He's been dead 16 years but Mister Rogers remains a force for change, director says
Right now, director Marielle Heller thinks making a movie about kindness and decency is a revolutionary act.
"I'm the mom of a very young son, so I've been getting reconnected with Mister Rogers, and it reminded me of his mission, which is so sweet and helpful," said Heller, whose "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," with Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, opens in November. "Also, I'm a person in this world, with the political disconnects we have and just how hard it all feels now. Aaaargh! So getting to live with Fred Rogers' voice in my head for a couple of years sounded great to me, honestly."
The main character of "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" is not Mister Rogers, but the fictional journalist Lloyd Vogel, based on Esquire writer Tom Junod. During a rough patch in his life, when Vogel is wary of the demands of fatherhood, he interviews the TV legend for a magazine profile. The two become friends and Rogers helps the writer, played by Matthew Rhys, become a better man.
"Fred Rogers makes you strip away your cynicism and get real very quickly. In many ways, this movie is almost like an episode of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' aimed at grown-ups, asking you to let go of your cynicism," Heller said. "It's definitely very different from the movies I wanted to make under the last president."
Actually, Heller thought she was going to keep directing movies about complicated women, as she did with "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" and last year's Oscar-nominated "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" But Rogers, with his insistence that children and their feelings are important and his belief in addressing issues such as violence and bigotry, sucked her in.
"He believed in telling the truth, which is a weirdly subversive act right now. And it feels right for me to be making a movie about men who are trying to be good men, good fathers, good partners to their spouses, men who are trying to work on anger and toxic masculinity," Heller said. "To make a movie about trying to deal with being a human is sort of revolutionary in a time when that is not the message we are getting."
Heller is on the leading edge of a revolution in Hollywood, as well. After years in which the number of big movies directed by women hovered around zero, an exasperated Heller was told last year that none of the female possibilities for best director Oscar nominations made the cut because there were too many to choose from. Aside from the fact that no one would ever make that argument about men, Heller says the way to fight back is to continue to make sure Hollywood decisionmakers must deal with more than one good female filmmaker at a time. (This fall alone, we'll have Elizabeth Banks' "Charlie's Angels," Kasi Lemmons' "Harriet," Alma Har'el's "Honey Boy" and many more.)
"That kind of — I don't know the word — false inclusivity? It's a symptom of where we are now, which is that a lot of change is happening and some people believe in it wholeheartedly, but some other people are supporting it for the wrong reasons, which can lead to people in charge feeling like, 'OK, we checked that box,' " Heller said. "But a lot of wonderful women are making movies this year, so I hope we get to show everyone there's not only room for one of us at the table."
One person who undoubtedly would be in the female directors' corner: Fred Rogers.
One of the most surprising things Heller learned about him in her research was that, although his life didn't have a lot of ups and downs (which is why he'd make a bad central character in a movie), he was not afraid of conflict. His friends told Heller that Rogers enjoyed dropping conversational bombs at dinner parties and sitting back while others disagreed. On his show and in his life, Heller said, he believed it was important to address difficult subjects, sometimes even with strangers like Junod.
"Thousands of people, literally, have these stories about meeting Fred one time and then staying in touch with him for the rest of their lives," Heller said. "When he was being interviewed, everyone said he had this amazing skill where he would turn the interview around on the person who was talking to him. He would ask about their childhood or what was troubling them and, suddenly, they would be crying and revealing themselves."
That happens in her movie, which she said "is showing Fred's kindness in action, and how that rippled out to affect the people around him."
Rogers' kindness even affected folks who were nowhere near him, as millions of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" fans can attest.
Heller is among them.
On the first day of filming "A Beautiful Day" — shot on the actual set where Rogers made his show and with some of his actual crew members on her crew — Heller showed up in a red sweater that, not coincidentally, matched the one Hanks was wearing. (The actor's sweater was created for the movie, but he did wear Rogers' vintage neckties for the role.)
"I wore that red sweater as a good luck thing," Heller said. "Actually, there was so much Mister Rogers gear everywhere that I wore it many days — Mister Rogers socks or the sweater.
"I guess I wore it in a sort of gesture of solidarity. Sometimes, when I need a little Fred in my life, I put on that red sweater."