Now playing in limited release and expanding nationwide this weekend is Saving Mr. Banks, the new film from The Blind Side director John Lee Hancock. Based on a true story, the pic focuses on Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) twenty-year pursuit of the film rights to author P.L. Travers’ (Emma Thompson) novel Mary Poppins and the rocky relationship that formed between the two when she finally came to Hollywood. Loaded with great performances, a strong script, and the first time Walt Disney has been portrayed on screen, Banks is a likely contender for this year’s award season. The film also stars Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker, and Colin Farrell.
At the recent Los Angeles press day, I landed an exclusive interview with Hancock. He talked about why it took him so long to direct another film after The Blind Side, what was it about this project that got him involved, balancing the fiction and non-fiction elements of the story, deleted scenes, what notes did he get from the studio about Walt Disney being near a cigarette on screen, future projects, and a lot more. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
JOHN LEE HANCOCK: Thanks.
I would imagine after The Blind Side you were offered a lot of different things.
I’m curious what took you so long to get back behind the camera and what was it about this project?
HANCOCK: I’m not a guy that likes to go- there’s some directors that are in post on one and prep on another. I like some time away to recharge the batteries, not only physically, but emotionally so that I get to the point where I’m just dying to direct again and then that’s the right time to do it again. I also have a family. When you’re directing movies almost always- this was the glorious exception to the rule, but you’re hardly ever filming in Los Angeles, so you’re off to Baton Rouge or something like that. I’ve got 13 year old twins and a lovely wife and a great life and I don’t want to miss that. So if I’m going to miss that it’s got to be for something really good. And when I say really good it’s got to be- to me first and foremost, it may sound selfish to say it, but you’re the first viewer, you’re the first person you’re making the movie for. Do you want people to ultimately see it? Do you hope people like it? Absolutely. Do you hope the financiers make the money back? Of course. But you’re pleasing yourself and in order to do that, for me, I usually have to find something where I go, “I have to do this.” Sometimes you don’t even know what the question you’re trying to answer is, but you go, “This is something I need to explore and want to explore, and it’s inside me in a way that I think I can do a good job with.”
You’re basing this on a true story, but you’re also making a movie. I’m very curious where you decided to take liberties with the story to Hollywoodize it and where were you picking battles where you were like, “This has to be what happens”?
HANCOCK: Yeah, I think any time you’ve got a story based on a true story, no matter how accurate it is, obviously it’s still fictitious. Sometimes it’s not Hollywoodizing as much as it is just like, I’ve got two hours to tell the damn story. you know what I mean? I’m going to compress these scenes. Or these scenes happened five years apart, or these two things happened five years apart, but for this movie I’m putting them as if they happened the same day; those kinds of things. You don’t know, there’s no ruler you can break out where you go, “Oops we went too far” or “We didn’t go far enough.” There’s none of that. It’s based just on your gut feeling and a responsibility you feel toward the real life people, whether they’re dead or alive, and there’s a responsibility for both, and also the responsibility to tell the emotional truth.
Many years ago I was a producer on a movie called My Dog Skip. Willie Morris, the great southern writer, had written the book, we had adapted it and taken 17 years of his life and compressed it into one year. With some stories in there that weren’t in the book, but could have been, they felt like they were in the same family and the script worked very well, by Gail Gilchrest. And we’re there shooting the movie and Willie seemed so pleased, he would come every day and watch his life laid out before him. Finally I said, “I was really nervous about getting you the script,” because we condensed all this stuff and there were things that were added in that didn’t necessarily happen, but that felt like they could have. And he said, “John, let me tell you something, there’s the facts and then there’s the truth. This is the truth.” And what he was trying to say, I think, was that there’s an emotional truth which is greater than the facts. I’ve thought about this a lot when you do the true stories. There’s somebody that could say, “Tell me about this person.” And you could give them a resume and everything would be factual. The dates would be great; the date of birth, when they graduated college, on and on and on. And you wouldn’t learn anything from it. Then you could meet somebody who spent two hours with them in a bar and had a conversation and somebody else might go, “I have no idea who you’re talking about. I’ve got the resume, look.” Now, which one’s more true? I don’t know. You have to balance those things.
HANCOCK: You know what? It was the closest I’ve ever had to where we ended up. I think it was, gosh- whatever I say is going to be wrong, but it’s going to be close. Let’s say it was 2:17 or 2:18 and we ended up at 2:03 or whatever.
That’s pretty close.
HANCOCK: That’s nothing. That’s nothing. On The Blind Side it was probably 2:40 and we ended up at 2:00, which is more in the realm of…
Sure. With this film was there a lot of you removing certain lines in scenes, or did you remove any full scenes?
HANCOCK: I removed probably three or four full scenes. Not because they were- they were perfectly great scenes and I’m proud of them, we’re going to put them on the DVD and that kind of stuff, but more often than not you shoot a scene and you read a script and you say, “This is absolutely necessary.” And then once you get somebody like an Emma Thompson or a Tom Hanks or a Colin Farrell and they breathe such life to it that you know that person more than you do on the page. Then you’ll go, “We’ve got a repetitive emotional beat here.” It’s a perfectly beautiful scene, and we don’t need it. I know about this guy already. I don’t need the point that’s being made by this scene to be in the movie, you get it.
I’m definitely curious about the negotiation of actually having Disney on screen near a cigarette.
The joke we we’re making last night, a few of us were talking was, were there eight lawyers standing behind the camera saying, “You can do this. Oh, his hand is a little too close. He can’t be holding that.”?
