Saving Mr Banks

Saving Mr Banks is a big budget movie about the making of a big budget movie.  I recently caught up with Australian producer Ian Collie to talk about the film and some questions I had about the real Pamela Travers…

Matt:  This is a story you’ve been involved with a long time.  You produced a documentary back in 2002 called The Shadow Of Mary Poppins and now here you are as a producer on Saving Mr Banks.  When did you first become interested in the story of Pamela Travers?

Ian:  It came about in 2000-2001.  I was showing my daughter Mary Poppins for the first time along with a number of other classic family films.  I remember being moved watching Mary Poppins again – particularly the part where Mr Banks reconciles with his kids.

Soon after, I came across a book that had just been published which was the first biography of Pamela Travers and written by Valerie Lawson.  From reading the back cover blurb I learned she was Australian and that some of her experiences growing up in rural Queensland helped shape some of the characters and storylines in Mary Poppins.  It was a curious footnote if nothing else.

That inspired me to read more and then as I was making the documentary, I thought in the back of my mind that this would make a really great feature film.  People love biopics and while many won’t know who Pamela Travers is, everyone knows about Mary Poppins

Matt:  You’ve been involved in a lot of Australian productions (and I’m a big fan of the television series Rake) but this is your first time acting a producer on a big Hollywood type movie.  Was it what you were expecting?

Ian:  It was actually my first feature film.  I think the Americans call it “hitting a home run”.  It’s been quite surreal to be honest.  When we started out, I partnered with Troy Lum from Hopscotch and then we brought in Alison Owen who is a well-known producer from Ruby Films in the UK.  She had produced films like Elizabeth and The Other Boleyn Girl – some wonderful female-centric films. 

We looked at it as an independent UK-Australian co-production and we did a number of drafts of the script with Sue Smith, a local writer here in Australia.  Perhaps naively we always thought this was going to be an independent film but as we went on, the bulk of the story seemed to be focused more on the Disney years as opposed to her childhood years which were now going to be told by way of flashback.  We felt that’s what people wanted – the nostalgia of Mary Poppins and the gossip behind the making of the film.

The problem was that we were now starting to deal with what was intellectual property of Disney.  The great man himself was becoming a bigger and bigger character.  There was the music of Mary Poppins from the Sherman brothers.  It was the elephant in the room.  If Disney didn’t licence us the rights to use some of this stuff then we’re probably sunk.

Matt:  Everything I’ve read suggests that P.L. Travers wasn’t a big fan of the cinematic version of Mary Poppins – despite its huge popularity and success.  The ending of this film is kind of ambiguous and perhaps suggests otherwise.  You’ve done a lot of research on Pamela so what do you think she made of the film?

Ian:  I don’t think from the way we portray it that she embraces the film fully.  You can see that she raises her eyes and that she scoffs at certain parts of it.  She loathes some of the music, the casting of Dick Van Dyke and the animation.

Publically, she went on record as saying that she didn’t like the film that much but there’s a difference between what she said publically and what she said privately.  Even in our documentary, The Shadow Of Mary Poppins, a number of her close friends said that she did like the film a lot more than she wanted to let on.  She was a contrarian.  She loved playing the curmudgeon… and she was also a snob.  She felt that Disney was low-brow.  She hung out with people like T.S. Eliot, Richard Yates and other literati and so she always made out that she was “above it”.

In one sense she was a pain in the bum but in another, you get to like her because she’s so defiant and so difficult.  People will see in the film that what drove her to be so protective about her books and I think it all comes through Emma Thompson’s wonderful performance.

Matt:  A nice touch in the film are the audio recordings we hear during the closing credits of the real Pamela Travers in the production meetings at Disney.  It’s an incredible find.  It’s got me thinking – how much of that material still exists from when Mary Poppins was made 50 years ago – whether it be the audio recordings, the original scripts, the storyboards and whatever?

Ian:  The storyboards and the scripts where she has her notes were all kept.  In terms of the audio, Disney never made them public before now because they were confidential recordings.  We should tell filmgoers that are thinking of going to see the movie that they should not leave before the credits have finished because there’s a wonderful add on that gives some veracity to the film. 

Matt:  The film doesn’t seem to offer an unequivocal reason why Pamela decided to give up the rights and give Disney the green light to proceed.  She was kind of driven by money, she was kind of buttered up by Disney, she kind of mellowed when she heard some of the catchy songs.  Have you spoken to people close to Pamela Travers?  Did she ever give a clear reason why she sold the rights?

Ian:  Not really.  I do think money was a key reason.  In the end, I think money is often a good motivator when licencing their intellectual property for others to use.  Walt Disney had been pursuing her for 20 years to get the rights because he’d made this promise to his own daughters who just loved the books.  Pamela kept refusing but in the end, her manager told her that the royalties from her books were drying up and that she’d have to give up her house and her maid.  She then decided to go along because she needed the money but only on the condition that she was involved as a story consultant in the room.  Of course, that’s where the fun really started.

Matt:  Now that Pamela Travers has passed on, who owns the rights to Mary Poppins?  Is there ever a chance we’ll see more of her books transformed into films?

Ian:  There’s a Cherry Tree Trust which has been set up that is administered by lawyers in London.  It still controls the rights.  Disney have the rights to some of the Mary Poppins books but Travers wouldn’t give up the rights to any others to be adapted after the release of the movie.  Once was enough.