Saving Mary Poppins

Saving Mary Poppins

The Blind Side director John Lee Hancock brings the tragic true story behind Mary Poppins to the screen with Saving Mr. Banks.

By Noela Hueso 12/06/2013

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Growing up in Texas City, Texas, John Lee Hancock was an avid reader: Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner were a few of his favorite scribes. Not on that list was P.L. Travers, the author of the acclaimed Mary Poppins books. Indeed, it wasn’t until years later that Hancock became acquainted with the story of the magical nanny who flies in to make things right for the Banks family — and that happened only when he saw the eponymous 1964 Disney film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.

But it wasn’t the Pasadena resident’s affinity for the movie that made him pursue his most recent directing assignment — Walt Disney Studios’ Saving Mr. Banks. “I remember liking certain parts of Poppins very much but it wasn’t going to make my top 10 list or anything,” he says. Rather, it was the story behind the story of Mary Poppins that piqued his interest and convinced him to make Banks, which opens Dec. 13.

As detailed in screenwriter Kelly Marcel’s script (adapted from Valerie Lawson’s book Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers), Banks depicts two weeks in 1961 when Walt Disney, in an attempt to keep a 20-year-old promise to his two daughters, pulled out all the stops to secure the movie rights for Mary Poppins from the cantankerous and uncompromising Travers, an Australian native who reinvented herself as a proper British doyenne, whose emotional ties to her books were deeper than anyone had imagined. “It was an amazing story that I didn’t know anything about,” says Hancock, 56. “I certainly wasn’t familiar with the tragic origin story [behind] the books.” The film takes audiences back to the author’s early years with her beloved but alcoholic father, who inspired the George Banks character — the patriarch who goes toe-to-toe with Mary Poppins.

Banks — which IndieWire calls “witty, well-crafted and well-performed” and Variety labels “an unapologetically retro valentine Disney himself might have made” — is Hancock’s follow-up to his wildly successful last film, 2009’s The Blind Side, which raked in $309.2 million worldwide and gave star Sandra Bullock her first Oscar. Industry expectations are already running high for leads Emma Thompson, who plays Travers, and Tom Hanks, who portrays Disney, as well as for the film itself. “I guess if you’re in the conversation that’s a good thing, because that means people will be more aware of the movie,” Hancock says of all the awards-season chatter. “I just want people to see it. We’re all very proud of it.” 

Hancock likes stories about people. If his track record is any indication, he particularly likes stories about real people. Like Banks, his last three films — The Blind Side, The Alamo (2004) and The Rookie (2002) — were based on true stories.

It’s often a challenge to get such adult dramas made by a big studio, Hancock says, citing his four-year quest to get The Blind Side to the big screen, though it was ultimately financed by Alcon Entertainment and distributed by Warner Bros. “Big tentpoles, [stories about] superheroes… those are the movies studios make money with,” Hancock says. “They very carefully choose when — and if  — they will do an adult drama. We’re very fortunate Saving Mr. Banks was done by Disney.”

Hancock has a longstanding relationship with Disney, having directed both The Rookie and The Alamo for the studio. He was recently brought in to rewrite some early scenes for Maleficent, the company’s upcoming live-action tale about the witch (played by Angelina Jolie) who terrorizes Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. That seems logical, considering that Hancock was one of the writers who penned the script for Universal’s Snow White and the Huntsman, but much was made in the press about Hancock’s involvement, particularly since he was on set while additional photography was shot. The stories intimated that the more experienced writer/director’s arrival meant first-time director Robert Stromberg was struggling, but Hancock insists it was much ado about nothing. “I was just a writer who wrote some scenes for them,” he says. “A lot of times when you’ve got these big tentpole movies, the writer is on the set. I went over and watched them film the scenes. It wasn’t true in the least that I was overseeing the director. It was embarrassing [that the press construed my involvement in that way].”

What isn’t embarrassing is the fact that Hancock fell in love with movies during his years at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he was an undergraduate English major and later attended law school (“We didn’t go to the movies a lot when I was a little kid,” he says). During that time he wrote short fiction, progressing to plays and screenplays a few years later, after he moved to Houston to practice law. “I just enjoyed the two mediums,” he says of his former hobby.

Hancock’s career path changed course when one of his scripts was accepted into a Sundance Institute satellite screenwriting program in Austin, Texas. The invigorating curriculum gave him the confidence to try making his living as a screenwriter. “So after practicing law for three years I loaded up the car and moved to California,” Hancock recalls, “and did the starving-to-death-for-three-years bit.”

Why the sudden about-face?

“I enjoyed practicing law, as jobs go, but I thought if there were some way to have a job that’s actually a hobby and get paid for it, then that would be fantastic,” Hancock says. 

He didn’t know anyone in Los Angeles when he arrived but eventually landed work as a production assistant, mostly on commercials. The length of a commercial shoot meant that in a typical month he could work for two weeks, generating enough income to pay the bills, and then have two weeks off to write. Over time, he made connections and started the now-defunct Legal Aliens Theatre Company in Hollywood, a small operation that showcased scripts he’d written. 

Meanwhile, Hancock continued to write screenplays. His agent, Ronda Gomez, sent one of those screenplays, A Perfect World, to producer Mark Johnson, who optioned it, a game-changer for Hancock. Before long, the crime-drama script reached the desks of Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner and was made into a 1993 film, with Eastwood directing and co-starring. Hancock’s next script, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, was also directed by Eastwood, in 1997. He dabbled in TV with the short-lived 1998 dramatic series L.A. Doctors, which he helped write, direct and produce, and Falcone, in 2000.

It was around that time that Hancock, his wife, Holly Jones, a licensed psychotherapist and interior designer, and their newborn twins, Henry and Willa, moved from the Hollywood Hills to Pasadena. “We loved our place in the Outpost area of the hills, but there weren’t any sidewalks up there, no place for kids to ride their bikes… so we started looking around. We bought a Colonial-style home in Pasadena and haven’t looked back.

“The thing about Pasadena is that it’s a small town but it feels bigger in terms of entertainment and restaurants,” he continues. “It has a lot more than a town of 150,000 should or usually does [have].”

Favorite haunts include Vroman’s Bookstore, which Hancock calls “a gift to this city,” the Arclight Pasadena and the Laemmle Playhouse 7. “We’re really blessed to have the Laemmle here so that we can see great indie and foreign films without having to drive to Santa Monica,” he says. “Pasadena is a really cultured city.”

Hancock was happy to be close to home when filming Banks, which was shot primarily around Los Angeles, including on the Disney lot in Burbank and at Disneyland in Anaheim. His next film, The Highwaymen, will be shot in Louisiana. Starring Liam Neeson and Woody Harrelson, it’s the true story (another true story!) about the retired Texas Rangers who were brought out of retirement to hunt down and kill Bonnie and Clyde. They start filming in September 2014. 

“I’m not the guy who goes from one picture straight to the next, directing-wise,” Hancock says. “There are some people who are in post-production on one movie while they’re in pre-production on another. It doesn’t appeal to me. I need to recharge my battery and, more importantly, [having time between films] gives me more time at home, which is great. I’ve got 13-year-old twins and a lovely wife and I don’t want to be gone all the time. The most important thing is, [when I do shoot on location] 

I want to be able to say to my kids, ‘Yeah, I missed some of your sporting events, 

I wasn’t there to help you study for that test, but here’s what I was doing. Hopefully, you’ll think it was worthwhile.’” 

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