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Interview - Producer Ian Collie On Saving Mr Banks

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.

Matt's Top & Bottom 10 Films Of 2013


For the 18th time, I’ve put together my annual top 10 and bottom 10 films of the year!  You can check out all my previous lists by clicking here.  I went through the list on 612ABC Brisbane a week or so ago and we took a few calls from listeners.  You can listen to the podcast here.

I saw a total of 201 movies in 2013 (excluding unreleased stuff from film festivals) so let's quickly get the junk out of the way…


Worst 10 Films Of 2013

They tried to be truly awful but films that were just outside my worst 10 list included Dead Man Down, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Olympus Has Fallen, The Family, A Good Day To Die Hard, One Chance, The Host, Pain & Gain, The Paperboy and Hyde Park On Hudson.

10. After Earth (Jun 13) is set 1,000 years into the future and follows a father & son team who are trying to be rescued after their space craft crashes. This is bland stuff. 14-year-old Jaden Smith lacks charisma as the "hero" and there are far too many moments of convenience contained within the storyline.

9. The Big Wedding (Apr 29) is about a long-divorced couple who have to pretend to be married to appease their adopted son's biological mother (a devout Catholic) at his wedding. This film doesn't work. It plays it way too safe given the farcical premise. It needed more laughs and more interesting characters (ala The Birdcage).

8. I'm So Excited
(Sep 19) is a bizarre Spanish comedy that revolves around a group of attendants and passengers on a very strange flight. I'm a huge fan of director Pedro Almodóvar but this is an awful film that can't generate a single decent laugh.

7. G.I. Joe: Retaliation
(Mar 28) is dumb stuff. You'd think they'd lost a few reels of the film given some of the gaps in the storyline. The villains are poorly defined, the heroes have no charisma and there's very little humour to be found. Reminded me of last year's Battleship - you laugh AT the film as opposed to WITH the film.

6. The Internship
(Jun 13) will suck the life out of you. It's a 2-hour advertisement for Google that revolves around two middle-aged morons who apply for an internship and then start impressing people with their team spirit. The IT jokes are dumb, the crude humour doesn't fit and every element of the story feels false.

5. Fly Me To The Moon (Oct 31) is as bad as romantic comedies get. A French woman tries to seduce and marry a nerdish guy with the intent of divorcing him immediately. Why? Because she wants to rid herself of a family curse (where every first marriage ends in failure) before marrying her "dream" guy. It's pretty hard to feel sympathy (which the film wants) for such a nasty character.

4. Movie 43 (Feb 7) isn't the worst film of all time (as described by some critics) but it's still pretty bad. The skits are dull, strange, tedious and the punch lines fall flat. How they coerced so many Hollywood stars to appear is a mystery to me.

3. Scary Movie 5
(Apr 12) proves that you don't need talent or a script to get a movie made in Hollywood. There's hope for me yet.

2. I Give It A Year
(Feb 28) is an English rom-com that tries to win laughs by being offensive. A shame there's no wit or charm to go with it. I hated every single character (no exceptions) and would rather drink bleach than watch it again.

1. Grown Ups 2
(Sep 26) is the worst thing since time began. There is no plot, no message. It is offensively awful.


Top 10 Films Of 2013

It’s always tricky coming up with a final top 10 list year.  Honourable mentions go to Much Ado About Nothing, Lincoln, Anna Karenina, West Of Memphis, No, Captain Phillips, The Rocket, Pacific Rim, About Time and Blancanieves.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite squeeze them into my list.

But here are my top 10 in reverse order…

Django Unchained

10. Django Unchained (Jan 24) begins in Texas 1858 and follows two bounty hunters who are very good at what they do. A wildly amusing ride from Quentin Tarantino. The conversational pieces are superbly written and you won't find many films with a better collective group of performances.


The Heat

9. The Heat (Jul 11) takes a standard, unoriginal story and transforms it into a riotous, offensive buddy comedy thanks to the performances of Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock and a terrific supporting cast. I laughed a lot and this was one the best comedies of the year.


