Interview by Roger Durling with Director John Lee Hancock
John Lee Hancock: Wow, thank you very much
Roger Durling: Thank you for being here, John. What do you think Mrs. Travers would have thought of your film?
Hancock: I think she would say, “Oh it’s a trifle, and the costumes weren’t bad.” But she would say that and then secretly she would go home and look in the mirror and say, “They made a movie about me!”
Durling: How did you first get involved? I know this was a script beforehand, and how did you first get involved with the film?
Hancock: Well it predated me by a long time. There was an original; it was a documentary in Australia that Ian Collie produced. And then he had a script from Sue Smith that was more of a traditional birth-to-death biopic. Biopics have a hard time getting traction these days. Even Lincoln had to specify one part of his life, you know, to deal with. He sent it to Alison Owen at Ruby Films in the UK to see about a possible co-production. BBC films got involved and Allison Owen and Kelly Marcel, the writer, looked at the script and said, “The part we’re most interested in is just this one little middle section,” which is the two weeks she spends in Los Angeles. So they wrote a script, knowing that there was only one place to sell it potentially and it’s a very litigious bunch, that Disney Company. So they expected to have a cease-and-desist letter instead of a letter saying, “We would love to do this.” But I think it couldn’t have been developed within the walls of Disney, I really don’t. I think they would have chipped away at it too much even with the best of intentions. When they said yes, they wanted to do it, it landed on my desk. I mean, I love the movie Mary Poppins but it’s certainly not in my top ten or anything.
Durling: What? Not in your top ten?
Hancock: I’m not a real musicals guy, and I’m certainly not Rob Marshall or something who is really good at those kind of things. I mean I appreciated Mary Poppins; the songs are fantastic. I remember the dancing penguins and I remember I thought the technology was pretty cool, how they did the animation with live action. So I had a great deal of respect for the movie, but then there are some people who just adore it. I think it’s one of David Fincher’s top five movies. That’s what somebody told me.
Durling: What was it about the script though?
Hancock: Well I was reluctant to read the script, because I thought I’m not the guy for this. I’m not going to react well to this. But my agent said, “You know what, you should read it, even if you don’t want to do it. It’s really terrific and I think you’ll enjoy the read.” So I said, “OK, I’ll pick it up,” and started reading and was just in love with it from the first page. You look for scripts, especially when you don’t write them, ones that you wished you’d written, and that are kind of inside you. And I said, “Man, it’s so rare to have a movie that’s about the creative process–not about the finished product, but about the process.” And this is one. So I went in and campaigned hard to get the gig. They were meeting with lots of different directors and so I went in and got the job, thankfully.
Durling: I was struck by that scene in the end when you realize that her life has been dictated by the past. The way that you direct the movie, you go back and forth between flashback and forwards–and kudos to you–it’s never quite clear whether it’s the girl imagining her future, or we’re going into a flashback. Can you talk about that?
Hancock: That’s nice to hear, because we put a lot of work into that. It’s not a traditional two-setting movie–1961 and 1906–because halfway through the script I realized, “Oh my goodness, there’s a big curveball here!” And the curveball is they’re pitching the song “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank,” and it’s intercut with the Allora Fair sequence, and the Sherman brothers’ words or lyrics start coming out of her father’s mouth, which tells you she’s not the most reliable narrator in terms of these memory flashes of hers, if you want to call them that. They’re idealized and stylized. So immediately I took from that. I said I want to idealize and stylize all the stuff that’s in 1906 because I want it to be very close and accurate–all the heart of the information is absolutely accurate–but I wanted it to be stylized as though it’s a childhood memory, all the way down to Aunt Ellie showing up at the door with her feet in ballet first position and the carpet bag held thusly and the umbrella exactly like Mary Poppins. Then we used a lot of different framing devices–thank you John Ford–to get back and forth. I wanted to see her through windows, through doors, and then we would go back to P. L. in the window of the car, out the window of the rehearsal room–because to me, framing devices really signal storybook to me, and I love that idea.
Durling: And the lighting, I just wonder if it was intentional that Australia reminded us of Los Angeles?
Hancock: Oh wow, you’re good! I’m taking you on the road with me; you ask all the good questions! No, you’re exactly right. We embraced the high overhead hot light because when P. L. comes, everything’s too hot and bright and sunny. It’s the opposite of the light which is more rounded in London. But it’s also all about this cathartic experience for her, and so every step of the way it’s about pushing her closer to forgiving herself and mending her relationship with her father. And so when you’re there and it’s that bright hot light, we just embrace that (John Schwartzman, our DP, and myself), to try to remind us that this is an uncomfortable place for her. It’s too bright, it’s too hot, just like the last time it was too bright and too hot and she had a fractured family.
Durling: Casting Emma Thompson: Did you consider anybody else? How did that come about?
