Saving Mr Banks closed the BFI London Film Festival at the weekend in fine style as Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks star.
The movie follows the story of P.L. Travers and the inspiration behind her book Mary Poppins and the lengths Walt Disney went to get the rights to make it into the iconic film we all know.
Thompson and Hanks were joined by Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, director John Lee Hancock, writer Kelly Marcel and producer Alison Owen at the press conference to talk about the movie.
- Emma, when you were offered the role of P.L. Travers did you think 'how can I not take this?'
Emma Thompson: Yes, absolutely. Everyone at my age are going 'oh there are no roles for women', and then one of the best roles that I have ever played comes sailing along thanks to my extraordinary friend Kelly Marcel.
It was one of those scripts where you read the first page and go 'I am in, yes I will do it. You don't have to pay me.' They did, they insisted: they paid me in chocolate and stuffed toys.
- We can't keep you away from London Tom, you were here for the beginning of the festival and you are here at the end...
Tom Hanks: I have been sleeping in a sleeping bag behind a teashop by the Serpentine for the last week and a half it almost killed me. I'm sorry I interrupted your fascinating question.
- Was there any sense of trepidation for you when playing someone like Walt Disney?
Tom Hanks: Trepidation...
Colin Farrell: Does he seem like the kind of man who would experience trepidation in approaching a role?
Tom Hanks: There was a responsibility, let me put it that way, and that is different to trepidation. Without a doubt, it was a substantial gauntlet to throw down. Walt Disney was a figure in our lives like Uncle Sam, Smokey The Bear, President of the United States and Mickey Mouse himself.
I felt that there was going to be quite a distance to go, and I didn't have a clue where to begin outside of my own memories. There is a lot of video and audio that you can listen to but unfortunately, it is mostly Walt Disney performing as Walt Disney.
Therefore, when you were able to find those moments where he was just talking naturally about something other that 'the new exciting realm of tomorrowland', that was worth its weight in gold. I had some access to that thanks to Diane Disney-Miller, his daughter, and the fabulous museum that she has established in San Francisco.
- John, how did you come to be introduced to this project? Once you read it, did you think it was a no brainer?
John Lee Hancock: I was trying to set up another movie but it had fallen apart several times. This script across the desk for me to read, and I was told that it was quite good. I knew that it was about the behind the scenes of the making of Mary Poppins, and while I like Mary Poppins I thought that I was perhaps not the right person for this.
However, my agent told me that I should read it, if only for the pleasure of having done so. I picked it up and I was totally enthralled with Kelly's words: even though I am a Texas guy from a refinery town, I felt inside the story.
It was one that I desperately wanted to tell but I had to then go and get the job. I had to go in, pitch my take on it, and talk about the movie: that was where I met Alison Owen. I was hired, I don't know how but thank god.
- Alison, there is obviously a problem making a film about a Disney movie, with Disney songs about a studio and a corporation. Did you expect a lot of problems from Disney? Were they forthcoming?
Alison Owen: Kelly and I didn't know what to expect when we were developing the project (laughs). From the inception, there was a question about how much of the clips and the songs do we use? How much intellectual property rights are we going to play fast and loose with here?
Kelly was like 'do I tip-toe around them? Am I trying to use as little as possible? Or do I just thrown caution to the wind and make the best story that we can?' I think that we she was steering me in a certain direction (laughs).
I went in that direction and was like 'let's just go for it. They are either going to let us do it, in which case we can make it the best that we can, or they will shut us down and it won't matter who much we use.'
Therefore, Kelly set out to write the best script that she could and use all of the material. Then we had a certain strategy in approaching Disney - luckily for us the right people were sitting in the right chairs at that time and Mary Poppins was blowing the wind in the right direction.
Disney have supported this project and been smart and intelligent in terms of their approach of letting us the right thing by the story.
- Kelly, was your instinct to go for broke as well rather than trying to be cautious and anticipate roadblocks?
Yeah, absolutely. I really felt that you couldn't tell a story about Mary Poppins without using the songs and using Walt Disney: I would be disappointed if I went to see that film and didn't get to have a little sing-a-long.
I think we knew that that was what we were going to do from day one, and I think if Alison hadn't said 'just go for it,' I wouldn't have known how to write it or know what to do with it. It was definitely my instinct to go mad with it.
- Colin, it seems like you are in a different movie half of the time...
Colin Farrell: That sound like a complete insult. I know that it wasn't, please carry on.
