It is nearly impossible to escape one's youth without having huge chunks of the Sherman Brothers' songbook permanently lodged in the brain. Their music is partially the soundtrack to Disneyland and Disneyworld: as visitors wander the parks, they'll find themselves humming "Chim Chim Cher-ee", "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", "I Wanna Be You", "Winnie the Pooh", and the ultimate earworm, "it's a small world". We learn these songs as children, teach them to our children and sing them privately and publicly for the rest of our lives. With the exception of the insidiously catchy "it's a small world", this is a joyous thing.
The joy of creating a handful of these songs is on crowd-pleasing display in John Lee Hancock's SAVING MR. BANKS - as is the agony of collaboration. In the film's version of the story, the brothers get along just fine; it's P.L. Travers, the fiercely exacting author of MARY POPPINS, who makes their lives a living heck. Whether the movie accurately portrays the development of MARY POPPINS will forever be up for debate (Travers's defenders are already disgusted with the film's depiction of these events), but one thing the movie captures with a charming degree of verisimilitude is the Sherman Brothers' songwriting process. Watching Richard (B.J. Novak) and Robert (Jason Schwartzman) adjust their soon-to-be-legendary songs in the moment to please two very different masters - Disney (Tom Hanks) and Travers (Emma Thompson) - niftily recalls an era when studios had staff tunesmiths ready to jump in and punch up any number of films in various stages of production. These are the best scenes in the film, and it's no surprise to learn that Novak and Schwartzman were privy to the wisdom and memories of Richard Sherman himself (Robert passed away in early 2012).
As a songwriter in his own right, Schwartzman was ecstatic to have the opportunity to literally sit at Sherman's side and pick his brain about the composition of these classic ditties. When I briefly chatted with Schwartzman at the SAVING MR. BANKS press day, he spoke glowingly of Sherman's talents, while also acknowledging the challenge of bringing this beloved artist to big-screen life. As always, Schwartzman was a fun, insightful interview. He's definitely one of the good guys in this business.
Mr. Beaks: How strong was your childhood connection to MARY POPPINS?
Jason Schwartzman: Probably the same as it was for you. I don't recall the first time I ever saw it. It's funny, because when I look back, I wonder "How did I see movies? Were they on VHS tape? Were they on television?" I don't exactly recall, but there were certain rotational movies that I was constantly watching, and MARY POPPINS would've been in that group. I remember the movie very clearly, but there were definitely scenes in the movie I didn't remember. But the music in the movie I remember almost perfectly. The songs are so incredible.
Beaks: And exist outside of the film.
Schwartzman: Yeah. When I signed on to do the movie, the songs were already there. For the most part. There were a couple I didn't know, but the rest were there.
Beaks: I feel like I had two experiences with MARY POPPINS. The first when I was a child, and then the time I saw it in my thirties. When you're older, you realize there's a lot going on in that movie.
Schwartzman: A lot of strange things. Weird little details like the Admiral Boom character lighting a cannon and the whole house shaking to signify the change of time. That's an odd thing in a movie. I love that. There are so many great ideas in there, but also little things you just didn't think about.
Beaks: Playing Richard Sherman, that's kind of a holy thing for a Disney fan. How did this role come your way?
Schwartzman: I couldn't believe it. I heard about it in kind of a roundabout way. When MOONRISE KINGDOM played the Cannes Film Festival, I was seated next to the composer of the film, Alexandre Desplat. As the lights were lowering, he leaned in and said, "Oh, I forgot to tell you, I had a meeting about the making of MARY POPPINS, and they suggested you for one of the Sherman brothers. They are interested in you." I was like... (shocked expression). And then oddly enough I went home that night and there was an email from my brother John [Schwartzman], who shot this movie. He had shot THE ROOKIE with John Lee Hancock, and he wrote me saying, "I'm doing a movie called SAVING MR. BANKS. John Lee Hancock is directing it, and he is going to be getting in touch with you soon to discuss Richard Sherman. Just giving you the heads up!" I've never had a part like that, where it was people saying, like, "You're going to be visited by three ghosts!" It was so exciting.
But the more you get into it, the more you realize how much Richard means to everybody at Disney. The people who work at the Disney Archives - who are my favorite of all the people I was lucky enough to meet! This guy Randy Thornton, who runs the music archives, he loves these odd old things, like demos. And Richard is such a part of Disney, even to this day. He's so involved in things. And people were excited. There was never anyone saying "Don't fuck this up," but I started to feel that way. He is so loved by all these people, and I just wanted to do him right.
But when I finally met him, he was like, "What are you talking about? Come on! This is going to be so much fun! It's a great story! I'm going to be there on set, and I can help." I said, "I just want to do you right!" And he said, "Oh, I already did everything. You just be you doing the things that I did." That attitude was the best. It just made everything go away - the fact that he was excited about it and recognized that this was going to be a movie and things would be changed. The writer and storyteller in him understood that things must be changed and metamorphosed a bit. He was completely up for it, and he gave me access to his life.
Beaks: I imagine there were many opportunities to sit down at the piano with him. This is such a fanboy question, but what's that like?
Schwartzman: It's nuts! I remember being at his house, sitting next to him and looking at him playing all of these songs, and having this surreal moment thinking, "Those are the hands that wrote the songs." It would be like looking at Paul McCartney and seeing the violin bass. You can't get closer. It was beautiful. The first time we met, he said to me, "Would you play piano for me?" I said, "Well, Mr. Sherman, I only play just enough to write." And he said, "That's all I do!" I said, "Yeah, but you play really, really well to write." But he said, "No, it would help me. I want to see what you're interested in." So I played "Your Mother Should Know" by The Beatles, and he's like, "Oh, I loved that. What was that chord you did? Do you like that sort of thing? Check this out!" And he sat down and played a song. Then I said, "Can I show you one thing I think you're going to love?" So I played "Friends" by The Beach Boys. And he said, "This is so much fun! I haven't sat down with anyone and talked about music like this in so long!" I was like, "I'm so sorry. I was just dorking out." And he said, "I could dork out all day!"
The coolest thing for me as a musician was when it went beyond SAVING MR. BANKS, and it just went into pure songwriting advice. It was a master class. And the coolest thing was that John Lee Hancock was hoping I'd be able to play all the songs in the movie. He said, "We'll record some so we have them, but the hope is that you'll play the songs live." I was like, "Alright." So I went and bought a MARY POPPINS songbook, and I quickly realized it was very general the way it was all written out. So Richard gave me his demos from 1961, and my piano teacher and I transcribed them. We learned all the songs the way he played them in 1961, which was a bit more raw; they weren't figured out yet. I think Richard was really excited about that, seeing the way he used to play the songs. That was a great way for me to get to know him: sitting there learning how he would voice things. It's really dorky, but it was so fun. No one would know but him, but for me it was important. If Tom Hanks changed his voice to become Walt Disney, this is Richard's voice, how he plays. And it was important to do his voice correctly - for him.
SAVING MR. BANKS opens in limited release today. It expands on December 20th.