Movie Interviews
5:19 am
Fri December 13, 2013

Tom Hanks And Emma Thompson On The Magic Of Disney

Originally published on Fri December 13, 2013 3:09 pm

Before the movie Mary Poppins, there were the beloved books about the nanny who swept in on an east wind to care for the Banks children at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London.

As dreamed up by author P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins arrived with the umbrella, carpetbag and starched white apron familiar to many more millions from the Disney film that would come later — but she was not the bright, cheery Julie Andrews of the movie. And therein lies the story behind Saving Mr. Banks, in which Emma Thompson portrays Travers and Tom Hanks takes on the role of Walt Disney.

So desperately did Disney want to make Mary Poppins that he pursued Travers for years in the effort to secure the film rights. But P.L. — or Pamela Lyndon — Travers feared the Disneyfication of her character.

Still, in 1961 she traveled from London to Los Angeles, where she spent two weeks meticulously going over every detail of the Mary Poppins script.

What motivated Travers was a heartfelt desire to protect her version of Mary Poppins. She had emerged from a youth that was both magical and troubled; she had a father she adored but a girlhood that could have benefited from a nanny just like the one she'd later create.

"She had a very difficult upbringing, in the sense that her father was an alcoholic and her mother tried to commit suicide," Thompson says. "So her childhood was full of earthquakes and tremors, uprootings both physical and emotional."

Thompson and Hanks sat down with NPR's Renee Montagne to talk about the film in an old bungalow at the very same studios in Burbank where Travers and Disney first met.


Interview Highlights

On how Disney was a part of their childhoods

Hanks: Well at the time that it really mattered, it was [the Sunday night television show] Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. And we did not have a color television set until much later than everybody else did, and so I remember where I was. My parents had taken me to some friends of theirs, and I was relegated to the downstairs rec room. And I had at my disposal, on a Sunday night, a color television, and saw for the first time Tinkerbell come out and go "dink, dink, dink" with those fireworks. And it was blue and red — I thought it was magical. I could not believe.

And then what kicked in? A song by Richard and Robert Sherman: [sings] "The world is a carousel of color, wonderful, wonderful color." And so it was a staple of Sunday nights. It was magical to sit and watch Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

Thompson: You have to remember that around this time I was being brought up by a man who was writing a children's program in which he used phrases like, "Hoist with your own petard." He'd have just been so pissed off by Walt Disney and Tinkerbell, my father.

On P.L. Travers' abhorrence at the idea of a Disneyfied Poppins

Thompson: I did understand, absolutely. If you read the books and then look at the film, you can see precisely why she objected. I mean, one of the gags about Mary Poppins was that she wasn't pretty but thought that she was and behaved as if she was — whereas Julie Andrews, of course, was exquisite. And actually P.L. Travers liked Julie Andrews a lot and thought she played it rather well. She was rather keen on her.

On when Travers and Disney met each other

Thompson: This man was expecting her to be delighted.

Hanks: Yeah, here you are, lucky you! You're meeting Walt Disney today!

Thompson: I think he probably felt that finally, when he got her on his turf, i.e., here to these studios — it is extraordinary to think that she walked down that lane over there that we're sitting right next to. [And] then this man, who could literally just charm the birds from the trees, just could not crack her. In fact, the more he tried to charm her, the more she resisted.

On the tapes that the real P.L. Travers made, recording her meetings with Disney staffers

Thompson: The tapes were hugely influential and helpful, because you can hear the distress in her voice. ... There's this noise in her. ... [She makes it] until you want to kill her. It's fantastically irritating. She was so defended and so blocked. And so you can hear the psychological tension; it's all written into the voice, as it were.

She objected to everything. She did absolutely insist at one point that there should be no red in the film, which is an insane stipulation to make. She was deeply irrational from time to time.

On Travers' desire to protect the character

Thompson: She had to make her own living, and the Mary Poppins books were not selling as well as they had, and she was in danger of losing her house in London. She needed the money. It's never very romantic, but that's what I like about it.

