Back in the early 1960s, Academy Award-winning composer and songwriter, Richard Sherman, and his late brother Robert wrote the songs for the film Mary Poppins. It was an exciting time for the two young men who eagerly applied themselves to their first film score.
But when Walt Disney invited the uncompromising Mary Poppins author, PL Travers, to visit to per- suade her to grant him the rights to her book, the brothers’ world was turned upside down.
Sherman, who is the music consultant on Saving Mr Banks, relates: “I’ve always used the word ‘difficult’, but I think ‘difficult’ is an understatement. PL Travers never even tried to understand what we were talking about. When we said a storyline, she didn’t follow that. We told her we were not damaging her books and that they will always be sacrosanct, but we’re being inspired by the book to tell a story.”
Seeing the scenes from that period in his life acted out on set in front of his eyes brought back memories: “It’s a remarkable experience for me because I’m the last guy standing.
“My brother’s gone, Walt’s gone and Don DaGradi’s (visual screen- play) gone. It’s a feeling I can’t explain, but it’s like looking at home movies of yourself 50 years ago. It’s very moving and very special…”
The Sherman brothers had a special relationship with Walt Disney, as Sherman elaborates: “I think music… brought us together. He loved music and liked to have me play for him. Tom (Hanks) is doing an incredible performance as Walt. Tom is the only actor I can imagine who could play Walt Disney.
“Walt was gifted. He knew what a good story was and when he had a gut feeling he was going to go with that. He felt Mary Poppins was going to be his magnum opus and gave us all leeway so we could develop it and research it and even make mistakes or go in the wrong direction.”
On how Emma Thompson’s performance of the prickly PL Travers made him feel, he says: “Emma has Travers’s voice down from listening to the recordings of her. It’s weird because when I’m watching her, I want to kill her! “
Animator DaGradi put on his screenwriting hat for Mary Poppins and worked closely with the Shermans. DaGradi was always sketching and having PL Travers in the room did not inhibit him.
“Don was one of the most brilliant story men at the studio” recalls Sherman.
Commenting on Bradley Whitford’s performance as DaGradi, Sherman says: “He is perfect for Don and I’ll tell you why, beside the fact that he looks very much like him. He was like the senior citizen in the group because Don was an experienced story man at Disney. He’d been there for 20 years or more. We were the new kids so he sort of…looked out for us.”
Jason Schwartzman takes on the role of a young Richard and Sherman has nothing but praise for him: “Jason is wonderful. He’s very musical, a very talented young man. He writes songs, plays piano and is full of energy – the kind of person I was. I still think I am! So, it was a great piece of casting I will say.”
Sherman and his brother were opposite personalities, but were very close. “Bob was the Yin and I was the Yang,” says Sherman. “We were two different people. We felt the same way, but his inner fires were different. I was very happy with what I was doing, but Bob sort of fell into it. He got into it because my father felt we’d make a great team and he was right, we did. But I think Bob always said he’d rather have written novels.”
BJ Novak plays Robert and Sherman could not be more pleased: “BJ is absolutely right on it because he is more of an introverted personality. He’s very thoughtful about what he is going to say before he says it and doesn’t mince words.”
Sherman explains that the music in Saving Mr Banks is being used “in a very realistic way”.
“It’s just a piano or if you’re a guitar player you play a guitar and you sing your song. It’s very small. It’s not a big sound,” says Sherman.
Summing up, Sherman says, “You have to see the movie because it’s a very honest picture. It tells it the way it was. Nobody in the world knows this story. This is the first time it’s been talked about.” – Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios