Written By January 2014 : Page 28

WRITTEN BY LOUISE FARR P arenting P oppins AUSTRALIA’S SUE SMITH RECALLS HER EARLY DRAFTS OF SAVING MR. BANKS. W hen Australian screenwriter Sue Smith set about re-creating the childhood of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, she experimented with an exercise that she doesn’t normally use. “I was trying to create something that is very evocative in a child’s world,” Smith says, by phone, from her home in Sydney. “So I sat down one day and wrote a long list of visceral memories of my own childhood, particular to Aus-tralia, because the life is so different from anywhere else.” She conjured up moments of youthful discovery: birdsongs, in-sects, and memories of the sky, cloudless in some parts of the country: “The way the heat kind of throbs here, and the way that in the full heat of a summer’s day, there are no shadows. There’s nowhere to hide. There’s a sense of, ‘This light could kill me.’” She also thought about how she used to tiptoe into her parents’ en suite bathroom in the family house. “Only my father ever used it,” Smith recalls. “So it was this room that was particularly a man’s room. It had his particular talcum powder, and his particular shaving equipment, and the par-ticular crackle of the air that is a man’s air. Sometimes I would just wander in there and see his footprints in the talcum powder on the floor. When I think back, it was me wanting to be in the presence of my father. And I know that in trying to create this relationship between P.L. Travers the child and her father, Travers Goff, I drew on that. What I wrote into it, and that I didn’t know, of course, was that that bathroom was where her father hid his stashes of alcohol— which my father didn’t.” Much-respected in her native country, Smith was an obvi-ous choice when Australian producer Ian Collie began think-ing seriously about a feature film based on Travers’ life. “She’s a beautiful writer, who is so good at getting at emotion,” says Collie of Smith, whose biographical drama, Mabo, about an Aboriginal man’s legal struggle over land rights, won her a 2012 Australian Writers Guild AWGIE trophy for best origi-nal TV movie. Last year, the AWG also awarded Smith its prestigious Hector Crawford award (named after the Australian pro-ducer) for her contribution to the craft, particularly her men-toring of young writers. And her 2007 trade union–themed television series, Bastard Boys, won her a Best Screenplay in Television award from the Australian Film Institute, an hon-or she has won in other years. “The things that I like the most are things that are very, very specifically Australian,” explains Smith. The idea for the feature had been brewing in Collie’s head since he produced the 2002 documentary, The Shadow of Mary Poppins, based on Valerie Lawson’s exhaustive biogra-.L. Travers. He phy, Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P had chanced upon it, browsing his local bookstore, and been surprised to learn that Travers, commonly believed to be Eng-lish, was actually born in Australia. One Step at a Time In her book, Lawson delved deeply into the sad childhood that led indirectly to Travers’ series of six Poppins books. Born 28 • WG A W WRITTEN BY J ANU AR Y 20 14

Two Writers Save Mr. Banks

Louise Farr And David Gritten

AUSTRALIA’S SUE SMITH RECALLS HER EARLY DRAFTS OF SAVING MR. BANKS.<br /> <br /> When Australian screenwriter Sue Smith set about recreating the childhood of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, she experimented with an exercise that she doesn’t normally use.<br /> <br /> “I was trying to create something that is very evocative in a child’s world,” Smith says, by phone, from her home in Sydney. “So I sat down one day and wrote a long list of visceral memories of my own childhood, particular to Australia, because the life is so different from anywhere else.” She conjured up moments of youthful discovery: birdsongs, insects, and memories of the sky, cloudless in some parts of the country: “The way the heat kind of throbs here, and the way that in the full heat of a summer’s day, there are no shadows. There’s nowhere to hide. There’s a sense of, ‘This light could kill me.’” <br /> <br /> She also thought about how she used to tiptoe into her parents’ en suite bathroom in the family house. “Only my father ever used it,” Smith recalls. “So it was this room that Was particularly a man’s room. It had his particular talcum powder, and his particular shaving equipment, and the particular crackle of the air that is a man’s air. Sometimes I would just wander in there and see his footprints in the talcum powder on the floor. When I think back, it was me wanting to be in the presence of my father. And I know that in trying to create this relationship between P.L. Travers the child and her father, Travers Goff, I drew on that. What I wrote into it, and that I didn’t know, of course, was that that bathroom was where her father hid his stashes of alcohol— which my father didn’t.” <br /> <br /> Much-respected in her native country, Smith was an obvious choice when Australian producer Ian Collie began thinking seriously about a feature film based on Travers’ life. “She’s a beautiful writer, who is so good at getting at emotion,” says Collie of Smith, whose biographical drama, Mabo, about an Aboriginal man’s legal struggle over land rights, won her a 2012 Australian Writers Guild AWGIE trophy for best original TV movie.