Bradley Whitford Plays Story Man Don Dagradi | The Fan Carpet

Bradley Whitford Plays Story Man Don Dagradi


Saving Mr. Banks
19 March 2014

Actor Bradley Whitford, who plays animator-turned-screenwriter Don DaGradi in “Saving Mr. Banks,” was intrigued by the role partly because he has fond memories of “Mary Poppins” in his early life. “I specifically remember going to see ‘Mary Poppins’ when it came out and then seeing it subsequently, obviously pre-video. My father played the piano and loved to sing and could orchestrate it himself, so we would sing the songs. It was just part of our lives.”

Whitford was also drawn to the project because it showcases the creative geniuses whose work behind the scenes shaped the classic film. He affirms, “That was something that made me want to do this. It’s absolutely shining a light on and making heroes of the people who really make these things happen that nobody ever hears of.  Actors get far too much attention!”

Offering some background on his character in “Saving Mr. Banks,” the actor says, “I play Don DaGradi who was an animator and spent his career at Disney. Walt Disney gave him a huge shot by promoting him from simply being an animator to co-writing the script for ‘Mary Poppins.’ It was a huge break for him and that’s part of what is so excruciating for Don and for the Sherman brothers when they are confronted with this brick wall of P.L. Travers who is certainly not on the same page.”

 

 

Whitford adds, “From my character’s point of view and the Sherman brothers, they have been laboring on this assignment from Walt to write the songs for ‘Mary Poppins.’ The Shermans and Don know that they have cracked this and they know that these are some absolutely wonderful songs. They are excited about the combination of live acting and cartoons and they basically know that this is going to be the first line of their obituary and they cannot wait to show this woman, P.L. Travers, whom they don’t know at all, the wonderful stuff that they’ve come up with.”

Whitford points out that P.L. Travers, played by Emma Thompson, was not a person who could be awed by Walt Disney’s power and charm.  “It was like a ‘cult’ of support for Disney at this point in the sixties and everything went by Walt’s thumbs up or thumbs down,” comments Whitford. “Everything was based on this guy’s approval and then you have a woman come in who just doesn’t see the magic and worst than that, thinks that the aspiration to that kind of magic is just tacky and stupid. That’s what we call a conflict!”

Explaining how Don DaGradi’s personality fit with Robert and Richard Sherman’s to form the dynamic of the creative team, Whitford says, “Richard’s the sweetest man and Bob’s a little dark but Don DaGradi’s personal happiness meter very much aligned with Dick Sherman. By all accounts, Don felt incredibly fortunate to spend his life working on stories, animating and drawing. I think it’s interesting that Dick had this wonderful sense of gratitude. Dick cannot believe that he got to spend his life writing these wonderful whimsical songs. Bob, on the other hand, felt like a failure because he wasn’t a novelist.”

“Saving Mr. Banks” gives an insight into the story development of “Mary Poppins” in its early stages, which is crucial to making a great end product. “Walt Disney understood that all of the cinematic pyrotechnics in the world do not make up for story,” relates Whitford.  “The amazing thing to me that you see distilled even further now is just the incredibly tight storytelling decisions that have been made before they began filming. A lot of live action movies would benefit from that kind of care about the story. Walt knew that if you don’t have a story, you don’t have anything.”

But part of the problem of adapting “Mary Poppins” was that the book is a series of episodic events. “It doesn’t have the beginning, middle and end that every screenwriter or story person looks for, so they had to manufacture it,” explains Whitford. “Walt knew he wanted to do something that was really sort of unprecedented, which was including animation with live action—a really radical thing to do and something Travers was terrified of.”

Though Whitford is friends with director John Lee Hancock and has even shared Little League coaching with him, he had never worked with Hancock until now. “John has been this presence in my life for a long time,” comments Whitford. “He’s a wonderful guy to work for because he’s totally supportive. John’s got a lot of ideas but your initiative doesn’t atrophy around him. There are two kinds of directors. There are directors who are thrilled to see what the actors might bring and there are directors who are terrified that the actors are going to screw it up. John is the first kind and that’s a lot more fun to work with.”

When asked what he thinks of making a film that showcases the early creative process of making a classic movie, Whitford says, “I am always fascinated by stories about the making of something, to see how these things came together and the most fun about researching this is just seeing how these guys worked and the difficulty of making every little decision that goes into it. I like showing how hard it is to give birth to a movie that works and I think that’s what this is about. Also this is just an insane group of good actors and that’s really fun!”

Q&A follows:

 

 

Did you see “Mary Poppins” when you were a kid?

I specifically remember going to see it when it came out and then seeing it subsequently, obviously pre-video. My father played the piano and loved to sing and could orchestrate it himself, so we would sing the songs. It was just part of our lives.

 

Whom do you play in this movie?

I play Don DaGradi who was an animator and spent his career at Disney. Walt Disney gave him a huge shot by promoting him from simply being an animator to co-writing the script for “Mary Poppins.” It was a huge break for him and that’s part of what is so excruciating for Don and for the Sherman brothers when they are confronted with this brick wall of P.L. Travers who is certainly not on the same page.

