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Mr. Rogers, Toddlers, and Dads: How Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s Writers Portrayed an ‘Unwaveringly Awesome’ Life

Mr. Rogers, Toddlers, and Dads: How Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s Writers Portrayed an ‘Unwaveringly Awesome’ Life

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Mr. Rogers Mister Rogers Fred Rogers

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which Tom Hanks stars as Mr. Rogers, started when screenwriter Noah Fitzerman-Blue had a toddler. “One day, on a whim, I put on a YouTube video of Mr. Rogers, and my daughter, a very stubborn two-year-old at the time, turned to the computer screen and started listening to him in a way that she has never once, even to this day, listened to me,” said Micah Fitzerman-Blue, who wrote the Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood screenplay with Noah Harpster. “Mr. Rogers said, ‘Let’s do some calisthenics. Do you know what calisthenics are?’ And my daughter turned around and started doing windmills with Mr. Rogers. I thought, ‘This guy is like a warlock! He’s speaking toddler!'” That led to a 10-year endeavor by Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster to bring a Fred Rogers story to the screen, which included their decision to adapt Tom Junod’s Esquire profile of the beloved children’s host. For MovieMaker Magazine’s 2020 Complete Guide to Making Movies, the two talked about their process from beginning to end. The following is excerpted from that story. Micah Fitzerman-Blue (MFB): We didn’t know much about him then, but he seemed fascinating, so you and I started researching him, reading anything we could get our hands on. But we quickly concluded that Fred Rogers wasn’t a good protagonist for a biopic by any reasonable definition, because he was unwaveringly awesome for 73 years and then died. There seemed to be no peaks and valleys in his story. He really did live an amazing life, almost intentionally. We knew that if we were going to write about him, we would have to find another way into the story and write a character with an arc. So, that led us to reading a bunch of stuff: Obviously, we read Tom Junod’s profile of Fred in Esquire, from which A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is adapted, and we read a book by Tim Madigan called I’m Proud of You that also served as initial inspiration. Luckily, we were invited to the Fred Rogers estate, but they said to us, “We really like you, we’re very honored to meet you, and we’d love to read anything you have. But there will never be a Mr. Rogers movie.” But eventually, after many additional meetings, they came around and decided to open up the archives to Fred’s life. Noah Harpster (NH): Because we didn’t go away.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Mr. Rogers Fred Rogers
Screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue (L) and Noah Harpster (R) and director Marielle Heller at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Photograph by Eric Charbonneau.
MFB: It just took blind faith and persistence. We knew Fred wasn’t going to become any less relevant than he is over time. We don’t need his message less now than we did before—we need it more. Another thing that happened was, your two daughters were growing up, and then I had a kid. We shared the same paranoia and fear of staring at your infant child thinking, “How the hell am I going to do this? How do I be ‘Dad’? How do you do it? Today? In Los Angeles?” So, part of our persistence in getting this script made came from the fact that we were looking for answers. NH: We drew from stories from the Rogers archive, but also very much from our own lives. As I was learning how to be a father, my own father got cancer during the course of our writing process as well and eventually passed away. So, we were writing about our own lives in the script—about having new babies, about the loss of a father, about reconciliation with a father. These things are as much a part of a film’s “development” as anything else, right? One of the gifts of being a screenwriter is that you actually get to work this stuff out on the page.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Mr. Rogers Mister Rogers Fred Rogers
Director Marielle Heller (L) and Tom Hanks on the set of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Photograph by Lacey Terrell
MFB: As we were looking for stories to draw from, we came to realize that Fred was compulsively intimate. If he met you, he would never have just asked you, “How you doing?” He really wanted to know the answer. Over the course of any given day of his life, he would meet people in a deep way and then get involved in their lives and day-to-day problems. We knew that Tom had written that incredible profile of Fred, and as we sifted through our archives, a box hit the table in front of us—a Tom Junod box. It was full of emails and handwritten letters between Fred and Tom that had spanned decades. We first thought that looking at these letters felt strangely voyeuristic, but at the same time, they were crucial in revealing that Fred served as a kind of personal minister to Tom. Fred was once a Presbyterian