Stories We Tell

8. Stories We Tell (Sep 26) is a wonderful documentary from 34-year-old Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz) that follows her efforts to locate her biological father. This is a film that builds intrigue and offers a few surprises. Just when you think you know where it’s heading and what it’s emphasising… the film unexpectedly changes direction. It’s so beautifully done.


First Position

7. First Position (Apr 11) is an amazing ballet documentary that reduced me to tears. It follows a series of kids as they navigate their way to the final of the Youth America Grand Prix in New York. Director Bess Kargman picked a great group of people to follow and you’ll feel the tension as the camera zooms in on the faces of the dancers, coaches & parents.


Philomena

6. Philomena (Dec 26) is the story of an elderly woman who, with the help of a journalist, tries to track down the son who she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier.  There are some interesting plot developments and it explores some interesting themes (headlined by forgiveness).  An emotional film with two terrific performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.


The Hunt

5. The Hunt (May 6) is a Danish film about a teacher from a small town who is falsely accused of sexual assault by a misguided young girl. This is a riveting, depressing, amazing piece of cinema. You'll feel swamped by a sense of hopelessness as the tragedy unfolds.


Gravity

4. Gravity (Oct 3) stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts who become stranded in space. Forget the over-the-top stuff we normally see in action films. This film shows how to extract maximum tension from a minimalist story. The use of music is superb and Alfonso Cuarón’s direction will leave you in awe (and also wondering how he did it).


Blue Jasmine

3. Blue Jasmine (Sep 12) is an engrossing black comedy about the wife of a multi-millionaire who goes from "riches to rags" after her husband is convicted of fraud. Jasmine is a fascinating character and writer-director Woody Allen is careful not to judge her. Cate Blanchett is superb in what may be her most memorable performance!


Zero Dark Thirty

2. Zero Dark Thirty (Jan 31) recounts the events that led to the capture of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. We all know this story ends but this is still gripping and action-packed. Jennifer Chastain is brilliant as a CIA agent who spends 10 years of her life trying to hunt him down. The film explores so much about life within the CIA.


Life Of Pi

1. Life Of Pi (Jan 1) is the story about a boy stranded in the middle of the ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Well, that's what you'll think it's about. I've seen this film twice and I still can't shake the thought-provoking ending. It's a stunning directorial effort from Ang Lee who has brought this tricky novel to life.


Interview - Director Adam McKay On Anchorman 2

Adam McKay

Anchorman 2 recent premiered in Sydney and I caught up with director Adam McKay to chat about it. You can download a short audio extract from the interview by clicking here and my review of Anchorman 2 can be found here.

Matt:  The original film seems to have developed a cult following since its release back in 2004.  Were there always plans for a sequel?

Adam:  We actually never did plan for one.  We moved on and made a bunch of other movies but we kept hearing fans say “where’s number 2?” and so it definitely put the idea in our head.

Matt:  Where did the idea of the character first come from?

Adam:  Will and I were looking to write another script together.  We had written one that we couldn’t get made and we figured we’re try another one.  Farrell had seen an interview with an anchor man from Philadelphia named Mort Crim who was talking about working with the first female anchor and how guys back then were so misogynistic.  It made us laugh to hear this anchor man with this authoritative voice talking about being a bit of a brat.  That was it.  The more we thought about it and that bygone era of news, when there were only a couple of TV channels, seemed really interesting to us.

Matt:  You’ve worked a lot over the years with Will Ferrell – not just on Anchorman but with films like Talladega Night and Step Brothers.  When did you guys first meet?

Adam:  We were both hired at Saturday Night Live on the same day.  We were all part of the same group.  I was hired as a writer and he was hired as cast.  Through the years we became friends and we’d occasionally write sketches together.  Out of that, we started writing movies together.

Matt:  I always think comedy is the hardest genre to perfect because we all have a different sense of humour and it’s pretty hard to come up with enough material to keep people laughing for two hours.  How much time goes into writing a script like Anchorman 2?

Adam:  You are constantly re-writing it.  That’s the trick.  You’re absolutely right in that you’re looking for specific comedy yet comedy that is universal enough for people to laugh at.  The first draft takes 2-3 months but it’s very messy.  From then on, we’re constantly re-writing.  All told, by the time we’re shooting, we’re working on the script for about 8-9 months.