 

Was “Mary Poppins” developed like an animated movie?

Yes, it was developed the way Disney develops everything, even in a lot of his live-action things. He would need to see what it was going to look like, so they storyboarded it from the beginning. What’s fun about the process is that it’s very improvisatory, so they would work out beats in the story and then show them to Walt, who would give a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

 

How important was story development to Walt Disney?

Disney understood that all of the cinematic pyrotechnics in the world do not make up for story.  The amazing thing to me that you see distilled even further now is just the incredibly tight storytelling decisions that have been made before they began filming. A lot of live action movies would benefit from that kind of care about the story. Walt knew that if you don’t have a story, you don’t have anything.

 

In the film, will we see you in the room going through this story development process?

Yes, and by the way, part of the problem with doing “Mary Poppins” is that the book is a series of episodic events. It doesn’t have the beginning middle and end that every screenwriter or story person looks for, so they had to manufacture it. Walt knew he wanted to do something that was really sort of unprecedented, which was including animation with live action—a really radical thing to do and something Travers was terrified of.

 

In “Saving Mr. Banks” it seems like you’re shining a light on the unsung heroes that make movies. Is that a fair assumption?

Yes. That was something that made me want to do this. It’s absolutely shining a light on and making heroes of the people who really make these things happen that nobody ever hears of.  Actors get far too much attention!

 

Tell us what happens in this movie.

From my character’s point of view and the Sherman brothers, they have been laboring on this assignment from Walt to write the songs for “Mary Poppins.” The Shermans and Don know that they have cracked this and they know that these are some absolutely wonderful songs. They are excited about the combination of live acting and cartoons and they basically know that this is going to be the first line of their obituary and they cannot wait to show this woman, P.L. Travers, whom they don’t know at all, the wonderful stuff that they’ve come up with.

They are greeted with the fact that she didn’t want music in the movie and she didn’t want animation, which they tried to hide form her. Yet at the same time, Walt knew that she contained the heart of the story and needed her collaboration as difficult as it was. She’s coming from England facing tacky Americans, musicals and cartoons—all of which she was not looking for, so she refused to give the rights over. That was amazing since Walt Disney at that point was the most powerful studio guy on the planet and she wasn’t interested if it wasn’t going to be done her way.  Walt recognized that her sense of proprietary ownership of this story came from something else, although Walt didn’t know quite what it was, but it’s something this movie explores that was essential. He had to get her past the idea that musicals are stupid and cartoons are stupid.

 

Have you heard anything about Disney that was surprising to you?

Yes. In this day and age of huge corporations, there’s a lot of cynicism about merchandising and capitalizing and making as much money as possible and the fascinating thing to me about Disney was he did not care about money. He had a very difficult relationship with Roy because Roy, in a very protective way, did care about money but for Walt money was simply a way to fulfill what he wanted to do creatively. I had always thought that there was a more mercenary motivation there but he just listened to those crazy whispers in his head even when he became hugely successful and would then risk it all on an amusement park. It’s insane!

 

He was a really amazing person who followed his muses, right?

Yes! I’ve bumped into people who have that trait to a certain degree and in the moment you can’t tell that it’s visionary. It seems insane and this incredible ability to marshal all of these creative people into the service of these insane but wonderful notions is just amazing.

 

P.L Travers had some immunity to Walt Disney’s charm, didn’t she?

Yes, she did. It was like a “cult” of support for Disney at this point in the sixties and everything went by Walt’s thumbs up or thumbs down. Everything was based on this guy’s approval and then you have a woman come in who just doesn’t see the magic and worst than that, thinks that the aspiration to that kind of magic is just tacky and stupid. That’s what we call a conflict!

 

Tell me about the dynamic with the Sherman Brothers characters and where your character Don DaGradi fits in?

Richard’s the sweetest man and Bob’s a little dark but Don’s personal happiness meter very much aligned with Dick Sherman. By all accounts, Don felt incredibly fortunate to spend his life working on stories, animating and drawing. We found out that he would be sketching constantly and he would do very satirical, biting cartoons about Ms. Travers. I think it’s interesting that Dick had this wonderful sense of gratitude.  Dick cannot believe that he got to spend his life writing these wonderful whimsical songs.  Bob on the other hand felt like a failure because he wasn’t a novelist.

 

Talk about the relationship that P.L Travers had with the guys.

The guys thought they were giving her a gift with their songs but she’s like “oh, it’s awful.” She insisted on taping the sessions and we’ve listened to these tapes, and it’s that horrible condescending combination of fake etiquette infused with total condescension like, “Oh no, Darling, that’s not it.” She expressed an opinion as if it was the objective truth. It was excruciating; it’s the death of joy.

 

 

Emma has to play P.L. Travers and wear the tight curls and tight clothes?