Hancock: Well in the meeting that I interviewed for the job, we talked for about an hour, and then they said “Have you thought any about casting?” Normally when I’m engrossed in a script like this one, I really don’t think about it. I’m reading P. L. Travers, and I’m lost in her struggles so I don’t think about it until after the fact. But when I finished it, I had a day or two before I went in to interview and I thought, “Man, I haven’t seen Emma Thompson in something like this in forever, and I would pay good money to see her in something like this.” So I threw out the name Emma Thompson because of that, and also because she has not been working a whole lot. She’s got a life; she’s got a daughter; she’s got all that normal stuff that she does. And I threw her name out and they all smiled which told me that they had thought of her as well, so immediately it was, “Well let’s go to Emma.” So I flew to New Orleans, had a lovely dinner with her, and we talked about the contradictions of P. L., and she said yes she wanted to do the movie, and that began a series of great conversations between us of how to put in the layers, folds, and contradictions of P. L.
Durling: She’s holding on to so much sadness. How hard it is for an actress to hang on, day in and day out, to that?
Hancock: She confessed to me that this was the toughest role she’d ever played, because of that very thing. I mean she is just girded for war. Also, it would be very easy to play this as kind of a stereotype, a woman of a certain age who has had so much happening in her life, and these are Emma’s words, “It’s easier to play her as a crone in that stage of life.” Because P. L. talked about the three stages of a woman’s life–I think it was nymph, something and crone. She said it would be easy just to play that, but the other parts of her–she had a sensuality, and she was also a child. Honestly, when you’re that selfish, that’s what a child does. You ask for what you want, and you stamp your feet if you don’t get it. And we know she very much had that character from talking to people who knew her and her granddaughter and others, and that she definitely was petulant. Being able to capture all of those flavors from moment to moment was a tall order. And there are some actors, when faced with a task like this, who would just keep to themselves and, God bless them, however you get the performance is how you get the performance. But Emma is such a lovely person. She would come in every day and know everyone’s name and bring chocolates to the camera crew, and so on, and she makes it look easy when you know it’s not.
Durling: I commented outside, right before you came in–I don’t know if most of you know that he directed The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock–that it’s just remarkable that you’re so good with strong female main characters who are also over the age of 40. Is it just a coincidence?
Hancock: It’s a complete coincidence. But if somebody told me today that I would only be doing movies from here on out with women leads over the age of 40, I would be the happiest guy in the world, because Lord knows there are a bunch of them who are fantastic and that don’t work nearly enough.
Durling: What about Walt Disney? Casting Tom Hanks?
Hancock: Another tall order. He’s never been played in a movie before. He’s the founder of Disney and Disney is funding the picture, so you would expect a lot of back and forth. But I said at this age in his life, I only see one person to do it, and it’s not because he looks just like Walt Disney, but because it would be an icon playing an icon, and that’s Tom Hanks. Even though he’s from Northern California, he has a real all-American, Midwestern thing happening. When he walks in, he owns the room in kind of the way Disney did. So I went to Tom, and I think it probably helped that we had Emma already attached because they had been wanting to work together forever. So he read the script, and I went over. I’d met him once before years back, and I didn’t know him well but we sat down and he said, “So you’re happy with the portrayal as written in the script?” And I said “Absolutely! I think it’s more than fair, and it captures these two weeks in 1961. There are lots of things that make him human which I think makes him more interesting and more fascinating.” And he said, “So we want to keep it the way it is?” And I said, “I do.” And he said, “Ok let’s shake on that, I’ll do it!” There we were.
Durling: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the only character that is fictitious is the driver, the Paul Giamatti character. Why was that character created?
Hancock: It’s funny, I asked Kelly about that because everybody else is real. She added him late in the process because she felt very strongly that when a lot of characters in movies go on a journey, they lean closer to the audience; they come closer to the audience. And P. L. was not someone who would lean to you. You had to lean to her. So you wanted to be very consistent, but you also wanted to give the audience an opportunity to lean forward, and I think some of that is in the flashbacks. But she recognized an opportunity with the driver to have quiet time with this guy. Kelly is brilliant by putting these two people in a box. One is P. L. Travers, who chooses to look at life as fraught with peril and full of complications. And then you have somebody like Ralph, who really does have a far more complicated life than she does, but who chooses to look at life in the simplest way possible. When you put those two people together, that’s a good, explosive thing. And it gives you an entrée into quiet time with her as she’s traveling along this journey from the hotel to Disneyland and back.
Durling: We saw during the credits archival drawings and costumes, and then we also heard P. L. Travers in the tape recording. How much archive material did you have to study? Did Disney gave you free reign?