Hanks: The end result was still the movie that Disney wanted to make, part and parcel, without a doubt. It was probably — if she even hadn't been out there for those two weeks, they still would have made the movie as it comes out here. So whatever went down at the end of the day was something that — you surrendered. I mean, you know, Pamela Travers gave up at some point and just cashed the check.

On Disney's love of the story

Hanks: Particularly up to this point, Walt Disney did not put out anything that did not have his absolute imprimatur and affection. This might have been the last one. Mary Poppins was the last time it really had his fingerprints all over it. But he hadn't done anything that he didn't absolutely adore and love and think was magical up to that point. He believed heart and soul in everything that he put out prior to this. So this was, you know, a mission of love.

On what Travers and Disney would think of the actors' portrayals

Thompson: She would have liked the clothes, and I think she would have liked the attention, and the fact that the movie was sort of about her. She was quite self-important, really. I think probably more so than Walt, because, simply, she had less power than him. So I think that's what she would have liked about it.

Hanks: I think Walt would have said, "Boy, I wish I would have had days like that at the studio, because it looks like I'm sitting around doing almost nothing." Because what we should have had is five people in the room with me eating food and smoking cigarettes, pointing at stuff and trying to figure out storyboards and payoff schedules and construction permits. I'm sure he would have appreciated the suit and the mustache and whatnot, but I think he would say, "Hey, you don't seem to be working very hard there as Walt Disney."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Before the movie "Mary Poppins," a classic for many children, there were the beloved books about a nanny who swept in on an East wind to care for the Banks children at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London. Mary Poppins arrived with a parrot-headed umbrella and a carpet bag. In the books, this nanny was nothing like the bright, cheery Julie Andrews of the movie. Mary Poppins was chilly and a bit severe; resembling, in fact, the woman who dreamt her up, author P.L. Travers.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And there lies the story behind the new movie "Saving Mr. Banks." So desperately did Walt Disney want to make "Mary Poppins" that he pursued Travers for years.

MONTAGNE: She feared the Disney-fication of her character.

GREENE: But finally, in 1961, Walt Disney lured the author from London to Southern California, hoping she would sign off on a script. Here, Disney songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman try out a new song for Travers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAVING MR. BANKS")

B.J. NOVAK, JASON SCHWARTZMAN: (As Robert and Richard Sherman) (Singing) Here we go! Room here for everyone, gather around. Possible's responstible. Now, how does that sound?

EMMA THOMPSON: (As P.L. Travers) No, no, no, no, no, no, no. no. Responstible is not a word.

JASON SCHWARTZMAN: (As Richard Sherman) We made it up.

THOMPSON: Well, un-make it up.

MONTAGNE: That's Emma Thompson as Pamela Travers, a woman who, as a girl, could have benefited from a magical nanny.

THOMPSON: She had a very difficult upbringing, in the sense that her father was an alcoholic and her mother tried to commit suicide. So her childhood was full of earthquakes and tremors, you know; full of uprootings, both physical and emotional.

MONTAGNE: Emma Thompson's partner on screen is Tom Hanks, as Walt Disney. We sat down in an old bungalow at the same studios in Burbank where Travers and Disney first met. At the time, Disney was running a movie, theme park and television empire that touched the young Tom Hanks.

And Tom Hanks, I'm curious. Was part of your childhood "Sunday Evening With Disney"?

TOM HANKS: Oh, my Lord.

MONTAGNE: What was the name of the show at the time?

HANKS: At the time that it really mattered, it was "Walt Disney's Wonderful World Of Color." I remember where I was. My parents had taken me to some friends of theirs - I'd never met them before. There were no other kids in the house. And I was relegated to the downstairs rec room. And I had, at my disposal on a Sunday night, a color television, and saw for the first time Tinkerbell come out and go dink, dink, dink with those fireworks.

And it was blue and red. I could not believe it. And then what kicked in? A song by Richard and Robert Sherman. (Singing) The world is a carousel of color, wonderful, wonderful color. And so...

