Won't you be my... reader?
For decades, Fred Rogers' legacy touched millions of souls both young and old on screens big and small. Now, ahead of the Nov. 22 release of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, director Marielle Heller's take on the TV icon's influence on a disgruntled man (Matthew Rhys) who finds solace amid his chaotic personal life while profiling Rogers for a magazine, the new book Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: A Visual History — compiled by Fred Rogers Productions — attempts to translate the beloved children's show host's warmth from screen to paper.
With a foreword by Tom Hanks, who plays Rogers in Heller's film and likens the late star's stature to that of a religious leader's, the book chronicles the rise of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (and its leading man) through never-before-seen photographs, a historical timeline, and in-depth interviews with Yo-Yo Ma, the show's cast and crew, as well as those who worked on Heller's film.
Ahead, EW has an exclusive sneak peek at several spreads from the book (out Oct. 29 via Penguin Random House), which showcase how Heller's team recreated the wonders of Rogers' beautywood for the likely Oscar contender.
As Heller previously told EW, immersing audiences into an authentic recreation of Rogers' world was essential to her vision for the film. So, she shot on location in Rogers' hometown of Pittsburgh, even filming portions of the movie inside the local WQED television station's Studio A space — the same one that housed Rogers' program for decades.
Heller also employed and consulted local craftspeople as well as people who'd worked on the original Neighborhood set, which art director Greg Weimerskirch (whose mockup renderings you can see here in EW's exclusive book excerpt) and set decorator Merissa Lombardo recreated for the movie — including to-scale interpretations of Rogers' living room, kitchen, porch, and the clothes he wore in front of the camera.
"Everything in there, we made. It wasn't borrowed," Lombardo says in the book, adding that the goal was to "get as many details as accurately done as possible."
While some people who worked on the original Neighborhood were available to work on the film, the famous models of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe were originally created by Bob Trow, who died in 1998. In his absence, the film's art department scanned his models and created new ones — which were hand-sculpted to completion — using a 3D printer. Model-makers also recreated the program's iconic miniatures that were shown during the opening and closing segments of each episode.
Weimerskirch also directed his crew to study photographs and measure original set pieces (currently on display at Pittsburgh's John Heinz History Center) before building their own replicas of King Friday's castle and X the Owl's oak tree. "The castle was incredibly hard to duplicate because it's a very organic shape; there's nothing coplanar. It's all molded," he says in the book. "The other thing we noticed, watching the show over the years, is the more it was used, the more it kind of collaposed on itself. So this is the 1998 to 2000 version, where if you look closely, the towers are kind of leaning in on each other."
A family affair (with wig hair)
Heller's vision for authenticity also called for importing special Ikegami cameras — the same models used to capture the original Neighborhood series — to film portions of the movie, which posed extra challenges for production designer Jade Healy, who had to refine her process for color selection thanks to the device's presentation of certain hues.
As authentic as Heller and her team hoped to make the film, as outlined in the book, without support from Rogers' family — particularly his wife, Joanne — and the city of Pittsburgh, the film would have faced monumental challenges in translating Rogers' unifying message of kindness. "There is so much love for him here," says Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays Lloyd's wife, Andrea. "[In Pittsburgh] you get a feeling of what [may have] inspired him."
Adds Healy: "One of the greatest pleasures of this movie is the amount of people in this town who have come to work on this project who worked on the original show.... I went to a woman's house to buy her couch [for the movie] and she was like, 'Just take it for free. This is for Fred.'"
Joanne also approved of Hanks' radical transformation into her late husband, especially, as she notes in the book, when he was wearing the "wig and eyebrows."
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: A Visual History
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: A Visual History is on sale beginning Tuesday, Oct. 29. Following its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens Nov. 22 in theaters.