- There is a foreground story and a back-story: which is of course the story of Mr Banks. It is very different to anything that you have done before, so did it feel like a departure for you?
Colin Farrell: Anytime you step into the fiction of another person's skin and you go from objectively perusing a script and a character's life to being the subject of the story, it is a departure. If I was to look back, it does feel a little bit more unique.
Sometimes when you read things, you put it down, you get very analytical about it, and you think about the dialogue, the situation and the characters: you look at the whole story. This defied any kind of analysis, it was just moving from start to finish and funny at times.
It is really nice to be part of things that work and things that effect people; the whole becomes great than the parts that make it. I read the first page and you hear my voice and I was like 'yes, this is my film. I am in'. Then I was like 'what to you mean I am not the protagonist? I am a protagonist' (laughs).
- Have any of you seen the film Mary Poppins since you made this? And does it feel different now that you know the back-story of it?
Emma Thompson: The first night that we were all together in L.A. Colin had us over to his gaff and showed us Mary Poppins. That was the list time I saw it actually. We all sat there marvelling at it and going 'oh my god look at this bit' and then 'oh my god it is so long' - we were there for days it seemed. It is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking.
John Lee Hancock: In prep, Kelly and I went through scene by scene just saying 'is there some little twinkle that we can put in people who are real fans of the movie?' We didn't want to obstruct the plot, the tone, or the theme, just little nuggets for fans of the film.
Emma Thompson: There are quite a few, it was lovely.
- Colin, I thought the performance that you gave, especially with the young actress Annie Buckley, is very moving. There is a real chemistry between you so did you talk with her first? What was your experience of filming with her?
Colin Farrell: Custard Creams and a cattle rod. She was incredible. I believe that it was quite an ordeal to get her legal papers to work, but it was worth every single phone call. She was phenomenal.
It was just really easy to work with her as she was there with her twin brother Max and her parents. Our section of the film was shot in chronology and they blocked it off; it really did feel like a film within itself.
For two weeks, we went to a ranch outside of Los Angeles. It was just me, Ruth and the girls, six chickens and a horse - happy day’s man. It was just all there on the page.
- As actors who much input do you like the writer to have when you are playing a film that is based on a book?
Tom Hanks: In this case, I was a hired gun and I didn't say anything that didn't appear in the script. I did have questions: there were some Americanisms that I thought needed to be put in and there were some things I discovered that Walt had a tendency to say. However, that was all okayed.
We treated this like the Gutenberg Bible and we were not about to mess around with the work of the apostle. I think the requirement for making this movie was always going to be an extremely well constructed and beautifully knit sweater, and I wasn't going to start pulling a thread and have it all fall apart.
Emma Thompson: It is miserable going on to a film with a script that is not ready, really. Barry Sonnenfeld will tell you that we didn't have the third act of Men In Black until... we started filming without a third act. I don't understand how to work like that.
Colin Farrell: I have finished films where the script still isn't ready.
Emma Thompson: This was so beautifully written. I added just one line, 'poor A.A. Milne'.
Kelly Marcel: They were all absolutely amazingly true to the text; it was such an incredible to have everyone so true to the script. That was all John as well.
- Emma, given your stellar reputation of someone that everyone loves working with how did you get into mindset of a woman who says 'I won't have red in the film?'
Emma Thompson: "I just let out my inner-prickly pear. I just, basically, was my true self: difficult and cantankerous - I only hide that for effect. I just let it all hang out!
I've got to tell you, it was such a relief to be rude without any repercussions whatsoever. Can you imagine it? 'I don't want to go to your f***ing press conference' or 'I don't want to go to your birthday party because I got bored of you years ago.'
If you could just come out with these things and she did: she just said what she meant. I do that sometimes and get into terrible trouble. That was what was so great.
- Emma, you created your own Mary Poppins in Nanny McPhee, so did you know the story behind the book Mary Poppins? And had you already researched that?
Emma Thompson: No, not at all. My husband pointed out to me this morning 'it's interesting that you created a magical nanny and now you are playing someone who has created a magical nanny, so you suppose that behind every magical nanny is a cantankerous old bat?' I will let that sink in.
Maybe it is an alter ego and someone you wish you could be; I certainly wish I could be like that. With Walt and the mouse and Pam and her nanny, these are characters that have been created out of the soul of that person when that person was very vulnerable. I think that is what gives them their power and their staying power.
She said that she didn't invent Mary Poppins, she just arrived: most writers of genius would say the same thing. Of course, they are not going to arrive unless you sit at the writing table with your pen - that is the discipline: if you do that then it is like Field of Dreams and it will come.
