By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 12, 2012 at 2:21PM
Production on Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks," yet another behind-the-scenes Hollywood movie (see "Hitchcock," "The Girl," "My Week with Marilyn"), was well under way in Los Angeles last week when the news broke that scribe Kelly Marcel landed the coveted gig to adapt E.L. James erotic bestseller "Fifty Shades of Grey." This was not in Disney's marketing plan.
The studio acquired distribution rights from BBC Films, which financed the Ruby Films and Essential Films project based on Marcel's 2011 black list script. It makes sense that Disney would want to have some say in this movie about the studio's founder and an iconic property.
Everyone remembers the final result--a 1964 musical blockbuster that won five Oscars including best actress Julie Andrews-- of what was a long and fraught negotiation between Disney studio chief Walt Disney and bestselling children's author P.L. Travers. See original trailer below.
The reason for this backstage trend: films about well-known people allow risk-averse Hollywood to make pictures anchored by brand names they can sell to audiences. Thus Harvey Weinstein adds musical numbers with Marilyn Monroe to "My Week with Marilyn," the upcoming "Hitchcock" tells the how-it-got-made drama behind another 60s classic, "Psycho," and HBO's "The Girl" examines the celebrity director's relationship with Tippi Hedren on "The Birds."
Before he heads for Broadway, Tom Hanks is starring as another well-known Hollywood celebrity, studio head and weekly "Wonderful World of Disney" host Walt Disney (the first time he has been portrayed in a fiction film) while Brit actress/writer Emma Thompson plays prickly Australian "Mary Poppins" author Travers.
John Lee Hancock ("The Rookie," "The Blind Side") directs the script by Marcel and Sue Smith about Disney's decades-long quest to land the rights to Travers' 1934 children's classic--and then to make the movie his way. Before signing away the book's rights, Travers demanded contractual script and character control. She did not want animated sequences, for example, and the 60ish single woman traveled from London to Los Angeles in 1961 to wrangle with Disney. It's safe to say that only Disney would have put his own studio's resources at risk for such a long, difficult, innovative and risky project. It paid off--"Mary Poppins" ranks #25 on the all-time top grossers list when adjusted for inflation. But Travers didn't like it and refused to sell any more of the eight novel series to the studio.
The story flashes back to Travers' upbringing and complex relationship with her father, who inspired the role of the tormented banker Mr. Banks, who was played in "Mary Poppins" by David Tomlinson. In this film, Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson play Travers' turn-of-the-century parents in Queensland, Australia, while Rachel Griffiths is her aunt and Annie Buckley is the young Travers. Paul Giamatti takes on Travers' L.A. driver and Kathy Baker is Disney's trusted studio aide. Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak play Disney's in-house Oscar-winning songwriting team, Richard and Robert Sherman, while Bradley Whitford plays the screenwriter Don DaGradi.
Alison Owen of Ruby Films (“Elizabeth") is producing with Ian Collie of Essential Media (TV documentary "The Shadow of Mary Poppins") and Hancock collaborator Philip Steuer ("The Rookie," "The Chronicles of Narnia" trilogy). The film’s executive producers are Ruby Films’ Paul Trijbits ("Jane Eyre"), Hopscotch Features’ Andrew Mason ("The Matrix" trilogy) and Troy Lum ("Mao’s Last Dancer") and BBC Films’ Christine Langan ("The Queen").
Among the production's Los Angeles area locations are Disneyland Anaheim and Disney Studios Burbank. Shooting began September 19 and will wrap around Thanksgiving. No 2013 release date has been set.