Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to Beautiful Day director Marielle Heller about convincing Tom Hanks to be Mister Rogers and what Mister Rogers might say about today’s world.
“I love talking to Yinzers,” director Marielle Heller says to me, after I tell her I’m from Mister Rogers’s hometown.
Heller has become very well-versed in the language of Pittsburgh since filming A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, based on the real-life friendship between journalist Tom Junod and Fred Rogers. The film fictionalizes Junod’s character in the form of Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys, and of course, filling Fred Rogers’s sneakers is two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks.
I had a great conversation with Heller about why she’s interested in coming-of-age films for adults, what Lloyd Vogel and Lee Israel might have in common, and what she thinks about the exclusion of women on the Golden Globes directorial ballot.
Awards Daily: I talked to the screenwriters, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, and they said you were the one to convince Tom Hanks to do the part. What did you do to get him to be Mister Rogers?
Marielle Heller: Tom is an actor who believes in filmmakers and wants to work with certain filmmakers. He was a fan of mine from The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and we had kept in touch over many years. I think the biggest factor was him wanting to work with me, and if I believed in the project, he believed in the project. I think that’s how he makes decisions with filmmakers he wants to work with. But I also told him very clearly that I didn’t want to do a [traditional] biopic and that it was really a character piece, that I wasn’t interested in impression of Fred or an SNL sketch or something. It was about the essence, no prosthetics. It was really about not having a lot of barriers between him and his performance.
AD: Your directorial filmography seems to be geared toward coming-of-age films and TV projects. What draws you to these types of stories?
MH: You think this is a coming-of-age [story] for adults, is that what you mean?
AD: Yeah! I was thinking of your work on Hulu’s Casual, too. Coming of age for adults.
MH: The thing about features is that you want the main characters to go through a major change. In action movies, that may be a very physical change; and in emotional-based movies, it’s a big emotional change. I like watching characters who are struggling with what it is to be alive and then they find themselves truly changing in some major way. It can be inspiring and make us feel close as a community and each other. I think I’m definitely drawn to characters who go through gigantic emotional shifts, and they have to be well-earned.
AD: Speaking of well-earned emotional shifts, last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? Do you have any parallels between your two central characters in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Beautiful Day?
MH: I think it’s a more cynical outlook on life, and through actions of other human beings, they start to change and get to know themselves. It’s a relationship with themselves that shifts and a sense of self. It wasn’t intended to have this similar throughline, but it does. I think there’s something about watching somebody who’s more damaged and cynical and has their way of being and is set in their ways, making changes, it’s powerful to witness.
AD: It definitely is. Do you have a personal connection to Mister Rogers?
MH: I grew up watching Mister Rogers. I think every good child of the ’70s and ’80s grew up watching Mister Rogers, probably watching him even before we were forming memories. He’s pre-memory. I was in a screening last night, and a guy had started crying the moment it started. I think it’s that we’re brought back to our earliest childhood self. We’re transported in a way back to whatt it was like watching the show, but we don’t have a conscious memory of it, but as soon as we see it, it’s this visceral, in-your-bones, kind of thing. Your heart jumps up into your throat and you think, ‘Oh!’ So I remember watching Mister Rogers and I remember getting too cynical for Mister Rogers and thinking he was hokey or something, not cool. Then as a parent, I’ve rediscovered him. The first show I let my kid watch Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which is the modern-day incarnation of Mister Rogers. Every parent I know, it’s our parenting hack. It’s such a great show for empathy, dealing with emotions, and fears. At different phases of my kid’s life, we’ve had songs from that show on repeat. It reminded me of the power of Mister Rogers and my son and I went back and started watching Mister Rogers. Through a parent’s eyes, you really recognize how radical he was, how ahead of his time he was, how he wasn’t just hokey or happy-go-lucky, but he was dealing with really the most complicated parts of being alive in a very kind, straightforward way. And then of course in all of my research, I realized he was talking to a child psychologist all the time. He was really rooted in early childhood education and it wasn’t just haphazard; it was very carefully thought through, with such a clear philosophy with how to help children.
AD: I think one of the most powerful moments in the movie is the scene with absolute silence. What was it like filming that?