HANCOCK: Yeah, I’ll tell you exactly, because I was worried about it. I always felt that the script, and this goes beyond the smoking, but it’s about that too. Even though the movie’s not about Walt Disney, it’s about two weeks in his life in 1961. That said, I thought it was a fair portrayal and it presented the human guy with flaws. Come on, he died of lung cancer just a few years later. And we had built in, because Richard Sherman had said you always heard him before you saw him because of the cough, so in the movie he announces himself three times with a cough. So when you have that cough, which is kind of a fun device to put in for a character, that you hear him before you see him, and for everybody to know that he died of lung cancer just a short time later, a matter of just a few years, it would be disingenuous for him not to have a cigarette in his hand. And in the script it’s there. She barges in, he sees her and puts out a cigarette and says, “I don’t like people to see me smoke, it can encourage bad habits”, which is him saying, “Yeah, I got a monkey on my back. Yeah, I’m human, sorry. I need that scotch at five. That scotch has got to be exactly at five and not one minute later.” She would bring it right there and there it was. Those kinds of things were important to him, and they may sound petty, but they were important.
We had a discussion about it, and Disney has signed- and I do applaud this, they have said overall, “We’re not going to put smoking in movies. It’s not who we are. Other studios can do what you want.” Now they do have an exception to that, which is called a historical exception. If you have a movie about Winston Churchill, you’d miss the cigar if you didn’t see it. So this came under that. Not that we ever had to negotiate with it or anything, it was in there, but we had discussion. We had several discussions. And I think their point was, “We don’t want to make this feel like Mad Men.” Even though probably it was more like that on the lot back in the day, of course everybody smoked. “We would hate to see a big ash tray with a big pile of cigarette butts in it, but what do you think how it should be handled?” And they also said, “We would prefer not to see him taking some big long drag and blowing it out.” I said, “I don’t need any of that. She’s coming in, we’re with her, she comes in and catches him and he’s going to put it out.” I said, “Let me play with that and then you tell me what you think.” And I was terrified, because every step of the way I kept saying, “I’m ready for you if you’re not going to let me do this and get this in.” And every step of the way they said, “No you’re fine.” So finally they let us show the movie to Bob Auger who was going to be the final arbiter, and he said, “I think you handled it well.” There were a million little issues that somebody could be overly protective of Disney- Do we have to have him not inviting him to the premiere? That seems not like Walt. And Bob Auger, to his credit, said, “I wouldn’t have invited her either. You do have to protect the picture.” The thing about Walt Disney is that he always got what he wanted, now he did it with a Midwestern charm, but he always got what he wanted. He said, “I think you guys handled it brilliantly. Finish your movie.” So finally I could let my guard down. I was so worried from day one about that.
I definitely want to talk to you about screenwriting, which is something that you do also. What gets you to sign on to a property? Because according to the always-accurate IMDB you worked on Snow White and the Huntsman.
You worked on Maleficent, which they might have just done a screening for on the lot the other day.
HANCOCK: They did.
Right, I was coming to see your movie when they were doing a screening of that and I’m like, “hmmm”.
HANCOCK: Well those two in particularly are kind of separate and apart because those are, and I’ll allow you to get through the other part of your question, but I’ll jump right in and say that those two are more production rewrite kind of thing. With Maleficent, for instance, they had a finished movie that had a somewhat confusing first act. Nothing with Angelina or anything. So it was like can we strip this away and kind of simplify this first act that give the movie more lift up? So I came in and wrote a few new scenes for them and they went and shot them. A 200 million dollar movie everybody has reshoots. It’s what it is. So that was that. Snow White and the Huntsman was I came in before they started shooting and basically worked on Charlize Theron’s character for the most part. I guess I probably worked four or five weeks on that one and stayed during production a little bit with them. But I think the fact that I’m not only a writer, but have directed and produced, know the difficulties of the line producer, can deal with the studio, can talk with the director and get his or her vision and help exact that. I think it just gives you more tools. I finally, after all these many years, they consider me the adult in the room [Laughs].
I would imagine you have done rewrites on other things that have not seen your name attached on them.
HANCOCK: Yeah, that’s most of the time.
I’m just curious, when do you agree to take something on? What is your sort of criteria? And I’m definitely curious about The American Can.
HANCOCK: Oh boy, I’m curious about it too. When it comes to rewrites- and if you’re talking about a long term, there’s one called Highwaymen that John Fusco wrote a draft of, Scott Frank wrote on, that I came and did a big draft on because I wanted to direct it, and that’s different. That’s a long term thing. With other stuff it’s like – Do I have the skill set to make this better? What do they want? How do they want it to be better? Can I achieve that? So yes, you’re getting paid nicely and all that, but if you can’t help you don’t want to feel horrible about yourself in three weeks when you’ve done a pass at something and it gotten worse. So you pick project you think, “I can succeed at this. I can help them. I can make it so that they’ll want to call me again the next time.” So for those kinds of rewrites, the short term rewrites, that’s what that is. American Can was something that it was a script that Overbrook had, Will Smith, and they said, “We’ve got a bunch of scripts here, thing we want to do. Does anything strike your fancy?” So I read through them and it was the one and I went, “I don’t think it’s there yet, but I really like this idea.” I mean it was a true story set in Katrina, but it was very small and big at the same time. It’s a small story on a massive scale because of Katrina and re-flooding New Orleans in essence with effects and things like that. But it’s a story of- I won’t tell you because you can read it, it’s John Keller’s story. A marine with post-traumatic stress and all that who has a massive toolbox to use and he doesn’t use it and then all of the sudden this strikes and he’s able to use it again and saves lives, but it’s a heartbreaking story. I don’t know what going on with it. I moved on to do this. Ed Zwick is attached to direct it. I hope it does see the light of day because I think it’s a wonderful story.