Every writer who sits down and begins a screenplay thinks they know why they're doing it. Knowing why is essential to the process. But sometimes — maybe all of the time— we're fooling ourselves. We don't truly understand why we've written something until long after we're done.
From the moment Alison Owen, our British producer, came to me with a preexisting script of P.L. Travers' story (by Sue Smith) and shared her ideas for how it could become the movie that's in theaters as we speak, I was enthralled.
"Mary Poppins" was a Christmas Day staple in my household as a child. My siblings and I mouthed its dialogue and sang along to the lyrics with full-throated (and tone deaf) abandon. After my meeting with Alison, I threw myself into research and was moved and taken with the revelation that this beautiful character, with talking umbrella and daisy-decorated hat, was born from so much pain. Perhaps more revealing was the way Poppins' author, in turn, had heaped pain upon others too.
I plastered my office (shed) with pictures of the people who would come to be the major characters in the film, and so began what would turn out to be a three-year journey from script to screen.
When you write the story of someone's life, you're not actually writing the story of their life. It's not possible or desirable. Movies aren't term papers; they are windows into a special experience that one person had — an experience that holds universal relevance for us all. In the case of Pamela Travers, she had many such experiences.
She had affairs with women. She went to Ireland to adopt a set of twins, returned to England with only one and concealed the existence of her son's brother from him for years. She was an actress and was friends with William Butler Yeats. She was a deeply spiritual woman in a way that was entirely nontraditional for her time. She studied Buddhism and the teachings of George Gurdjieff. So much of her life was colorful and challenging and fascinating, but we chose simply to tell the story of two weeks she spent in Los Angeles in 1961.
Perhaps at first, I believed it was the most immediately interesting story. Mary Poppins is P.L.'s masterpiece. Her struggle with Walt Disney is obviously dramatic. To understand their battle of wills does not require a reading of Armenian mystics or the intricacies of early 20th century adoption policies.
As I wrote, however, it became quickly clear to me that "Saving Mr. Banks" is not about movies or creativity or Mary Poppins or Walt Disney or penguins.
It is a story about the pain of a little girl who suffered, and the grown woman who allowed herself to let go. I became protective of her, so viscerally so that it was difficult for me to let her go. Retrospectively, I needn't have been concerned in the least. Disney embraced the project with all its stolen property and its smoking, drinking Walt Disney.
That, however, was not their most important gift.
Our director, John Lee Hancock, seemed to be blown in on the east wind.
There is no one quite like John Lee; he is a great American artist in the vein of Clint Eastwood or Frank Capra. He is so adept at making one feel something without it ever feeling manipulative. He does not allow his ego to color a piece. Rather, he draws out what it's meant to be. With "Banks," there was always a fear that the film would be overly sentimental, but John pulled us back from the edge every time.
John and I continued to shape the screenplay and film until the final shot of the final day. I know that no other filmmaking experience will ever be quite the same. John had me there every day on set from crew call until wrap, just as he had been for Clint Eastwood on his beautiful film "A Perfect World." I will always be in debt to John for his generosity — not only to me but for the character of P.L. Travers, whom I came to love so deeply.
Every single person in the cast and crew owned this film in their respective ways, and each of us takes away our own lesson. For some, it's learning to forgive our parents or to use art to heal ourselves. For others, it's just to remember to take five minutes in the day and have a little sing-along to music that makes us happy.
But for me, the most important lesson came just a few days ago.
A woman came up to me at the end of a screening. She cried as she told me her father was an alcoholic. She said seeing "Saving Mr. Banks" had made her feel less alone. We talked for a time and then shared a hug.
If we can touch one person, give them a moment's respite, then that's reason enough to pick up the pen again.
And, as it turns out, it's why I picked up the pen up in the first place.