ScreenCrave recently sat down with screenwriter Kelly Marcel to talk about Saving Mr. Banks. It’s the film that retells the story of how Walt Disney acquired the rights to Mary Poppins. Marcel shared her insight on what may have transpired, and how her personal connection to her own father drove this interpretation.
How were you approached about this project and what inspired you to take it on?
Kelly Marcel: Alice and Owen inspired me to come to this project. She’s the British producer and she came to me with the script. It had been written a while back by an Australian writer named Sue Smith. She had come across the script and it was about P. L. Travers and her life and it was really, really great and fascinating but mainly focused on her relationship with her alcoholic son. So her as an adut and him as an adult and that’s not the story she wanted to tell. She really much more wanted to make it more short, Walt and Poppins, what happened behind the scenes. She asked me to re-imagine it and l said ‘Yes, please!’ So that’s how I came on board.
Were you attached to Walt Disney’s lore or the story of Poppins?
Kelly Marcel: I had a connection to Mary Poppins. It was my family’s favorite film, we watched it every Christmas. It’s my favorite childhood film. It’s like the soundtrack to my being little. I had a real connection to that. Obviously when she [Alice] told me the story, I was ‘You’ve got to be joking.’ I couldn’t believe that went on behind the scenes! It’s mad. It’s fantastic. If you look into it further, its brilliant.
How did you go about being faithful to the voices and personalities of Disney and Travers?
Kelly Marcel: There is actually not a lot out there about Pamela. She was difficult to research. There is one book about her that’s brilliant by Valerie Lawson called Poppins She Wrote, which was my P.L. bible. Her voice, obviously there are all these tapes that went on in the rooms but I didn’t have access to them when I wrote the script. I only had access to them much, much later. Her voice really came from my head and is the Same in the film as it was in that very first draft. Walt, there’s loads of research about him but so many different and conflicting stories about him and about who he is. So again, he was who I decided he was and be true to that character. Then when I met Richard Sherman, that was just completely invaluable and that was everything to me because he had been in the room, be spent his whole life with Walt. He could do impressions of Walt. He could walk like Walt, talk like Walt. He was so helpful both to me and Tom Hanks who was having to portray this guy. So a lot of changes happened once Richard Sherman came on board because we could make it much more historically accurate. He knows exactly what happened, what was in the room. ‘Walt said this, he didn’t say that.’
The film brings up the struggle artists have with sharing their work and accepting that everyone has a different interpretation of the tale they love. Do you think the inability to see beyond her personal vision informed Pamela’s attitude towards Disney and what he was inspired to do?
Kelly Marcel: It is really hard you know, they become your children. So it’s just you and them. The writer is the person who spends the longest with a project, whether that’s a book or a screenplay. I can’t talk about novelists because I haven’t written a novel but I can tell you that in terms of Saving Mr. Banks it was just me in a shed in the bottom of my garden in England for months and months with these characters and they’re mine. It’s my script. That’s a kind of wonderful place to be in when it doesn’t belong to anyone else and its just yours and you’re free to do whatever you want with it. Then more and more people come and start to take little pieces of your baby, which they should. Tom has to come and take Walt and own him, Emma has to take Pamela and own her. Every time you’re letting go. Then John Lee comes on and there is my whole child and I have to trust you with it. It’s painful to give these things up and trust that people are going to do the right thing by your imagination. Pamela had a very specific reason that Poppins was a deeply, deeply, personal thing for her and we all have our relationships with our people. My relationship with my dad very much influences how I wrote that film and influences how hard it was to give up for me. Not in any way as hard as it was for Pamela but she struggled. She couldn’t let go of her father all her life. So her freedom and her catharsis was writing and trying to save him through her writing and to give that up? To this American? Because you don’t have money and because you’re gonna lose your house. That’s hard, really, really, hard for a creator like her but I think we all struggle. I don’t think she’s unusual in that. I think that it hurts all of us.
Is the scene where Travers finally grants Disney rights to Poppins true to what really transpired?
Kelly Marcel: We know there was a conversation and he convinced her to give him the rights. What happened in that conversation? No one will ever know because it was a private conversation between he and Pamela. So I had to decide how I felt she gave him the rights and actually it came very late in the writing of the script for me. I couldn’t figure it out. I was like ‘What can it be?’ and I was reading this book and a lot of biographies don’t deal with Disney’s childhood because not much is known about it. I found this book talking about his dad and the paper route and the snow and how he really had quite a harsh childhood. I was like ‘Oh my god, They’re the same person!’ Of course they are, they had the same childhood. Walt very famously has his father’s name on main street on a shop and that had always sort of stuck with me and I knew it had to be something to do with his father. I’m not gonna make up a story about his dad and so to find that was gold. That was it. That was the key to unlocking the entire film for me. [It] was that they were the same. And that’s why they were so immovable and it was so hard for them because he was the key and she has Poppins and they know how hard it is and they both have these fathers. So that came really late in the film and is a fictionalized decision by me about how he got the rights.
It’s interesting they both shared these difficult childhoods and both coped with it in their own ways as adults.
Kelly Marcel: I think all of these amazing people, these icons in history were broken somehow. You don’t get to be Walt Disney without having something driving you – hard. He had had this situation with his father and didn’t want to break a promise to his kids. He promised them, he shouldn’t have but he did. It’s as simple as that. He wanted to be the antithesis of his own dad, he wanted to be a good father. And I think ultimately Pam wanted him to be a good father and that’s probably why she gave him the rights.
Okay, so now you’re done with Mr. Banks, what’s next for you?
Kelly Marcel: Yes, this one I bled. I just finished adapting Fifty Shades of Grey and doing a live-action Little Mermaid with Joe Wright. It’s from the Hans Christan Anderson very original versions. Away from Disney but I wish it was with Disney because they are actually really lovely beautiful people to work for. I’m obsessed with Muppets so I keep begging them ‘Please can I write The Muppets! I want to write The Muppets’ and they’re like ‘Really? That’s what you want to do next?’
Lastly, since the film centers on what father’s impress upon their children, any specific nods to your dad?
Kelly Marcel: There are little things in the film that my dad used to say to me like when Colin takes the family out and they’re walking and he says ‘Come on, walking bus!’ That’s something from my dad. And when he called ‘Ginty, my old pal,’ that’s what my dad calls me. So my dad when I was sitting next to him (watching the movie), I see him get emotional in the seat and he’s not a crier and he just didn’t know any of that was in there. It was beautiful.
Saving Mr. Banks opens in limited theaters December 13 and wide December 20.