Content Creation: Your Characters Are Family

Emma Thompson

This was going to be a review of John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks. I’d read somewhere in the British press after it debuted at the London Film Festival that it was the one to beat, that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. In reality it’s simply the most obvious chunk of Oscar bait this season, so much so it’s a caricature of an Oscar-bait film. In this respect it is meta, but I doubt deliberately so; children’s author Pamela Travers didn’t want to sell the rights to Mary Poppins to Walt Disney because she was afraid it would be turned into a cartoon. Aaaaaand, violà! Her own life story has been rendered like a diorama at Disneyland, complete with jerky, finch-like head bobbing by Emma Thompson, which we know from the silent-film era is universal body language for “intractable, prissy OCD harridan will be won over in the end.”

I smelled a stinker right from the first scene; perhaps the dialogue and blocking is appropriate for an anodyne animated feature from the Mouse House, but not for a contemporary live-action drama that is expected to go up against the Coen Brothers and Steve McQueen. By the end of the first act I remarked to myself how much the script resembled my early work from my twenties: competent, well-structured, but also hackneyed, melodramatic, desperately trying to please everyone. And above all dishonest.

From a content-creation standpoint, the central conflict of Saving Mr. Banks is interesting, however. Travers cannot hand over her family of characters to be adopted and raised by Walt Disney and his merry band of talented sycophants — those characters are literally based on members of her real family and she will not sell them. Disney understands because he feels the same way about his creations, namely Mickey Mouse, whom he once refused to sell to a big producer in New York, despite the fact he was so broke.

The still that is meant to say it all but doesn't.

The still from the film that is meant to say it all but doesn’t.

I have had this experience. I have loved a project so much that I have gone to what seemed at the time to be foolish lengths to protect it from being forcibly taken over by a big New York producer and her team. Yes, the fuss and chasing is flattering, but when you know it’s the wrong thing to do you would almost rather kill yourself than hand your child over to inappropriate parents.

When my own lawyer urged me to sell, he said, “It’s no big deal, you can write another.” I remember being stunned by his lack of understanding, especially considering how many artists he represented, but in that respect he was no different from Travers’ rep in Saving Mr. Banks — he just didn’t get it. But it was as if he were trying to convince Aztec parents to voluntarily offer up their favorite child for sacrifice because they can just give birth to another, and raise him to be as brilliant and lovable as the one they agreed to have destroyed.

I turned down the deal and suffered huge short-term damage. But it turns out my parenting instincts were right. The big producer who made the offer on my piece is a nefarious, immoral person — that characteristic is so commonplace in the American indie film world it’s scary — who would have treated the project indifferently, with none of the love and attention to detail that Disney lavished on Mary Poppins.  When the dust settled, it seemed to everyone involved that I had called it right all along, but in reality I took a huge gamble based on emotional, visceral instincts; if I’d been one of my near-and-dear watching me behave like Pamela Travers, I would have been deeply concerned about my sanity, too.

The characters in the piece in question aren’t based on members of my family, as Travers’ are in Mary Poppins. As one actor who was part of the first table reading of the script said, “Which of these characters isn’t you, James?” It was one of the more astute observations anyone had ever made and a revelation — like Travers, I wasn’t wholly aware of the origins of my characters. This means that selling the project would have been akin to selling myself into slavery to brutal owners. (The deal I was offered was similar to Travers’: I would have stayed on as a producer with final creative approval, but that would have simply made the experience worse and been the set-up for relentless conflict throughout the process.)

That split-personality script is unique in terms of the other projects I have developed so far, and that’s probably why I refer to it as my ‘problem child.’ It’s so personal that I am blindly in love with it in a narcissistic way, and not a little afraid of it. To begin with, it is a pure product of my id. I mapped my dreams for six months to frack the deepest symbolism and internal conflicts from my subconscious. Then I induced psychosis with drugs and wrote the piece high in two stages over a total of nine days, interrupted by a four-day period when I went too far with the altered state and had to be hospitalized.

Yes, I almost died giving birth to my problem child. Sell? Fuck off.

Julie Andrews, Walt Disney and Pamela Travers

Julie Andrews, Disney and Travers at the premiere in Hollywood

Normally I’m like Travers or any other fiction creator; my characters are based on people I know. My mother has popped up a number of times in various iterations throughout my work; she is an Auntie Mame character in real life, a machine gun of inappropriate zingers, often exasperating to deal with as a family member, but wonderful in a drama or comedy. As a gay former demimondain I have come across a lot of Auntie Mames in my journeys, so there tends to be one lurking either center stage or as a minor but remarkable character in my stories.

Another person I use frequently as inspiration is a close childhood friend, a sort of cousin unrelated by blood, who is beautiful, aristocratic, artistic and damaged, my Zelda Fitzgerald. I was in love with her when we were pre-adolescents and my sexuality hadn’t solidified yet, and that romantic inclination never really died. She was institutionalized for many years when we were in our twenties, and that sparked my lifelong fascination with mental illness.

