Saving Mr. Banks tells the tale of when Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) invited Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to his studio in Los Angeles in 1961, to discuss his interest in obtaining the movie rights to her beloved book and character. While there, Travers, who had been resistant for 20 years, spent two weeks uncompromisingly fighting every idea and suggestion, on the road to bringing this classic to the big screen.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, screenwriter Kelly Marcel talked about what a daunting task this script was, how she never thought about what would happen to the film if Disney didn’t want to make it, what it was like to wait for the studio’s feedback, her incredible collaboration with director John Lee Hancock (which even included pre and post production), getting to shoot at Disneyland, and having such a great cast of actors bring her words to life. She also talked about what a crazy whirlwind the last couple of years have been, leaving Terra Nova after she created the show, her collaboration with author E.L. James on the 50 Shades of Grey movie script, and working on The Little Mermaid (from the Hans Christian Andersen book) for director Joe Wright. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
KELLY MARCEL: Yeah, it was a nightmare! It was really difficult. I was really lucky. When Alison [Owen], the British producer, came to me, there was a pre-existing script by an Australian writer, called Sue Smith, who had written this huge story about P.L. Travers and her son, who was an alcoholic, as well, and all kinds of things. But in it, there was really fascinating information about her childhood, and all that kind of stuff. So, I was really lucky that I didn’t have to start my research from scratch. The documentary (The Shadow of Mary Poppins) pre-existed, and there was a book called Poppins She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson. So, having all of those things did make the daunting task a little less daunting. But, throwing in Marry Poppins songs was just absolutely nuts, especially as we didn’t develop it at the studio. We were like, “Yeah, let’s just steal this Disney intellectual property and throw it in our script!”
Did you ever think about the fact that, if Disney didn’t like it, there was no way it could get made by any other studio?
MARCEL: You know, I didn’t think about it while I was writing it. I don’t know why. I was just completely naive and stupid. I was like, “This is really great fun! I’m going to put all this stuff in!” It was only at the end of that process, when it was written and Alison and I were talking about it, that we went, “Shit! Oh, no! This probably isn’t going to get made.” So, I thought it was a really beautiful sample and I loved it. I felt that it would be great, if they made it, but I was also really proud of it. It was an incredible thing when they said, “We’re going to buy it, and we’re going to make it,” and I was like, “No way!”
Did you know that the script was being given to Disney, and were you waiting to hear back about what they thought of it?
MARCEL: Yeah! They were very, very quick. We had a lot of attention because the script had landed on The Black List. The Black List was a very, very important part of this process for us because it brought it to the attention of everybody in town. It was at that point that Tendo [Nagenda], who is our exec on the film, found it and was like, “What’s this script that’s got Walt Disney in it and Mary Poppins?” He read it overnight and he was a real champion for us. He then took it to the higher up people at Disney, and apparently was just banging on their doors saying, “You have to read this. You have to make it.” And Sean Bailey was just fantastic. He’s a writer himself, and he’s very creative and artistic. He jumped on it, immediately. Those guys just pushed it up, very quickly, through the ranks. So, I think we had an answer within a week. It could have been months. It could have been awful, and just torture. But, everyone moved on it very quickly. I think we were shooting by the end of that year. It really happened unbelievably quickly.
MARCEL: That was the best part! We all got to go on the rides afterwards. It was brilliant! That was an amazing two days.
What was it like to see this cast bringing your words to life? Was it totally surreal to see Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks in these roles?
MARCEL: It was totally surreal. Just utterly bonkers! I knew they were going after those people, but when they said yes, I nearly passed out. I was like, “You’re joking! My god!” But, they’re all amazing collaborators, those actors, and beautiful people. By day two, you’re like, “Oh, it’s just jolly old Tom, and jolly old Emma. Off we go to work. We’re all going to sit and talk about the script, the characters and the research.” We all, very quickly, became a family on this one. We were all just really good mates who love hanging out with each other.
What has this last year been like for you, with Saving Mr. Banks, 50 Shades of Grey and The Little Mermaid? Is it just a crazy whirlwind?
MARCEL: It is, but it’s also been incredibly busy, so you don’t have time to stop and think about it. John Lee [Hancock] is a massive collaborator, so he likes to have the writer on set every day, which is never the case. That was an extraordinary, gorgeous experience. He had me in prep and post, as well. That was six months, and then I went straight into 50 Shades. Then, I went straight into The Little Mermaid, and straight into the next one. So, I haven’t stopped since before Banks because I went to help out on Mad Max in Namibia. I literally went from Africa to today. I think I’ve had about three days off, in about two years.
Do you like keeping that kind of pace, or do you need a break?
MARCEL: No, I’m going to take a break. I really, really need to take a break. I’m going to take a break over Christmas and spend some time with my family, and then pick the pen up again in January. I think, if you keep working at that pace, your brain stops. It’s hard to stay creative and keep the flow going. So, it’s definitely time for a break.
Does it help that the projects you’re working on seem to be so different from each other?
MARCEL: Yeah. I don’t want to get pigeonholed, and I want to try my hand at anything that excites me. I’m not just going to be a Disney writer. As much as I love Saving Mr. Banks, there’s things that I want to write that are darker than that, and there are probably things that I want to write that are lighter than that. I’d love to do a kids film. I’d love to do a horror film. There’s all sorts of genres that I’d love to explore. I don’t think I’d do sci-fi again. I didn’t really enjoy that.
Maybe you’d feel better about sci-fi, if it were a project you could have a little more control over?