THOMPSON: Around this time, I was being brought up by a man who was writing a children's program, in which he used phrases like "hoist with your own petard." So he'd have just been so pissed off by Walt Disney and Tinkerbell, my father.

MONTAGNE: It sounds like you would understand P.L. Travers' abhorrence of the idea that Walt Disney would play with her character.

THOMPSON: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I did understand. If you read the books and then look at the film, you can see precisely why she objected. I mean, one of the gags about Mary Poppins was that she wasn't pretty but thought that she was, and behaved as if she was; whereas Julie Andrews, of course, was exquisite.

MONTAGNE: It's sort of this massive clash of characters. Tell us about when the two of your characters met.

THOMPSON: This man, who was expecting her to be delighted.

HANKS: Yeah. Here you are. Lucky you. You're meeting Walt Disney today.

THOMPSON: I think he probably felt that finally, when he got her on his turf - i.e., here to these studios; it is extraordinary to think that she walked down that lane over there that we're sitting right next to - that then this man, who could literally just charm the birds from the trees, just could not crack her. In fact, the more he tried to charm her, the more she resisted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAVING MR. BANKS")

HANKS: (As Walt Disney) Well, here you are, at last. Oh, my dear gal. You can't imagine how excited I am to finally meet you. P.L. Travers, right here in my office after all these years - almost 20 of them?

THOMPSON: (As P.L. Travers) Hmm - yes.

HANKS: Now, here you are, and look at you. I could just eat you up.

THOMPSON: That wouldn't be appropriate.

MONTAGNE: So distrustful was P.L. Travers of Walt Disney that she demanded a tape recorder to document the meetings with Disney staffers. The result: hours of tedious back-and-forths over the "Mary Poppins" script, though for Emma Thompson the actress, there's an upside.

THOMPSON: Oh, sure. The tapes were hugely influential and helpful because you can hear the distress in her voice. It comes out very - (clears throat ) - no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. There's this noise in her, like this, no, don't do that - until you want to kill her. It's fantastically irritating. And you can hear the psychological tension. It's all written into the voice, as it were.

MONTAGNE: So what kinds of things was she objecting to?

THOMPSON: She objected to everything. She did absolutely insist, at one point, that there should be no red in the film, which is an insane stipulation to make. She was deeply irrational, from time to time.

MONTAGNE: It's a bit understandable. She was trying to protect Mary Poppins. This was a deeply felt character for her.

THOMPSON: She was - had to make her own living, and the Mary Poppins books were not selling as well as they had; and she was in danger of losing her house in London. She needed the money. It's not very romantic, but that's what I like about it.

HANKS: The end result was still the movie that Disney wanted to make. Whatever went down at the end of the day was something that was - you surrendered. (Laughter) I mean, you know, Pamela Travers gave up, at some point, and just cashed the check, you know.

THOMPSON: Yes, she did. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: There was such a mismatch, in so many ways, and yet Walt Disney really did love this story.

HANKS: Oh, yeah. Particularly up to this point, Walt Disney did not put out anything that did not have his absolute imprimatur and affection. This might have been the last time it really had his fingerprints all over it. So this was, you know, a mission of love.

MONTAGNE: Given that you are each playing characters who cared a lot about who they were, did you ever wonder what they would think of your performance?

THOMPSON: She would have liked the clothes, and I think she would have liked the attention, and the fact that the movie was sort of about her. (Laughter) She was quite self-important, really, probably more so than Walt because, simply, she had less power.

HANKS: I think Walt would have said, boy, I wish I would have had days like that at the studio. And in fact, I said to John Lee Hancock, our director: Can I be doing something in this scene where she walks in? Because what we should have had is five people in the room with me, eating food and smoking cigarettes, pointing at stuff and trying to figure out storyboards and payoff schedules and construction permits. And I think he would say hey, you don't seem to be working very hard there as Walt Disney.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you both very much.

HANKS: Thank you.

THOMPSON: You're very welcome.

MONTAGNE: Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks star in the new Disney movie, "Saving Mr. Banks."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHIM CHIM CHER-EE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.