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John Lee Hancock on "Saving Mr. Banks"

John Lee Hancock is man enough to handle the label of feel-good director. Consider that he bravely took on the challenge of following in John Wayne's boot steps by doing a new version of "The Alamo" in 2004—and survived being trounced at the box office by "The Passion of the Christ" in its seventh week of opening, no less.

Luckily, the Texas native, who turns 57 this Sunday, has fared much better in the sports arena than on the battlefield. He scored a hit with 2002's "The Rookie," an uplifting baseball biopic with Dennis Quaid, and landed a best-picture Oscar nomination—along with an Academy Award for star Sandra Bullock—with 2009's "The Blind Side," a heart-tugger of a family-driven football drama.

He's back as part of the awards season discussion again with "Saving Mr. Banks," opening in limited release this weekend, a behind-the-scenes peek at the combative saga of the making of the 1964 Disney classic "Mary Poppins." With Emma Thompson as feisty Poppins creator P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as a determined Walt Disney, who hopes to coerce the reluctant author to sign over the movie rights to her character, Hancock is definitely playing in the majors. Or, as he has described it, "It was like Christmas every day."

While the battle of wills has its share of laughs, there are tears to be had in the flashbacks that reveal Travers' tormented childhood in the Australian outback with her devoted though heavy-drinking dad (Colin Farrell). Hancock, who started out as a lawyer before switching to filmmaking discusses why he decided to tackle a showbiz topic for his third directing effort for Disney as well as his appreciation for seasoned actresses.

You are old enough to have seen the original "Mary Poppins" when it opened in theaters. Was that your initial encounter?

I didn't see it in the theater the first time. We did not go to that many movies in a theater in the little town I grew up in. I remember it being etched in my brain, though. What I remember were the songs—you hear them once and you hum them for the rest of your life. And the animation mixed with the live action, when Dick Van Dyke dances with the penguins. I was amazed by that. It's not one of those movies that I put in the top 10 of all time, though. I came of age in the '70s when it came to movies. It was a time of darker and more difficult fare. When I read the script, I knew nothing about the tragic origin story [tied to Travers' personal travails]. It made "Mary Poppins" sadder and I saw it in a more resonant way.

One of the reasons I was so drawn to "Mary Poppins" as a young girl was that it was a rare case of a woman both being in charge in the story, when she heals a broken family, and as the star of the movie. It didn't even bother me that the mother figure in the film was a flighty suffragette, a portrait that mocked women's lib. Because Mary Poppins was the real deal. And I think, in this, P.L. Travers is, too.

In 1961, it was a man's world on a studio lot. Walt Disney got what he wanted. He used all his wiles and charms to get the right answer from someone that he butted heads with. I told (actress) Kathy Baker that her character Tommie today would have been the head of production, an Amy Pascal. She is that smart. She knows how a studio works. But at that time she was relegated to trusted secretary to Walt Disney. When P.L. arrives on the lot, she is not impressed in the least and she is sticking to her guns. It is great.

You obviously aren't afraid of strong, smart women. Thank you for contributing to the wonderfulness that is Sandra Bullock's career right now. Is it refreshing to work with veterans like her and Emma?

If someone ever says, "You are only doing movies with women over the age of 40 from now on," I would say, "Sign me up." Sandy wasn't given the chance before. She was an under-appreciated dramatic actress. We knew she can handle physical comedy and she did a few ensemble movies like "Crash." But she wasn't able to show her other side through the course of a movie. I had no doubt, though, that she would knock this ["The Blind Side"] out of the park. She is amazing. And with Emma, it's the same thing. They are so talented. People in their 20s are working to get through stuff. When you are older, you want to be around people you admire, even in their personal lives.

Critics are much like P.L. Travers in a way. They don't want their emotions manipulated. Happy is not their usual state. But the movie-going public seeks out films like yours that don't necessarily pander yet also don't wallow in misery all the time, either. Why are you drawn to feel-good stories?

I don't know if I am drawn to them exclusively. There are lots of stuff that I have been trying to get made. The next one of mine has a lot of heart in it, but isn't inspirational. "The Blind Side" took forever to get it out of 20th Century Fox in turnaround. It was one of three different movies I was involved with then. "The Blind Side" just happened to be the one that got made. I don't know. It is kind of interesting how some people think, "It moved me, so then I must be manipulated." Every director knows it is his job to be manipulative. When you make an edit, you are trying to manipulate. When you use a certain song. We live in a very cynical world. I was moved, therefore it's bad. Life is not that simple.

