Like "Mary Poppins," "Saving Mr. Banks" seems deceptively simple on the surface. But dig deeper, and the story resonates as a brilliant memory piece for Emma Thompson's P.L. Travers, slipping back and forth from her painful childhood in Australia in 1906 to cooperating and subverting the adaptation of her beloved novel with Walt Disney in 1961. And that was the creative hook for director John Lee Hancock and his fellow filmmakers, including production designer Michael Corenblith, cinematographer John Schwartzman and costume designer Daniel Orlandi.
"We had two individuals that had not only recreated themselves but had also created these characters [Mickey Mouse and Mary Poppins] that turned into empires in some ways, so there were so many beautiful parallels between their two stories," explains Corenblith. "But it wasn't clear to me that I was going to have to bring a new level in contemplating these two periods and these two worlds for Travers until I got to the part of [Kelly Marcel's] script with the 'Fidelity Fiduciary Bank' song.
"There's this remarkable moment when the Sherman brothers are composing and pitching to Travers in 1961 and then we cross this story back over and Colin Farrell [as Travers' father] turns to the camera and begins singing those words. Although they are separate, in her mind, time becomes permeable and malleable. It was in this process that we began to develop the idea of instances and icons and visual representations from one to the other and crossing over."
Indeed, this epiphany was like a jolt from Dennis Potter's "Pennies from Heaven" or "The Singing Detective." Palm trees and burnt grass, maypoles and carousels bring forth the past into the present in a rush of confusion, excitement, and melancholy for the conflicted Travers. And that's where research and serendipity came into play for the filmmakers.
"We began in Maryborough, Australia, a Victorian coastal town that was vertical and had palm trees, and ended with palm trees in Beverly Hills," recalls Corenblith. "And we came across a newspaper article about the agricultural show [depicted] in 1906 in Allora and we learned that among the carnival attractions was a maypole, which had the same conical roof form as King Arthur's Carousel at Disneyland. It's no coincidence that we open and close the film with a weather vane where the wind changes direction from west to east and the icon atop that is a horse. This allowed us to create a tapestry of threads running through different periods of time."