Matt:  I’ve seen Will Ferrell pop up at live awards shows like the Oscars and the Golden Globes and I’m always amazed how he can stay in character so well when everyone around him is laughing.  Is he like that on set?  How does he do it?

Adam:  Yeah, he has pretty good dead pan but he will break on occasion.  We got him about 3 or 4 times during this movie.  Steve Carell is a tough one.  I think we only got him once on this. 

Matt:  Some of the conversations in this film are pretty random and I’m immediately thinking of the stuff between Kristen Wiig and Steve Carell.  Is there a lot of improvisation going on? 

Adam:  Oh absolutely.  We improvised so much that you could probably cut a 40 minute version of that scene.  There was tonnes of improv going on.  We knew we wanted the scene to have a “Waiting For Godot” kind of quality to it and once you’re that free and that open, you can just keep coming up with lines.  It was incredibly hard to cut it down to what it is.

Matt:  It’s nice to see an Aussie amongst your cast – Josh Lawson.  He hasn’t done a lot of work in Hollywood as yet so how did he come across your radar?

Adam:  We met Josh through a movie we worked on called The Campaign.  I worked on the script but I didn’t direct it.  He was cast in that and everyone spoke so highly of him.  We then had him do the read through for the first time we read the Anchorman 2 script out loud and he was so funny.  We weren’t going to cast him initially.  We looked at other people and I kept saying “Josh Lawson is better” and then finally we said “the heck with it, let’s cast him.”

Matt:  There are a LOT of cameos in this film.  How many strings did you have to pull to get them all involved?  I’m guessing many of them would have been working on other projects?

Adam:  It was definitely a little tricky.  The timing and the travel was the toughest part.  One of our producers, Kevin Messick, who is originally from Australia, was quite good at pulling it all together.  It also helped that people really do like the first movie.  Some actors were very excited to come.  Kanye West said “hell yeah” right away when I emailed him.   

Matt:  Now you often make a cameo in your own films but I couldn’t spot you here.  Did I miss you?

Adam:  You know, I’m just a voice over in this one.  I’m the announcer at the beginning of the Sea World scene.  This was such a tricky movie and it was so busy with so many moving parts, that I could never quite get myself on screen.

Matt:  What’s the experience like having now made the film and watching it in cinemas with packed audiences?  Are there scenes you think got more laughs / less laughs than you thought?  Or do they generally act as you might expect?

Adam:  They always react differently but it’s within the sphere of the same.  Certain scenes always play well but it was interesting last night to see certain scenes getting way bigger laughs than I’d heard before.  For example, when all the guys in the news team got perms, it got an extra big laugh.  It’s the most enjoyable part of doing this – when the movie is done and getting to see audience’s responses.  I never get tired of it.

Matt:  There’s clearly a lot of love out there for Ron Burgundy.  Do you think there’s hope for further sequels going forward?

Adam:  I’ll be curious.  Everyone is really exciting about this one but I want to wait until it’s been out for a couple of months and see how it ferments.  We’re certainly not going to rush it.  We’re not going to jamming a third one on people before we know how this one sits.  I liked the way this one came about because it was people asking for it as opposed to “let’s go make some money and quickly do a sequel”.  I want to keep that spirit with a third one if it ever eventuates.

Matt:  So what’s the plan from here?  What films are you looking to work on next?

Adam:  I have a couple of projects floating around.  We have one with Will and Kevin Hart that we’re putting together.  I wouldn’t direct it but it’s based on an idea I had.  Then I have another one with Will Smith called Uptown Saturday Night where we’re re-writing the script at the moment.  That could be a really fun one.  Denzel Washington might also be involved.  There’s another idea with Sacha Baron Cohen that we’ve been kicking around for a while so you never know.  I always like to have 3 or 4 projects out there and see which one sticks. 

Interview - One Chance With Director David Frankel

I wasn’t a big fan of One Chance (review is here) but I can remember advice given to me by a cinema owner long ago – “no matter how much you don’t like a film, there is always going to be someone out there who does like it.”  The film has pulled in $1.2m in its first 2 weeks at the Australian box-office so it clearly has its supporters.  I therefore thought it was an opportune time to chat to director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) and get his perspective…

Matt:  Where did the idea come from of taking this 2007 reality show contestant and turning it into a movie?

