Saving Mr. Banks is ostensibly about how Walt Disney (portrayed in the film by Tom Hanks) and a core creative team tried to crack a feature film adaptation of British author P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. It focuses primarily on the two weeks when Travers (played by Emma Thompson), reluctant to sign off on the project, visited the Disney studios in Burbank, Calif., as Disney and his team tried to win her over. But it’s also a story of faith as Walt toiled away on Mary Poppins for more than twenty years without ever securing Travers’ permission. In that sense, the making of Saving Mr. Banks and the making of Mary Poppins are oddly intertwined.
In December, 2011, Kelly Marcel’s script made The Black List, an annual list of the best unproduced screenplays tallied and voted on by unidentified Hollywood insiders. The script had a one-sentence description: “The story of how Walt Disney got the rights for Mary Poppins.” Of course, the nature of the movie demanded that Marcel and her producers get permission from the studio in much the same way that Disney himself had to get Travers’ approval so his version of Mary Poppins could reach cinemas.
When asked if she wrote her script without Disney’s consent, Marcel replies, “Yes,” with a quick, nervous laugh.
Marcel elaborates: “Alison Owen, the [movie’s] British producer, came to me with this script she had found, written by an Australian writer, about P.L. Travers’ life. [It] had a lot to do with her relationship with her alcoholic son. In going through that script, Allison found out what had gone on behind the scenes with Disney and thought there might be an interesting movie there. So she asked me if I would like to crack at it. I said I would love to and naively didn’t think we would need Disney’s permission.”
Never suspecting the possibility of litigation, Marcel wrote away. “I willy-nilly threw in all the songs and all the lines from the movie and didn’t really pay much attention to it until I finished it and thought, ‘Oh shit. We might need some people to sign off on this.’”
“The Black List was an incredibly important part of the process,” Marcel acknowledges. “It brought it to Disney’s attention.” According to a New York Times piece from earlier this year, Disney president of production Sean Bailey was alerted to the script’s existence before the Black List was released, giving the studio the unique opportunity of preemptively deciding what to do. They bought it with the intention of actually making it, unlike the studio’s strategy with another acquisition—the Jim Henson biopic Muppet Man, which the studio simply wanted to keep off-market.
“I wrote it thinking it’d get made no matter what,” Kelly says. “Only later did I realize no other studio could make it.”
Similarly, with Mary Poppins, Disney and his team worked autonomously, away from Travers until she was actually brought to the studio. Faced with resistance from the book’s actual author, the team scrambled to appease Mary Poppins’ creator. With Saving Mr. Banks, Marcel had written the script on her own. then, after Disney acquired it, been given the keys to the (Magic) Kingdom.
“It was fine writing it all from my imagination,” Marcel says. “But once Disney got involved and introduced me to Richard Sherman and opened up their archives, it became a very different script. I [rewrote] it with historical accuracy, [whereas] before, I was just making it up.”
Disney quickly assembled a crack team of actors, including Hanks and Thompson, and assigned Sherman to the film as a technical supervisor (he is the last surviving member of the original Poppins creative team).
Sherman explains how he and his brother Robert were brought on to Mary Poppins. “We were pop songwriters, and we had written a lot of songs for a youngster named Annette Funicello, a Mouseketeer. And we didn’t know this but Walt Disney was listening to everything she did. One day, he handed us the book of Mary Poppins and told us to tell him what we thought.”
Being asked by one of the most powerful men in Hollywood for your thoughts on potential story material was both a privilege and a daunting challenge. Luckily, Walt and the Sherman brothers were on the same page.
“There was no storyline,” Sherman recalls. “Mary Poppins comes in, has adventures with the children and flies away. So we underlined six chapters in that first book, among them the scenes that became the jolly holiday sequence, the Uncle Albert sequence and the breadcrumbs. [Disney] pulled his book out, and he had underlined the same six chapters in his book! So help me god! And he said, ‘How would you guys like to work here?’ And he signed us for his house writers.”
Still, like Kelly completing a screenplay without Disney’s permission, Sherman and company toiled away without final approval from Travers. “We worked so hard on it, we were doing all sorts of pictures and animation assignments, and we’d always get together once every few weeks for Mary Poppins. And finally after a year and a half, Walt said, ‘We’re gonna have to meet the author. You’re going to have to sell her.’ We realized then that he didn’t have the right to make the movie. None of us knew that it was only an option.”
Both Sherman and Marcel point to the same scene they wish had made it into the final film, one that perfectly captures the feeling of creative desperation. “It was the day she had flown back to England, and she had decided not to give the rights over,” Marcel says. “They realized all of this beautiful work was probably never going to be heard. So they went to this bar in Burbank, and they got drunk and there was a piano in this bar, and they played all the songs from Mary Poppins for the last time. They were very upset and depressed. And I loved that image of the three of them in the bar by the piano.” Sherman adds: “We thought that was the end of everything. It was the farewell concert, and we never talked about it after that. We were just so upset about it.”
But after all the anxiety and doubt, the film not only got made, but it also went on to become a classic, inspiring another truly wonderful film in Saving Mr. Banks. Sherman counts it as the high point of his career. “It’s still the Everest. But you know how you match it? The picture we’re talking about—Saving Mr. Banks.”
Marcel is still in awe of the experience. “Sitting here, talking to you, I still can’t believe it,” she says. And, knowing the path her story took to get here, it’s easy to believe her.
More on Saving Mr. Banks:
Awards Spotlight: ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Producers Alison Owen & Ian Collie Unafraid to Take Risks & Bluff
Globes Spotlight: ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Writer Kelly Marcel on Working With Emma Thompson & Tom Hanks
Awards Spotlight: ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Director John Lee Hancock Talks Casting & What He Learned From Clint Eastwood
2014 Oscar Underdogs: Best Supporting Actor
Why are So Many Oscar Hopefuls Based on a True Story?