Director Marielle Heller is surprisingly calm. Having locked her highly-anticipated third feature A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood six weeks prior to TIFF, she is now waiting for the film—about the friendship between cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) and the iconic master of nice, Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks)—to have its world premiere.
Loosely based on Tom Junod’s Esquire magazine article about the public television legend, Heller has spent the past few years rediscovering what made Rogers so special. “I remember being a kid and thinking of him as kind of schmaltzy,” she says. “But as I became a parent, I got reacquainted with Mr. Rogers as a grownup, and from the point of view of trying to raise a good, healthy child, I’ve come to see who he really was, which was a radical human who used his time on Earth to try to make the world a kinder place.”
Heller had the full cooperation of the Rogers family and shot on location in Pittsburgh, recreating the Mister Rogers Neighborhood set in its original studio. “There was a huge responsibility to do it right,” she says. “We all felt like we were in a very privileged position.”
While casting Hanks seems like a no-brainer, capturing Rogers’ essence involved work. “Tom has something that we adore, in the same way we adore Mister Rogers,” says Heller. “The biggest difference is Tom makes everybody in the room feel great, while Fred was much quieter and totally comfortable sitting in awkward silence. I had to remind him to connect in this very simple, quiet, way.”
Heller recalls Hanks texting her during filming, “Do you think, by working on this movie, and thinking this deeply about Fred, that we will all be forever changed?” he asked. “I replied, ‘Yeah, I do.’”