Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Screenplay Review - Saving Mr. Banks

A spoon full of sugar wasn't needed to make today's screenplay go down. It looks like we have a new entry into the Top 25!

Genre: Drama
Premise: The story of how Walt Disney got the rights to Mary Poppins.
About: This script finished on last year's Black List with 13 votes, so somewhere in the middle of the pack. It's been getting a lot of heat lately because Tom Hanks has been circling the role of Walt Disney. And who couldn't see that working? Kelly Marcel created the series Terra Nova. And she was also the script editor on the film “Bronson.” I have to admit, though, that I have no idea what a script editor is.
Writer: Kelly Marcel
Details: 109 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I'm about to drop a barrel of honesty on you guys. I wasn't looking forward to this script. It had all the makings of a biopic. Dull play-by-play of successful folks facing “adversity” in their journey towards immortality. Awww, times were tough for you before you became a billionaire and achieved international fame and success? I’m sorry. However did you cope?

I only opened it because I thought Tom Hanks was perfect casting for Walt Disney. Wanted to see what he’d gotten all excited about.

P.L Travers, who has about six names in this script (besides P.L., she's also Ginty, Pamela, Pam and I’m pretty sure a few others. What is this, a preview of Friday’s amateur entry, “We, Myself and I?”), is the creator of the Mary Poppins books back in the U.K. The books have been popular enough to give her a financially stable career, but the reality is, it's been 20 years since they came out, and the money is running out. If Pamela doesn't do something soon, she's gonna be camping outside of Big Ben with a big cup of change.

So you'd think that the most popular movie maker in the world desperately wanting to turn her books into a movie would be “a spoonful of sugar” to her ears. Alas it is not. In fact, Walt Disney has been trying to secure the rights to Mary Poppins for 20 years now. And Pamela has never thought twice about it. The answer’s always been “no thank you.” Without the “thank you.” But times they are a changin’. Pamela needs a spoonful of money in her bank account. So she decides to go to America to hear Walt out.

Now Pamela is not a happy person. To give you an example, when she’s having trouble stuffing her baggage into the overhead bin on the plane, a woman with a baby kindly offers to move her own bag so Pamela can get situated. Once Pamela sits down, she turns to the helpful woman and says, “Is your baby going to be loud during the flight?” What a charmer.

Once Pamela gets to Disneyland, she's greeted by her writing team, who’ve already written the script she must now approve. But Pamela isn't interested in them. She came here to meet Walt Disney and that's the only person she's going to give any respect to.

When the two do meet, Walt Disney is as advertised. He's a big kid, full of ideas and energy, optimistic to the core. In other words, the exact opposite of Pamela. Pamela quickly reminds him that she has script approval and if any of her demands are not met, she will cancel the movie immediately. Walt isn't used to people making demands, but since this is the last leg of a race he's been running for 20 years, he assures her that they'll do everything they can to accommodate her.

One of my favorite moments in the script is when Pamela sits down to go over the script with the writers. She starts at the top of the first page: “Scene one. Exterior. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London. Day.” She pauses. “Yes, that’s good. That can stay.” The writer looks at her incredulously, “That’s just the scene heading!” lol. Boy do I love screenplay humor!

As the script goes on, Pamela makes things as difficult as humanly possible for everybody involved in the project. For example, at one point she decides she doesn't like the color red. So she makes a demand that there can be no red in the movie. Everybody is rightfully flabbergasted by this demand, but Walt Disney knows that he has no choice but to give her what she wants. So no red in Mary Poppins!

Probably the most daring decision Marcel made was to include flashbacks to Pamela's life as a child. You guys know how I feel about flashbacks. They’re script killers. But if that wasn't daring enough, Marcel decided to explore an alcoholic father in these flashbacks. The drunk father trope?? Uh-oh. A double dose of script killer!

And yet it’s handled beautifully! The best I’ve ever seen of anyone handling an alcoholic father. I’ll get into this more later but we learn that her issues with her father are the main reason she’s held onto Mary Poppins for so long.

So what did I think of Saving Mr. Banks? I loved it! Almost every single choice was perfect. I don't even know where to begin and will probably start rambling but I'm very passionate about this screenplay so I'm just gonna wing it.

