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Ten Minutes With: The Production Team Behind “Saving Mr. Banks”

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Director John Lee Hancock amassed a top notch team of crafts people to successfully tackle the world of Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks”.  Production designer Michael Corenblith and costume designer Daniel Orlandi, who worked on Hancock’s features  “The Alamo” and “The Blind Side,” were joined by cinematographer John Schwartzman who worked on his first feature, “The Rookie.”   The team of veterans were faced with the task of capturing the fact-based period tale of Disney’s quest for the “Mary Poppins” book rights with a tight schedule and an even tighter budget.

“We had settings in 1906 Australia and 1957 Los Angeles and we were shooting for 44 days in California,” said Corenblith.

“This movie was 1/15th of what ‘Spiderman’ cost,” said Schwartzman, who shot  The Amazing Spiderman.  “Think of it this way: I could have made fifteen Mr. Banks for the price of one Spiderman.”

“On a set like this everyone’s working hard,” said Orlandi.  “I look over at John and I see he’s working even harder than me.  He’s the sort of director I would do anything for.”

The team tackled the challenges with zest.   Hancock insisted the feature be shot on film to ensure the best possible image.  Schwartzman confirmed production costs would be the same, if not cheaper, than a digital shoot, and he secured the Panavision Panaflex camera he’s been using since 1979.

“I’ve only shot on Panavision my entire career, and I always use the same camera,” said Schwartzman.  “That camera has traveled the world with me.”

To make the most of the time and budget, Schwartzman made very specific shot plans for every scene. Shots were timed to maximize the natural light.  Clearly defined markers for camera movement and frame lines were established to avoid capturing unwanted or modern material, specifically in locations including Disneyland’s botanical garden and the Beverly Hills Hotel.  Schwartzman hired crew members he’s collaborated with over the past 20 years to aid in efficiency.

To save money, Corenblith was able to repurpose a few set pieces from other projects with some modifications and painting enhancements.   The Australian house the family vacates was repurposed from a structure used in the HBO series “Carnivale.”  The train the family rides into the Australian landscape on was built for “The Lone Ranger.”

While Corenblith felt Disney’s office was imprinted in his memory from watching weekly specials as a youth, he felt visiting the actual office was “on par with the Oval office.”    An old, abandoned Robinson May building became the set for animation office scenes.   The team’s greatest challenge was to bridge many smaller rooms to create the illusion of one large workspace.  This was done working closely with Schwartzman’s team to find the best camera angles as the story moved in and out of the room.

Working with archivists, Corenblith’s staff took detailed notes and recreated many set pieces as well as period signage.  To capture the colors used on “Jingles,” the favored horse of Disney’s wife that Travers rides on the carousel, Corenblith was given access to the actual horse.  While the carousel had to be fully functional, the focus of most set pieces was purely aesthetic.

“The camera sees from the paint out.  The architecture has to stand up, but the toilets don’t have to flush,” said Corenblith.

Disney archives also provide invaluable to Orlandi.  Some of his greatest costume challenges came in designing the period costumes worn at Disneyland, including Goofy and Snow White, as well as the penguins costumes worn for the premier of “Mary Poppins.”

“The attendants for all the rides were different, the costumes at the park, they became a big part of the challenge for me,” said Orlandi.  “Sculpting the Mickey heads, finding just the right furs for the costumes at the time.  I spent hours dying the fabrics and making sure the colors matched.”

Also challenging was outfitting the wealth of extras.  Over 800 people were needed for the Disneyland scenes, and 500 for the 1906 fair.  Orlandi turned to internet resources including Etsy as well as Western Costume to find inexpensive solutions.

To create all Tom Hanks’ and Emma Thompson’s outfits, Orlandi used authentic wools    P.L. Travers estate loaned her 1902 sterling silver bracelets to the production, and Thompson also wore an onyx men’s wedding ring, symbolizing Traver’s father’s ring, throughout the film.  For the Australian flashback scenes, he used silks and cottons, and custom built each outfit.

While many of Walt Disney’s personal affects are archived, all of his clothing was given to Goodwill after his death.  Although Orlandi missed the opportunity to look upon Disney’s tailoring, he was felt inspired by the image of the man the film presented.

“You can say it’s a biopic.  While it is just a small part of Disney’s life, it tells so much about the type of many he was,” said Orlandi.