Did Disney Make An Honest Movie About Walt Disney?
For the first time, the Mouse House is having a real human (Tom Hanks!) play its founder with the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks. But is it truthful, or a fairy tale?
A movie about the making of Saving Mr. Banks might not contain the dramatic stakes or the number of iconic figures found in the new film about the fight to adapt Mary Poppins; but it would certainly be a compelling window into the power that media conglomerates have in shaping their history and our popular culture.
When Kelly Marcel began writing the screenplay for Saving Mr. Banks — which tells the true story of the last chapter of Walt Disney's dogged, 14-year pursuit of Mary Poppins author PL Travers' permission to adapt her book into a feature film — she gave little thought to the challenges and legal red tape that the movie might present. "I was really naive about it," the British writer, whose biggest credit up until that point was co-creating the TV series Terra Nova, told BuzzFeed. "Stupidly, I just kind of went off into my imagination and I got carried away with putting songs in and Walt Disney in and all that kind of stuff."
Travers, a cold and prickly woman, was long-adamant about not selling the Mary Poppins movie rights to Disney, believing that his brand of family whimsy and starry-eyed wish fulfillment would make a farce out of a character and story so dear to her heart. When financial problems eventually forced her to entertain the possibility of an adaptation, Travers demanded final approval of the movie script as a condition of the sale. It was an unprecedented concession on Disney's part, and the start of an intense burst of creative friction between the author and the company's creative staff.
Half of Saving Mr. Banks takes place in early 20th century Australia, where Travers (played by Emma Thompson) grew up amid personal tragedy that set the template for Mary Poppins. But the rest of the film lifts the veil on a contentious moment in the Walt Disney Company's history, scenes stocked with a mountain of trademarked elements, from famous animated characters to merchandise, and even a trip to Disneyland.
"When I finished writing [the screenplay], I suddenly realized, Uh oh, there's really only one company that can make this, and they're probably going to give this a cease and desist order," she remembered, laughing in hindsight. "At another studio, we could have used the character of Walt Disney, but we wouldn't have been able to make all the songs or any of the clips [from Mary Poppins]. None of that would be there, and so I don't think [producer] Alison Owen or I would have ever let it get it made without it being what it was supposed to be."
Consider the irony here: If Marcel wanted to see her work on the big screen, she had to sell Disney her movie about an author who didn't want to sell her book to Disney. And that would mean Disney got final approval on a movie about an instance in which the company, 40 years ago, gave away that precious final script approval. In a way, it was just as Travers predicted: Mary Poppins became a property of Disney, even if she created the character.
The Saving Mr. Banks script was an instant hit amongst Hollywood's chattering class, and it landed on 2011's Black List, the yearly collection of the best unclaimed screenplays. Disney execs took note and held a number of internal meetings, debating all of their options.
The stakes for the company were twofold: First, Saving Mr. Banks depicts an author who actively picks apart and dismisses some of the most iconic elements of one of Disney's most beloved and legendary films, which won five Oscars. Second, producing it would represent the first time that they had an actor play Disney himself, the man who has lived on in old video clips and statues around theme parks as a sort of idealized godfather of joy.
Would making him human — he drank, smoked, and coughed heavily in the last years of his life — strip away his godlike status?
When the studio came knocking, Marcel was nervous that they'd buy it to bury it, much like The Jim Henson Company did with a Black List script about its founder called The Muppet Man back in 2009. To her surprise, though, "They were very candid. They said, 'No, we're not going to try to shut you down. We're not going to try to sanitize this script. We're going to support you and make it.'"
Casting Tom Hanks in the role of Disney (which came later) certainly helped ensure that he would be likable even to purists that might blanch at his vices, as did the fact that the movie did not have to go through the long, winding internal gauntlet of studio meetings and rewrites.
"I really don't think this movie could have been developed by Disney, in this version," director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie) admitted. "I think that they would have been too protective of Walt. It would have been chipped away. I think they're smart and talented people, but for all their best intentions, they would have chipped away from the start, because the brand is so present for them that the man sometimes goes behind it. The fact that this started in Australia, and then went to the U.K., and the script was allowed to be completed and kind of finalized in its highest, best form before it was thrown over the walls of Disney, is important."
The unlikely green light brought with it the full power of the studio, including its massive vault of history and its roster of long-time employees made available to those involved. Disney doesn't do anything half-way, especially not its own heritage.
Richard Sherman, half of the legendary songwriting team that penned the music for Mary Poppins, is one of the few surviving participants from the tense creative sessions during Travers' short visit to Burbank. Still actively involved with the studio, Sherman spent weeks with Jason Schwartzman, who plays him in Saving Mr. Banks, teaching the actor the songs as they were initially written — which differed in many ways from the final product — and discussing his time working for Disney.
"Richard really put it in perspective with this one sentence, which was, and I'm paraphrasing, 'If PL Travers didn't like the stuff, these songs would never have been heard,'" Schwartzman, who's joined by BJ Novak, Bradley Whitford, and Paul Giamatti in the supporting cast, remembered. "For two years, they wrote over 30 songs, and then, Walt Disney was like, 'OK, here's the truth: This woman is coming out here and I don't have the rights. So there's a chance that this might not happen.' And when Richard tells us that, that's when I really feel it the most. Even before she gets here, that's when it really set in for Richard, what the stakes were."
