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Directors on Their Teams: John Lee Hancock on ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

Saving Mr. Banks” is the fifth film directed by John Lee Hancock, who began his career as a writer, scripting the 1993 Clint Eastwood film “A Perfect World.” His new film travels between Los Angeles in 1961, London at the same time, and flashbacks to P.L. Travers’ youth in Australia.

Cinematography: John Schwartzman

I like to get everyone on board as soon as possible so we can have lots of discussions with John, production designer Michael Corenblith, costume designer Daniel Orlandi. That’s the way it ought to be. Everybody should be finishing each others’ sentences. Too often people don’t have good prep and they paint themselves into corners. I had been to Australia and seen the two houses and towns where the Goffs lived (i.e., P.L. Travers’ childhood home). The sun and the light felt very much like Southern California, so John and I embraced that. The light and heat are so different from London and that served us: Southern California would serve to remind her of her childhood.

Editing: Mark Livolsi

It was the shortest assemblage I ever had. I think it was two hours and 17 minutes. So cutting 19 minutes was nothing. When you go to prep, you challenge every scene and make it “stand up in court,” so to speak. When you ask yourself tough questions, you’re able to cut away some of chaff from script and make it as streamlined as possible. For me, making a film is many steps of interpretation and my job as a director is to interpret the script. I don’t like editors on the set. I like him to be where he’s more comfortable and interpreting the footage as it comes to him. I always appreciate his take on it. I want him to cut it and we will talk about it. Sometimes I’ll say I like my way better or sometimes I’ll say I never would have thought of this, I like yours better.

Production Design: Michael Corenblith

We had 25 pages set in rehearsal room. The casting, liveliness of the actors and the music helps, but it has to be a place that’s great to look at. It’s a character in the story in a way, since it’s a movie about the creative process. So Michael put skylights in for additional lighting. It gives you another source of daylight. And all the windows are exactly as they were in the Old Animation building.

With the Beverly Hills Hotel hills hotel exteriors. we had the drive-up from Sunset. But they don’t let people film there. So Michael built the front, we built the exterior; he had all the dimensions and to create that and have drive-arounds where cars could go through. The things so striking about that hotel are the massive red carpet to the glass doors and the ceilings with the stripes. He grabbed onto those and we did the best we could with the layout. The biggest build was the interior of Old Animation (the building on the Disney lot) which was one massive set, with a long hallway, and one end was the rehearsal room and the other was Walt’s office. We had a lot of fun figuring out exactly how we were going to do that. The Aus house was an existing structure out in Simi Valley, but it originally didn’t look anything like it did when Michael finished with it. He added details in terms of roof, overhangs and windows that are very specific to the house where P.L. Travers’ family lived.

SEE ALSO: The Coens on “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Script: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith

I never read Sue’s script, but my understanding was that she did a more traditional biopic that was birth-to-death and those are difficult to get made these days. They weren’t getting the traction they wanted and Ian Collie, the producer in Australia, reached out to Ruby Films, Alison Owen’s company in the U.K. Aliso felt the most interesting part was this trip to Los Angeles in 1961. Kelly read the script and felt the same way. They were incredibly brave because they didn’t have the rights but there was only one place they could sell the script and that was Disney. Someone in the legal dept had already reached out to Alison, a cease-and-desist kind of thing. They knew it was one-stop shopping but felt it was worth it. There’s no way to make the movie without Disney. They were very brave and went forward with it. Disney was also brave, because the easiest thing would have been to say no. No other studio was going to make the movie and people don’t get fired for saying no; they get fired for saying yes. So it would have been easier to say no and forget about it. Someone said let’s buy it and put it on the shelf. But Sean Bailey read the script and felt it was really good and went to Bob Iger, who said if you believe in it that much, we should make it.

(He included Kelly on every step of the way.) I told her it would probably never happen again, so she should take advantage of it. Clint Eastwood did it for me way back when; he let me on the set, look at early cuts, everything; he was my film school. I said ‘You should see how the sausage is made. It will help you as a writer. And you will see that when you break it down, every decision — what color walls, what props — every decision is a character decision. It adds import to think about them.’

So Kelly was around, I’d say c’mon we’re going to the props office we’re going to choose watches and rings. She’d look at me like I was crazy. But in her mind’s eye, she had thought of these things. We didn’t have to agree, but that’s where fun stuff comes out. It helps actors too, and helps the DNA of the movie. I’ll give you one example. Our prop guy had replica of the pinky signet ring David Tomlinson wore in “Mary Poppins.” And he said do you want to use that in any way? Let’s cross-pollinate as much as possible. So we put the ring on Colin. Then we put it on a chain around Emma’s neck, as a legacy from her father. It’s not something anyone would notice, but it’s there. You sense that kind of stuff, when you take care with details, it works to the good of the movie.

SEE ALSO: Ralph Fiennes on “Invisible Woman”

Music: Thomas Newman

He’s a brilliant composer. With him, it’s less about themes that about conversation and character. With each scene, he asks whose scene is this, what are we playing here, Walt?’ That sends him down a road. He and his folks are great team players. It’s a push-pull and I want to hear what his thoughts are. We temped the movie using all Thomas Newman tracks. When he saw it, he said, “would you mind if I retemp it, so we can start a conversation” He retemped a lot of the scenes, which took a lot of time, just so we could have the conversation and boy did that help.

Costumes: Daniel Orlandi

A lot of times you’ll see period movies and the costume designer will use that opportunity to show off. But Dan feels strongly that if you’re noticing too much of the clothing, it doesn’t serve the movie.

Directors on Their Teams runs Monday through Friday. Coming Tuesday: John Wells.

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