Building Fred Rogers' beautywood
Between now and the Oscar nominations on Jan. 13, EW will speak to numerous contenders in below-the-line categories about their work and craft. This week: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood production designer Jade Healy.
In order to enjoy a beautiful day in the neighborhood, you actually need a neighborhood. For production designer Jade Healy, that meant designing and shrinking two cities (and one of TV’s most iconic avenues) down to miniature size for director Marielle Heller’s new film about a cynical journalist whose hardened heart softens after meeting Tom Hanks’ Fred Rogers. The film transitions between plotlines in New York City and Pittsburgh using Healy’s interpretation of the tiny models first popularized on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which serve as segues that paint Heller’s gripping drama with a touch of childhood whimsy. Ahead, Healy tells EW about her process in working with Heller on their shared vision for crafting a safe space in a grown-up film for the child in us all.
Upon first meeting Marielle Heller to discuss the gig, Healy says she felt an immediate spark as their creative visions aligned to tell a story about a New York City journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who’s plagued by emotional trauma-based rage until his experience profiling Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) in Pittsburgh softens his hardened heart.
“From the beginning, we knew we wanted to make a film that felt honest, and something that Fred would’ve approved, something honest to the world he lived in,” she tells EW, adding that it was important to maintain texture and imperfections in the miniature models that bridge together a story that’s framed like a feature-length episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — complete with Hanks’ Rogers intermittently speaking to the audience from a recreated version of the actual Neighborhood set. “We wanted to show a side of humanity that was ugly and beautiful. The miniatures had a rough-around-the-edges quality, and that was important to us because we wanted to show the roughness. That’s what life is. That’s what humanity is. It was important for Mister Rogers to show that it’s ok to show your feelings, that it’s ok to be sad, and it’s ok to make a movie that has these little rough-around-the-edges elements.”
After seing a behind-the-scenes featurette about the creation of its mini models, Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck served as Healy’s entryway into the miniature world. One of her line producers knew someone who knew someone who worked on the 2017 fantasy, and that someone — miniature producer Katrina Whalen — joined Healy for her stroll through Beautiful Day‘s tiny neighborhoods.
Construction of the teeny cityscapes began by looking at photographs of the actual miniatures produced for the original Neighborhood series. Still, Healy and her team of artists had to experiment to get things just right.
“We did cardboard cutouts and foam [as a base], and it was always about making it a little more kidlike. It was a work in progress constantly,” she remembers. “They were in their own warehouse, and I’d go over there and visit [during production]. We were figuring it out on the day [of shooting]!”
The crew also crafted miniatures that weren’t dictated by the script, like this cemetary that appears near the end of the film.
“We were reorganizing and rethinking what miniatures we wanted to use as we were shooting in principal photography,” Healy recalls. “The cemetery was a miniature we added that wasn’t in the script originally. We wanted to do Columbus Circle at one point, but we never built it.”
Next on Healy’s four-month tenure on the project was designing a recreation of the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood set. She and her team delved into the vaults at the Fred Rogers Center in the real-life icon’s home of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, as well as the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, where they measured King Friday’s castle, the Great Oak Tree, and more. They also sifted through archival photographs of the set — including some from a photographer who worked with Rogers for years — to meticulously copy the look of Rogers’ living room and kitchen sets.
“We didn’t have a blueprint, so we tried to figure out from videos and photos how it was all put together,” Healy says, savoring the contributions of art director Gregory A. Weimerskirch, a Pittsburgh native she says felt a deep connection to the spirit of the film. “We wanted it to be exactly how they built the tree with papier-mâché and how the layers had aged. We were scanning the curtain patterns and printing that, and the pattern on the couch we had to get made, too!”
Her team’s dedication to authenticity extended the scope of her expectations… and the camera’s field of vision.
“There are little miniatures of the Land of Make-Believe that sit on the shelves in the kitchen, and they’re so small and you never see them, but we made every single one of those match exactly what they looked like [on the original show],” Healy says with a laugh. “My decorator and buyer would be searching forever to find exactly the thing in the corner. It didn’t matter that no one would notice.”