John Lee Hancock
Michael Melia/Newscom

Director again plumbs family relationships in "Saving Mr. Banks"

John Lee Hancock was already a Disney veteran when he came onboard “Saving Mr. Banks,” having helmed “The Rookie” for the studio a decade ago. But in telling the knotted tale of Walt Disney’s struggle to adapt P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins” books, the helmer, Variety’s Creative Impact in Directing honoree, had to contend with a multi-decade negotiation that was less than a jolly holiday for all.

“The script was completely developed outside of Disney,” Hancock says of Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s Black List screenplay, “and I don’t think it could have been developed inside the walls of Disney. I think they might have chipped away at Walt’s character and it would have been a very different script, and I think they might admit that as well.”

Hancock credits the fact that other producers, including Australia’s Hopscotch and the U.K.’s BBC and Ruby Films, had signed on for helping allow the original script “have its day in court” prior to Disney’s involvement. And while the film is hardly unflattering to the studio, he says there were a plethora of true-life touches — Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) afternoon Scotch and smoking habit, mild cursing, that Travers (Emma Thompson) was not invited to the “Poppins” premiere — that had the potential to be flagged.

“I was always concerned at the 11th hour, someone from Disney would come and say, ‘You know, there’s a few little things we’d like to soften a bit.’ I asked about that upfront, and (Disney production prexy) Sean Bailey said, ‘No, we really like the script.’ Of course, you never really know until you finish the movie. But when it screened for Bob Iger, it was very much my version of the story, and he said, ‘You guys handled everything perfectly, now go finish your movie.’ ”

Beyond pleasing the studio while holding onto period details, Hancock had another balancing act to contend with. Though the brunt of the film takes place over two weeks in Los Angeles in 1961, a hefty amount of screentime harkens back to Travers’ childhood in Australia.

“I knew that I didn’t want to do it in a traditional way. I wanted to use framing devices a lot, and anytime there’s a door or a window as a framing device, that says ‘storybook’ to me,” he says. “When (the young Travers) sees her father drinking or sees him coughing up blood, those were scripted with her inside the room, but I really wanted it to be more where she’s on the outside looking though something, as though she’s looking back in time. When she talks to her father shaving, she’s outside leaning in on the window, to establish that these are memories.”

Hancock telegraphs his intentions from one of the first shots in the film, which focuses on a very Southern California scene of sunshine and palm trees, only to gradually reveal itself as rural Australia. The thematic throughlines connecting the two similar climates are slowly revealed as Travers’ multifaceted aversion to Hollywood comes to light.
“It wasn’t traditional in that it’s just a contemporary 1961 film with flashbacks,” he says. “It evolved into a place where ’61 is informing memories of 1906, which perhaps lets you know that P.L. Travers is not completely reliable in terms of those memories. I took it from a line in ‘Poppins’: ‘Seems what’s to happen all happened before.’ I wanted to play with time as though there were two time continuums that cross over and cross pollinate.”

The bond between Travers and her father (played by Colin Ferrell) ultimately emerges as the film’s primary emotional thrust, mirrored nicely by Disney’s relationship with his own father and daughters. Skewed parental issues have been a constant in Hancock’s filmmaking, dating all the way back to his screenwriting breakthrough, the Clint Eastwood-directed “A Perfect World,” yet he denies selecting projects with this in mind.

“It’s not something you think about upfront, and say ‘I want to do a movie about fathers and daughters.’ Sometimes it’s not until it’s over that you understand why you did the movie. But ‘The Rookie’ was about fathers and sons. ‘The Blind Side’ was about mothers and sons, and this is about fathers and daughters, so I guess sometime I’ll have to do a mother-daughter movie to complete the cycle.”

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