B.J. Novak on ‘Saving Mr. Banks’: “There was just this real awe of being part of this elegant production”

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Many pegged B.J. Novak as being set for movie stardom by many after he landed a significant role in Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds, but between working on The Office as an actor, producer, writer, and director he was a bit busy to chase Hollywood stardom.  Now that The Office has ended, Novak has his first significant post-Office movie role in Saving Mr. Banks, which is about the making of Mary Poppins.  Novak stars as Robert Sherman, one half of the real-life songwriting brothers who wrote so many classics for Disney and other studios (his brother, Richard, is portrayed by Jason Schwartzman).  Novak spoke about to Moviefone about the experience working on the film, getting apologizes from Emma Thompson, and how the movie relates to his own career.

Novak explains that the film’s 1961 setting was one of his favorite things about making the film.  He says, “The costumes were fun. Not just the costumes, but the whole glow. It was really like an old-fashioned movie in the best sense. It was elegant and thoughtful and sentimental, but in a smart way. And it took its time and there was great care to every detail. I’ve certainly never been in a movie quite like that. Few movies like that are even made [today]. So there was just this real awe of being part of this elegant production.”

In the film, much of the conflict stems from Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers’ refusal to stray from her book for the movie adaptation.  Novak admits that he’s never had an experience working with anyone that was that difficult, but some have come close.  He explains, “I’ve never worked with anyone as difficult as that. But I certainly recognize her in all kinds of people I’ve seen. I spent eight years as a writer and producer on The Office, so a lot of network and studio notes and disagreements within the writers’ room. When I heard those tapes of P.L. Travers and the Sherman Brothers, my first thought was, ‘Wow, not so much has changed in Burbank in 50 years.’ This certainly sounds like one of our nightmare, all-night, no-progress arguments.”

Novak plays the less patient of the two brothers, and Travers’ demands often get under his character’s skin.  Novak reveals that Emma Thompson, who plays Travers in the film, felt terrible about having to treat him that way.  He recalls, “She apologized after every single take. She said, ‘I’m sorry I’m being so horrid to you. I’m sorry I’m being such a b*tch.’ It never occurred to me that she had anything to apologize for… She felt bad. She was charming as hell. I don’t think anyone could possibly walk out of that movie or even any individual scene, hating Emma Thompson.”

About Thompson, he adds, “She’s so good, and she’s so expressive. And then the movie goes into such detail about what she’s actually dealing with and what she’s trying to exorcise. So she had nothing to apologize for. But she’s just a very empathic person.”

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