Tim Dowling – The Guardian
The director on how Tom Hanks faced the challenges of portraying a beloved national treasure in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – and why its audiences will come away changed
‘It makes you want to be a better person’: Marielle Heller, director of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Guardian
Early on in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a character expresses concern when she discovers that her husband, an investigative journalist, is writing a profile of the beloved children’s television presenter Mr Rogers. “Don’t ruin my childhood,” she says.
That line will pluck a particular string in the hearts of several generations of Americans who grew up with Fred Rogers, and then went on to parent children who grew up with him. “It’s the thing that people said to me every time they heard I was working on this movie,” says the director Marielle Heller. “For those of us who grew up with him, we feel like we knew him.”
I should declare that those who grew up with him includes me. I watched Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood from its first airing in 1968. It would be difficult to overstate Rogers’ influence on American culture, or the esteem in which he is still held. When I found out that Tom Hanks was going to play him in a film, my first reaction was: I’m not sure this should be allowed.
The film is calibrated to take the weight of such expectations and concerns, but how will a British audience react to a story about an icon they have never heard of? “I think in some ways it’s kind of cleaner when you go in without any of that,” says Heller. “The only baggage I hope British audiences can shed is the Jimmy Savile stuff.”
Ah yes: Lovely Children’s TV Presenter Turns Out to be Exactly What He Seems is not a particularly resonant narrative on these islands. Heller tells me that a few people walked out of the London film festival screening almost as soon as it started. “They were asked: ‘Why did you leave?’ And they said: ‘I know it’s going somewhere terrible. I don’t want to see it.’”
For Americans, the bigger fear is that Hanks’s portrayal might not do justice to the real Fred Rogers, who died in 2003. The opening of the film recreates the beginning of every episode of the TV show, when Mr Rogers walked through his front door, took off his jacket, pulled on a zip-up cardigan and swapped his shoes for sneakers, all while singing his opening theme. If you grew up with Mr Rogers, it’s pretty eerie. And you are struck, watching Hanks perform it now, by what a high-wire act this little piece of choreography always was, artfully constructed to look effortless and everyday.
“We made him sing live, which you don’t usually make movie stars do, but it’s what Fred did so it’s what we wanted to do,” says Heller. “It was genuinely tricky. We did 22 takes, the most takes I think I’ve ever done of any scene in my life.”
Heller, 40, was instrumental in getting Hanks involved in the first place. When he first met her at a children’s birthday party – she has a six-year-old, Wylie – he had already turned the role down more than once. But after he had seen Heller’s 2015 debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, he was keen to work with her. The idea of one beloved national treasure playing another may have seemed like obvious casting, but Hanks doesn’t look anything like Rogers, nor does he naturally inhabit the man’s essential, almost tortoise-like stillness. He had to learn it. “It was almost like it was a martial art,” says Heller, “genuinely slowing his heart rate down, slowing his energy down.”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is Heller’s third feature, coming hard on the heels of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, based on the memoir of the disappointed author turned literary forger Lee Israel, which earned Melissa McCarthy an Oscar nomination for her fearless, compelling and only sporadically sympathetic performance. Rogers, by contrast, is so relentlessly empathetic that he remains a bit of a cipher. There’s not a lot of him in him. “That’s why he’s not the protagonist,” says Heller. “He’s the antagonist.”
The protagonist is actually the magazine writer Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), a character loosely based on the journalist Tom Junod, whose 1998 profile of Rogers provided the inspiration for the screenplay. “He’s our stand-in in many ways,” says Heller. “I think it’s hard to come in cold to Mr Rogers right now. I think a lot of us come from a place of cynicism and neuroses, and thinking things can’t be as good as they seem.” Junod’s profound suspicion allows us a deceptively easy entry into Rogers’ world. It means we can be suspicious, too. “And as his cynicism gets chipped away, so does ours,” says Heller.
Rogers remains, however, the enigmatic heart of the story. He emerges as more than a nostalgic memory, or a saintly, remote figure. He was someone who tackled difficult subjects – when Robert Kennedy was shot in 1968, he devoted an entire programme to it – insisted on honesty, and was devoted to the idea that anything mentionable is manageable. It was a philosophy he applied to children and adults.
“I talked to people who said he would go to a dinner party and he would ask really political questions,” says Heller, “and he would just sit and watch everybody just freak out. He wasn’t polite, if that makes sense. He wasn’t just nice.”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has received some awards action, with Hanks up for best supporting actor at the Baftas and Oscars – although not for Heller, who has been passed over by both organisations in one of the more egregious examples of this year’s ignored female directors. But in some ways, it is remarkable that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood got made at all. The script had been knocking around for years, after making an appearance on the Black List – an annual ranking of well-liked but still-unproduced screenplays – as early as 2013. In any case, such a project always seemed unlikely to gain the support of those who fiercely guarded Rogers’ legacy, including his wife, Joanne, and the longtime CEO of Rogers’ company, Bill Isler. “Early on, Bill said to the producers: ‘I’ll meet with you, but it’s never gonna happen,’” Heller says.
The gatekeepers took some convincing; they didn’t want the Rogers persona to become a commodity. “They needed to know that wasn’t our intention, and that we were coming from a place of real respect and wanting to understand him, and not making fun of him.”
In the end, the production received their full blessing and cooperation. They were able to film in the Pittsburgh studio where Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood was shot. Every tie that Tom Hanks wears in the film once belonged to the man himself. The opportunity came with a responsibility: not just to represent Rogers’ legacy but to further his aims. To make a film that comes at you through a haze of nostalgia, only to sharpens its focus to confront big themes. “In many ways, I do think this a movie about grief,” says Heller. “And about life, too.”
It is also a film that unashamedly demands that its audience comes away changed. Did it change its director? “I don’t think you can make a movie about somebody who is so profoundly deep, and not feel like you get rubbed off on,” says Heller. “His philosophy of how to be is so profound, it makes you want to be a better person. It makes you want to be a better parent.”
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood in released on 23 January in Australia and 31 January in the UK.