Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) will deliver a different take on the biopic this fall with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The film follows Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) a cynical magazine journalist who travels to Pittsburgh to profile the iconic children’s TV show host, Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Lloyd, who struggles with his own family problems, finds that Rogers’ compassion and optimism doesn’t reach the hearts of just the children in his audience but everyone he meets along the way.
Heller sat down with EW to talk about Rogers’ legacy and personality, and how the production went about recreating the man, the myth, the legend and the imaginative world he helped to build. Heller consulted Rogers’ family–including his wife, Joanne–and hired some crew members from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to help shoot the film on-location at familiar Pittsburgh locales that Rogers himself frequented. She also spoke of the movie’s real-life inspiration, that of writer Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire piece about Rogers, just a few years before the TV personality’s death. All of that and more can be found over at the EW piece, but we’ve included some of the highlights below.
Here’s how Heller sees Rogers:
“He’s a guide for how to slow yourself down and connect with what’s true in your heart, your kindness, your patience, and your goodness. Having his voice in my head for the past two years while I’ve been making this movie has made me a better parent.
“[He calls for] us to be our best selves, and I think that’s required of parents in order to be patient and see these little people we’re bringing into the world with compassion. Mister Rogers helped break down those things in a way that, as a parent, you can gain a lot of compassion that translates beyond just your relationship with your children; it translates into your relationship with your partner or spouse, or relationships at work. I know it translated into how I wanted to make this movie, and the process by which we work creatively and how we treat the crew. I approached every decision with the movie as: ‘How would Fred approach this? How can we treat everybody with a level of emotional empathy and compassion that shows that we value everyone?’ That was his main message: Everyone is valued.”
Heller and her team went the extra mile to recreate the world that Rogers and his own production team helped to create:
“We filmed it in the actual studio where they filmed the show, we found the original cameras they filmed the show with and imported them from England so we could film on them. We lit it with the actual lights that had lit Mister Rogers. Everything about it feels identical in a way that’s tangible and you feel like you can smell it….You feel like you’ve gone back in time.”
“We recreated Mr. McFeely’s costume, but his bag is the original. Every tie [Hanks] wears is a real tie of Fred’s. Joanne, his wife, gave us access to his closet and was like, ‘Take this stuff, please! I don’t know what to do with it!’”
The puppets, however, are new creations from the original designs:
“People who’d worked on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for 40 years saw the puppets and were like, ‘Did you borrow these from us?’ They couldn’t believe it!”
She also commented on what it was like to see Hanks literally step into Rogers’ shoes:
“We’re so used to [seeing] Fred in that world, to see somebody else inhabit it, it takes a moment for your mind to flip. His performance is so powerful that, a few seconds later, you forget, and it’s gone.”
But the important note here is how Hanks and Rogers differ in the equally charming personalities:
“It was important that the people in Fred’s life felt [the script] accurately portrayed the man they knew. [Hanks has] got a loud voice; he walks into a room and you know that he’s there! He shakes everyone’s hand, he’s really funny, there’s never an awkward moment when you’re around Tom Hanks; Fred allowed for awkward moments. Fred sat in silence and stillness in a way I don’t think Tom naturally does. Tom Hanks naturally makes everyone comfortable, puts everyone at ease, and makes everyone feel great. Fred disarmed people by asking a question and then sitting and staring at you until you answered. My challenge as a director was to get Tom Hanks to become less Tom Hanks…. to let discomfort and painful things sit; to not make everything feel okay. This will feel very different from how you’ve seen him before.”
Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster of Transparent fame, and also starring Susan Kelechi Watson and Chris Cooper, the film hits theaters on November 22nd. Be sure to check out some of our recent and related write-ups below:
- 10 Female-Directed Films to Keep On Your Radar in 2019
- Tom Hanks Is Mister Rogers in New Image from ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’