My current primary romantic relationship is by far the most exotic in terms of dynamic that I have ever experienced. I melded his actions and personality with my Zelda archetype for a recent screen adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story that I was commissioned to write. This character is probably the most successful Zelda I have created, not least because of the literary source material, an appealing combination of powerful and ethereal. She’s Daisy Buchanan with a solid backbone and an edge.

Interestingly, I have tended to name this character ‘Claire,’ until I became aware that I was naming her that over and over. If the Claires aren’t directly the antagonist, then they engage in antagonistic behavior, alternately befriending my hero and thwarting his progress; and the hero must always be some version of me. Claire means ‘clear’ in French, which is important because I grew up with French and am still what appears to be fluent (although I hold fluency to a higher standard than most Americans and would call myself ‘comfortable’); in other words, the word has the same direct significance to me when I read or hear it as the word ‘clear’ in English. Yet the Zelda archetypes are anything but clear on the surface; they are either outright or borderline insane by conventional standards of ‘normal,’ deceptively opaque. However, they are in fact keeping it real: they are the mouths of truth in my work and help my heroes to achieve clarity.

My former partner, British author Jonathan Kemp, once told me that Harold Pinter felt his characters were so real that sometimes he feared turning the street corner and getting mugged by them. I was unsuccessful in finding an attribution to that particular Pinter statement, but while looking I did find an excerpt about characterization from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

It’s a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author’s position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can’t dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man’s buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

If your characters are not real, the reader, the audience won’t buy them. They won’t be characters at all, they will be caricatures. They will be Mickey Mouse, who has long been a synonym for the foolish, the frivolous, the childish, the amateur. As shrewish and off the wall as Emma Thompson and the writers of Saving Mr. Banks choose to portray her, in real life Pamela Travers’ reservations were as correct as mine were about that problem-child script I have loved almost too well for my own good. Like me, she is portrayed as a misanthrope who is her own worst enemy, in direct opposition to Walt Disney’s supremely successful, glad-handing people-person.

The real Travers wisely had her production meetings at Disney taped, and they play the actual recordings as the end credits roll on Saving Mr. Banks. Why did she do that? Because she’s a wacko paranoid shrew who delights in giving Disney himself a hard time? Or is it because she justifiably feared getting fucked over by him, and she was: he put in those penguin cartoons when she had specifically, rightly said there should be no animation at all in the film. Saint Walt justifies his betrayal by going to London and making Travers see the error of her ways, that she needs to let go of the past and her creations for her own good. And of course, hey, presto! she is a transformed woman by the end of the film, unburdened of her own worst enemy, ready to face the glittering Hollywood premiere on the arm of Mickey Mouse himself.

Yeah, Saving Mr. Banks is all that and worse. Holden Caulfield, the alter ego of another faux-misanthrope, J.D. Salinger, would call it ‘phoney.’

You can hear in the real Travers recordings what a disservice Emma Thompson and the writers have done her character; she was merely a creator who cared so deeply about her life’s work, about those characters who were her family that she couldn’t bear to have them become Mickey Mouse. Yes, the filmmakers show her point of view specifically in this regard, over and over, but they also declare it wrong. At the end of the day, as long as she shepherded it through development herself and felt she had her say, it wasn’t such a bad thing to surrender: Mary Poppins was a children’s story, after all, not Pinter or Fitzgerald. She could have done a lot worse than Disney.

The reason Saving Mr. Banks fails is because of it’s essential dishonesty, it’s phoniness. The filmmakers would have us believe that Travers was giving Disney and his team a hard time for the sake of giving them a hard time, because she was afraid of letting go of the past. This is a contrivance that forces the narrative to fit the perspective of the Studio. Sure, the Studio gooses itself about its relentless theme-park cheeriness and cheesiness and blind religiosity towards its products and brand, but it’s not real criticism, not anything approaching their level of scorn for Pamela Travers’ personality and behavior. Oh, how she made them suffer! But oh how she learned her lesson and saw the light! Praise Lord Mickey!

In reality, as long as Travers was doing well and didn’t need to Disneyfy her family of characters, she held out. For twenty years. When she was forced to make a decision between keeping her home and selling her fictional family, she gave over to the Hollywood tyrant, but fought as hard as she could to keep it real to her vision. (How right she was not to want Dick van Dyke — his cockney accent was atrocious! It wasn’t even what they call ‘mockney.’ I was just bad acting, a blackface minstrel-show insult to East Londoners. Why should any English person stand for that?)

Saving Mr. Banks fails hardest because isn’t an animated feature; rather, it aspires to serious drama without abandoning animated-feature caricaturization and narrative technique. You can adapt real person to a character, you can be inspired by a real person, but you can never outright lie. By betraying the real characters and events to such a degree, the filmmakers and the studio betray the audience. As Pamela Travers would have said, “That will never do, Mr. Disney.”



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