HOLLYWOOD – The American Film Institute kicked off the 2013 AFI Film Fest on Thursday night with the North American premiere of John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks” at the TCL Chinese Theater. Hancock noted during the screening’s introduction that the entire event felt a tad like deja vu. Not only had “Mary Poppins,” a classic film that is a key element of the movie’s plot, held its world premiere at the Chinese, but “Banks” re-staged that premiere for its own ending about a year ago. Needless to say, the Walt Disney Company may own the El Capitan Theater across the street, but “Banks'” Hollywood debut proved the Chinese has special place in the studio’s history.
Unfortunately for attendees, one of the always disappointing secrets of AFI Film Fest is that it’s very rare that the stars of one of the festival’s galas will actually attend their movie’s after-party at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Smartly, Disney decided to have a pre-screening reception in order to give the press some time with the film’s talent. Those in attendance included Hancock, legendary Disney songwriter Richard Sherman, B.J. Novack, Jason Schwartzman (who plays a younger Sherman in the movie), Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell and, of course, Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.
(Fred Willard and Brenda Vaccaro were also spotted throughout the night, but that’s just the odd mix of AFI Film Fest for you).
Thompson delivers one of her finest performances as P.L. Travers, the author and creator of Marry Poppins. Set mostly in 1961, “Banks” follows Travers’ two-week journey to Los Angeles to see if she can stomach giving Walt Disney (Hanks) the rights to make a Poppins movie (something the mogul was already in deep pre-production on after chasing the rights for 20 years by that time). The film earned mostly positive reviews out of its London Film Festival world premiere last month and instantly earned a spot among this year’s awards season players.
Arriving at the reception, I barely had time to grab a drink before I was introduced to the always delightful Thompson, who seemed a bit surprised to be talking to someone who had already seen the movie (most of the press in attendance had not). As she had during the London premiere’s introduction, the Oscar-winning screenwriter continued to give a huge amount of praise to “Banks” writer Kelly Marcel, who shares credit with Sue Smith (although no one seems to be mentioning the latter’s contributions at all). I asked what she thought of the reaction to the film so far and Thompson insisted that she doesn’t read reviews, but she had heard some of the reactions in London were a bit mixed (true). As for working with Hanks, she joked that the two were old pros and they hardly needed rehearsal. That was a sentiment her co-star also shared.
Hanks, always jovial, always a delight to speak to, has been somewhat quiet during the promotional efforts for both “Banks” and his hit thriller “Captain Phillips.” The two-time Oscar winner participated in barely any sit down video interviews for “Phillips” (mostly limiting his appearances to red carpets) and “Banks” is no different. It’s clearly a strategy set in motion as to not overexpose the actor with the opportunity for both Best Actor (“Phillips”) and Best Supporting Actor (“Banks”) nominations at play. Hanks laughed when I told him Thompson referred to them as both old pros and then proceeded to credit the script (Marcel again) and Hancock for their easy repartee.
He also used the analogy of describing both Thompson and himself as two classic baseball players meeting on the field. He gave her an excellent pitch in their scenes together and she knocked them out of the park. Of course, as fantastic as Thompson is, it’s Hanks’ work (especially during a major moment in the third act) that makes the movie work. Before you know it, and before I can tell him what a big fan of the underrated “Cloud Atlas” I am, Hanks is pulled away by someone wanting a photograph. Something suggests he won’t go far as he should be making a number of future appearances on the awards season calendar.
As for the screening itself, there was laughter at many expected moments, but it was not as prevalent as during the London premiere, possibly because many of the jokes are at Americans’ expense. (It’s worth noting Hanks told me he sat through the London premiere and noticed the English crowd laughed at moments he hadn’t expected). That being said, the film got a very nice if not enthusiastic round of applause at the end.
It was a solid night for “Banks'” U.S. premiere as it looks to make an Oscar run and score at the box office beginning on Christmas day.
“Saving Mr. Banks” opens nationwide on Christmas day.