Saving Mr. Banks: A Masterclass for Writers

I saw the movie Saving Mr. Banks this week, and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It’s a movie that makes you laugh out loud one minute, cry the next, and at the end leaves you inspired to go out and make something beautiful. There are so many fantastic lessons for writers here that it’s practically a master class all on its own. If I could, I would take you all on a fieldtrip to watch this movie and learn these lessons, but since that’s not happening, I want to call out 7 key lessons.  When I’m done, there’s a link to something that might inspire you every week for all of 2014. There are movie spoilers all over this post, so reader beware.

1.    Structure is everything. The story of P.L. Travers and Walt Disney wrestling over the creation of the Mary Poppins movie takes place over a two-week period of time. The writer, in other words, made a radical decision about when this story would start, when it would end and what it would contain. She did NOT try to sneak in every last little thing about Walt Disney, who had one of the most iconic careers of any American innovator. She did not give us endless details about Travers’ somewhat crazy and unusual life.  The story does not even contain the actual writing and publishing of the Mary Poppins’ books.  It focuses on one key relationship in Travers’ early life (which is masterfully woven into the main narrative – more on that later) and the two critical weeks when the future of Mary Poppins, the movie, hung in the balance. That’s it – and it is more than enough. This lesson may seem obvious, but you would be amazed how many writers never make these kinds of editorial choices, especially if they are writing about their own lives. Know what you are writing about, and then devise a structure that best conveys your point. Then, be ruthless with what you decide to leave out.

2.    If you twist the truth, you are writing fiction. Students writing memoir always want to know if they can tweak the truth a little bit to improve the story – set something in Paris, say, instead of London, or have an event that happened in 1980 happen in 1982. The answer is no. Writers of non-fiction enter into an implicit contract with their readers. The contract is that the writer will tell the truth to the best of their ability. Memory is fungible, of course, as is perception and reality. But if you KNOW something happened one way and you DECIDE to write it another way, you are writing fiction. Here is Kelly Marcel, the writer of Saving Mr. Banks, explaining a moment of Disney’s life she chose to fictionalize:

 Walt showing up in London…that didn’t happen. He did have a conversation with her where he convinced her to give him the rights, but nobody knows what that conversation was. So in terms of fictionalizing… the biggest fictionalized piece is that, but that is how I imagine how he got the rights from her and everything he says in that speech about his father is completely true. That is his childhood. So you know, you some times have to twist the truth a little to make it dramatic. So rather than a phone call, we did it in person, which I don’t think is a massive [invention].

3.    Sometimes you have to rewrite a scene twenty times. The dialogue in this movie is stellar. It crackles with electricity and wit, with sadness and mourning, with unspoken fear and deeply held desires, AND it sounds like the way people really talk. That is no small feat. You have to first know precisely what you are writing about. You have to then know precisely who your characters are and what their desires and fears are. You have to then know exactly what is at stake in the scene at hand. Marcel was asked to describe one of the trickiest scenes in the movie, and she chose to talk about a very quiet scene of dialogue between two characters. Her answer and the scene is reprinted here. Note that she says she rewrote the scene twenty times. That is what writers do.

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4.    Authenticity of emotion can’t be faked.  Readers come to every single narrative story for one reason and one reason only: to feel something. I like to say that if a painters’ medium is light, and a writers’ medium is emotion. Paint and words are just the tools that help us shape those things. What this means is that you have to write real, authentic, heartfelt emotion into your stories. The entire story of Saving Mr. Banks comes down to one key scene. Walt is about to lose the right to produce Mary Poppins, a movie he is desperate to make. He can’t understand why Travers is being so prickly about her creation and the viewer can’t understand why WALT is being so prickly about making the film, until finally he can understand it — all of it. He realizes what Mary Poppins is really about: a child holding on too tight to the love of a flawed father. He is that child and Travers is that child. With this knowledge in hand, Walt goes before Travers to make one last plea. Because he taps into a moment of shared, authentic pain, Travers feels it — feels Walt’s humanity — and she relents. The viewer feels the characters’ pain, as well as their vulnerability in sharing it with each other. We are right there in the palm of Tom Hank’s hand. A few scenes later, when the camera lingers on Travers’ face in the theater as she watches Mary Poppins, we know exactly what the moment means to her and what it costs her, and so when she cries, we cry. Unless, of course, your heart is made of stone.