minister, and while he never talked about religion or God on the program, a huge part of his life was helping people in need. So, that dimension of their relationship became the nucleus of the movie. NH: One thing we realized pretty quickly is that Fred had, for lack of a better term, a bag of tricks. He had things that he would focus on when talking with people—the way that an emotion you’re feeling could be turned into a song, or the significance of playing with a lump of clay or hitting the low key on a piano. But any time someone tried to pry or ask him something personal, he would turn it around on them and say, “Oh, thank you. Thank you so much for asking me about that. It’s an honor that you would care that much to ask me something like that,” and he’d never really answer the question. In the archival materials we had access to, we saw that a lot of these things appeared in his correspondences with many people—not just Tom. Once we identified that as one of Fred’s patterns of behavior, we started to see some of the “tools” he developed to interact with others. You see in the movie how perfectly Tom Hanks captures what a guarded person Fred was. He engaged in a kind of conversational Judo—helping you, yet protecting himself at the same time, preserving a sense of mystery. We never felt like we were able to touch that thing that Lloyd Vogel—our fictionalized version of Tom, played by Matthew Rhys—is after. Also Read: The Writers of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Tell Us How That Sniper/Navy SEAL Urban Myth Started MFB: When you’re dramatizing and fictionalizing real people and events, you have to do so as carefully as possible. It’s important to portray them responsibly and respectfully, while at the same time allowing for the structure and arc you expect from a good movie to help guide your decisions. Everything is a delicate dance—a negotiation. Even if you’re making up a character or story completely from scratch, there are still always going to be other people with whom you’re making the movie. You’re not making it in a vacuum. You and I have worked on lots of projects that are completely fictional—set in a fantasy world, or perhaps in some version of the future—and it’s always been a process of negotiation. You’re always in tension with your collaborators. That’s how good work is made. When you’re approaching an adaptation, it’s a matter of picking moments that are especially exciting and perhaps afford some space for you to embellish a little bit. NH: Yeah. I think that always starts with your intention and ultimately you have to decide what it is your character wants. From there, you try to stay as close to the facts that you have. If you find in a moment that the facts you have don’t align with the intention of the character, then you have to take a step to the left or to the right. In this case, we didn’t have to do that very often because we had a lot of source material. And again, in addition to the archives, we had both your and my life to draw from. Plus, we had Tom, Fred’s wife Joanne, and Family Communications head Bill Isler informing us as well, so we could use something from that pool of resources at any time. Moviemaking is inherently collaborative, so a screenwriter’s job is really to set par. If you manage to do that, then you just have to hope that what ends up in the final cut of the film is at least as good as you think it is on the page. But usually—and we certainly did in this case—you end up finding it to be much better than it was on the page. That’s why you’ve just got to focus on writing an outline for what a cast and crew will do throughout production. Also Read: Why Fred Rogers Always Weighed 143 Pounds MFB: You and I have adapted quite a few pieces of source material. And I think for us, the other really important thing is: Are you able to convey the feeling that’s captured in that novel or article? Film is an emotional medium, so that should be your goal with any adaptation. There are no hard and fast truths about how you approach it. If you’re adapting Harry Potter, you’re responsible for getting the details right because everyone has read that book. If you’re adapting a novel that isn’t as well known, you might feel that your responsibility is simply to turn it into the best possible movie you can. Each situation presents something different, but for us, we needed to feel like we could capture the feeling of being with Fred Rogers. That was it. NH: Even if your script is not necessarily grounded in reality, the essence of your adaptation will be found somewhere in your own life. For us, writing A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood meant writing about being new fathers and saying goodbye to our own fathers. Even as we were covering the totality of Fred Rogers and everything that his legacy means, we were also writing about the things in our lives we understood intimately. Whatever it is, you have to find that emotional entry point to the material from within yourself. MM A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens Friday. Featured image photograph of Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers by Lacey Terrell.
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