Just as Travers demanded some gravity in the depiction of childhood in "Mary Poppins," you also made sure there was some solemnity in the scenes from her past and her relationship to her parents. Was that important to you?

You wouldn't know why she was being so vigilant about her work without knowing her past. It would be a one-note, fun movie without the other part and not nearly as interesting. It is good to know that the sadness in "Mary Poppins" came from that little girl and her broken family. At that age, she wanted someone to come in and fix it. Aunt Ellie couldn't do that. As a creative person, you turn around and invent Mary Poppins, who could do that. She knew if Disney made the movie all this would be dredged up again for her.

You also like movies that are reality-based. Which opens the door to criticism, too, when you mess with the facts for dramatic purposes. There are so many in theaters now, it is overwhelming. Besides, "Saving Mr. Banks," they include "12 Years a Slave," "Lee Daniel's The Butler," "The Dallas Buyers Club," "Philomena," "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," "Captain Phillips," "American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street." Why are filmmakers so drawn to true stories these days?

When I was younger, I read almost all fiction. Now I get drawn to biographies of real people. I don't know, maybe it's me getting older and feeling my mortality. The marketplace appreciates true stories. When you read something that is a true story and if you know you are going to have to change a lot, it's not worth turning it into a movie. Obviously, when you know two people met, no one wrote down everything that was said. You are making things up. In this movie, everything pretty much happened. If you have to contextualize or make the story more compact or change the order of when things happen, you have to ask yourself, "Am I comfortable with this?"

Even though Walt Disney was a chain smoker, the studio would not allow you to show him puffing on a cigarette. They ban such scenes nowadays. But I thought you got the point across pretty well, since he is often heard coughing before he is shown in his office. When P.L. Travers appears unannounced, he says something about not wanting children to see him smoking as he stubs out his butt. Was it difficult to get around?

We probably had a 10-minute discussion about smoking. If we followed P.L. marching through the office as if she owned the place, she would catch him with a lit cigarette. Disney said OK, just so it is not like "Mad Men" with everyone chain smoking. Otherwise, it would be disingenuous since he died from lung cancer just a few years later. He would often announce his presence by a cough. It is part of the lore told by employees at Disney.

In your portrait of Walt Disney, I think you did a good job balancing his avuncular charisma and creative passion with his need to control and get what he wants. That he wanted to keep his promise to his daughters and make a film based on their favorite book seems sincere.

Disney was an artist who became a mogul. That was rare back then. They mostly were businessmen. This movie tries to analyze whether he can go back to being an artist, the one who created Mickey Mouse. I appreciated that the script was originally developed outside the walls of Disney. Walt wouldn't seem like a human without flaws. No Scotch, no cursing. And that he doesn't invite Travers to the Los Angeles premiere.

Wasn't it rather mean that he did not invite her, though?

There is more to it than that. Bob Iger (Disney's current chairman and CEO) said, "I wouldn't have invited her, either." Walt does have to protect the movie. She is a loose cannon. So it is mean, but not from a business standpoint.

She did manage to finagle a ticket and attend. Which leads to one of the best scenes in "Saving Mr. Banks": Watching Emma Thompson as Travers silently go through myriad emotions while watching "Mary Poppins" in the dark crowded theater, from despair to delight to weeping.

That is a great what-if by Kelly Marcel (the co-screenwriter). We know Travers was not invited to the premiere. She invited herself. She did not care for the movie. She went to Walt afterward and said we have some work to do and he told her, "That ship has sailed." We also know that she cried during the movie. People who knew her have said that those tears would not be the result of her hate of the movie being so great. What if the reason she cried was not about the movie at all. What if it was the end of a cathartic experience? Coming to terms with her life as a little girl and her father?

What do you think of the whole process of campaigning for awards? You have been through this before.

I learned that it is really great to have Tom and Emma by my side. I just smile and let them talk. It is a bit overwhelming but hopefully it is encouraging more people to see the film.

You mentioned your next project. Are you still planning to direct "Highwaymen," the Bonnie and Clyde story from the perspective of the Texas rangers who hunted them down?

I hope so. We are finishing deals with it right now. Liam Neeson and Woody Harrelson don't have a contract yet so nothing is definite but they are attached to do it. Ours is completely different from the movie with Warren Beatty. In this version, you don't see Bonnie and Clyde until the end.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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