In "Saving Mr. Banks," B.J. Novak (Ryan on "The Office") plays one half of the famous song-writing duo, the Sherman Brothers, who penned the memorably catchy tunes including "Supercalifragilistic" in "Mary Poppins" as well as scores of other Disney musicals, like "The Jungle Book."
Novak plays the late Robert B. Sherman, while Jason Schwartzman plays Richard M. Sherman. They both bear the brunt of the constant negativity from P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), who hated the idea of her books being turned into a silly musical.
Novak sat down with Moviefone to discuss how different the real brothers were, how Thompson apologized after every take for being so "horrid" to them both and how the surviving Sherman influenced his upcoming book of short stories.
Moviefone: I didn't know that you could sing!
B.J. Novak: I didn't know I could sing either. I was the lead in my 7th grade production of "Oklahoma!" And that was about it for my singing career.
What was the most fun part of making this movie?
So many things. The costumes were fun. Not just the costumes, but the whole glow. It was really like an old-fashioned movie in the best sense. It was elegant and thoughtful and sentimental, but in a smart way. And it took its time and there was great care to every detail. I've certainly never been in a movie quite like that. Few movies like that are even made [today]. So there was just this real awe of being part of this elegant production.
It was sort of pre-cynicism.
Yeah, exactly. There's a very dark intelligence to the movie, but it's not cynical. And so I think the precision of the movie... John Lee Hancock had this eye for detail of the period socks and the period cane and the period way that Jason would play the piano. The lighting felt like you were in another era. It was really sort of movie magic.
Speaking of the cane, Bob served in World War II, where he was shot and walked with a limp the rest of his life. And he liberated troops at Dachau and yet all these songs he and Richard wrote were so happy and lighthearted.
Well, he was the darker of the two. He walked around with that darkness. From all the footage that I saw of him and everyone I spoke to who knew him, he carried it in his shoulders and he carried it in his limp. And he carried it in his temper, which you see in the movie a little bit. He's an honest guy and he's a loving guy, but he doesn't mince words. I think having seen those things [during the war]... if you could see both Sherman Brothers and [you said], "One of them liberated Dachau and one of them has had a charmed life," you'd be able to tell. That's true to what Jason and I carry around with us too. When you see the two of us together, you think, "Oh, Jason, that looks like a happy guy! And BJ, I wonder what's on his mind."
The Sherman Brothers wrote so many great songs. Which is your favorite?
I really love the way they could write a song that would just be simple and iconic. And as a writer myself, that's always what I aspire to, the kind of thing that people will quote long after you write it. They were masters of that. From "A Spoonful of Sugar" to "Supercalifragilistic" to "It's A Small World," they just knew how to write an idea that was simple and pure that everyone would always remember. Those are my favorite songs of theirs that every kid grows up with in their DNA.
Did you grow up watching Disney movies?
Yes. Not "Mary Poppins." I felt like I'd already seen it because I knew the songs and I knew the story; it was playing at other kids' houses. It was only when I started working on this film that I realized I'd never seen the movie. I assumed I had seen it, but I actually hadn't because there were all these scenes I had no memory of. It's actually a very complicated, dark movie. It's not all the highlight reel of it that plays in your mind. Now it's a horror movie that takes place in a bank! The movie takes some strange turns.
Now that you know the much darker, real backstory of P.L. Travers's father, it's hard to look at the Mr. Banks character in the same way.
Perhaps, but I also think kids just gloss over very dark things when they see them. It just goes right by them. It's interesting to watch it now as an adult, especially knowing the Travers backstory that this film is about.
Have you ever worked with anyone remotely as difficult as P.L. Travers?
Oh, great question. I've never worked with anyone as difficult as that. But I certainly recognize her in all kinds of people I've seen. I spent eight years as a writer and producer on "The Office," so a lot of network and studio notes and disagreements within the writers' room. When I heard those tapes of P.L. Travers and the Sherman Brothers, my first thought was, "Wow, not so much has changed in Burbank in 50 years." This certainly sounds like one of our nightmare, all-night, no-progress arguments.
Were those kind of disagreements between two creative people or someone who was creative and someone who wasn't?
The problem is always when both sides are formidable, creatively. And that's what this was. P.L. Travers was very bright and talented and if you listen to the tapes, scattered all throughout her being difficult are her being insightful and correct. No argument would have gone on that long with one side being right and the other side being wrong. These are two smart, creative sides who are completely opposed.
It's pretty interesting when you hear the tape of the real P.L. Travers at the end of the film.
Yeah. We were sent those tapes to prepare for the film. There's a lot on those tapes.
Did they actually write a song about how much they hated her?
I don't know. That might have been a slight creative license in the film. The real Richard Sherman would know the answer.
You're playing these scenes where your character hates P.L. Travers so much, but then she's played by Emma Thompson, who seems so lovely. I know you're all just acting, but how did those transitions between being in and out of character work?
She apologized after every single take. She said, "I'm sorry I'm being so horrid to you. I'm sorry I'm being such a b*tch." It never occurred to me that she had anything to apologize for.
But she felt bad.
She felt bad. She was charming as hell. I don't think anyone could possibly walk out of that movie or even any individual scene, hating Emma Thompson.
Well, she's so good.
She's so good, and she's so expressive. And then the movie goes into such detail about what she's actually dealing with and what she's trying to exorcise. So she had nothing to apologize for. But she's just a very empathic person.
I'm sure Bob and Richard never got that insight into her.
No, they had no idea. Richard said when he read the screenplay, he had no idea. She was just a nightmare from his past.
You got to meet Richard and I'm sure he told you lots of stories.
Tons of stories. And incredibly sharply and with great detail.
Did you get to meet Bob before he passed away last year?
No. I wish, of course. I like thinking that he would see this movie and give it a gruff, semi grunt of approval. But I did think of him a lot.
The characters are sort of on a spectrum: You've got Walt Disney, who's extremely positive, then Richard, then Bob, who's a little more negative and then P.L. Travers, who hates everything. So Bob was kind of in the middle.
Yeah, the poster image, or what you walk away from the movie with, is the battle between this epitome of American optimism -- Walt Disney as played by Tom Hanks -- and this epitome of what we think of as British cynicism -- portrayed by Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. And that, in itself, is an extremely fun contrast. But then there's all these shades in the middle: Richard Sherman, closer to optimism; Robert Sherman, closer to pessimism. And Bradley Whitford's character (Don DaGradi, co-writer of "Mary Poppins") is just trying to skate by on his own sense of humor. So there's a lot of shades in the movie.
"Saving Mr. Banks" opens in limited release on Friday, December 13, and nationwide December 20.
Gallery | 'Saving Mr. Banks' Premiere
Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this interview, we mistakenly referred to Richard M. Sherman as "late" when it is his brother, Robert, who has passed. Our apologies to Mr. Richard M. Sherman, who is very much alive.