Jason Schwartzman: Sherman brothers put the pop in 'Poppins'

The Fresno BeeDecember 18, 2013 

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B.J. Novak, left, and Jason Schwartzman as the Sherman brothers, who composed the songs for "Mary Poppins."

FRANCOIS DUHAMEL

LOS ANGELES — Jason Schwartzman didn't realize until he was cast as songwriter Richard M. Sherman in "Saving Mr. Banks" how familiar he was with his work.

"If you had asked me a week before being cast who the Sherman Brothers are, I'm embarrassed to say that I wouldn't be able to say who they are," Schwartzman says. "Then I realized I knew so much of their work. I knew 'Mary Poppins.' I knew a lot of their other songs. Musically speaking, I was very familiar with them."

Sherman and his brother, Robert, were two prolific songwriters at the Disney Studios, producing scores for "The Jungle Book," "The Aristocats," "The Sword in the Stone" and a host of other projects. No other songwriting team has produced more motion picture scores.

It's their work for "Mary Poppins" that's featured in "Saving Mr. Banks." The Sherman Brothers (with B.J. Novak playing Robert) try to help persuade the writer of the Mary Poppins books, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) that she should sign over the rights to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to make the books into a movie.

Schwartzman was able to move beyond only knowing the work of the Sherman Brothers to a deeper understanding of the men because of talks he had with Richard during the filming. It was a resource that Novak didn't have because Robert died in 2012.

"If you talk to Richard about songwriting, he sees it as a real craft and really approaches it from that angle," Schwartzman says. "He and his brother are storytellers. I saw an interview with them where they were asked which came first — the music or the words. They said neither. It was the idea. You feel that when you listen to their songs."

Getting to play the songwriter felt like a perfect fit for Schwartzman. Although he's known for his work in movies such as "Rushmore" and "Moonrise Kingdom," Schwartzman was the drummer and a songwriter for the band Phantom Planet and went solo with Coconut Records. Music continues to be a passion. He wrote the theme song for his HBO series "Bored to Death" and tracks for the TV show "Smallville."

When asked about his musical career, Schwartzman says he's a little embarrassed to talk about his work in the same breath as the Sherman Brothers. Pressed on the subject, Schwartzman explains that what he does is different from the way the Sherman Brothers worked.

"For me, it's a little bit different because I'm not writing in the kind of situation where someone is saying they need a song by tomorrow," Schwartzman says. "I just try to write every day because I get a pleasure out of writing every day. I write music the way some people do a crossword puzzle every day. It makes me feel focused."

It was easy for Schwartzman to understand how it felt for the Sherman Brothers to work on music together. The actor and his brother, Robert Schwartzman, have penned some songs together. The teamwork has been positive but Schwartzman knows he and his brother have a long musical way to go before they catch up to the catalog of the Sherman Brothers.

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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