×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Variety Creative Impact Award in Directing: John Lee Hancock

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.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Global Screen Nabs ‘Amazing Maurice,’ Based

    Global Screen Picks Up ‘The Amazing Maurice,’ Based on Terry Pratchett’s Novel (EXCLUSIVE)

    Global Screen has picked up worldwide distribution rights, excluding North America, the U.K. and German-speaking territories, to the English-language animated feature “The Amazing Maurice,” based on a Terry Pratchett novel. The screenplay has been written by Terry Rossio, Oscar-nominated for “Shrek.” Rossio’s credits also include the animated movie “Aladdin” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” [...]

  • Yoji Yamada-directed film is to open

    Tokyo Market: Shochiku Launches Horror, Comedy and Mystery Lineup

    Major Japanese studio, Shochiku has the honor of leading off next week’s Tokyo International Film Festival with its “Tora-san, Wish You Were Here.” The film is a revival of a beloved in-house drama franchise, directed by veteran Yoji Yamada, that is set as the event’s opening night gala presentation. Before that, the company has the [...]

  • The Truth

    Singapore Festival to Focus on Asian Excellence for 30th Edition

    For its 30th edition the Singapore International Film Festival has avoided programming novelty and instead focused on assembling excellence – mostly indie titles — from Asia and further afield. The festival, which previously announced local filmmaker Anthony Chen’s second feature “Wet Season” as its opening night gala presentation, announced the balance of its programming on [...]

  • Isabela Moner Dora the Explorer

    Film News Roundup: Isabela Merced Boards Jason Momoa's 'Sweet Girl' for Netflix

    In today’s film news roundup, Isabela Merced get cast opposite Jason Momoa, “Starbright” gets financing and AFM announces its speakers. CASTING Isabela Merced, formerly Isabela Moner, has come on board to portray the daughter of Jason Momoa in his upcoming revenge thriller “Sweet Girl” for Netflix. Momoa will play a devastated man who vows to [...]

  • Walt Disney HQ LA

    Disney Seeks to Throw Out Gender Pay Gap Lawsuit

    The Walt Disney Co. is seeking to throw out a lawsuit alleging that women employees are paid less than men, arguing that the suit is too sprawling and unwieldy to handle as a class action. Andrus Anderson LLP filed the suit in April, alleging that Disney’s hiring and pay practices have a discriminatory effect on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content