David:  I fell in love with Paul Potts when I saw a clip from the show on Youtube.  I was deeply moved from watching a 2 minute clip.  It never occurred to me that it’d be a movie until about a year later when I got the screenplay that had been developed at Paramount Studios.  It turns out that the Youtube clip was just the very end of the story and that Paul’s journey up until that point was compelling and romantic and funny.  It deserved the big screen treatment.

Matt:  How does the copyright work on a story like this?  Who owns it?  Is it the company behind Britain’s Got Talent?  Do you have to get their permission to be able to make a movie like this?

David:  Yeah.  We had to get the rights from Paul Potts himself and also the rights from Freemantle Television who produce Britain’s Got Talent.  We also had to get the participation of Simon Cowell.  There were a lot of people involved but it all came together last year.

Matt:  Do you know Paul has thought of the film?  I realise you have to a little poetic licence and condense it into a 2 hour running time.  Is he happy with the representation?

David:  Yes, I think he’s very pleased with how the movie turned out.  Of course, it’s surreal to see your life on the big screen but one thing that he was most gratified about is the fact it’s a comedy and that there are so many good laughs in the movie.  His life that has been a roller coaster of challenges, illnesses, accidents and twists of fate… and to be able to look back and laugh is something that he’s thrilled to be able to convey through the movie.

Matt:  You’ve gone with James Corden in the leading role who certainly has similar physical characteristics to the real Paul Potts but I notice you’ve used the real Paul’s voice instead of James’s during the signing sequences.  What was behind that decision?

David:  Yeah.  James is a brilliant comedic actor and a talented dramatic actor and I couldn’t imagine more perfect casting to play Paul.  However, signing opera is a very special skill that takes years, if not decades, of training.  James gave it a shot.  Last summer he took some opera lessons and realised pretty quickly that while he had a beautiful singing voice, he couldn’t train to the point of being able to perform some of these demanding arias.

Matt:  So was that the hope when you started out?  You wanted to find an actor who could do the signing themselves during the movie?

David:  Actually, my goal was to do what we did – to have Paul do all the signing.  I thought that would be a treat for the audience – “You’ve seen the Youtube video where he sings 2 minutes of Nessun Dorma but guess what?  You get to hear a lot more during the movie.”  It was James who wanted to give it a shot to help round out his performance.  I think it took a lot of skill to make it look like he was performing opera and so I salute every effort that he made.

Matt:  With the finale, I notice that you’ve interwoven footage of James Corden on stage with the real reaction shots of the audience and the judges, including Simon Cowell.  Can you talk us through your creative decision to blend reality and fiction there together?

David:  I thought those reactions were so special.  The shock and amazement when they saw this pudgy man with bad teeth bring the house down by signing opera.  The reactions were so priceless from Simon and Amanda and Piers that I didn’t want to risk trying to duplicate them.  It was a technical challenge trying to include the original shots but I hope we pulled it off.

Matt:  The world premiere of your film was at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival back in September.  What was that like?  Given the largely North American audience, did a lot of people already know the story of Paul Potts?

David:  In contrast to screening it in the UK, where a lot of people are familiar with Paul, we found that most people weren’t familiar with him at Toronto.  When they saw James Corden, I had some say that they thought they were watching the real Paul Potts until they got home and clicked on Youtube.

That made the experience as satisfying as anything as we were able to bring the story new and fresh to audiences who don’t know anything about it and aren’t necessarily opera fans.  They can come to the movie and laugh a lot and also find themselves tearing up because they’re so moved.

Matt:  You’ve been pretty busy of late because Hope Springs came out last year and now you have One Chance this year.  What have you got in the works?  What productions are we going to see from you next?

David:  I’m hoping to do another movie with Harvey Weinstein.  He’s a great collaborator, a remarkable man and someone who is so important to the movie business worldwide.  He has a great eye for storytelling and for talent.  It’s been a great collaboration this past year and I’m hoping to repeat it.