Hancock: They did. Actually it was so much information that I’m really happy we had a completed script. Had we started with, “Oh we’re going to go to the Disney archives and try to find this story,” we could have researched for 20 years there. It would just be one cool thing after another. It’s daunting when they finally open the vaults to you and they get all the stuff out. They have stuff on everything. It’s a little like Fort Knox and the NSA mixed together; it’s a little scary. I asked about it. I said, “Do you have stuff from The Rookie?” I did a movie called The Rookie there years back, a baseball movie. And they said “Oh yeah!” And they just kept bringing out stuff and they said, “We have 700 photographs of you.” And I went, “Oh Lord! Are you kidding? Scary!” But they did. They had everything. And they said, “Oh and of course we have the tapes.” And I said “Tapes? Excuse me?” Yes, there were tapes. She insisted on having it tape recorded, which we never did back then. We have most of the tapes, and 8 hours of them have been cleaned up. There were 39 hours I think in total. Kelly didn’t know about the tapes either. I said we should have a listen. And it was amazing how close Kelly got, without ever hearing the tapes, to what was happening in the room. She was just vibing that from Valerie Lawson’s book and from the documentary and from talking to different people who were there, including Richard Sherman. He was an advisor on the film and with us every day when we were in the rehearsal room. She got incredibly close when you listen to the tapes–and I wouldn’t advise anyone to try to listen to all of them.–and Emma’s impersonation of them. She said, “You start it and you say, ‘This is fascinating!’ And then about three minutes later it’s not.” It’s a whole lot of “No no no no no no no!” So we had the tapes, and the very last day I had an afterthought, because we were back and forth about whether we wanted the tape recorder in the room at all. Is that necessary? Do we want it? And I said, “I think it’s just a little detail.” I didn’t tell anybody that I had a secret plan, because I thought everybody would laugh at it and think it was a bad idea. A Wollensak, when you go back and redo the engine of it, still makes so much noise. When you’re in production and mid-wide shot, it had to be moving, and when it’s moving it’s going “choo-choo, choo-choo, choo-choo.” Your sound guy is going, “You’re killing me!” And I said, “I know, I know, but it’s in the shot, and we have to have it moving.” Our AD carefully planned so the last day would be singing and dancing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and it was a magical way to end the movie. At the end, when we finished that and said “OK that’s a wrap for you guys,” Richard Sherman got up and played music, and everybody was singing and dancing. You had tattooed grips with tears running down their eyes singing Mary Poppins. It was unbelievable! As we did that, I told John Schwartzman one more shot, one more shot. And he says, “What? From what scene?” And I said, “I just want an overhead of the Wollensak and we’ll dress it with some jellybeans and stuff just like we’re doing a commercial tabletop shoot.” And he says, “What’s it for?” And I said, “Forget it. Just roll five minutes of film off and let it roll out.” And he said, “What are we going to call it?” And I said, “Just call it ‘John’s Dumb Idea.’” So we shot it, and I had it in my back pocket just in case I wanted to use it in the credits. Because I thought, one, it gave a tip of the hat to Kelly for getting everything right in the room in terms of the script, but also it gave a nod to Emma as well and to prove that this woman was as irascible and interesting as she was.
Durling: Tell us about shooting. You shot in the Burbank studios, you shot in Disneyland, and also you shot at the Chinese Theater–well, it was then called Grauman’s Chinese Theater. What was it like shooting in all these different places?
Hancock: It was fantastic! I mean obviously on the Disney lot itself, the old Animation Building and Inking and Painting in that center section where the theater is hasn’t changed architecturally. The only thing that has changed is the foliage. So we were able to shoot there on the lot where these things actually took place which was fantastic. And they’re beautiful buildings, and thankfully they haven’t changed them. At Disneyland, they’re open 365 days a year, and they don’t close for anybody, so you have to carefully plan, almost with military precision. We probably went down there about 15 times and said, “OK, this shot is from here on a 40 millimeter lens, then we’re moving from here to here. We finish that at 9:17, and we move back to the carousel.” You know, on and on and on, with all the Disney people right there, and you come in before it opens, so you’re there when the sun comes up on Main Street USA.. And it’s amazing how tiny Disneyland is when you’re the only person there, and how when it gets crowded it feels bigger. I was there, and I remember seeing Tom Hanks walk out as Walt Disney in costume, said “Man, I’ve got a cool job, I’m at Disneyland!” People that came to the park didn’t know we were shooting a movie, but they had the poster up that said “If you’re in a shot, you’ve signed off.” But of course we couldn’t have anybody in shots, because it would be anachronistic. You had people there, going, “Let’s go get in line for this.” But then they would go, “What the–?“. And they would just stand and watch all day, because it’s like, “Wow I’m at Disneyland and I didn’t even have to pay extra for this and I see Tom Hanks as Walt Disney!”
Durling: And the Chinese Theater, it looks pretty much the same?