Per Travers' request, the editing battles were recorded on tape, and so the archives were opened to enable Marcel, Hancock, and the actors to listen to the 39 hours of painful deliberation. It was invaluable for the little details of the conversations and arguments, and, after listening to the tapes, Marcel did a sizable rewrite of the script.
"What it changed for Emma and I was we kind of went, 'Oh god, we can't do an exact replica of PL.' The voice is just too grating and too difficult to listen to," Marcel said with a laugh. "So what it made us do was really think about her cadences and her tones and her manner of speech, so it didn't become a constant barrage of noise. I don't think it changed the thread of the story. I don't think it changed any of the arcs. Pretty much what happened in the room was there. It just meant that we could be a lot truer to history."
In his initial meetings with the studio, Hancock said that he had little interest in caking an actor in prosthetics in order to create a dead-ringer for Disney; instead, he was more concerned with nailing the affectations and personality of the man in his private life, a proposition that helped convince Hanks to take on the job. Meetings with Disney's daughter Diane, along with the archives of material from her own collection, helped the Oscar winner immensely with his non-physical transformation.
"You feel, growing up, like you've been in his house and been in his office, because of his Sunday night program [Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on ABC]. But that's Walt as the brand, in a certain way. So you're dying for lots of footage that shows him just being Walt, when it's almost like he doesn't know the cameras are rolling," Hancock said. "There are things like a long Canadian Broadcast Company interview; it's in Walt Disney's office, but it's more casual, and it's him sitting and expounding and showing how stuff works, and you start to get some of his mannerisms. You start to see when he goes to the mustache to stroke it. You see how he stands with his hands and all those sorts of things."
There is a surreal element to watching Hanks channel Disney, employing his midwestern lilt to issue sweet reassurances and the occasional firm dictum to his staff and Thompson alike; it is, in effect, like seeing Mount Rushmore come to life. And that's all well and good, but it would have meant little if not accompanied by those less savory habits and affectations.
"Of course there were discussions about [showing] him drinking and smoking and having a cough. But ultimately, he died of lung cancer. Everybody knows that," Marcel said. "It's very well documented that he smoked and he drank and it would have been completely disingenuous not to have nods to that. I was like, These are all things that they are totally going to strip out of the film. No way they will keep those in there, but Disney was very, very conscious about not putting out a white-washed version of Walt. They really wanted it to be as truthful to him as they possibly could."
As Sherman told Hancock, Disney was always heard before he was seen, due to his three-packs-a-day hack. The bruising cough around the corner is the film's prime nod to his smoking; when he is caught in the act, the apology he issues seems just as much directed toward the audience as it is to his on-screen company.
It also was useful that Hanks' Disney was immeasurably more considerate and patient than Thompson's Travers, so any of his faults seemed minor in comparison.
So, just how truthful is Saving Mr. Banks? Sure, its attention to period-specific particulars, as well as details of the conversations between Travers and the Disney writers in the room, is unassailable. But, is the larger picture that the company paints of its own history an accurate account of the spirit of those events?
From what's known about Travers, it's pretty spot-on, with maybe a tiny spoonful of sugar at the end to help the medicine — or, at least the historical uncertainties — go down.
Marcel used the Valerie Lawson-penned biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote as her primary source of information about Travers, both for the bits about her life in Australia, as well as the first pass at the segments that take place in the '60s. Travers died in 1996, but the interviews that she gave, as well as the things she told friends and associates, were inconsistent enough to render them just secondary sources for the screenwriter.
Most of the elements of the initial Mary Poppins movie script that Travers hated — the made-up words like "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," the animation, Mr. Banks' cold attitude, Poppins' cheerfulness, even the use of the color red — all ended up in the final film. Desperate to change them, she went up to Disney after the 1964 premiere of the movie in Los Angeles that she was not initially invited to, as Saving Mr. Banks depicts, to demand that they go back to the editing room (which is not shown in the movie).
Travers loved these anecdotes. They were feathers in her cap of cultural superiority. And yet, in the 1980s, she worked on a script for a new and ultimately unproduced Poppins movie for the Disney studio with historian and writer named Brian Sibley, who insists that she readily admitted that Mary Poppins had many strong elements.
"All throughout her life, she changed her story," Marcel explained. "Some days she said she liked the movie, some days she said she didn't like it. When she gave the rights to Cameron Mackintosh to do the theater version of it, she stipulated in that contract that there were to be no Americans that work on that show, which meant that the Sherman Brothers' songs would get recomposed. That was pretty near her death, and not a very nice thing to do, so I would say that she was carrying some bitterness with her about it for the rest of her life."
The time constraints of Saving Mr. Banks' focus preclude it from doing anything more than hinting at those 30 years of convenient acrimony; but because Marcel and Hancock spend half the film attributing Travers' difficulties with Disney's planned adaptation to her traumatic childhood, they were able to create a complete narrative arc even without being entirely sure as to just how the author felt about the film.
"The what-if that Kelly has constructed is that it's not about the movie," Hancock said. "It's about the fact that she's been able to come to grips, face up to her past, and make peace with her father."
The ending — which we will not spoil — is full of tears, humanizing Travers while sparing Mary Poppins, which (as they say quite often in this movie) brought great joy to generations of children, whether the original author liked it or not.