Last year, Morgan Neville’s hit documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? made audiences reconsider Fred Rogers, the long-running children’s TV host whose gentle demeanor, soft voice, and penchant for cardigan sweaters was often parodied, most memorably by Eddie Murphy in a streetwise (and hilariously inappropriate) answer to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on “Saturday Night Live.” The doc revealed the Presbyterian minister as a man of gravitas, who made it his mission to talk to kids as people and help them navigate life’s challenges, from bullying to divorce, and even a presidential assassination.
Sony-TriStar’s take on Mister Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, is surprising in a different way. Audiences expecting a straightforward biopic of Fred Rogers will be startled to discover that Rogers is a supporting player here. Instead, the main protagonist is one Lloyd Vogel, based on Esquire writer Tom Junod, an investigative reporter grudgingly assigned a short profile of the wholesome TV personality in 1998. What Lloyd isn’t prepared for is Fred Rogers’s laser-focused insights into his private turmoil, including his estrangement from his absentee father. The end result for Junod was an 8,000-word cover story and a profound, close friendship between the two very different men.
Ingeniously, writers Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue frame Lloyd’s story as an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” with charming miniatures of Fred’s Pittsburgh and Lloyd’s New York that replicate the low-fi look of Rogers’s very modestly budgeted show. Tom Hanks makes an uncannily persuasive Fred Rogers, and Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) is compelling as the cynical reporter who learns to face his demons. Oscar winner Chris Cooper is also a standout as Lloyd’s volatile dad. Opening on November 22, the film marks another triumph for rising director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?).
I spoke by phone with writers Harpster and Fitzerman-Blue, veterans of the acclaimed Amazon series “Transparent,” who are also represented on screens this fall as the writers of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.
How did you come to take this sidelong approach to the story of Mister Rogers?
Micah Fitzerman-Blue: Part of it is a little bit our taste. We always love these side doors, these windows into stories, something a little unexpected, just as a member of the moviegoing audience. But for us specifically with Fred Rogers, when we began to research him, we realized pretty quickly that he was a pretty terrible subject for a traditional biopic. He was pretty unwaveringly incredible for 73 years, and then he died. So we didn’t necessarily have the right ingredients to tell that cradle-to-grave story. For us it was about him as a person and his real life, both making the show and outside the show. Fred Rogers would involve himself in the lives of the people he would meet—he was sort of compulsively intimate.
We had read this profile of Fred Rogers by Tom Junod in Esquire and we loved it, but it wasn’t until we were in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, at the Fred Rogers archives when we opened a box that contained emails between Fred and Tom that spanned years, where Fred was basically doing a kind of personal ministry to Tom, that the movie became real for us.
Noah Harpster: From the first time they spoke on the phone up until a few days before Fred passed away, they were in constant communication, with handwritten letters and emails and phone calls, and Tom became an important part of Fred and [his wife] Joanne’s lives.
It’s such an amazing story when you consider where Tom started from, at least in the movie, being so cynical about who Mister Rogers was. How much of Lloyd is Tom, and how much is your taking liberties?
Harpster: We definitely took liberties. A lot of the family specifics are things that Micah and I took from our own lives at the time when we started this project. I had a newborn and a 2-year-old—it’s almost 10 years ago—and Micah now has a 3-year-old and a baby on the way. My father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away. So a lot of those things—both parenting and dealing with parents—were taken from our lives. But obviously, the journalist that Tom Junod is was informing the structure of the movie. Tom went in as a cynical journalist and he came out a believer, but because of the parts of our own lives that we put in, we named the character Lloyd. It wasn’t a true representation of who Tom Junod is—his father is a very different person than who Chris Cooper plays.
Fitzerman-Blue: But we basically put Tom in an office with us for three days and we asked him everything about his life. Lloyd is a character who is a large part Tom Junod and also from our own lives, but we also wanted Lloyd to kind of be us, meaning the audience. You’re aware of how cynical everybody is, particularly around people like Fred Rogers. He’s an easy target for ridicule, like what Eddie Murphy was doing in the ’80s on “SNL” with “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.” There’s no one like him. And so we wanted our main character to sort of be our surrogate, sitting alongside us in the theater, and to have all of our defenses stripped away, because that’s actually the experience so many people had in meeting Fred Rogers. Also, when we were first thinking about this as a project and we started talking to just our friends and family or acquaintances about Fred, we got very polarizing responses from people. It was very cynical, very suspicious. Like, is that guy for real? He can’t be for real! Or, that was my father when I didn’t have one. For us, that was a huge sign that this was an important person and a story that we needed to crack.