Hancock: It does, except the neons have been taken down. It’s slightly altered, but the main superstructure’s the same. I had one picture that was taken from the Roosevelt Hotel high and wide and looking down on the night of the premiere, just about dusk. And so I looked at it, and I said, “I know I want this shot as the master shot for the cars pulling up into the splendor of the Chinese Theater.” And John Schwartzman said, “Look, they’ve got 10Ks across the street. They just put them up and just blasted light down on the street and on that.” Because back then of course, film wasn’t as fast and if you were filming, which they did out in front, you need a lot of light. So all they did was put a row of big lights across the street and just pointed them down at the Chinese Theater. So we said, “Well there’s our key, right there, that’s how we’re going to light this thing. We’re going to do it exactly how they did it.” And also what happens on the reverse, is then you’ve got the glare in the background, and we hung up some red curtains and stuff back there to cover up that it’s a Hooters now.
Durling: And red curtains that P. L. Travers would have not liked for you to have hung. Richard Sherman– he was involved with it, and obviously you had his blessing. What was it like working with him?
Hancock: It was one of the many gifts of this movie, getting to know Richard and being around him. He is just obviously a treasure trove of knowledge. You’d be blocking a scene, and you’d say “OK, this is a scene where you’re pitching ‘Spoonful of Sugar.’ OK, let’s just walk through it a little bit and see where we stand.“ And then I thought wait a minute, I could guess or I could ask. So then I said, “Richard, come here. OK, Walt’s coming in to here, and you guys pitch a song to him. Where would he stand? Would he come to the piano, would he go to the window, would he lean?” And Richard would say, “No he would do this.” And so Tom and I would go, “Looks good to me, there we go.” All the way down to, “That’ll work,” something that Disney would say. He wasn’t fond of overly praising people to their faces. He would praise you to your co-worker. He’d come up to you when you’d show him something he was totally blown away by, and he would say “That’ll work.” And then he’d walk over to somebody else and say, “Have you seen what Bill’s working on? It’s terrific!” So you would have to hear second-hand from people. That’s why we put in the line “That’ll work” when he hears “Feed the Birds,” which is legendarily his favorite song of all time. The Shermans came in and played it every Friday afternoon for him.
Durling: And after Richard saw the final product what did he say to you?
Hancock: Well I was nervous. I mean you’re always nervous. He was around, so I knew he knew what was happening in the rehearsal room and was pleased with that, but he kind of had no idea about all the rest of it. And he loved it. Richard is 85 going on 25. This enthusiasm that he has for life is just amazing, and he is completely in touch with his emotions–he’s quick to laugh, and he’s quick to cry. One of the great gifts of the movie has been an unexpected additional curtain call for Richard Sherman, who is a gift.
Durling: And Julie Andrews?
Hancock: Boy, talk about nervous! Then you think you’ve finished the movie, and she’s obviously not in the movie, it’s not about that, and then Dick Van Dyke, and you go gosh, we kind of ripped Dick Van Dyke a little bit in this thing. I don’t want to take it out because it’s a good laugh and that’s how she really felt. So I was nervous about showing it to them, but they both loved the film and came to the premiere and sang “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” together and it was completely magical.
Durling: So what’s next then?
Hancock: I don’t know. I do adult dramas, so they don’t make them anymore. I have to pick and choose carefully, because the stuff I’m interested in is not necessarily going to be . . . the first question they ask is, “Is a 15 year old boy going to be dying to see this?” And most of the stuff I’m interested in, that’s not the case. If the answer to that is yes, they give you $200 million and you can go do whatever you want.. If the answer is no, they go “Oooh this is a problem. OK, can you get big star actors to work for nothing?” And that’s what we did. Everybody on this project worked for less than what they usually make, a lot less. It’s a labor of love, and that’s why it was easy to get . . . every single actor in this movie was my first choice. And that’ll never happen again. All the way down to Paul Giamatti. I said, “Who do I want?” And with Paul, he’s such a terrific actor, but he plays a lot of roles where he’s crusty on the outside and then you find out he has a caramel center by the third act. And this is one where I go, no, this is simple, but he’s got a lot going on in here. But man, Paul Giamatti would be great. It’s not a big role. It’s a very important role, but it’s not a huge role, so he’s probably won’t be able to do it. But he said, “Yep!” And Rachel Griffiths, whom I’d cast in The Rookie . . . I said, “Rachel, it’s just 3 days of work. It’s a little role but it’s a very important role.” And she said, “What is it?” And I say, “You play the origin of the story for Mary Poppins. You’re Aunt Ellie, who was Mary Poppins before there was Mary Poppins.” And she said, “I’m in!” So everybody said yes. And I think it was also because they looked at it, and it was quality material, made by a studio. Usually it’s a little shakier in terms of adult dramas and stuff. But when you look at this year, I’m nothing but hopeful. All these great movies are adult dramas and they’re all incredibly different but I hope they all do really well.
Durling: And yours will do well. Thank you so much for being here!
Hancock: Thank you!