RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Before the movie "Mary Poppins," a classic for many children, there were the beloved books about a nanny who swept in on an East wind to care for the Banks children at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London. Mary Poppins arrived with a parrot-headed umbrella and a carpet bag. In the books, this nanny was nothing like the bright, cheery Julie Andrews of the movie. Mary Poppins was chilly and a bit severe; resembling, in fact, the woman who dreamt her up, author P.L. Travers.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And there lies the story behind the new movie "Saving Mr. Banks." So desperately did Walt Disney want to make "Mary Poppins" that he pursued Travers for years.
MONTAGNE: She feared the Disney-fication of her character.
GREENE: But finally, in 1961, Walt Disney lured the author from London to Southern California, hoping she would sign off on a script. Here, Disney songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman try out a new song for Travers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAVING MR. BANKS")
B.J. NOVAK, JASON SCHWARTZMAN: (As Robert and Richard Sherman) (Singing) Here we go! Room here for everyone, gather around. Possible's responstible. Now, how does that sound?
EMMA THOMPSON: (As P.L. Travers) No, no, no, no, no, no, no. no. Responstible is not a word.
JASON SCHWARTZMAN: (As Richard Sherman) We made it up.
THOMPSON: Well, un-make it up.
MONTAGNE: That's Emma Thompson as Pamela Travers, a woman who, as a girl, could have benefited from a magical nanny.
THOMPSON: She had a very difficult upbringing, in the sense that her father was an alcoholic and her mother tried to commit suicide. So her childhood was full of earthquakes and tremors, you know; full of uprootings, both physical and emotional.
MONTAGNE: Emma Thompson's partner on screen is Tom Hanks, as Walt Disney. We sat down in an old bungalow at the same studios in Burbank where Travers and Disney first met. At the time, Disney was running a movie, theme park and television empire that touched the young Tom Hanks.
And Tom Hanks, I'm curious. Was part of your childhood "Sunday Evening With Disney"?
TOM HANKS: Oh, my Lord.
MONTAGNE: What was the name of the show at the time?
HANKS: At the time that it really mattered, it was "Walt Disney's Wonderful World Of Color." I remember where I was. My parents had taken me to some friends of theirs - I'd never met them before. There were no other kids in the house. And I was relegated to the downstairs rec room. And I had, at my disposal on a Sunday night, a color television, and saw for the first time Tinkerbell come out and go dink, dink, dink with those fireworks.
And it was blue and red. I could not believe it. And then what kicked in? A song by Richard and Robert Sherman. (Singing) The world is a carousel of color, wonderful, wonderful color. And so...
THOMPSON: Around this time, I was being brought up by a man who was writing a children's program, in which he used phrases like "hoist with your own petard." So he'd have just been so pissed off by Walt Disney and Tinkerbell, my father.
MONTAGNE: It sounds like you would understand P.L. Travers' abhorrence of the idea that Walt Disney would play with her character.
THOMPSON: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I did understand. If you read the books and then look at the film, you can see precisely why she objected. I mean, one of the gags about Mary Poppins was that she wasn't pretty but thought that she was, and behaved as if she was; whereas Julie Andrews, of course, was exquisite.
MONTAGNE: It's sort of this massive clash of characters. Tell us about when the two of your characters met.
THOMPSON: This man, who was expecting her to be delighted.
HANKS: Yeah. Here you are. Lucky you. You're meeting Walt Disney today.
THOMPSON: I think he probably felt that finally, when he got her on his turf - i.e., here to these studios; it is extraordinary to think that she walked down that lane over there that we're sitting right next to - that then this man, who could literally just charm the birds from the trees, just could not crack her. In fact, the more he tried to charm her, the more she resisted.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAVING MR. BANKS")
HANKS: (As Walt Disney) Well, here you are, at last. Oh, my dear gal. You can't imagine how excited I am to finally meet you. P.L. Travers, right here in my office after all these years - almost 20 of them?
THOMPSON: (As P.L. Travers) Hmm - yes.
HANKS: Now, here you are, and look at you. I could just eat you up.
THOMPSON: That wouldn't be appropriate.
MONTAGNE: So distrustful was P.L. Travers of Walt Disney that she demanded a tape recorder to document the meetings with Disney staffers. The result: hours of tedious back-and-forths over the "Mary Poppins" script, though for Emma Thompson the actress, there's an upside.
THOMPSON: Oh, sure. The tapes were hugely influential and helpful because you can hear the distress in her voice. It comes out very - (clears throat ) - no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. There's this noise in her, like this, no, don't do that - until you want to kill her. It's fantastically irritating. And you can hear the psychological tension. It's all written into the voice, as it were.
MONTAGNE: So what kinds of things was she objecting to?
THOMPSON: She objected to everything. She did absolutely insist, at one point, that there should be no red in the film, which is an insane stipulation to make. She was deeply irrational, from time to time.
MONTAGNE: It's a bit understandable. She was trying to protect Mary Poppins. This was a deeply felt character for her.
THOMPSON: She was - had to make her own living, and the Mary Poppins books were not selling as well as they had; and she was in danger of losing her house in London. She needed the money. It's not very romantic, but that's what I like about it.
HANKS: The end result was still the movie that Disney wanted to make. Whatever went down at the end of the day was something that was - you surrendered. (Laughter) I mean, you know, Pamela Travers gave up, at some point, and just cashed the check, you know.
THOMPSON: Yes, she did. Yeah.
MONTAGNE: There was such a mismatch, in so many ways, and yet Walt Disney really did love this story.
HANKS: Oh, yeah. Particularly up to this point, Walt Disney did not put out anything that did not have his absolute imprimatur and affection. This might have been the last time it really had his fingerprints all over it. So this was, you know, a mission of love.
MONTAGNE: Given that you are each playing characters who cared a lot about who they were, did you ever wonder what they would think of your performance?
THOMPSON: She would have liked the clothes, and I think she would have liked the attention, and the fact that the movie was sort of about her. (Laughter) She was quite self-important, really, probably more so than Walt because, simply, she had less power.
HANKS: I think Walt would have said, boy, I wish I would have had days like that at the studio. And in fact, I said to John Lee Hancock, our director: Can I be doing something in this scene where she walks in? Because what we should have had is five people in the room with me, eating food and smoking cigarettes, pointing at stuff and trying to figure out storyboards and payoff schedules and construction permits. And I think he would say hey, you don't seem to be working very hard there as Walt Disney.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you both very much.
HANKS: Thank you.
THOMPSON: You're very welcome.
MONTAGNE: Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks star in the new Disney movie, "Saving Mr. Banks."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHIM CHIM CHER-EE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.