Posted on Friday, December 13th, 2013 by Peter Sciretta
A few weeks back I got a chance to talk with Kelly Marcel, the screenwriter of Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks. After seeing the movie it would be hard to imagine it not being a Disney movie, but many of you might be surprised to learn that Saving Mr. Banks was originally written on spec outside of the mouse house. So “outside” in fact, it was written across the pond in England.
Marcel has a fascinating history as an aspiring British actress who found herself writing screenplays while working at a London video store. One of her television ideas got the attention of Steven Spielberg, and was made into a series that she was not proud of. We talk to Marcel about her career, how she developed Saving Mr. Banks outside of the Hollywood system, the opportunity to dig deep inside Disney’s vault, and the dramatic license of brining a true story to the big screen.
Peter Sciretta: You quit acting to write screenplays and you were working part time in a video rental shop. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Kelly Marcel: I was working full time in a video shop! Yeah, I acted from childhood and I hated it and I quit in my twenties. I wasn’t really good at school, kind of didn’t really go to school as I left when I was fifteen. I didn’t have a formal education. I didn’t go to college, university, or anything like that, so when I quit acting I needed a job and I went to work at the video store and began to write.
How did your Hollywood career take off?
I was really lucky. I started writing scripts. I wrote this pilot that the BBC in London picked up. They never made it, but they liked it and put it into development. And then from reading that a theater producer asked me to write a UK Version of DEBBIE DOES DALLAS the musical, which went to the Edinburgh festival and got really great reviews. Because of that I got an agent and when I signed with my agent I sort of gave her this whole pile of stuff that I had been writing over the past few years and one of those things was an outline for a TV show called TERRA NOVA. She showed that to someone here in LA and they insisted that I fly out and pitch it. I did, and it sold, and Steven Spielberg produced it. That’s how I ended up in LA. (Laughs)
I watched Terra Nova.
I have to admit, I both liked and hated the show. I hope that’s not a bad thing. The concept had so much promise but I think it was hurt by the attempt to appeal to the broad TV audience. What do you think about the show in retrospect?
You know, it’s a really difficult one for me, because the show that I created is not the show that got made. I think it’s public knowledge that I decided not to stay with the show. I left it and went back to work in the video store in fact, which was kind of crazy. I think my dad thought I had gone completely mad. He was like “Wait a minute, you’re being offered an enormous amount of money to stay on your own show and you’re not going to do it?” I was like “No,” because it just wasn’t the show I wanted it to be. However I completely understand why it had to be the show that it was. In retrospect I just sort of look at it and don’t think of it as anything to do with me, since I didn’t work on it. It isn’t my show. It’s Brannon Braga Imbraga’s show and Steven’s show. Brannon and I are great, great friends and I love him and so I’m really proud of him and the work he did on it and the work the writers did on it, but it’s his show, not mine.
So how did you get involved with Saving Mr. Banks? Was this originally a Disney-produced project?
No, it wasn’t. It was a British producer called Allison Owen who came to me. She came to me with a script that had been written, I think since 2003, but I’m not sure. Only Allison knows the date, but it had been written by an Australian writer called Sue Smith and it was about P.L. Travers. Some of it was about her… a lot of it was about her relationship with her alcoholic son and it’s a beautiful story. It’s very sad and incredibly tragic, but not the story that Allison Owen felt she wanted to make a film about. So she had come to me and she told me about when P.L. came to LA and met with Walt and worked in the rehearsal room. She was like “Do you think that could be the film?” Can you rewrite this? Re-imagine this? I was like “Yeah, absolutely I think it’s a great story and I’d love to.” That’s kind of where it started. I jumped on it and did research and then about three months later she had the script.
And then the script made it onto The Black List (an independently tallied poll of the most liked unproduced screenplays by Hollywood insiders) which got Disney’s attention.
It did. The Black List was actually incredibly important for us in this process. I really don’t think this film would have gotten made without Franklin and The Black List. It’s an incredible thing that they are doing.
Because you wrote the original screenplay outside of Disney, how much access did you have to the original tapes that P.L. Travers recorded during the meetings?
None, until it sold to Disney. When it sold to Disney, they opened up all of their archives to me. They were amazing. They let me read all of Walt’s correspondence. All his letters. Anything I wanted to look at was available for me to look at and they also introduced me to Dick Sherman, who was completely invaluable and they gave me the tapes while we were in the room. So the draft that they bought is not the draft that we filmed, because once I had access to all of that stuff I did another big rewrite from it with a lot of help from Richard Sherman and the script changed quite a bit. The LA part of the script changed quite a bit. Having had access to the real thing didn’t change the arc of the story or the time of it or anything like that, it just became historically accurate where it hadn’t necessarily been before.
Was there pressure from Disney to change aspects of Walt Disney? He’s kind of a mythical character.
I know! (Laughs) Well do you know what? The minute it sold to Disney, I was like “Oh boy we are in trouble. I’m going to have to sanitize this and I’m going to have to make line cuts and I really don’t want to” and they never did. They genuinely never did. I’ve worked for a lot of studios and I know that that sounds completely impossible, but they absolutely gave me and John free reign with the script. They specifically didn’t want to come in and sanitize it or change Walt in any way. They wanted to feel like they were telling something that was truthful and I think they’re… Yeah, he smokes and drinks in this film. I just think that’s incredibly brave of them.
That was one of the things that shocked me. What’s the most interesting thing you found in the archives that you just weren’t able to get in that final movie? I’m sure you saw tons of interesting things that were fun to listen to.
Do you know what? I really do think the most genuinely interesting things are in the film. There’s thirty-two hours of tape. A lot of it is really boring, just really her saying “No” over and over and over again. So the things that are interesting that are on those tapes are in this film and the things that… the discussions that they had. Disney and she, in letters and telegrams, are also in there, but they are in dialog rather than writing. Anything that shocked me and surprised me went in, because that’s how you make drama, you know? I think the one that freaked me out the most, that I could not believe, was that she wouldn’t allow the color red to be in the film. Actually I was really worried, because I thought when something in real life is so unbelievable and I was like… I felt like that might get cut as it was so ridiculous.
It was really hard to get it in and let it play and not just be like “The screenwriter’s gone bonkers at this point.”
On the other side of things, what aspects of the film did you have to fictionalize?
Obviously for me, it’s Walt showing up in London. That didn’t happen. He did have a conversation with her where he convinced her to give him the rights, but nobody knows what that conversation was. So in terms of fictionalizing… the biggest fictionalized piece is that, but that is how I imagine how he got the rights from her and everything he says in that speech about his father is completely true. That is his childhood. So you know, you some times have to twist the truth a little to make it dramatic. So rather than a phone call, we did it in person, which I don’t think is a massive [invention].