And at the time you didn’t have the documentary out there, which I think changed a lot of people’s perceptions.
Harpster: Yeah, absolutely. We loved that movie and we’re happy to see it out there. And I think in a lot of ways it allows the world to be a little more ready for our movie, which is not necessarily a biopic. I don’t think a biopic could do what Morgan was able to do with that movie. You really feel like you understand Fred as a human being and as someone who has an intentional life. Micah always says, if there can be nine Marvel movies in a year, we can have two Mister Rogers movies.
You brought this project to Marielle Heller. What made you decide she was the right person?
Harpster: We had worked with Mari on “Transparent” and enjoyed working with her, and we’re huge fans of hers. And our producers from Big Beach, Peter Saraf and Leah Holzer, are also big fans. So when it was time to really make this movie, her name was the one that just kept coming up.
Fitzerman-Blue: And Mari’s such a skillful director, she’s so good with actors, and what she did visually is all you can hope for. Also, Mari is the reason why Tom Hanks is in our movie. She sent him the script and he’s wanted to work with her, and when she did, he said, yeah, I guess I should be in this movie, shouldn’t I?
Didn’t he actually turn it down at some point earlier on?
Fitzerman-Blue: We wrote our first draft almost 10 years ago and it was different directors, a different time. He had just played Walt Disney, and it was understandable why that wasn’t the right time to play this part. But the world changes, time passes, a new director comes on, and we were just so fortunate to be right there at the right time.
How much of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” did you watch while you were preparing the script?
Harpster: A lot. Can we say all of it?
Fitzerman-Blue: Maybe not all, because there’s so much of it. But for every single song, we had 10 other options. For every clip or moment from the Neighborhood that we wanted to re-create … we had 50, 60 things we wanted to put in. But you can only choose the things that actually work best.
We wrote this movie at moments in our lives when we were new parents. And watching Fred Rogers actually helped us in our parenting and continues to do that. I don’t know if you have kids, but it’s really hard.
Harpster: That was actually kind of the genesis of this whole project, having a very stubborn 2-year-old that I was struggling to communicate with. And not really looking for answers for parents but looking for things to write about, I found Mister Rogers on my computer. And in that soft, slow voice he asked if his television neighbors would like to do some calisthenics, and my 2-year-old turns to the computer screen and starts doing windmills. And I was like, how did he do that? I called Micah and said, I think this Mister Rogers guy is a warlock and you should look into him.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about Fred Rogers?
Harpster: One thing we discovered when we started talking to his friends and family and co-workers and people who knew him most if not all of his life, they’d talk about his sense of humor. He had a very strong sense of humor, and I think that you wouldn’t necessarily know that from watching the shows or his public persona, because he often was very serious. But when you see the Arsenio Hall clips [when Rogers appeared on the show in 1993], he understands the joke and he appreciates it. He actually really enjoyed Eddie Murphy and “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.” He thought it was very funny.
I was charmed by the way the movie replicates the look of the show with those wonderful miniatures. Was that in your concept from the beginning?
Fitzerman-Blue: Yes, very much. Even though it’s a movie about a journalist who meets Mister Rogers, we wanted to give our audience the feeling of what it’s like to experience Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood. So the concept of framing the movie as an episode of the show that is about Lloyd was there from the very beginning. Including the miniature Earth, including the transitions, including that opening, which we were always nervous about because we don’t hide the ball. We don’t ease into it. That door opens and out comes that actor playing Mister Rogers. And you either buy it or you don’t.
You have another big film this fall. How did you get involved with Maleficent?
Fitzerman-Blue: We have been lucky enough to work with Disney on several projects, and this one came around and they were getting close to production and there was still some work to do.
Harpster: We have Angelina [Jolie] on May 1st! It’s now November, what can we do? And so we got to work. That is filmmaking on a whole other scale. It’s so fun. We had a blast working on it; we learned a lot.
After that you’re planning to make your directing debut. Can you talk a little bit about that transition?
Fitzerman-Blue: The next thing we’re hoping to do is to direct a movie together, and we have great partners in a company called Bow and Arrow. We’re going to be adapting the beloved graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw into a feature film.
How did the two of you team up? How did this partnership take shape?
Fitzerman-Blue: Noah and I have a mutual friend and we were each reading the same exact books. And the mutual friend got really tired of hearing the same stuff about the same book from each of us and decided to get us together in a room.
Harpster: Basically, we got set up on a creative blind date.