It all starts with an interesting protagonist. Pamela isn't the most likable person in the world, but she's intriguing. She has a huge flaw - that she's untrusting of others. I’m still not sure why we're occasionally attracted to characters like this (big meanies) but I think the fact that we all know people like Pamela helps us find her relatable. And in a way, we feel that if Pamela can overcome her flaw, that those friends of ours can overcome their flaws too! Or maybe we even see a bit of Pamela in ourselves. So we think WE can change.

The script also does a bang-up supercalfragilistamakespeealadocious job with conflict (come on, you knew I had to bust it out). Whenever you write a screenplay, you want to establish some sort of central conflict between two main characters. If you do that, it's hard to make your story boring.

In this case, it's Pamela and Walt. He’s on one side, desperately wanting to make this movie, and she’s on the other, intent on sabotaging any chance of the film being made. Even though she's here to work with Walt, it's clear that she has no intention of doing so. She will keep pushing and pushing and pushing until Walt gives up. Because the divide between the two wants is so great, the conflict is supercharged. And that’s what you want in a screenplay – supercharged conflict! Weak conflict rarely gets you anywhere.

But here's the real thing that surprised me about Banks - the flashbacks. I thought for sure Marcel was digging her own grave when she did this, particularly when she wanted to focus on the alcoholic father. But I'll tell you why this worked where so many other alcoholic father storylines die a quick cliché death. Are you ready?

Because she got specific.

We didn't get the standard scenes of daddy coming home and beating mommy up then yelling at the daughter. Instead, we took a serious look at alcoholism. Her father, who's the most loving man in the world, simply can’t stop drinking. No matter how hard he tries, he has no power against the disease. So even though he loves his daughter and his family and knows they’re falling apart around him, he keeps drinking. And it gets so bad that he’s eventually put on bed rest. Every day, then, Pamela has to wake up and see her father in this bed, weak, crippled, and still pining for his next drink. It was so detailed, so specific, so UNLIKE what we’ve seen before in these kinds of stories, that it resonated immensely.

And what's great about this backstory is that it's the reason Pamela created Mary Poppins. She needed a “Mary Poppins” to come in and save her when her father couldn’t. That's why she didn't want to give this book away. She was afraid of Walt Disney tainting and ruining this person who allowed her to make it through childhood.

I cannot stress how difficult it is to pull something like this off. I see so many writers try it and so many of them fail because you have to walk this thin line of not being too cliché and not being too melodramatic, yet still building those moments that have real emotion and connection. You have to take those chances of putting a little girl by her dying father’s bedside and write it in such a way that it doesn’t feel melodramatic or dishonest. Not easy!!!

But the script didn't stop there. Another one of my favorite parts was Ralph the driver - who's been hired to drive Pamela around while she's in town. He couldn't be more different from Pamela. He wakes up, excited for every day. He always sees the positive in everything. And he's absolutely infatuated with the weather, particularly when it's a sunny day outside. Of course Pamela hates him for it but he's so damn earnest that she has no choice but to warm up to him. There's a great moment near the end where we learn why Ralph is so obsessed with the weather, and if it doesn't have you in tears, then I’m afraid you don’t have tear-ducts my friend.

And then there’s the monologue. When I say “the monologue,” I mean the best ending monologue I've maybe ever read in a screenplay. I’m going to get into a little bit of a spoiler here so you might want to turn around. But basically, Pamela leaves Disney World at the last second, deciding not to give Mary Poppins to Walt. When she gets home, she's quickly disturbed by a knock on the door and when she answers it, there's Walt Disney.

Walt then gives the most heartfelt convincing thoughtful meaningful plea as to why Pamela should give him the rights to the book. It's so moving and so TRUE, that it grips your heart and won't let go. I've seen so many of these ending monologues and they're usually just a bunch of words that don't matter. But this monologue/plea is so authentic and true and honest that *I* wanted to give the rights to *my* book up to Walt Disney. It was just such a great final moment for this character and without question, this reason Tom Hanks signed on.

I loved this script!

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (Top 25!)
[ ] genius

What I learned: Whenever you have to write a big moment in your screenplay where one character has to convince another character of something, such as the ending monologue in Saving Mr. Banks, you want to step out of the fictional world, and bring the argument into the real world. Write the argument as if you're trying to convince A REAL PERSON. And not just any real person – a person who has already made up their mind to say no to you. Because if you try to write your argument to a fictional person, it will be fictionally convincing. You know you don’t have to be that persuasive cause all you have to do is write “Sounds good to me” from the other character after it's over. Push harder. Make that argument REAL WORLD convincing.