MH: I didn’t realize until we’d been on this press tour, how apparently none of the other people—like Tom or Matthew—were [completely sure] about this scene, particularly that I was going to have Tom break the fourth wall like that and look right into the camera. But it was a scene I was very clear about, because in the original show, he asked his audience to be active participants. He would ask the children a question and then wait for an answer. He expected you to talk back to the television. Kid after kid that we talked to said, ‘Oh, he was talking to me!’ We wanted to create that same moment for our audience, where you’re asked to reflect on yourself and your own life and you realize he’s talking to you. But also we had that room filmed with people who really loved Fred into being: his wife Joanne, his nephew, the real Margy, the real Bill Eisler, Marty Eisler, Mr. McFeely. All these people populated that scene, which was really special.
AD: I didn’t catch that the first time. I have to rewatch it.
MH: You don’t have to, you know? It’s a secret to know later.
AD: You’re right. Another really memorable moment in the movie is when you show Mister Rogers behind the puppet. Was it important for you to show that he’s not a god or deity? And do you think this moment demonstrates that?
MH: It was definitely important to us the whole time, that we showed Mister Rogers as a human being. That was really important to everybody who knew and loved Fred, that he wasn’t thought of as a saint. That line that Joanne Rogers has in the movie, ‘If you think of him as a saint, then his whole way of being is unattainable.’ She said that early to me and we put it in the film because it felt like, ‘Wait, that’s why you can’t think of him as a saint—he worked at this every day.’ It was his practice to be who he was. It took work and was a choice. That scene, where we see him puppeting, it’s a very complex scene. Part of what we were aiming for with that was that Fred had this way of recognizing what someone needed to hear, who he was near. We just wanted to show this moment where he’s sort of speaking to Lloyd through these puppets. He was saying, ‘Watch this scene. This is what you need to hear right now.’ And he apparently really did that thing in real life, where people would be like, ‘Did he do that on purpose?’ And then it was one of my favorite shots in the movie. Our cinematography Jody Lee Lipes masterminded how we were going to film that whole sequence, because it’s so complex. We have the old cameras that are filming the show and playing it back on the monitor and then we’re filming with our Alexas Lloyd’s experience. So we have so many layers happening at the same time; you can’t get too mired down with the technology of it. It has to feel emotional, because it’s a huge emotional turning point for Lloyd. My favorite thing was that as we zoomed in on Fred, which is really a camera move we don’t do that often, but it was used on the show so much, so it was a tool we used for the movie—Tom knew he was in the shot, [but] he didn’t know I was focusing on him.
AD: Oh wow!
MH: It wasn’t until maybe the third take that he realized I was focusing just on him. What I love about it is that he’s concentrating so hard—because he’s singing live, he’s puppeteering live, he’s looking at a little monitor to try to puppeteer the way Fred did—so he’s just concentrating really hard. I think it’s amazing.
AD: Wow. I love hearing that. As a female director, were you disappointed about the exclusion of female directors at the Golden Globes?
MH: I’m trying to stay away from the feeling of disappointment or exclusion, because there’s a little bit of entitlement about that, that feels not right to me. I feel like it’s a focus on something that shouldn’t really be that important. Of course I understand that women and non-binary people and people of color being included in these types of contests means higher paychecks and more visibility and it does lead to more power, so it’s not that it’s not important at all. But it is such an ego-y, contest-y type of thing that has very little to do with the work we do. So I don’t feel surprised. I don’t feel disappointed. I feel like there was beautiful work done by women this year. I’m friends with almost all of these women directors. We have a real sisterhood, which I love, but the truth is, it takes a long time to make a mark and for people to know you and your work. A lot of the women who were excluded are still in the beginnings of their career. We all have so far to go, and we’re going to keep changing the world, movie by movie.
AD: So much talk about the movie is that we need Mister Rogers right now. If he were still alive, what do you think he’d have to say about current events? After all, he was someone who was concerned about how children reacted to experiences like 9/11.
MH: I think he would be encouraging us to listen to each other more. I think he’d be trying to create public forums or places for people to listen. Part of what’s very hard about social media is that it becomes an echo chamber of your own opinions rather than an actual place for us to listen to each other. He was such a listener. He was somebody who encouraged compassion through understanding other people. That’s what I keep thinking about. Tom Junod, who wrote the original article and who Lloyd is based on, said something really beautiful in his follow-up article he wrote for The Atlantic. He said he gets asked what would Fred think about Trump or about policies that are happening, and he said, ‘I think he would ask us all to remember that [these people] were a child once, too.’
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is now playing.