MARCEL: Well, yeah. With Terra Nova, it was my choice to leave.
But, didn’t you leave because it went in a different direction than what you had originally intended for it?
MARCEL: Yes, I did. And that’s not to say that what they turned it into wasn’t the way it should have gone. I totally understand why they made the decisions they made. You just never know. It’s a good lesson to know when you’re done on something. There’s a tendency to stick in there and try to see it all the way through to the end. I’m learning, particularly this year, when you’re done, you’re done, and you go.
Was it difficult to trust your instinct with Terra Nova, and make that decision to walk away from the show?
MARCEL: I really surprised myself by walking away. I think, if you’d asked me the question before, I would have said, “No, it’s my baby. It’s my show. I’m gonna stick with it until the end.” I was really surprised, on the day that I decided to leave. But I was like, “I don’t know how to write this. I don’t actually know how to write what these people want. So, what’s best for the show, at this point, is that I leave. And what’s best for me is that I leave.” There’s no point in me trying to write something that I know I can’t. It would have been rubbish. It would have been absolutely terrible. So, that was a really good lesson for me, and I do stick by that now, as well. I know when I’m done, and I know when I can’t take it any further, so I’ll go. That’s quite liberating, actually. With Banks, I would never have left. Not for all the tea in China. I would have fought John Lee to the ground, if he would have said, “We need to change this, this, this and this.” I was incredibly lucky, in that he didn’t change anything and neither did the studio. There are some that you protect with your heart and soul, and there are some where you go, “Take it.”
MARCEL: Yeah! Sometimes it’s really, really, really hard, and sometimes it’s really easy. With John Lee, I knew within five minutes of meeting him that he and I had the same vision and we both were thinking the same things. This was the person you give your child to. This was the person who was going to be the best babysitter in the world. And then, there are other directors where you just go, “Oh, god help us all! This is going to be bad. They’re not thinking, at all, the same way that I’m thinking.” And there’s really nothing you can do about that. It’s not my choice, who directs my work. It’s the producers and the studio, and people like that. I can complain about it all I want, but unless I’m willing to step up and produce my stuff, or open a production company, or take a lot deal, or whatever, then I really don’t have an argument. Or unless I start directing myself, and I don’t want to ‘cause I don’t like getting up early and I don’t like responsibility. So, I’m gonna have to hand it over. Until I decide that I can set my alarm clock earlier, I can’t really have a complaint about it.
Did you feel like the tables were turned a bit then, when you did 50 Shades of Grey, where you have an author who is alive and can give feedback? Did the fact that E.L. James had to hand her book over to you, give you a new sympathy for the directors you’ve had to hand your scripts over to?
MARCEL: God, yeah! It was terrifying for Erika to hand that book over. That is her child. Christian and Ana are her babies.
Does it add a whole new layer to things when the author of the book you’re turning into a script is very active on social media?
MARCEL: It does! It’s exciting and great. She compares herself to P.L. Travers, all the time. She’s like, “I’m P.L. Travers!” But, I get it. It does give you a whole new sympathy for the people who create these things. It was really interesting to do 50 Shades after Saving Mr. Banks, having just done a story about an author who has to hand their book over. I think Erika and I got on because of that. I had just spent a year in the head of a woman who had that struggle, so I really understood that struggle. I think that made us firm friends. She’s great! She’s a great lady. And she’s not like P.L. Travers.
Is it weird to take on projects with so much attention, where there is that social media scrutiny, or can you tune all of that out?
MARCEL: You know what? It’s really fascinating to have it play out in real time. Normally, nobody knows the script is being written. They just hear about it when the film comes out. But, these massive fans are having to sit there and wait for years. It’s very difficult to make people understand that it doesn’t all happen in three months. It takes time to build a script, and then it takes time to cast a film, and then it takes time to shoot the film and edit the film. It’s interesting to hear their thoughts on that. It was also very interesting to hear their thoughts on casting because those characters exist in their heads. I do think the social media thing is really fascinating, but it doesn’t daunt me. I like it, in a weird way. It’s helpful, with something like that. I don’t think with Saving Mr. Banks that it would have been particularly helpful. But with 50 Shades, it was really helpful to see what people want and see if you can give it to them.
MARCEL: I just finished a draft, and I think there will be another one, in the New Year. We’re just shutting down over Christmas, and everyone is taking a little break.
Is a project like that daunting, or is there less pressure because it goes back to the Hans Christian Andersen book and not the Disney film?
MARCEL: Yeah, there’s a real template there. We’re doing the Hans Christian Andersen version, so it’s all there. It does feel less daunting. And also, it’s a rewrite. It’s Abi Morgan’s script, and she’s done an amazing job. It’s there. She’s a beautiful writer. When you do a rewrite, it’s really about serving the director’s vision, and what the director needs to go into that script. Luckily, I don’t have to make those awful decisions. Joe [Wright] does.
People don’t realize how many different writers movies filter through sometimes.
MARCEL: Many. There are two on 50 Shades, right now. That’s why Banks is so special. You never have one writer, all the way through to the end, and I wonder if that will ever happen again, in my career. It’s a very strange thing, coming from England where the writer is so respected and revered. To hear, “Get a new one,” you’re just like, “What?! Oh, my god!” And I think that has to change. Good films are made my authors and people with visions, and it has to be the writer and the director. It’s those people. You can’t just start changing things. So, I feel like Banks is what it is because no changes were made. It’s very important that we get back to that.
Saving Mr. Banks is now playing in theaters.