It’s been a steady climb for Marielle Heller to A-list director. She started as a New York actress, playwright and stage director, and made a splash with her rookie film, her rollicking, sexy ’70s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” starring breakout Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgard, which Sony Pictures Classics picked up at Sundance 2015. Next she directed Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant as lonely misfit New Yorkers who bond over drinking in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Fox Searchlight), which yielded a 2019 Best Actress nomination for McCarthy.
Heller was in demand and had her pick of projects, and got to meet many Hollywood people, including Tom Hanks. He liked her movies, and pursued a meeting with her. After turning down “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” — having just played a TV icon in Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks” — when the project came back to him with Heller attached as director, he agreed to read the Black List script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, which built on the letters and emails between Esquire writer Tom Junod and Fred Rogers, who they call “an emotional archaeologist.”
A mother who still watched “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” on PBS with her young son, Heller felt a strong emotional connection to his humane philosophy when she read the writing team’s long-in-the-works story about a jaded magazine writer who is changed by his interaction with Rogers. Big Beach Films had sent her many scripts over the years, but this one she responded to, with passion. Hanks listened to her take on Rogers and signed on — if they could wait a year.
“It was an opportunity to reintroduce Fred Rogers in a grownup story,” said producer Peter Saraf of 15-year-old Big Beach Films, which financed the movie. “We knew he spoke to children, but he has so much to say for everybody. That came through loud and clear in the script. It was a seven-year odyssey. Once Mari came on, things moved rapidly into production.”
Heller cast Matthew Rhys as the cynical journalist raising a young child with his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) while estranged from his father (Chris Cooper). He starts out interviewing Rogers, who ends up digging into his psyche — and reuniting him with his ailing father.
On the Pittsburgh set (which also doubled for New York), Heller fought for French hours for the cast and crew, allowing her team to work through lunch and go home at the end of the long day. The director likes to film scenes top-to-bottom, theater-style, with long takes. But nothing was tougher than the first scene of the movie, when she drops the audience onto the set of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” with Hanks singing, taking off his jacket and shoes, and putting on his sneakers and trademark hand-knitted red sweater.
Check our video interview above to find out what happened.