Marielle Heller on recreating Mister Rogers' world with Tom Hanks, ties, and vintage cameras
As the box office success of Morgan Neville’s Mister Rogers-themed documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? proved last year, there’s a palpable appetite for a warm, reassuring figure to hold our hand as we trek through the fires of divisive politics and patriarchal anxiety. And director Marielle Heller is here to help with a bit of Hollywood catharsis.
While not a straightforward Fred Rogers biopic (in fact, Heller insists it’s not a biopic at all), the Can You Ever Forgive Me? filmmaker’s upcoming movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood features the TV icon as a supporting moral compass soothing the angst-ridden life of a cynical journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who travels to Pittsburgh to write a magazine profile of the legendary host (Tom Hanks). A new parent juggling his own daddy issues in the wake of his father’s ailing condition, Lloyd — initially skeptical of Rogers’ optimism — slowly softens his hardened heart with help from his new friend. Heller thinks Hanks’ work (married with the enduring legacy of kindness Rogers passed on to his millions of fans) could have the same effect on the film’s audience.
“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,” Heller tells EW of Rogers’ charms. “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,” she continues. “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.”
For Heller, part of respecting that mantra meant making sure she respectfully recreated Rogers’ late-in-life world, as the film was inspired by real-life writer Tom Junod’s actual experiences in writing about Rogers for a 1998 Esquire piece. So, she consulted with his family — including Rogers’ wife, Joanne — shot the film on-location at Rogers’ old haunts in Pittsburgh, and even hired some of the same crew that worked on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Below, Heller details how she wove together other elements most essential for a neighborly day in beautywood.
Viewers welcomed Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood into their homes for 33 years, and Heller was respectful of the bond, filming at the same Pittsburgh studio where Rogers produced the show. She even hired former Neighborhood employees (including camera operator John Burdick and set decorator Barbie Pastorik) and imported vintage Ikegami cameras to capture Hanks’ scenes on the meticulously re-created Neighborhood set. In other words, nearly everything shot on the movie’s version of the show will look as if Heller simply swapped Rogers for Hanks in prints of the original broadcast.
“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,” says Heller.
That is, until Hanks walks out.
“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,” she continues. “His performance is so powerful that, a few seconds later, you forget, and it’s gone.”
Pleasing his fans was important, but Heller wanted Rogers’ family to approve of her vision, too.
“It was important that the people in Fred’s life felt [the script] accurately portrayed the man they knew,” the director says.
So, Heller worked with Hanks to rein in the star’s “boisterous” charms in order to portray Rogers’ placidity — a demeanor essential to prompting Lloyd’s.
“He’s 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,” she explains. “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.”
Rogers’ presence warms the soul like a cardigan-covered hug, and Heller wants her film to capture the same feeling: “We’re not doing an imitation,” she says. “[We want you to feel] like you’re really there.”
Thus, she wove authenticity into the film’s tapestry of props — some reimagined, others borrowed from the Neighborhood archives or even Rogers’ personal collection of paintings and home decor.
“We recreated Mr. McFeely’s costume, but his bag is the original,” says Heller. “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!’”
Heller didn’t, however, use the actual puppets — like Daniel the Tiger — from the Rogers vault. Instead, she worked with Sesame Street puppeteer Spencer Lott to meticulously redesign the hand-controlled characters who populated the children’s program’s whimsical world.
“People who’d worked on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for 40 years saw the puppets and were like, ‘Did you borrow these from us?’” Heller recalls with a laugh. “They couldn’t believe it!”
Moviegoers can judge for themselves when A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood strolls into theaters Friday, Nov. 22. Check out EW’s exclusive photos above.
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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood