John Lee Hancock, director of “Saving Mr. Banks,” is used to making movies about real people.
He adapted the screenplay for the nonfiction “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” made his directorial debut with the baseball biopic “The Rookie” and directed the Oscar-winning “The Blind Side.”
Nevertheless, he says, “Biopics are hard to do today. Back in the day, you could do, ‘He was born and here’s what happened.’ Now, even with someone as famous as Abraham Lincoln, you have to be very specific about a time in his life. You can’t do it all.”
Such was the case with “Saving Mr. Banks,” which started life as a “soup-to-nuts, birth-to-death” biography of “Mary Poppins” creator P.L. Travers. Several potential investors passed on the screenplay but expressed interest in “five pages in the middle when she goes to Los Angeles.”
The finished movie deals with Travers (Emma Thompson) over two weeks in 1961, long after her books have been published. Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) wishes to buy the movie rights from her. Out of money, the persnickety Travers reluctantly meets with him. She agrees to sell the rights, but only if she approves of the script.
Among her demands? No musical numbers, and no animation. Aside from seeing the 1964 Disney movie several times, Hancock knew nothing about P.L. Travers or her books before embarking on the film. “I went back and read the books, saw the differences and recognized some of the things she was trying to protect,” he says.
This is where the title comes in: “Mr. Banks” is to Travers something akin to “Citizen Kane’s” “Rosebud.”
Hancock says the project exists because it was finalized “outside the walls of Disney.”
“That’s saying nothing against Disney,” he explains. “It’s just I think they would have chipped away at stuff. It’s P.L. Travers’ story, and not Walt Disney’s.”
Perhaps even more remarkable than being a true story, “Saving Mr. Banks” is an honest-to-goodness adult drama.
“Studios don’t make adult dramas,” Hancock says. “They ask one question: Do 15-year-old boys want to see this movie? And if the answer is yes, it’s, ‘Here! Take $200 million!’ But if the answer is no, then they go, ‘How are we going to get this made?’”
He adds, “The good news is, this year, we’ve got an amazing slate of movies that are adult dramas. I hope every one of them succeeds and makes tons of money, because I hope to be employed in that business for a while.”