Yes, but Emma is so not that person yet so clearly has experienced that kind of person in her life! It’s so the opposite of her. She’s just the sweetest person to work with and she will often, at the end of a take, go “Oh, this person is just awful” and she would apologize for the lines she had to say.

 

Do you know why was Travers like that?

Like a lot of people who are extremely harsh and judgmental and controlling, the irony is that there’s a wound somewhere and they become harsh precisely because they were so vulnerable to that. It’s a really interesting combination that gets to the heart of why we have flashback scenes in this movie. This process ultimately is precisely that combination of what a child wants and what life presents that makes it so heartbreaking.

 

Can you talk to me about Tom Hanks as Walt Disney?

It makes total sense.  It’s a perfect combination of Tom’s obvious skill as an actor and the kind of “can do” optimism he exudes. There’s something unmistakably, archetypically American about Tom. When I first met Tom, I noticed he has an elevated volume to his voice, which apparently Walt had too, which is an expression of this kind of “can do” enthusiasm. I thought it was perfect casting.

 

Would you call it a powerful cheerfulness?

Yes!  It’s like an attitude of “we can do it.” “Sure, we’ll build a fake city and people will come,” and, “Yes, I think I could I could be the biggest actor in the world.”  There is something that allows both of them to do that.

 

What do you think made Walt Disney and P.L. Travers exceptional storytellers?

If you ever talk to a comedian, they’re the darkest people in the world! I think that there’s a huge motivation for people who have experienced some sort of emotional struggle, especially when it stems from the unprotected pain of childhood difficulties, that makes them makes them want to control and create a better world; one that doesn’t contain that pain.

 

When Walt Disney was a child his parents took him out to shows, so they cultivated that in him, correct?

Yes, he certainly had that outlet. What’s amazing to me is the confidence with which he proceeded into this barely existing art of animation and saw the potential in there, and then sustained his joy through the difficulty and the rejections and the work. It’s amazing.

 

Can you talk about John Lee Hancock?

I love John.  I met John many years ago. I think it was the first script he sold, a Clint Eastwood movie called “A Perfect World.” I met him then and we have been acquaintances and, more recently, friends and parents. Our kids are in the same grade and a couple of years ago John and I coached Little League together, so John has been this presence in my life for a long time. He’s a wonderful guy to work for because he’s totally supportive. He’s watching and he’s very attentive. John’s got a lot of ideas but your initiative doesn’t atrophy around him. There are two kinds of directors. There are directors who are thrilled to see what the actors might bring and there are directors who are terrified that the actors are going to screw it up. John is the first kind and that’s a lot more fun to work with.

 

Did you like working on this type of “making of” movie?

I am always fascinated by stories about the making of something, to see how these things came together and the most fun about researching this is just seeing how these guys worked and the difficulty of making every little decision that goes into it, realizing what these animators went through, especially in the early days of Disney. These guys would work for months on a one-minute sequence and then you’re working for this wonderful perfectionist who comes in and goes, “That bear’s belly is too big. Do it again.”  Then they were back to square one. I like showing how hard it is to give birth to a movie that works and I think that’s what this is about. Also this is just an insane group of good actors and that’s really fun!

 

 

Saving Mr. Banks Film Page | Saving Mr. Banks Review | Win Saving Mr. Banks on Blu-ray

SAVING MR. BANKS COMES TO BLU-RAY AND DVD ON MONDAY MARCH 24

ABOUT THE MOVIE
Two-time Academy Award®–winner Emma Thompson and fellow double Oscar®-winner Tom Hanks topline Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks,” inspired by the extraordinary, untold backstory of how Disney’s classic “Mary Poppins” made it to the screen.

When Walt Disney’s daughters begged him to make a movie of their favorite book, P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins,” he made them a promise—one that he didn’t realize would take 20 years to keep. In his quest to obtain the rights, Walt comes up against a curmudgeonly, uncompromising writer who has absolutely no intention of letting her beloved magical nanny get mauled by the Hollywood machine. But, as the books stop selling and money grows short, Travers reluctantly agrees to go to Los Angeles to hear Disney’s plans for the adaptation.

For those two short weeks in 1961, Walt Disney pulls out all the stops. Armed with imaginative storyboards and chirpy songs from the talented Sherman brothers, Walt launches an all-out onslaught on P.L. Travers, but the prickly author doesn’t budge.  He soon begins to watch helplessly as Travers becomes increasingly immovable and the rights begin to move further away from his grasp.

It is only when he reaches into his own childhood that Walt discovers the truth about the ghosts that haunt her, and together they set Mary Poppins free to ultimately make one of the most endearing films in cinematic history.

Disney presents “Saving Mr. Banks,” directed by John Lee Hancock, produced by Alison Owen, Ian Collie and Philip Steuer, and written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. Executive producers are Paul Trijbits, Christine Langan, Andrew Mason and Troy Lum. The film released in U.S. theaters on December 13, 2013, limited, and opened wide on December 20, 2013.