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Exclusive: Director John Lee Hancock, producer Alison Owen talk 'Mr. Banks'

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On Friday, Dec. 13, Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks," hit theaters in limited release in New York and LA. had the opportunity to interview the film's director and one of the film's producers Alison Owen. Check out what they had to say about working on this project.

Director John Lee Hancock

Q: How did you first get involved to direct the film?

Hancock: The script landed on my desk, Disney was interviewing directors. They sent it to me to gauge my interest and at first I didn't think I was all that interested although I heard the script was terrific. I liked Mary Poppins, but I didn't love Mary Poppins. I had seen the movie before, but when I read the script I absolutely fell in love with it. It was an incredible experience reading it and I thought I definitely have to go in and try to get this job.

Q: What most surprised you about the backstory of how this film was to be made?

Hancock: I didn't know anything about the backstory, the 20 years of chasing the rights. I certainly didn't know the backstory of 1906 Australia, the tragic origin story of Mary Poppins, so I was just fascinated. It struck me almost like a mystery or a detective screenplay or something.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the casting.

Hancock: The first order of business because, first and foremost it's about P.L. Travers, was Emma Thompson who I've been in love with forever and I haven't seen her do something like this in quite a while and I thought she'd be amazing and she is. So once she said yes that really greased the wheels for everybody else. The next tall order was who's gonna play Walt Disney and there was only one name on that list and that was Tom Hanks, so thankfully he said yes.

Q: Tell me about collaborating with Emma Thompson.

Hancock: She is so smart, so talented, and such a great human being that everyday is just a gift, really. She's so smart--she has an Academy Award for writing herself. She's produced, she's done everything. So the thing that's great about her that's amazing, she comes in and wears her actor hat and says, 'How can I help you make this movie? What am I doing today?' She's amazing, approachable, kind to everyone, an an immense talent.

Q: Tell me about collaborating with Tom Hanks.

Hancock: The same, I mean they're both such lovely people. I know this probably sounds incredibly boring that everyone was so nice and talented, but it's the truth.

Q: That's what we like to hear!

Hancock: You know what? When people ask, 'What about Emma and Tom?' and then I would say, 'What do you think?' and they would saw, 'It seems like they're amazing people and they would be fun to hang with,' and I'm like, 'That's it!' What you see is what you get.

Q: And then you have this special resource of having Disney open up all their archives. Can you speak about that and having this extra access to all these materials.

Hancock: It was unbelievable, I had no idea how exhaustive their research into their own materials, into their own movies is. We opened the vault for us and saw all this stuff from "Mary Poppins"…it was crazy. It was actually a good thing we already had an existing script because if we had started from that--if Kelly had started from that before we started writing we would still be researching because there's so much interesting stuff to read and look at and touch. So it was really, really helpful. And the tapes in particular, the recorded tapes of the sessions that she had with the Sherman Brothers and Don DaGradi, something like 39 hours of tapes.

Q: Tell me about having Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke attend your premiere?

Hancock: That was kind of like, in some ways, the final stamp of approval. It really was. To have them see the movie, love the movie, love it enough that they wanted to come to the premiere and celebrate with us all. It made for a very special night.

Q: What was your favorite moment or favorite scene in the film that you want to share?

Hancock: It was pretty special being able to shoot in Disney Land because you have to carefully plan it...we probably made 15 trips down there scouting and you're there before the sun comes up. So to be on Main Street, U.S.A before dawn and you're the only person out's pretty special.

Producer Alison Owen

Q: You have such a prolific producing career, how did you get involved with "Saving Mr. Banks"?

Owen: I came to this one because the Australian producer, Ian Collie, had made a documentary about P.L. Travers called "The Shadow of Mary Poppins" and he had had a script based on that, which was more of a biopic, but he brought that to me thinking that we could do an Australian-British co-production and I read that and it was a good script as far as that story went, but I could see that there was a great story in there trying to get out about P.L. Travers and Walt Disney and so I enlisted Kelly Marcel, who is a fabulous writer that I have been wanting to work with for some time. She loved the idea and so together we embarked on trying to get this project into good shape.

Q: What most surprised you about this backstory that most people don't know?

Owen: Well the most surprising thing to begin with is that she was Australian. I mean that's crazy right there because Mary Poppins is such an English creation, you'd think...Julie Andrews, she's as British as a cup of tea. The whole thing is set in London and you would never guess…you would immediately assume the person who wrote it was the most English rose of all English roses. And yet she's not, she's this Australian from the outback. So that is the most surprising thing about it. As soon as you hear that it's intriguing, you're like, 'How did she get from there to there? How did that happen?' And that's the story of the movie really.

Q: Can you tell me about collaborating with the director John?

Owen: John Lee Hancock is someone that I had admired from afar. I think he is a wonderful director…in the tradition I would say both of Clint Eastwood and Frank Capra. And that he has both the intensity of Clint Eastwood and the lightness of touch and the playfulness and the emotion of Frank Capra. You could imagine John having directed "It's A Wonderful Life," he's that kind of guy. So I felt like he had the magic and the tenderness and the intensity to direct the movie.

Q: Can you tell me about having the resource of Disney opening up their archives and what that was like for you?

Owen: It was like being a kid in a candy store. We've never dreamt of such riches. We felt like...our dream was that Disney would allow us to use the clips of the songs from the movie and then the next part of the dream was that they actually finance the film and then the next part of the dream is that we would suddenly have all these resources. So we had the archives, we had the Disney museum, we had Richard Sherman, we were able to talk to all these people. It just made the story that much richer and layered. Each step that we went, it became more deeper and more textured.

Q: Can you speak about collaborating with Emma?

Owen: Emma is just the best person in the whole world, so I don't know how I can even begin without sounding like a crazy woman because she is the best actress, the best human being, the best writer and the best everything, the best comedian, the most generous, sweetest…she's just heaven. You couldn't imagine a better working experience. I think she's also a magnet for other actors. Everybody wants to work with her. She makes everything fun. She has the generosity of spirits. She just makes everything magical.

Q: Speak about Tom Hanks and working with Tom Hanks.

Owen: Well, who wouldn't want to work with Tom Hanks? Tom is so intelligent and playful and for Walt Disney, I don't really know how you're gonna make the movie if Tom had said no because you have to get an icon to play an icon and who is more American, who is more white picket fence and apple pie than Tom Hanks? If he said no…I don't know what we would have done? We were just very, very fortunate that he came on board.

Q: Lastly, what's next?

Owen: Next is, funnily enough that we talk about Emily Pankhurst in the movie, my next movie is about the Suffragette's and it's got Emily Pankhurst as a character and we're shooting that with Carey Mulligan, which we're filming in February-March.


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