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"Saving Mr. Banks" is currently delighting audiences with its take on Walt Disney, P.L. Travers and the making of "Mary Poppins." But part of the magic of the movie is the recreation of a time and place, and the individual in charge of the art department that brought that world to life is production designer Michael Corenblith.
Corenblith has worked with director John Lee Hancock since 2004's "The Alamo," which was a project of note at the time due to a 51-acre set that was the largest and most expensive set built in North America. Both proud natives of Texas, the two have had a deepening relationship that began on that first feature, which was a personal project for both. "It was amazing – the congruence of the way we saw," Corenblith says with a degree of marvel. "Our processes were immediately aligned. We began to grow in depth and complexity when we collaborated on 'The Blind Side.'"
Because of his association with Hancock, Corenblith was aware of "Saving Mr. Banks" before it had been really greenlit. When the casting process began, he was able to dig into the screenplay and start into deep background research on the film's central characters, particularly Valerie Lawson's biography of Travers, "Mary Poppins, She Wrote." "I started getting foundational knowledge," he says. "When this appeared on [Hancock]'s radar, I knew I was going to be there by his side."
Creating the world of such an iconic figure in the film industry was a dream project for Corenblith, but also one that was more than a little intimidating and came with an enormous amount of responsibility. "I'm of a generation where when I grew up, every Sunday night we watched Walt," he says. "Even though now I sadly realize we weren't really in Walt's office [when he was on TV], having grown up with that being such an important, iconic office, it was staggering what that meant when recreating it, not just to our audience but to the institutional legacy of Walt Disney. And it's remarkable that Walt has been gone for nearly 50 years now and some people out there think that Walt Disney is a brand the way Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben's is a brand. The film was an opportunity to present Walt and his world."
At the same time, however, the film is first and foremost Travers' story, not Disney's, and it was as important to create a personality for her with fewer sets as it was to create one for Disney with the numerous pieces that made up his larger-than-life persona. "One of the things the movie does is open in Travers' home in London in 1960s," Corenblith explains. "We had to tell a lot about who Travers was in a quick, opening montage. What was motivating her all this time? What was at stake for Travers?"
This required a difficult mix of conservatism and eclecticism. The film's British producers were very attuned to what Georgian architecture would have looked like, Corenblith says, but it was equally important to add details revealing character, particularly of such a unique and creative persona as Travers.
A difficult challenge for a production designer on a film like this is the fact that in addition to recreating both London and Los Angeles of 1961, parallel stories of 1906 Australia were also being conveyed. It was important that this remain both distinct and related.
"Travers' memories and reveries are now sort of awakened by going through and trying to write the screenplay," he says. "In some way, I had to have stories going on separate, parallel tracks, but at the same time ensure the connection because the memories of 1906 connect to the creative process of trying to write the screenplay, present the storyboard, write the song."
With all these macro-level challenges, the process did become simpler due to good fortune that happened to present itself. "The producers could not have been more cooperative in terms of opening their office to us," he says, referring to the Disney studios where Walt had once spent his days. "At the same time, there was an exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Library [of Disney materials], and to our great fortune, there was a recreation of Walt's office. It had all of his original furniture."
Corenblith studied many of these matters with costume designer Daniel Orlandi. Recreating a particular time and place could not have worked without the entire design team being on the same page. Fundamentally, though, Corenblith attributes this to the vision that Hancock had for the project.
"It's like playing in the world's greatest band," he says. "Collaborate with the writer, the costume designer, cinematographer. Everybody's contributions are unique and add to complete picture."
"Saving Mr. Banks" is now playing in theaters.
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