It’s around this time of year nearly every year that critics begin to try and uncover the real history behind Oscar contender films that are based on true stories. In recent years filmgoers have noted inaccuracies in titles like David Fincher’s The Social Network, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, and even Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, and each time it brings back the debate of what the truth really means in adaptations and reenactments. Is it more important to nail the cold hard facts, or is it more about creating a story and discovering an emotional reality that may look at everything from a new angle? As the director of many "based on a true story" films, including the new movie Saving Mr. Banks, John Lee Hancock is very familiar with this conversation.

As part of a press day for the film late last month in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with Hancock and discuss what truth really means both in the context of feature filmmaking and in bringing the story behind the film Mary Poppins to life. Where do you find the line between emotional and factual truth? Read on to find out the director’s thoughts on the subject.

Something I always think about whenever I watch movies based on a true story, is the line between factual truth and emotional truth. Just having directed as many "based on a true story" films as you have, I’m curious what your personal philosophy is in that respect.

You know, it’s kind of like, what was the old supreme court saying about the decision about pornography, you know it when you see it. It’s a little bit of that. You know when you say this is fair or this is pushing the boundary, but I think you’re right about the emotional truth. Willie Morris, I produced a movie many years back called My Dog Skip and Willie Morris was on the set with us, and he wrote the book, very talented southern writer and Diane Lane was cast as his mother and you know, Diane’s much prettier than Willie’s mom was, so there are lots of those kinds of things in there and I asked Willie about it one time. I said, you know, we took stories from your entire six through eighteen and made it one year, condensed that and added other stories that kind of didn’t happen but could have, and he said, John, there are the facts and then there’s the truth and this is the truth, and he’s talking about an emotional truth. So, I think that’s the litmus for it, in a way.

What was your approach to that when you were looking at this film?

Well, the first thing you do is you always want to know, what really happened, what didn’t, what’s been shifted around. I didn’t write the script, so I didn’t know where the bodies were buried, so bringing Kelly in and saying did this happen, did this happen, just knowing, and then you can make a decision about, yeah I’m completely fine with flipping the order of these. Yes, this happened five years earlier, but it happened, so we’re going to put it in here.

How much does having research materials… you had [classic Disney composer] Richard Sherman as an asset on this film…

He’s a living walking archive [laughs].

[Laughs] When it comes to the recordings and all of the records, how much does that influence the need to stick to the facts – knowing that the cold hard facts are out there.

Well, I think you use it all, because a lot of times, you’ll know emotionally what a story needs to be and you’ll go through that and find the things that help you tell that story and the more pieces of absolute reality you can bring in to it, it kind of seeps into the DNA of the project, in a weird way, whether it’s having the work project and swatches and stuff, Tony Walton’s sketches on the wall, cause it’s a movie about the creative process and not the finished product, but getting there.

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