5.    Know what is going on in your reader’s mind.  Early in the movie, Travers (a totally no-nonsense gal) arrives at the Beverly Hills Hotel from her home in London to find the room packed with Disney paraphernalia and baskets of fruit and wine. It’s totally over the top and she is disgusted with the display of silly excess. The first thing she does is take all the pears and throw them out the window in the pool. It’s a funny scene, but the viewer knows something else is going on here. The movie makers spend a long time on this moment. They camera spends a lot of time following the pears’ trajectory out the window and into the water. It spends time on the sunbathers’ faces as they watch this bizarre event unfold. Everything, in other words, says, pay attention to this. We do – and when, in the middle of the movie, there is another scene where the father brings a gift of a pear to his family, every nerve cell in our brains is on high alert. Pears! Pears! What does this mean?? We are now holding pears in our head, waiting for the payoff. That’s what viewers and readers DO. We watch for patterns. We look for meaning. We wait for the payoff. Smart writers know this fact, and use it. At the end of the film, in a critical, mournful scene, the true meaning of the pears is hit home. What we feel watching the scene is both the sadness of what it all means and a sense of triumph that we saw it coming, that we held pears in our head for two hours.

6.     Flashbacks should be an organic part of the story. Saving Mr. Banks takes place over a two week period of time on the Disney lot. The backstory of Travers’ childhood in Australia is woven into this narrative through a series of flashbacks. The structure is extremely effective. At one point, there is a powerful scene in the main story punctuated by a powerful scene in the backstory. The two narratives comes together, in other words, and sparks fly. If you are writing anything with flashbacks, I suggest going to watch this movie and paying attention to nothing other than the way they move in and out of the main narrative. It’s extraordinarily effective. Here are a few things to note:

  •  The backstory has its own arc. We are as invested in what happens in     the backstory as we are in what happens in the main story.
  • The backstory interrupts the main narrative at moments when it is imperative that we know something from the backstory in order to understand the main story. It happens on a need to know basis. We need to know something and the backstory obliges.
  •  Each time we return to the main narrative, we know exactly where we left off. We are not jolted back to “reality.” We are delivered safely, with assurance, back to the main story.

7.     Art heals. This is a story borne of vey deep pain. If you or someone you love had a father like the fathers in this movie, you’re going to feel it in your gut. It might not be pleasant, but it will be healing, and that makes all of this hard work worthwhile. Marcel describes this process beautifully in an article in the LA Times

“A woman came up to me at the end of a screening. She cried as she told me her father was an alcoholic. She said seeing "Saving Mr. Banks" had made her feel less alone. We talked for a time and then shared a hug. If we can touch one person, give them a moment's respite, then that's reason enough to pick up the pen again. And, as it turns out, it's why I picked up the pen up in the first place.”

And Now…. A Random, Super Cool Free Thing for All Writers

Many of you have heard me rave about Dan Blank, whose website We Grow Media is devoted to helping writers build an authentic following so that when their book is published there are people actually ready and waiting to read it. (If you are in the midst of writing a book, pay special attention to Dan’s upcoming 8-week class on connecting with readers.) Dan Blank, in turn, often raves about Sarah Bray of asmallnation.com, which is how I was first introduced to her work. Sarah helps creative professionals of all kinds identify their heart’s work, identify the tribe (or nation, as she calls it) who want and need that work, and then make the work that serves the nation. I am such a fan of Sarah’s that I am taking her intensive course starting Monday. I can’t wait! In a cool circle of awesomeness, I am currently coaching Sarah through a project that is, for the moment, secret. You will hear about it here when the time is right…. The POINT of all this is that Sarah has just announced a brand new project, The Year of the Nation. She will email a worksheet/prompt/activity/inspirational something for creative professionals every week for a year – and all for FREE. What? It’s a crazy good opportunity and it starts right now. Check it out here. And also look at Sarah’s other crazy cool project, HelloMonth.com, where she makes a gorgeous, inspirational calendar for each month.

“A Small Nation is a community of dreamers and makers who want to move people to be, do, and experience something better. Whether we do it through art or words or code or strategy or medicine or whatever gifts we’ve been given, we want to build nations that both inspire people and move them to action.” – Sarah Bray