By Mary Milliken
BURBANK, California (Reuters) - In the leafy, idyllic setting that is the Disney Studios lot, author P.L. Travers made life hell for writers and composers and Walt Disney himself in a movie that portrays her as a withering, brick wall, toxic nightmare of a woman.
It is not quite the demeanor one would expect from the creator of one of the most beloved of children's books, "Mary Poppins." But Travers was so worried that Disney and his dream factory would ruin her story of the magical, flying British nanny that she subverted their work at every turn during two weeks at the Burbank studios in 1961.
The entertaining push and pull between the acid-tongued Travers and the Disney storytellers is the heart of "Saving Mr. Banks," a film, from Walt Disney Co of course, that opens in limited release in U.S. theaters on Friday and nationwide a week later. It stars Oscar winners Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.
Thompson, in a role that has generated buzz of a best actress Oscar nomination, had no shortage of biographical material from which to pull together her haughty middle-aged Pamela Lyndon Travers.
But six hours of actual recordings of Travers with her Disney writers and songwriters might have revealed the most about her personality and the suffering that lies beneath artistic creation. She cringed at the thought of animation and dancing penguins and even the songs themselves.
"You can hear in the juddering...the distress in it, of course," said Thompson, mimicked Travers' clipped British accent and tone of disdain.
"One of the most revealing things was that, overtly, she was here to cooperate. Covertly, she was here to sabotage, and that was a wonderful thing to play with."
And sabotage she did, though obviously not enough to stop the film, which was released in 1964, three decades after the first "Mary Poppins" book, and went on to win five Oscars.
DEPICTING DISNEY FOR DISNEY
While the film isn't quite suitable for the little ones like "Mary Poppins" - due to the dark parts of Travers' Australian childhood that inspired her work - it is expected to fare well at the box office as a holiday family film.
"Saving Mr. Banks" is expected to gross $16 million to $18 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales during the December 20 weekend, according to Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations Co. The movie cost $35 million to produce.
"Saving Mr. Banks" has garnered positive early reviews, with many critics praising the performances above all. But reviews noted a sympathetic depiction of Disney, even though he courted controversy as one of the most powerful studio bosses.
Director John Lee Hancock, who also directed the 2009 family drama "The Blind Side," noted that the script was developed outside Disney, but was easily accepted by its top brass. The Disney family also had to give its approval.
"I don't think this movie could have been developed within the walls of Disney," Hancock said. "I think they would have chipped away at Walt and made him flawless."
The Walt Disney portrayed by Hanks smokes, drinks scotch and curses and tries to get away without inviting Travers to the "Mary Poppins" premiere. Hancock said he was "terrified" and "ready for war" with the studio over the depiction, but in the end, he "didn't need to go to battle."
'SHE SUFFERED, AND I WAS THERE'
Disney had worked for two decades to bring "Mary Poppins" to the screen, as a promise to his daughters. He was only able to lure Travers from her London home to Burbank when her sales were faltering and her career was flagging.
The film shows Disney as a hands-on boss, interrupting Travers' intense, biting sessions with screenwriter Don DaGradi, played by Bradley Whitford, and the composing Sherman brothers played by BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman, who playfully toil on tunes like "Let's Go Fly a Kite."
And despite Travers' biting and belittling ways, Whitford notes that "she's right. What really matters to her is the emotional integrity which she begins to understand as the reason she wrote this stuff in the first place."
The film opens with one of many flashback scenes to her childhood, as the eldest daughter of a tender but terribly flawed father played by Colin Farrell. He is the inspiration for Mr. Banks, the banker father of the children in "Mary Poppins" who is ultimately saved by the nanny.
Eventually, Disney, breaks down Travers' resistance by showing her that he too had a dark childhood and that storytelling was also his way to deal with the pain. A few years later, as Travers attends the film's premiere, tears stream down her face.
Hancock said Thompson makes the role look "effortless," but he saw in filming the toll that playing a complicated and sad woman took on his lead actress.
"She suffered," said Thompson, "and I was there."
(Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Eric Kelsey and Lisa Shumaker)