Megan McLachlan speaks with Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, the screenwriters behind A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
From the start of writing about Fred Rogers, screenwriting team Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster knew they weren’t going to write a traditional biopic. There wasn’t enough cinematic conflict (despite the urban legends, Mister Rogers wasn’t in the navy, nor was he covered in tattoos, which is why he wore cardigans). The story wasn’t how Fred Rogers evolved to become Mister Rogers, but how the combined entities impacted generations of children.
So Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster attacked the script from that angle, and in their research, discovered the perfect story to pull from, that of Tom Junod’s Esquire magazine story on Mister Rogers from 1998.
The script to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes so many leaps of faith, just as Rogers himself did. It utilizes the format of the TV show humorously and elegantly, while also making the gutsy move of including a complete moment of silence in the film.
I had a chance to speak with Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster about fact versus fiction in the script, how their writing partnership came about because of a book club, and the concerns over attaching themselves to this sacred property.
Awards Daily: I loved the movie and went home and read the Esquire article immediately. I was struck that you guys saw something completely different with that story. What was it about it?
Micah Fitzerman-Blue: Here’s the real story. Noah and I had read that fantastic piece of writing by Tom Junod that was in Esquire in 1998 and we were in the archives in Latrobe, Pa., in the basement, and we’re wearing white cotton gloves so we don’t mess up any of the memorabilia. What we ended up discovering was something general and something specific: Generally, what we got to sift through were the hundreds and thousands of letters that Fred Rogers exchanged with people over the course of his entire career. These weren’t letters about the show; these were just letters about what was happening in the lives of the people who Fred Rogers would meet along the way. Some of them were categorized by things like divorce, death, cancer, suicide. He was a Presbyterian minister, so he was doing this personal, private ministry, well outside of the public eye. And then we see this box labeled ‘Tom Junod’ and we’re like, ‘What is that?’ So they bring this box down in front of us, and we open it and it’s 200-plus letters, many written by hand by Fred Rogers in his unmistakable script, that Fred and Tom had exchanged for five years until Fred died in 2003. And it was in these letters that we actually discovered the narrative spine or the emotional core of our movie. We looked at each other and said, ‘Yes, this is the story.’
AD: Wow. Were there any other Mister Rogers stories you came close to telling?
Noah Harpster: We actually started with other stories originally. We’ve been working on this for almost 10 years, so there were lots of things we threw around and even put pen to paper on. But ultimately, when we got to the archives and saw those letters, it really became clear that Tom Junod was the basis for our movie, because the character had this cynicism that I think we need to start this movie. I think people in the audiences are coming to this movie with their own cynicism, with their own disbelief that one, Mister Rogers can’t possibly be for real, or two, don’t you dare mess up my childhood—he was my dad when I didn’t have one. So you’re working with two different kinds of skepticism. I think we needed to have a character who in reality felt the same way going on. So hopefully over the course of the movie, as his cynicism is chipped away, ours in the audience is also chipped away. We’re hopefully less vulnerable and exposed and ultimately challenged at the end of the movie to take action in our own lives.
AD: I definitely felt that way. That comes across. How much of the plot in the script was lifted from Tom Junod’s life? How much was fictional?
NH: He really was assigned this profile of Fred Rogers, at a time when he needed it most, work-wise. I think he did have a complicated relationship with his father, not nearly as complicated as the version in our movie. He did not have a newborn, that was more about Micah and my experience as new fathers. When we started this project, I had a newborn and almost two-year-old, and putting an episode on for my very stubborn toddler was kind of the genesis of this project, watching her listen to Fred in a way she never had listened to me and still now as a 12-year-old continues to not listen to me. (Laughs.) Now Micah has a four-year-old, so that was very much us writing about our own insecurities and our own struggles with being a new father. My father was diagnosed with cancer during the course of this project, and I lost him, so I was writing very much about that. And Micah was very much writing about me living in that experience, so there were lots of things that we brought from our own lives and Tom Junod’s and various other people who had encountered this similar experience with Fred, where a chance meeting got his wizardly hooks in them and ultimately changed or even in some cases saved their lives.
AD: There’s a line in the film from Susan Kelechi Watson’s character where she says ‘Please don’t ruin my childhood’ to Lloyd when he tells her he’s writing about Mister Rogers. Did you guys worry about that at all from a similar perspective when attaching yourself to this sacred property?
MFB: Absolutely. We felt an enormous responsibility to get this thing right. Part of that meant working with the Fred Rogers estate. We wanted to be able to use the puppets and the characters and the songs and the set and really make this about Fred Rogers, but not as a biopic ever, as you heard, but really as close as we could get to giving our audience an encounter with this man, who was confrontationally kind. In order to do that, we had to really find out as much as we possibly could. Sort of how the Lloyd Vogel character experienced it, Fred was defensive, enigmatic. We asked Joanne Rogers, ‘What was it like living with a man who absorbed all these strong feelings and suffering of others for so many years? Where does that energy go?” And she said, ‘That’s a wonderful question. Why don’t you go talk to Bill Isler? He never talked about it with me.’ So we went to Bill Isler, ‘Hey, Bill. Where does all this suffering go? How did he deal with it?’ And Bill said, ‘That’s a great question. He never talked about it with me. Why don’t you ask Joanne?’ There was this ineffable, unknowable quality in Fred that I don’t think we ever touched. For us, at the end of the day, that wasn’t as much the point as it was to have him see us and have him talk to us, and not just Lloyd Vogel, but us as screenwriters and filmmakers and hopefully as the audience.
AD: How long have you two been writing together and how did this partnership come about?
MFB: We’ve been working together for 13 years. We met when we were set up on a creative blind date. We were reading the same book and we had a mutual friend, and you’re in your 20s and you’re broke and hanging out and talking about the books that you read, and we’re blabbing about this book to the same friend, and finally they’re like, ‘Why don’t I just get you guys into a room so you can talk to each other about it instead of me?’ and that’s what happened. Noah and I, our writing career together, began as a book club.
AD: Noah, how does your acting experience inform your writing experience and vice versa?
NH: When I moved to LA as an actor, I had been writing, but I moved here as an actor originally. Someone said to me, ‘The moments between jobs, keeping yourself busy, is the hardest thing.’ So I started writing just to keep myself busy basically between commercials or small guest star roles. As I got more into it and Micah and I started working together, I just really started writing as an actor. I started writing from the point of view of acting, which is [asking] what does this character want, what are they trying to get, what is preventing them from getting it. So I think, 13 years later, still very much both of us are writing from an intentional place—what does this person want, what are they trying to get. If we can’t answer that question in a scene, we cut it.
AD: I wanted to ask you guys about my favorite scene in the movie, which is the scene of total silence at the restaurant. It’s such a powerful scene, but it’s also a ballsy move as writers to not have any dialogue, not to be saying anything. What does it say in the script there? What did you write in the script for that moment?
MFB: We really tried to make it as clear as possible. It’s probably the page of a screenplay we’re most proud of writing, especially because it made it to the screen. I forget if we bolded it or underlined it or made it caps or all three, but we wanted to make sure that Fred Rogers was not just holding that space for Lloyd, but also looking down the barrel of the camera. So in the script we have him looking directly at us.
AD: What are you two working on now?
MFB: We just completed a first look deal at Showtime for television, and we’re working on some stuff that we can’t talk about as writers. But as producers, we are supervising three features that are set up at Amazon, and we have TV projects at FX, Lionsgate, SyFy, and Netflix.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is in theaters November 22.