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'Saving Mr. Banks' Producer Owen Says Film Industry Should Embrace the Internet in Keynote for BFI London Film Fest

Photo of Matt Mueller By Matt Mueller | Thompson on Hollywood October 18, 2013 at 2:09PM

“It’s about bloody time!” said Clare Stewart, the BFI London Film Festival’s Artistic Director, in her introduction to the first woman to give the festival’s annual industry keynote address, the fourth. British producer Alison Owen focused her 40-minute talk at the Curzon Soho Cinema on "The Power Of The Story" and exhorted the film industry not to be afraid of the internet, but rather embrace its potential because “the internet is a container, not a substance.”
Saving Mr. Banks

On movies versus religion

“It's only in periods like the relatively economically stable and war-free ‘70s that movies about 'important' and philosophical topics with ambiguous endings can proliferate. You might point to Shakespearian tragedies which played to housefuls of people living in poverty -- but you'll notice that even when bad things happen to good men, it's because they had a fatal flaw. It makes sense in an ordered universe. And that's what a lot of stories and movies do -- attempt to make sense and order out of what is essentially a random and chaotic world. Isn't that what religion does, even? Aren't they the best and most powerful stories of all? Who wouldn't want to believe in a lovely heaven where we're rewarded for all our good deeds, and the schmucks that fucked us over are downstairs burning in hell? What young guy doesn't want to believe in 99 virgins? They're all great stories, or they were in their time. To be honest I don't think they'd make it through a focus group in Forest Hills today. Some guy would stick his hand up and say, ‘I just lost it when that dude fed all the people with the loaves and the fishes...just not believable, love.’”

On her personal connection to her own movies

“I have made a career telling the stories of extraordinary women. Because, well, someone’s got to. Occasionally people would come into my office and look at all the posters --'Elizabeth,' 'Jane Eyre,' 'Sylvia,' 'Temple Grandin,' and Tamara Drewe' -- and wonder aloud if I ever intended to make a film that didn't have a girl's name as its title.

But certainly I was making movies that reflected my own preoccupations at the time. I'm not a writer, or a director, so I don't claim authorship or ownership in the same way, but certainly I was drawn to material that explored the same themes that I was exploring in my own life. If stories help us to live and make sense of our lives, it follows that I chose to make movies that shed light on what I was going through at the time.

When I made 'Elizabeth,' I was a single mother trying to make my way with a career, and it certainly wasn't easy. Elizabeth's story spoke to me because I related to her struggle between what she wanted to do as a young woman, and what she had to do in her public life. It seems crazy to make a comparison between a 16th century queen and a film producer in her thirties, but it had a resonance for me, and for many other young women at the time.

When I made 'Sylvia,' I was struggling with a broken relationship, and I was drawn to the story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, who loved each other so much but couldn't make it work between them. That intense love that burns itself out had such an attraction for me, and I wanted to explore it more fully. "The Other Boleyn Girl' deals with sibling rivalry, and so on. 

When it came to my latest movie, 'Saving Mr. Banks,' I thought I was making it because of my kids. Myself and my children are pretty much word perfect on 'Let's Go Fly a Kite' or 'Jolly Holiday,' as anyone who'd been on a long car journey with us with attest, and I knew they'd love the idea of an origin story of 'Mary Poppins.'

But as we developed the story, I remembered Hannah Minghella telling me how Amy Pascal always used it as a trick question for prospective interviewees or writers -- asking them who 'Mary Poppins' was about. And the answer, of course, is not Julie Andrews, or Bert, or the children -- but Mr. Banks. 

And it was at that point that I realized I was making this for my dad. It was no coincidence that as I began to develop the film more, I also started to re-examine my relationship with my father and it, too, began to change.  My dad and i had always had a good relationship, but had never been super close, and as he was getting older, and the threat of losing him was closer, I had unconsciously chosen a movie to look at this, and put things right before it was too late. I'm very glad I did. My father became very ill just as we went into pre production on the movie. I wrote to him by email every day, as the themes of fathers and daughters played out in front of me, telling him what was going on, remembering incidents from my childhood, nostalgic family moments, and my mum and sister read them out to him. And while we were filming the young Pamela Travers gazing at her father with adoration, I was suddenly struck with the need to jump on a plane to go back to him. He died in my arms six hours after I arrived back, and we had never been closer. I was able to put my head on his shoulder and tell him i loved him, and he squeezed me and said 'you're a good kid, Ali,' and died in my arms. 

That wouldn't have happened without 'Mr. Banks,' and for that I'm truly grateful.”

This article is related to: BFI London Film Festival, Festivals, Saving Mr. Banks

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.