Often lampooned for his kindness, the unwaveringly gentle nature that Fred Rogers displayed on his show, “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” was cutting edge, if you ask Marielle Heller, director of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
“He really actually had some beautiful radical ideas about childhood,” she said. “The idea that everybody deserves love — just the way they are — but also that we need to come up with ways for children to feel their feelings and that feelings matter and are valid — particularly when raising young boys — that’s actually a message we don’t give little kids. What ‘Mister Rogers’ did is subtle; it’s easy to overlook it. For a long time, I think people thought of him as hokey or something to be made fun of.”
Heller spoke at a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival Sunday, the day after her film premiered to rave reviews and teary eyes. The story is inspired by the real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod. In the film, Junod is fictionalized as epic cynic and journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who finds that reporting on Rogers helps him work through anger spurred by a troubled relationship with his estranged relationship with his father (Chris Cooper), and build emotional intimacy with his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson).
“We have become more cynical and jaded as we’ve gotten older, so Lloyd becomes this character who is this entry point into examining ‘Mister Rogers’ for a lot of us. I remember thinking I had outgrown ‘Mister Rogers,'” Heller said. “Having this character who kind of embodies this and comes in with that kind of cynicism, I think for many of us audience members — he’s us. We come into this movie thinking ‘I don’t know if I’m going to buy into this.'”
“We think of him as someone who only spoke to children,” producer Peter Saraf said.
Hanks said he embraced Rogers’ philosophies.
“Cynicism has become the default position for so much of daily structure because its easy and there’s good money to be made — it’s great product to sell, cynicism,” he said. “Why in the word would you put a pipeline of cynicism in to the minds of a two- or three-year-old kid? That you are not cool because you don’t have this toy, that it’s funny to see someone bopped on the head, ‘hey kids be the first in line in order to buy blah blah blah.'”
To accomplish her mission, Heller employed a meticulous dedication to detail. For example, Rogers’ trademark sweaters he put on after arriving “home” on the show were knitted by his mother. So the sweaters in the film were not off the rack, but hand knitted. That meant the zippers were trickier than ones on store-bought sweaters — something that may have contributed to the 22 takes Hanks needed to nail the film’s opening scene that mirrors the opening of “Mister Rogers.”
It also meant Hanks needed to become a puppeteer, like Rogers, and do what he did — crouch in awkward positions and rely on a small black-and-white monitor to manipulate puppets like Daniel Tiger. The film was even shot at WQED Studios in Pittsburgh.
In addition to Junod’s Esquire cover story on Rogers, screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster combed through Rogers’ archives, which included boxes and boxes of emails between the TV host, Junod, and others — which Fitzerman-Blue described as the “kernel” of the movie.
The result? A good review on behalf of the late Rogers by his wife, Joanne Rogers. She emailed Heller Sunday night after the premiere, Heller said, with a verdict: “I think he would have been really proud of this film.”