<br /> <br /> Last year, the AWG also awarded Smith its prestigious Hector Crawford award (named after the Australian producer) for her contribution to the craft, particularly her mentoring of young writers. And her 2007 trade union–themed television series, Bastard Boys, won her a Best Screenplay in Television award from the Australian Film Institute, an honor she has won in other years. “The things that I like the most are things that are very, very specifically Australian,” explains Smith.<br /> <br /> The idea for the feature had been brewing in Collie’s head since he produced the 2002 documentary, The Shadow of Mary Poppins, based on Valerie Lawson’s exhaustive biography, Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers. He had chanced upon it, browsing his local bookstore, and been surprised to learn that Travers, commonly believed to be English, was actually born in Australia.<br /> <br /> One Step at a Time <br /> <br /> In her book, Lawson delved deeply into the sad childhood that led indirectly to Travers’ series of six Poppins books. Born Helen Lyndon Goff, Travers was only seven when her bank manager father, Travers Goff, died, physically ravaged by alcohol and emotionally undone by his demotion to a clerk’s position. Ultimately, Lawson painted a portrait of Travers—a young journalist who assumed the name Pamela, took her father’s first name for her surname, and moved to London—as a complex and brilliant but unhappy woman whose life was spent seeking answers through mysticism and a series of father figures.<br /> <br /> With Collie’s documentary completed and successful, it was in late 2005 when he approached Smith. She jumped at writing the feature. Development began in earnest with an outline from Smith and financial backing from the government’s then Australian Film Commission (now merged into Screen Australia). It continued with a partnership between Collie’s company and British producer Alison Owen’s Ruby Films (Elizabeth, Sylvia, Jane Eyre, Tamara Drewe, Temple Grandin). Additional funding came from the BBC and other sources.<br /> <br /> “I suppose the thing that I loved, apart from this kind of fascinating and troubled woman, was the notion of a child who is unable to save the father she most loves because she’s a child,” says Smith. “But in a way, later in life, she redeems him through art, through imagination, or a series of works of imagination. That formed the basis of my starting point in telling the story, using her struggle with Walt Disney and Pamela’s possessiveness Of the Poppins character, and the books, as the rather larger framework.” <br /> <br /> Smith wrote two initial drafts, first watching Collie’s documentary and reading Lawson’s book, then spending several weeks researching Travers’ life through the writer’s collection of papers that reside in the state library of New South Wales. She pored over Travers’ adult journal articles and letters written to her from her father when the little girl was sent away periodically to live with her great-aunt Ellie, elements of whose personality and appearance turned up so many years later in the acerbic character of the stern and magical nanny Poppins.<br /> <br /> “It was a trove. I had a bit of a ball with that,” says Smith, who is sipping from a cup of tea as she chats. “It’s hugely exciting because what it means is you’re getting firsthand research rather than secondhand that’s been processed by someone else, another biographer or another filmmaker. You can put your own interpretation on material. And also you just find tiny nuggets of things that matter to a dramatist that might not matter to someone else. Pamela chasing a chicken in the backyard, things like that. And the way her father expressed himself in his letters and the language he used to describe the dreaded Aunt Ellie— that you wouldn’t know unless you had access to that information.” <br /> <br /> In the writings of Travers Goff, Smith felt she’d found in him “the very faint sense of a person who believes they are at the mercy of life, or at the mercy of fate, rather than in control of their lives.”