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Craft Talking 'Saving Mr. Banks': Bridging 1961 Los Angeles with 1906 Australia through Cinematography, Production Design and Costumes

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 11, 2013 at 2:20PM

Like "Mary Poppins," "Saving Mr. Banks" seems deceptively simple on the surface. But once you dig deeper, 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.
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Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks
Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks

For the sequence in which Tom Hanks' Disney entices Travers onto his wife's favorite carousel horse, Jingles, the production designer was given permission to remove the exact horse from the ride and restore the existing colors from 1961 at his art department workshop.

When it came to recreating Disney's office, Corenblith lucked out with the Disney exhibit at the Reagan Library and used the unique archival experience to his advantage, allowing the viewer to glimpse the breadth of his imagination and curiosity. 

However, the rehearsal room in the Animation building where the crucial pitching, writing, and composing occur is an amalgamation of activities that took place in smaller rooms. But the art department cunningly created a room with sufficient size and scope with windows on three sides and placing it strategically on the top floor, where a parapet wall was constructed to mask a pretend set of clear story windows.

Saving Mr. Banks

"We created a threshold for her to cross over from the hard linoleum to the warm wooden floor for a dance while the Shermans play 'Let's Go Fly a Kite,'" explains Corenblith. "We also painted the room in a similar tone to the color of burnt grass that we found in Australia in 1906. Again, a small psychological cue that took her back to childhood memories."

For cinematographer Schwartzman, the older brother of Jason Schwartzman, who plays legendary Disney songwriter Richard Sherman, his task was to make Travers feel like a fish-out-of water. Whenever she was in LA, it was as though the sunlight was trying to trap her, whether it was hitting the window sills or skipping off the floor. 

"I kept her out of the hard light but kept it around her as much as possible like a force field making her uncomfortable," Schwartzman remarks. "And when we were in London, I kept the light very soft. When she was in the hotel room, the sheers on the window were just to the point of almost blowing out. I had sunlight ripping across Walt's office. It's his world. It's nice seeing him go from a filmmaker to a mogul and having to go back to an artist again to have that meeting of minds with her. It's a subtle, beautiful thing."

Schwartzman took full advantage of Sherman's expertise, inviting him to sit beside him while shooting scenes in the rehearsal room. "Some days he'd be really angry and other days he had tears streaming down his face. The verisimilitude of the moment brought him back. And in part, this movie is a love letter to Richard and deservedly so. 

Saving Mr. Banks

"My favorite scene to light was when Richard is upstairs at night and his brother Robert's asleep and Walt comes in. We've only seen the room during the day and it's high-key lighting and the light's bouncing around. And it was nice to create this intimacy. It was also nice to work with my younger brother and watch him do a scene with Tom Hanks. I may have had a little extra sauce on that day."

Schwartzman is a film guy and therefore shot on anamorphic film, and there were many cheats for budgetary and scheduling reasons (they shot Australia in Simi Valley). But he acknowledges that the film never would've been made were it not for Kelly Marcel's exquisite script. He also has high praise for the effortless performances of Thompson and Hanks. "You don't see the smoke and wheels turning. My only worry was putting the camera in the right place. Because that's the punctuation that I do."

For Orlandi, his responsibility was telling the truth with the costumes. They wanted 1906 Australia to seem dusty and faded like Travers' memories, and they wanted the contrast in sunny LA with her British tweeds in comparison to the Disney secretaries with their pale colors and short sleeves.

"We went over various swatches with Emma but we had to be careful because she's such an attractive woman," Orlandi cautions. "We changed the evening gown slightly that she wore to the 'Mary Poppins' premiere by giving her a little sleeve because the spaghetti strap dress made her look hot."

With Hanks, it was much simpler -- Disney always wore gray suits to the office like a uniform and never took off his jacket, according to Sherman. "But we added little touches like a train tie clip because Disney was a train enthusiast."

But dressing 800 extras for the Disneyland sequence for a two-day shoot was a marvel for Orlandi. "People dressed more formally back in 1961. Men wore ties and jackets and kids dressed up because they were going someplace special."

This article is related to: Saving Mr. Banks, Immersed In Movies, Interviews , Thompson on Hollywood, Awards Season Roundup


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