You Are My Friend director Marielle Heller has a bold cinematic vision for her beautiful day in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood — and it’s probably not what you’re expecting.
“[This] movie is…. not a biopic,” the filmmaker tells EW of the upcoming TriStar Pictures project, which is set to star Tom Hanks as the beloved children’s show host and pop cultural icon. “I disliked that when it got announced it was characterized as such. It’s really not. It’s a movie that’s largely focused on a reporter and [Mr. Rogers’] relationship to his life, and how [the reporter’s] whole world changes when coming in contact with Fred Rogers.”
The film, slated to begin shooting this fall while Heller promotes her Melissa McCarthy-starring Lee Israel drama Can You Ever Forgive Me?, is based on a screenplay written by Emmy-nominated Transparent producers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster. The story follows the life of Tom Junod, who forged an emotional bond with the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood star while profiling him for Esquire magazine in 1998.
“It’s a story for our times, a story about kindness and family connection and trying to tap into our better self. God knows we need that right now!” Heller adds. “In the research for the movie, the writers found that more people than they could possibly count credited Mr. Rogers with changing their lives…. [It’s about] one man who’s in a critical point in his life — becoming a new father, having issues with his own father — and meeting Mr. Rogers to write a piece about him, thinking it’s going to be a bit of a puff piece, but it ends up changing his entire life.”
Heller, who rose to prominence as a director with her 2015 Sundance breakout The Diary of a Teenage Girl, explains that, as a child of the ’80s, Mr. Rogers and his long-running half-hour PBS program were always “close to [her] own heart,” and that Hanks brings a tangible humanity to the part that fellow fans will immediately recognize and fall in love with.
“We haven’t done any work on character yet…. We won’t be there until later in the summer, probably. But, we’ve had a lot of conversations about the character and he understands the essence of Mr. Rogers,” she finishes. “The response to that casting has been overwhelmingly positive, because even though he doesn’t look exactly like [him], essence wise, he’s in the same vein.”
Though a release date and further casting details regarding You Are My Friend have yet to be announced, a Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, premiered to enthusiastic reviews at Sundance in January. That film is scheduled for release on June 8 via Focus Features.