<br /> <br /> Recently, when she saw the film, impressed as Smith was by the production as a whole, and by Tom Hanks as Disney, and Emma Thompson as Travers, she was particularly moved by Colin Farrell’s performance as Goff. “That character, in a way, is the beating heart of the story,” she says. But making his character work had been a challenge for her. “It would be easy to dismiss him as a rather contemptible failure,” she says. “In many ways he was that, but in many ways he inspired the talent and the yearning and the dreaming that created the artist that Pamela became.” <br /> <br /> Collie and Smith never expected to obtain the cooperation of the Disney studio. Remembers Collie, “We always tried to not have too much of the character of Walt Disney in there in case it became problematic later on.” He and Smith Agreed to exercise restraint too when it came to Smith dramatizing the Disney copyright material; it grew in importance to become the centerpiece of the film, shifting its balance when Owen and Kelly Marcel came on the scene and Disney sanctioned the project.<br /> <br /> “It became pretty obvious to everyone that in order to finance the film, and to create roles that would be attractive enough to big stars, the adult Pamela needed to have more story material and Walt Disney needed to have more story material,” says Smith, who wrote two drafts with Owen before Marcel took over.<br /> <br /> Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious <br /> <br /> But she and Collie always envisioned the existing two-part narrative that cuts between Travers’ childhood, and Travers in the writers’ room at Disney. There Travers obstructed screenwriter Don DaGradi and the composing team of Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman. The Sherman brothers created the movie’s maddeningly ear-worm inducing songs “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” (Travers had lobbied unsuccessfully for it to be “Let’s Go and Fly a Kite,” in the English, rather than the American, vernacular.)<br /> <br /> Some of the most amusing scenes in Saving Mr. Banks happen in that writers’ room. An out-of-her-element Travers desperately attempts to protect her Poppins from Disney syrup and tries clinging to her idealized vision of the Poppins books’ banker father, Mr. Banks. The major problem, as Smith sees it, is that the Poppins books were little more than vignettes: “There’s no larger story shape. So what the Disney team had to do was create a larger story to make the piece work, and there’s not a whole lot of sense that Pamela understood that was necessary.” <br /> <br /> A Disney DVD collection that includes tape recordings of the writing sessions helped Smith. “Pamela so doesn’t know about screenplays, doesn’t know about screen language, and considers that she has the right to throw her weight around,” says Smith. “The recordings are hilarious. They’re represented in the film and were very funny on the page. She probably felt she was being spoken to in a foreign language in that room. It must have been scary for her, and she handled scary by being obstreperous.”<br /> <br /> In the final film, Smith’s story room scenes have been greatly expanded, and Marcel wrote additional scenes. “So it kind of shifted quite a long way while retaining the original thesis that, in the end, Pamela is trying to protect Poppins because she is trying to protect her father and save him,” says Smith. Having listened to the recordings, she believes that Travers’ arguing pushed DaGradi into a different approach to Mr. Banks’ resolution and redemption. “So she did, in her own way—by so ferociously fighting to protect her characTers—make Mary Poppins a better film. And then the better film made her very rich.” <br /> <br /> Conflicts of Interest<br /> <br /> There are many other differences between her drafts and the final Mr. Banks movie, says Smith, including the major shift in balance between little Helen Goff’s life in Australia and Travers’ adventure in Hollywood. Also, various Smith versions included references to Travers’ son, Camillus, adopted as a baby and separated from his twin brother, then told that his father was dead. At 17, Camillus accidentally met his twin and learned the truth about his mother’s deception. “That did terrible damage to their relationship,” says Smith, who saw Camillus’ role in the story as reflecting Travers’ intense need to nurture that became funneled, via the character of Mary Poppins, into the books. “Camillus was completely removed from subsequent drafts and from the film, and it was the right call,” she says. “Absolutely the right call. In a way, it’s a shame that the material couldn’t be explored, but I always had trouble wrangling it, and there’s only so many things you can do in one film.”