She was a magical nanny who almost never leapt off the page.
Mary Poppins famously transitioned Julie Andrews from a stage star - she'd received numerous accolades for turns in My Fair Lady and Camelot on Broadway - into a bona fide movie star. "I was scared to death," Andrews says of her first film role, which was also a breakthrough in mixing live-action actors and animation. "I knew nothing about filming."
But Mary Poppins almost never saw the light of day, a story exposed in Saving Mr. Banks (in New Zealand theatres in Feburary), which travels back in time to 1961.
The movie finds Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) trying to make good on a 20-year promise to his children to turn Mary Poppins into a feature film, flying the famously sour English author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to Los Angeles to convince her to sign over the rights to her beloved tale.
The film depicts Disney and Travers' titanic battle, as well as some of the author's exact specifications, including that her sessions with Disney's creative team be recorded, lest she be without proof of her demands. (An audience tip: don't leave before the credits stop rolling.)
Andrews and Mary Poppins composer Richard Sherman sat together exclusively with USA Today to remember the "birth pains," as Sherman says, of the wildly successful film, which coincided with the launch of their legendary film careers.
Nearly 50 years after Mary Poppins debuted, the experience of haggling with the story's author still makes Sherman shudder.
"Have you ever taken a wonderful, warm shower and you feel really good in the morning?" asks the effusive 85-year-old Oscar winner who, with his brother Robert, is responsible for some of Disney's most famous songs to date - chief among them, "It's a Small World After All."
"You finish the shower, you're ready to face the day, and you're feeling confident and somebody comes along with an ice bucket and pours ice water all over you. That's what it felt like."
"Oh gosh," says Andrews, 78, absentmindedly fixing a vase of Gerbera daisies sitting next to her.
"Basically, we felt great," says Sherman (who consulted on the film and is played by Jason Schwartzman), remembering the day he met Travers on this very lot in Burbank. "We'd rehearsed how we were going to present it, and (screenwriter) Don (DaGradi, played by Bradley Whitford) was going to read the script and Bob (his brother, played by B.J. Novak) and I would sing songs.
"And her opening line to us was, 'I don't even know why I'm meeting you gentlemen, because in fact we're not going to have music in this film and, in fact, we're not going to have any prancing and dancing.' We were completely dashed."
It hardly went better for Andrews' first interaction with the author (although it was Dick Van Dyke's casting that Travers opposed most).
"I'd just given birth to my daughter Emma literally the day before," says Andrews, then married to set designer Tony Walton. "And the following morning my phone rang in the hospital, and the voice said, (Andrews croaks), 'Hello?' I said, 'Who is this?' She says 'P.L. Travers.'
"I almost sat up in bed," recalls Andrews. "I said, 'Oh, Miss Travers, how sweet of you to call!' She said, 'Yes. Well, I understand you're going to be playing the part of Mary Poppins.' I said yes, as I understand it. And she said, 'Well, talk to me!'"
Andrews, warm and witty in person, chuckles. I said, 'Well I'm feeling a bit woozy right now. I just had a baby yesterday.'" (Andrews would go on to have five children, including four from her 38-year marriage to director Blake Edwards, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.) Travers' response? "Well. You're far too pretty, of course. But you've got the nose for it.'"
Thompson has picked up Golden Globe and Critics' Choice nominations for her portrayal of Travers. "Emma could not have been more acerbic," says Andrews. "I just love whatever she does."
Saving Mr. Banks simultaneously reveals the roots of Mary Poppins in flashbacks to Travers' childhood in Australia as alcoholism devoured her charming, imaginative father (Colin Farrell). Travers created the Banks family in response to her shaky history, with Poppins as a pillar of strength on which children could lean.
It's why she distrusted Disney so mightily, accusing him of inserting sugary "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" nonsense into the more realistic universe she'd crafted.
"I did not know the backstory," says Andrews. "And now that I've seen the movie a lot more makes sense."
"Walt was one determined man," says Sherman. "Nobody could say no to him. Pamela Travers was so stern. She didn't want to be called Pamela. She wanted to be called Mrs. Travers. So Walt said, 'OK, Pam, it's all right.' He shortened her name even further. He paid no attention to her."
Saving Mr. Banks debuted to an 81 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, although some critics have complained of too rosy of a depiction of Travers' true reaction to the final film.
"I don't think she was as fond of the movie as we all hoped she might be," acknowledges Andrews. "But you know, I'm sure she cried all the way, you know, to the bank."
Who was Disney behind closed doors? He was a constant smoker, which Hanks clues audience into by precipitating his arrival into rooms with a hacking cough.
The Sherman brothers worked with Disney on more than 27 films, including The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh and The Parent Trap. Sherman hardly ever saw the visionary lose his temper, but "the thing he hated more than anything was negative people," he says.
"In story meetings, when we were working on a film and someone would look at a sequence and say, 'I just don't like it.' And he would blow his top. He would say, 'If you don't have a way to improve it, keep your mouth shut. Anybody can say I don't like something. Give me something to make it better!'"
And it was Disney who agreed to screen early scenes of Mary Poppins for The Sound of Music director Robert Wise, leading to Andrews winning the role of Maria. "Walt never, ever did that," says Andrews.
There was also Midwestern reserve in his praise. "He would always say 'That'll work,'" says Sherman. "That was his biggest compliment. So (screenwriter Kelly Marcel) wrote it into the script. And Tom says it perfectly, just the way he did."
The real Disney "had a little twinkle in his eye. He had a wonderful sort of bubbly personality that you knew also masked a very serious businessman," says Andrews. "I think Tom captured that sparkle."
Over the hour, Andrews recalls watching Dick Van Dyke rehearse dance routines on hot days on the back lot, asking to re-record Feed the Birds (Disney's favourite tune), and plummeting onto the soundstage when her wires gave one day while shooting flying scenes. "I have to admit there were several Anglo-Saxon words I let fly," she says wryly.
The film earned Andrews her first Oscar win, but critics in 1964 ripped Van Dyke's rough cockney accent to shreds. "He always said, 'Oh my god, I'm not that great at cockney,'" says Andrews. "But he covered it so wonderfully because he had a wonderful body that was so limber and he had such joie de vivre."
"If you want to nitpick something, no, his cockney was not that good," says Sherman. "So what? He was so wonderful in every other way."
"Doesn't seem to have harmed the film that much, 50 years later," says Andrews with a wink.
Sherman lights up at a favourite memory of he and his brother scheming to plop their Oscars on Disney's desk as a thank you the morning after they won for Mary Poppins score and the song Chim Chim Cher-ee.
"And there he is behind his desk reading a script, just the day after the Oscars. So we put the four Oscars right up on his desk and waited. And he didn't do anything! He kept reading the scripts. He (finally) said, 'OK, so you hit one out of the park. But remember: The bases were loaded.' That was Walt. I adored him."
The longevity of the role that launched her iconic career is not lost upon Andrews (at the time of the interview, she had not yet seen NBC's The Sound of Music, Live!).
"I'm the lucky lady that was asked to do this wonderful movie," says Andrews. "It's one of those breaks in life, one of those breaks in your career. I knew it then and I know it now."