’, or ‘you can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety’ or just the real jabbing at Disneyland. Those kind of things. I was worried whether they would be taken correctly by Disney and initially it was, but I was really fearful along the way that somebody at some point, you know, the wizard was going to come from behind the curtain and say, ‘no, no, no, no…’ but that never happened. I’m not saying there weren’t discussions about these things, but we were able to shoot the script and make the movie that we wanted to.
I was quite surprised to see how relaxed Disney were. It seemed like you had quite a lot of freedom, I mean, this was the first Disney film that is a PG-13 and not because of action scenes, but other, more dramatic themes. Even at the press conference there was talk of communism, and there was the ‘F’ word. It’s all not very Disney…
You know what, I think Disney look at it as an honest portrayal. Our pitch all along was, left to their own devices, a corporation would protect the corporation and protect the brand. But they needed to look beyond the brand of Walt Disney and to look to the fact that he was a human, an artist and a ruthless businessman who always got his way, but he did it with charm. But first and foremost, he was an artist and this is a movie about him having to embrace that part of being an artist and a storyteller in order to move forward as a mogul. It just mattered so much more that he was a very talented version of us, if he’s a human being with flaws, that he admits. As opposed to being some God or brand, because then we don’t care.
It does feel like two very different films. You’ve got the enchantment of the 60s, and then the childhood flashbacks are about an alcoholic. Was it difficult for you to share the emphasis between the two and keep the balance, because they’re like two separate movies?
That’s true, and you shoot them separately of course too. When you’re shooting 1906 Queensland, you have the ins and outs of these scenes and you’re always aware of where you’re coming from and where you’re going to – which is usually 1961 or 64. You don’t want anybody’s neck to break when you get back to the 60s, and tonally portions of them are very different, so yeah, it was a concern and a lot of thought and effort went in to hopefully making it as seamless as possible, because these are her memories and when we move forward in the story we start to realise that her memories might not be 100% reliable. Just like all of our memories of childhood, they’re idealised in the way we remember things, so when what’s happening in 1961 starts to intrude in 1906 in such a way that the Sherman brothers’ lyrics were ending up in her father’s mouth when he’s giving a speech, that tells you how muddled this is, and what’s at stake for her.
Talking of the Sherman brothers’, Richard was a consultant on this film of course. That must have been wonderful having him around?
It was fantastic. Not only did we have Richard but there were a few other people we had talked to who knew Walt or had worked for Walt. But to have Richard there to be able to tell Tom Hanks, here’s how he walked, here’s how he did this. Tom would say, ‘I noticed in this clip he would put his hands like this?’ and Richard would say, ‘No, he’d put them like that’. Or when you’re in the rehearsal room, people have asked how real it is, and I’ve said look, there were two weeks of rehearsals, we had to condense it. That said, we had Richard Sherman, who is the only person living who was in that room, and he’s with us and he’s telling us how it happened. It’s a great piece of information to have on a daily basis.
In a sense, Richard Sherman’s role on Saving Mr. Banks is similar to what P.L. Travers role was in Mary Poppins, was it almost like having P.L. Travers in the room? Obviously not to the same extent, but having that person who is protective over the original material.
Yeah, but he’s a lovely, easy man. We wanted him to have an opinion and we wanted him to have propriety over his story, and it is his story, because he was there, at 31 years old in that rehearsal room with a terribly difficult woman. He said it sent chills when Emma would come in and do scenes. He said that he had a chill down his back because he was taken back to that time and he was terrified. It was great to have him there. Just to have him say, ‘It wouldn’t be that way…’.
From one composer to the next, am I right in thinking this is the first film you’ve ever made without Carter Burwell? It must have been strange, because you work so closely with them and rely on them to match your tone. Was it scary to entrust that in a new person?
It was. There are a lot of directors that change DPs and composers, because you do learn something different from each person you work with, there’s no doubt about it. Carter is an amazingly talented composer and I love my collaboration with him and would love to work with him again, but Thomas Newman was someone I had known and we had been thinking about working together before, and I just felt that this was something he could do really, really well. Not that Carter couldn’t, I knew Carter would also do an amazing job, but it was just a gut instinct and went with Thomas and it was a beautiful time. He’s so talented.
Finally, what’s next? Are you working on anything at the moment?
I do, I do, I do. Like you said, I do adult dramas and they don’t make those anymore, so it takes a long time to get them made, but I’ve got one that will hopefully go next September called The Highway Men with Liam Neeson and Woody Harrelson and it’s the true story of the retired Texas Rangers who were brought out of retirement to hunt down and kill Bonnie and Clyde.
So quite different to Saving Mr. Banks, then?
Saving Mr. Banks is released on November 29, and you can read our review here.