<br /> <br /> You would anticipate that watching Saving Mr. Banks would be gratifying in one sense for Smith, but bothersome in the sense of sending work off and seeing it on the screen in a different form—not unlike what happened to Travers, who elbowed her way, uninvited, into the 1964 Grauman’s Chinese Theater premiere of Mary Poppins, then wept as she sat in the audience. Smith, who has nothing but praise for Kelly Marcel, says that is absolutely not the case for her. First of all, she moved her emotional connection to other projects she’s been writing in the meantime: a libretto for the opera Rembrandt’s Wife and an adaptation of Frank Moorhouse’s Edith Trilogy, an award-winning fictional account of a young Australian woman who works for the League of Nations.<br /> <br /> Besides, the ending of Mr. Banks is how Smith imagined it would be. “That major catharsis that Pamela has is still there and is writ large,” she says. “I wanted the audience to feel the grief of the lost father. That grief never goes away, and it informs a lost life.” <br /> <br /> Seeing the film, she says, is like visiting a child who has grown up and gone into the world. “It’s grown up to the extent that I never thought it would be a Disney film with Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. I’m a bit overwhelmed, really, by the size of it.” She pauses for a moment, then adds, “When you’ve worked in a small writing community, and a small market, the whole scale of Hollywood is a bit gobsmacking.”<br /> <br /> Getting to Disney<br /> <br /> During her keynote address at this year’s London Film Festival, producer Alison Owen posed a rhetorical question of her audience: “Why do we need storytelling so much? It is important because it helps us explain our lives. It helps us ask questions, and it helps us find the answers. Story is an art form, just like music or painting. But whereas music or painting is much more to do with reflecting emotion, providing resonance with human feelings or the encapsulation of a philosophical idea, story is about explaining our very existence.”<br /> <br /> Saving Mr. Banks is, of course, all about storytelling. And Owen, whose London-based, multiaward- winning Ruby Films has produced numerous femalecentric projects, seemed like a natural to team with Australian documentary producer Ian Collie once he realized that a more experienced partner was necessary to get a feature off the ground about Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers.<br /> <br /> “When I read it,” says Owen about early drafts of the Sue Smith script, “it was clear to me that the story that was trying to get out was the story of Walt and Pamela, so we undertook to find that story within the material.” <br /> <br /> Owen had been looking for a project for writer Kelly Marcel. She began further developing the script with her—without Disney, since she anticipated a ceaseand- desist order should they take the idea to the studio at that stage. “We couldn’t go anywhere else because nobody would develop A script that was full of Disney intellectual copyright. It was sort of a Catch-22 situation.” Owen plunged in with her own money, then took the project to the BBC, which contributed further funding.<br /> <br /> Australia’s Hopscotch independent production company was also involved, and Owen and Marcel found themselves listening to numerous voices. “We said, ‘You know what? We’re not going to listen to anybody else. We know what film we want to make, and we’re going to put as much Disney material in it as we need to.’” Owen says her favorite part of producing is collaborating with writers, staying hands-off when necessary. “If Disney says we can’t make the movie, we’re not going to make the movie,” Owen told Marcel, “but let’s try and make the best movie we can rather than dance around the intellectual copyright issues.”<br /> <br /> According to Owen, Marcel’s first draft “knocked it out of the park,” showing that “there was a good film there waiting to be told, and one that was worth taking a risk for.” <br /> <br /> In a couple more drafts, they fine-tuned the script and then presented it to Disney. “It was nail-biting even after they said they liked it,” says Owen, who worried that Disney might buy the project only to shelve it. “But they were smart enough to see that this would be a good thing for Disney for Walt to be seen as a fallible human being and a humanizing face of Disney, rather than a sanitized corporate face.” —LF<br /> <br /> The major problem, as Sue Smith sees it, is that the Poppins books were little more than vignettes: “There’s no larger story shape. So what the Disney team had to do was create a larger story to make the piece work, and there’s not a whole lot of sense that Pamela understood that was necessary.”<br />

Previous Page  Next Page


Publication List
Using a screen reader? Click Here