By Iain Blair
If you are of a certain age, the red cardigan, the cozy living room and the comfy sneakers can only mean one thing — Mister Rogers! Sony Pictures’ new film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, is a story of kindness triumphing over cynicism. It stars Tom Hanks and is based on the real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod.
In the film, jaded writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), whose character is loosely based on Junod, is assigned a profile of Rogers. Over the course of his assignment, he overcomes his skepticism, learning about empathy, kindness and decency from America’s most beloved neighbor.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is helmed by Marielle Heller, who most recently directed the film Can You Ever Forgive Me? and whose feature directorial debut was 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Heller has also directed episodes of Amazon’s Transparent and Hulu’s Casual.
Behind the scenes, Heller collaborated with DP Jody Lee Lipes, production designer Jade Healy, editor Anne McCabe, ACE, and composer Nate Heller.
I recently spoke with Heller about making the film, which is generating a lot of Oscar buzz, and her workflow.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
I didn’t want to make a traditional biopic, and part of what I loved about the script was it had this larger framing device — that it’s a big episode of Mister Rogers for adults. That was very clever, but it’s also trying to show who he was deep down and what it was like to be around him, rather than just rattling off facts and checking boxes. I wanted to show Fred in action and his philosophy. He believed in authenticity and truth and listening and forgiveness, and we wanted to embody all that in the filmmaking.
It couldn’t be more timely.
Exactly, and it’s weird since it’s taken eight years to get it made.
Is it true Tom Hanks had turned this down several times before, but you got him in a headlock and persuaded him to do it?
(Laughs) The headlock part is definitely true. He had turned it down several times, but there was no director attached. He’s the type of actor who can’t imagine what a project will be until he knows who’s helming it and what their vision is.
We first met at his grandkid’s birthday party. We became friends, and when I came on board as director, the producers told me, “Tom Hanks was always our dream for playing Mister Rogers, but he’s not interested.” I said, “Well, I could just call him and send him the script,” and then I told Tom I wasn’t interested in doing an imitation or a sketch version, and that I wanted to get to his essence right and the tone right. It would be a tightrope to walk, but if we could pull it off, I felt it would be very moving. A week later he was like, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And everyone was like, “How did you get him to finally agree?” I think they were amazed.
What did he bring to the role?
Maybe people think he just breezed into this — he’s a nice guy, Fred’s a nice guy, so it’s easy. But the truth is, Tom’s an incredibly technically gifted actor and one of the hardest-working ones I’ve ever worked with. He does a huge amount of research, and he came in completely prepared, and he loves to be directed, loves to collaborate and loves to do another take if you need it. He just loves the work.
Any surprises working with him?
I just heard that he’s actually related to Fred, and that’s another weird thing. But he truly had to transform for the role because he’s not like Fred. He had to slow everything down to a much slower pace than is normal for him and find Fred’s deliberate way of listening and his stillness and so on. It was pretty amazing considering how much coffee Tom drinks every day.
What did Matthew Rhys bring to his role?
It’s easy to forget that he’s actually the protagonist and the proxy for all the cynicism and neuroticism that many of us feel and carry around. This is what makes it so hard to buy into a Mister Rogers world and philosophy. But Matthew’s an incredibly complex, emotional person, and you always know how much he’s thinking. He’s always three steps ahead of you, he’s very smart, and he’s not afraid of his own anger and exploring it on screen. I put him through the ringer, as he had to go through this major emotional journey as Lloyd.
How important was the miniature model, which is a key part of the film?
It was a huge undertaking, but also the most fun we had on the movie. I grew up building miniatures and little cities out of clay, so figuring it all out — What’s the bigger concept behind it? How do we make it integrate seamlessly into the story? — fascinated me. We spent months figuring out all the logistics of moving between Fred’s set and home life in Pittsburgh and Lloyd’s gritty, New York environment.
While we shot in Pittsburgh, we had a team of people spend 12 weeks building the detailed models that included the Pittsburgh and Manhattan skylines, the New Jersey suburbs, and Fred’s miniature model neighborhood. I’d visit them once a week to check on progress. Our rule of thumb was we couldn’t do anything that Fred and his team couldn’t do on the “Neighborhood,” and we expanded a bit beyond Fred’s miniatures, but not outside of the realm of possibility. We had very specific shots and scenes all planned out, and we got to film with the miniatures for a whole week, which was a delight. They really help bridge the gap between the two worlds — Mister Rogers’ and Lloyd’s worlds.
I heard you shot with the same cameras the original show used. Can you talk about how you collaborated with DP Jody Lee Lipes, to get the right look?
We tracked down original Ikegami HK-323 cameras, which were used to film the show, and shipped them in from England and brought them to the set in Pittsburgh. That was huge in shooting the show and making it even more authentic. We tried doing it digitally, but it didn’t feel right, and it was Jody who insisted we get the original cameras — and he was so right.
Where did you post?
We did it in New York — the editing at Light Iron, the sound at Harbor and the color at Deluxe.
Do you like the post process?
I do, as it feels like writing. There’s always a bit of a comedown from production for me, which is so fast-paced. You really slow down for post; it feels a bit like screeching to a halt for me, but the plus is you get back to the deep critical thinking needed to rewrite in the edit, and to retell the story with the sound and the DI and so on.
I feel very strongly that the last 10% of post is the most important part of the whole process. It’s so tempting to just give up near the end. You’re tired, you’ve lost all objectivity, but it’s critical you keep going.
Talk about editing with Anne McCabe. What were the big editing challenges?
She wasn’t on the set. We sent dailies to her in New York, and she began assembling while we shot. We have a very close working relationship, so she’d be on the phone immediately if there were any concerns. I think finding the right tone was the biggest challenge, and making it emotionally truthful so that you can engage with it. How are you getting information and when? It’s also playing with audiences’ expectations. You have to get used to seeing Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, so we decided it had to start really boldly and drop you in the deep end — here you go, get used to it! Editing is everything.
There are quite a few VFX. How did that work?
Obviously, there’s the really big VFX sequence when Lloyd goes into his “fever dreams” and imagines himself shrunk down on the set of the neighborhood and inside the castle. We planned that right from the start and did greenscreen — my first time ever — which I loved. And even the practical miniature sets all needed VFX to integrate them into the story. We also had seasonal stuff, period-correct stuff, cleanup and so on. Phosphene in New York did all the VFX.
Talk about the importance of sound and music.
My composer’s also my brother, and he starts very early on so the music’s always an integral part of post and not just something added at the end. He’s writing while we shoot, and we also had a lot of live music we had to pre-record so we could film it on the day. There’s a lot of singing too, and I wanted it to sound live and not overly produced. So when Tom’s singing live, I wanted to keep that human quality, with all the little mouth sounds and any mistakes. I left all that in purposely. We never used a temp score since I don’t like editing to temp music, and we worked closely with the sound guys at Harbor in integrating all of the music, the singing, the whole sound design.
How important is the DI to you?
Hugely important and we finessed a lot with colorist Sam Daley. When you’re doing a period piece, color is so crucial – that it feels authentic to that world. Jody and Sam have worked together for a long time and they worked very hard on the LUT before we began, and every department was aware of the color palette and how we wanted it to look and feel.
I just started a new company called Defiant By Nature, where I’ll be developing and producing TV projects by other people. As for movies, I’m taking a little break.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.