Hanks on ’Banks’ :: Oscar-winner Takes on Walt Disney
15 years ago, Tom Hanks made "Saving Private Ryan"; this month "Saving Mr. Banks" hits theaters; but, despite the similarity with titles, his latest movie is a far cry from that acclaimed war film. "Saving Mr. Banks" tells the story of Walt Disney’s behind-the-scenes struggle to turn P.L. Travers’ novel "Mary Poppins" into a movie musical. That it was turned into one of Disney’s most successful and acclaimed films is history; but it wasn’t an easy journey, largely because of the cantankerous Travers, who opposed the notion of both a movie musical and animation. (In the film, Travers is played by Emma Thompson, who has been getting her share of nominations for her performance this award season.)
The title, by the way, refers to the head-of-the-household of the family that Travers’ magical nanny chooses to work for; but at a recent press conference, journalists couldn’t resist to address the similarity to the earlier title with Hanks. He’s a funny guy, both in movie comedies and in real life, so we thought that he’d probably be amused if we asked him what the third "Saving" movie would be.
"I like to think of it as a trilogy," Hanks joked. "There’s got to be some era of history that we can explore. It seems to be moving forward. I’d like to play ’Saving John De Lorean.’ I have no idea. John De Lorean invented the car, never mind... I’ve got nothing... I did my best."
In the film Hanks plays Disney, who by that time (1961) was one of the most recognizable celebrities in America, largely due to the popularity of the television series -- "The Wonderful World of Disney" -- that he hosted on Sunday nights. To prepare for the role, Hanks spoke to people who knew Disney at the time, including songwriter Richard Sherman, who is a character in the film played by Jason Schwartzman.
"There’s a lot of anecdotal information that kept coming to us," Hanks said. "Richard Sherman was a never-ending, literally never-ending fountain of stories, of facts, of anecdotes, of bits and pieces of everything that had happened."
Hanks also spoke to one of Disney’s daughters, Diana Disney Miller, for whom the mogul was determined to make the film for. "She gave me unlimited access to the archives and the museum in San Francisco. I made a couple of visits there so I had a lot of video and audio that I could work with. There is a vocal cadence and rhythm that Mr. Disney had that took a while to figure out."
Hanks’ real job, though, was to figure out how Disney behaved in private.
"There’s a true sense that he believed everything that he said about his projects," Hanks said. "He completely embraced the possibilities of wonder in the movies that he was going to make, as well as the rides he was going to come up with, the things that he was going to do, and I had a great roadmap in order to search it out. A lot of the little anecdotes we found, specifically from the likes of Richard Sherman were already in the screenplay. For example, Walt’s cough -- Walt smoked three packs a day and Richard Sherman said you always knew when Walt was coming to visit your office because you could hear him coughing from down by the elevator. So you were able to put that kind of stuff into it -- it just ends up being one of the delightful cards in the deck."
Getting that mustache right
Both Hanks and Disney may be two of the most recognized men in the world, with Hanks starring in some of the biggest blockbusters of the last 30 years, and Disney being the face of family entertainment. But how could Hanks morph into Disney?
"Well, we had the most discussed, photographed, analyzed, diagrammed, tested mustache on the planet," Hanks said. "I think actually the documents went to the United States government to discuss the angle of the shave, how much mustache was going to be there. I don’t look too much like him but there is a line, there is an angular figure you can get by the way the boxiness of the suits, and the playing around with various pieces of hair in order to get there."
In the film, Disney must convince Travers (Emma Thompson) to allow him to make the film; but there are two major obstacles: she doesn’t want her story musicalized, nor does she want any animation. Persuading her becomes the arc of the film, and discovering how he did so became Hank’s focus. The details Disney’s daughter shared helped him relate to a Disney who was used to getting everything he wanted.
"I had a little bit of luck in that Walt Disney at this time in his life was very much already Walt Disney," Hanks said. "He is the accomplished artist and industrialist that he was. The nature of the surprises that came down to the fact was that really coming from Diane about how just a regular dad this guy was. Disneyland itself came about because he used to spend every Saturday with his two daughters. After a while, here in L.A., he ran out of places that he could take his two daughters. There were pony rides over where the Beverly Center is now and there was the merry go round in Griffith Park, but after that, that was it. He was sitting eating peanuts on a park bench in Griffith Park and the girls were on the merry go round and he said, ’God, there really should be a place dads can take their daughters on a Saturday in L.A.’ And from that, Disneyland was born."
Going to Disneyland
A scene in "Saving Mr. Banks" takes place at Disneyland, when Disney brings Travers reluctantly to his theme park. On the day they filmed that scene, the Hanks family came along, including his grandchildren.
"I took them to Disneyland on the day that we shot in Disneyland," he said, relating an anecdote that had an ironic twist. "And as a grandparent, I thought my granddaughter would be delighted to take a ride on The Winnie the Pooh Adventure. It’s Winnie the Pooh; it’s fun; it’s Pooh Bear; it’s Kanga and Roo and Owl; it’s Christopher Robin; it’s going to be a blast. She’s going to remember this the rest of her life, her ride on Winnie the Pooh’s Great Adventure. But my granddaughter was terrified by the noise, the big spinning bears. She’ll now be haunted for the rest of her days by this first image of Winnie the Pooh in a loud, short, herky-jerky ride that her Grandfather forced her to do on the day he played Walt Disney in Disneyland. That is just a sample of the fantastic job I do as a grandparent, thank you."
Since the film only follows the year of pre-production on "Mary Poppins", it ends with Disney still a success. The real story of Disney had a tragic ending. "He was sadly a victim of the times," Hanks said. "He smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and he died of lung cancer. That’s just one of the grim realities of the way the world operated back then."
"Mary Poppins" is a beloved film to this day, though Travers resisted Disney long after the film was released. The story is indicative of the artistic process, where people with ideas constantly fight to protect their visions. Hanks, a director and producer, as well as an actor, can relate to that on a bigger scale.
"Everybody [involved with the film] is more or less a person who has tried to see a story brought to something. It starts in your head and you see possibilities for it. It’s just one damn thing after another. It seems like you’re always coming across somebody that just says, ’no, no, no, no, no, it’s not going to happen.’ Walt Disney, at this point, was pretty much used to getting his way because everybody loved him, and he’s the guy who invented Mickey Mouse. Listen, in the creative process, which is really what this movie is about, you come to loggerheads and you just have to keep the process moving forward, even if that requires jumping on a plane and flying to London and knocking on Hell in a Gasbag’s door. It’s just what the creative process requires sometimes. Good thing it’s fun, otherwise it’d be too much work."
"Saving Mr. Banks" goes into wide release on December 20.