Sometimes it comes in a form that will survive any number of cultural interpretations and re-interpretations. That is what is so interesting about this movie as it is about two cultures coming together and clashing over this one iconic creation.
- Walt Disney was was a man who made us all dream and I was wondering what kind of dreams you had before you started your careers?
Tom Hanks: I had not dreams at all. I was just trying to get some other job that the one that I had. That is not unlike what Walt Disney did as he started drawing in the disconnected garage from his house in Kansas City, he was just banging out the stuff in his head hoping that he would be able to sell them for $5 a piece.
I really relate to that, as there is no clue as to where any of this stuff is going to take you: I was just hoping to make a little bit more than nothing (laughs). I thought that this was just a job that you volunteered for and if you were good enough they would ask you to play something else and maybe pay you fifty bucks a week.
This concept of having dreams when you are young, I could never understand that. I didn't have a single dream in my head. I didn't have a five-year plan I was just stumbling around.
- There is so much recorded material about this subject just how much artistic license did you feel you could take?
John Lee Hancock: The job was for it to be entertaining and moving. You have all this information about real characters but you have to condense it and you have to find an order for it: I don't think that anyone would want to watch a film about the thirty-nine hours in the rehearsal room.
I am sure there were days that are utterly boring in there. When you have someone like Kelly Marcel to sift through everything and find the stuff that is entertaining and congeal it in a way where thematically is it true. That is job one.
Emma Thompson: P.L. Travers had this theory that women's lives were divided into three main parts: nymph, mother and crone. We wanted to put all of these parts into this incarnation of her.
That is creative license I suppose as you are taking bits and folding them back in to this period of time - two hours is not very long to spend with a complicated character.
- Can you tell us about when you saw Mary Poppins for the first time? Was it a big part of your childhood?
Ruth Wilson: I use to watch it every Christmas, and so I know it inside out. It was a big part of growing up. I haven't watched it since we watched it at Colin's house, so I am intrigued to see if I will see it differently.
Tom Hanks: I didn't see it in its first go round - I think I was taken to it in a re-release. Step In Time, the chimney sweep's dance I remember I just thought that was as if I had taken speed or something: that was just a magical sequence.
Emma Thompson: I remembered when the smoke turns into a ladder - it is moments like that that you remember as a child. I was so in love with Dick (van Dyke).
Tom Hanks: What stage of womanhood does that come in?
Colin Farrell: I was too busy thinking about everlasting gobstoppers from the Wonka factory. It is a Beatles/Rolling Stones question - were you a Mary Poppins or a Willy Wonka and a Chocolate Factory fan?
- You must have gone back to Richard Sherman. Can you talk about what he contributed to the film?
Kelly Marcel: Dick was just a delight.
Tom Hanks: We all love Dick.
Kelly Marcel: Dick is coming up a lot. I was explaining to someone earlier that after we met him we did an entirely new pass of the script because his mannerisms are enormous: he is the biggest, jolliest fellow you could ever meet. He is just incredibly wonderful. Meeting him was just a beautiful experience.
We came in and he was crying because she had ruined his life: he was very bitter and twisted about what went on in those rooms with P.L. Travers. When we went to see him, he was saying to John, Alison and I 'I didn't know that she had had that childhood. Now I can forgive her'. It has been quite a cathartic process of Dick. He played all of the Mary Poppins songs for us, and we all just cried for an hour.
Alison Owen: It was one of the most joyous things. To watch two people watching moments from their lives being reconstructed in front of them, weeping and holding each other's hands was incredibly moving. It was really wonderful. Richard was a huge asset to us from the start because of his enthusiasm, his support, his anecdotes and what he meant to Disney.
Kelly Marcel: His support when we went into Disney was invaluable because he is a special Disney person. The fact that he has taken us under his wing and loved what we had done and thought that it conveyed the truth and was credible.
John Lee Hancock: As an advisor on the film, he was there with us every day and that was really invaluable.
- John, how do you want this film to be viewed? As a piece of entertainment, as something that will surprise people or inform people?
John Lee Hancock: That is a tough one. You want all of the above. Everyone says that you make movies for everyone else but it is a year to two years of your life, so you have to make it for yourself.
You hope people will enjoy it and see what you saw in it and what you continue to see in it. I will just be happy for people to see the movie that we have all worked so hard on. I hope that they will enjoy it.
Saving Mr Banks is released 29th November.