In 1961, Disney songwriting stalwarts Robert and Richard Sherman struggled with adding tunes to the “Mary Poppins” screenplay. Oh, they had plenty of ideas — some Oscar-winning ones, as it turned out. But the process of persuading the story’s author that the songs would serve the material was a grueling one.
That long and aggravating attempt to take “Mary Poppins” from the written page to the big screen is at the heart of “Saving Mr. Banks,” a biographical drama that chronicles Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) herculean efforts to obtain the screen rights to the book during a two-week visit to the studio by author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), who is anything but a spoonful of sugar.
Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak play the musical Sherman brothers in the film, which opens Dec. 13. The pair, all showmanship on screen at the piano, worked closely with Richard Sherman on set to capture the traits and personalities of the actual songwriters.
“It was fun to have Richard on the set,” said Schwartzman, who plays him. “If you had a last-minute question, he would be there just across the room watching.”
The composer, who won the original song Academy Award with his older brother for the movie’s “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” found it emotional watching Schwartzman and Novak re-create this pivotal time in his life.
“It was very touching, very funny and a very kind of out-of-this-world feeling,” he said. “They were going through the tortures of the damned that we were going through with this strange woman, trying to create a great story and a great score. She knocked us down at every turn.”
The three met up to chat at Disney’s Hyperion Bungalow, the oldest building on the Burbank lot — the 85-year-old Sherman proving to be an Energizer Bunny of enthusiasm, while 33-year-old Schwartzman (“Rushmore”) is gregarious and chatty and Novak (“The Office”), 34, more reserved, preferring to let his film sibling do most of the talking.
The trio had bonded on the set, and that respect and friendship are very much apparent as they talk. The actors listen intently to Sherman’s every word, while the veteran composer beams like a proud father when he talks about the two.
“You’ve got to give director John Lee Hancock credit,” said Sherman. “He picked these guys. These two wonderful talents were perfect to play us.”
The Sherman Brothers were staff composers at the studio when Disney gave them the plum assignment to write the songs for the 1964 release, which starred Julie Andrews in her Oscar-winning film debut as the practically perfect nanny and Dick Van Dyke as Bert the chimney sweep.
“This was our dream,” said Sherman. “This is the one we really poured ourselves into.”
Before production on “Saving Mr. Banks” began, Sherman welcomed the young actors into his home to meet his wife, Elizabeth, and share the tapes recorded more than 50 years ago of their sessions with Travers. He and Schwartzman also played around on the piano together.
Schwartzman, a composer himself and the former drummer for the rock group Phantom Planet, loved getting to know Sherman “through the music and being able to sit next to him at the piano and watching his hands. You can learn so much about someone from what they are interested in musically. I remember Richard saying the first time we met, ‘just love music and everything will be fine.’”
Novak wasn’t sure what type of picture Richard Sherman would paint of his brother, who died last year at age 86. “Before I met Richard, I pictured the ghost of Bob saying, ‘It wasn’t like that at all,’” said Novak with a small smile. “But I was amazed at the obvious breadth of perspective — not only of love but a lifetime of living and thinking about it,” said Novak. “It was an incredible and multifaceted picture,” he said of Sherman’s recollections.
It wasn’t difficult for Novak to get into the composer’s shoes because he quickly realized in his conversations with Sherman that he was a lot like the composer’s older brother.
Like Robert Sherman, said Novak, “I am serious by nature, somewhat introverted and worried about my work and whether it’s any good. I think it can take a very long time for me to show a warmer side, which is very much there but doesn’t come out obviously. People who knew Bob for many years knew all the sides of him hidden underneath a gruff exterior. I completely recognized myself in the famous distinction between the two brothers.”
Looking over at Schwartzman, Novak added, “I feel like Jason is so much the spirit of Richard — someone everyone takes an immediate liking to with his optimism, sunniness and joy that I envy.”
“We came from two different directions,” Sherman said of himself and his brother, “but we felt very much the same about what we were doing.”