When composer Nate Heller was asked to score A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, he says he felt “equal parts joy, excitement and terror,” knowing that the music he’d create would have to stand up to the legacy of Fred Rogers.
“He was an extremely musical person. He wrote all the original songs for the show, which his bandleader Johnny Costa arranged for him and put his magic to,” Heller explains. “So, I think I felt this cautious excitement about, ‘Ooh, this is going to be so fun, to tuck into this project with all of this beloved music.’”
Directed by the composer’s sister, Marielle Heller, A Beautiful Day tells the true story of the unlikely friendship that unfolds between the beloved children’s television host and a cynical Esquire journalist sent to profile him, on the Pittsburgh set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
With the score for his biggest film to date, Heller’s approach was informed by Rogers’ unique musicality, manifest both in the icon’s personal life and on his show. “Johnny Costa came from this school of jazz called stride piano, where these players could take chord progressions and do these big runs, from the bottom of the keys all the way to the top, without missing a beat. He had this ability to take these really simple, yet beautiful chord progressions and songs that Fred wrote, and embellish them, and play with them, and add little grooves,” the composer explains.
To Heller, what was so unique about the music of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was its electric and magical, live quality. “Fred was performing with these musicians live in a room, and they were just capturing it as it happened. So there was a certain spirit to that music. It sounds like this breezy, whimsical, easy, flowing jazz, but it’s really extremely complex music, and it was being performed by incredibly accomplished players, as well,” the composer reflects. “So, I think that was a challenge for us, to go: ‘Oh, how do we do this? How do we make it feel effortless?’”
DEADLINE: What were the first steps you took on A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood?
NATE HELLER: Well, I am uniquely positioned as a composer to have a lot more vision of what’s coming down Mari’s pike. So, when it seemed likely that she was going to be directing this film, I of course was like, “Tell me as much as you can about it. Let me get ahold of the script whenever you feel comfortable.”
Because of the nature of the way the film was made, we had to have a lot of that Mister Rogers music recreated by the time they were getting ready to shoot, so that the actors could perform along with it. So, that was a great entrée for me into the world of Mister Rogers’ music, [and] a jumping-off point for the score, to take that palette of this effortless-seeming jazz combo that they had on the show, and develop it out into the score world.
DEADLINE: In your work on the film, you not only arranged versions of Mister Rogers’ songs for the cast to sing, but also infused your score with elements of Rogers’ music.
HELLER: When we knew that we were going to be having the actors performing the songs on set, we wanted them to do it live, the way Mister Rogers would have done. We had the blessing of The Fred Rogers [Center], this incredible organization based in Pittsburgh that has archives of every single show, and original sheet music that Fred wrote that they were able to provide, so it was really neat to dive in.
Our first task was like, “Okay, let’s look at show footage from 1997, and try and hone in on the versions of these songs that we’re doing from Fred’s world, and figure out how to recreate them faithfully.” And that was illuminating because just watching from show to show, you noticed that the band is performing the main title song completely differently every time, because they’re such accomplished improvisational musicians.
So, that was a little bit of a challenge to wrap our heads around, and it was like, “Okay, let’s just choose one version from a specific show, and we’ll recreate this faithfully.” Then, as the film was coming together in the edit, it made sense for us to go, “Okay, let’s cherry-pick some of these melodies that everyone knows from Fred’s world, and weave them throughout the score a little bit.”
There were aspects of the story where we knew the score was going to have to go to a darker place. Because it is a story primarily about Lloyd Vogel, a journalist who is facing some of the biggest crises in his life. On Can You Ever Forgive Me?, it was like, “This is the world of Lee Israel. She loved Blossom Dearie; she loved jazz and old New York. Then, this is where the score’s going to be. Maybe there’s a bridge between these two worlds.” And I think it was similar with this film. We had all of this wonderful Mister Rogers music, which is whimsical and pure and nostalgic, and then the score was taking us in some darker places, as well. There’s a scene where we take Mister Rogers’ piano music that we’d already recorded, and I manipulated it and pitched it down to make it dark and ominous.
So, that was a fun process of finding, “How do we make a through line between the sweet, innocent world of Fred’s music and this darker world of a tortured journalist? How do we make them play together?” I think we found a pretty neat medium by retaining the jazz feel, and little bits of the Mister Rogers melodies that you would recognize, and twisting or contorting them, depending on the scene.
DEADLINE: Did the A Beautiful Day cast end up singing Rogers’ songs live, without any manipulation?
HELLER: I think from a studio perspective, the idea of “Let’s get Tom Hanks on the soundstage, singing live like Mister Rogers would have” is crazy, just in terms of spending money. Because what if it doesn’t go right? So, we did have to cover all our bases. Before it was time to shoot, we had our actors go into the studio in Pittsburgh and do pre-records of all their vocals, just in cast it didn’t work out live. But mercifully, all of our actors performed beautifully live, and I know from Mari that the way that the edit came together, it was mostly the live performances that were cobbled together to make the film.
So, I’m hoping we were able to capture the spirit of people in a room playing music together, and having something magical happen at the moment. Even though we had to fake it here or there, I think we still managed to pull it off in the same spirit.
DEADLINE: It’s not often to come across a team of siblings working together on films at the studio level. Could you describe what it’s been like, working together? How have you balanced the personal and professional?
HELLER: In terms of the idea of, “Okay, now we’re making this big studio movie,” Mari’s career has been on an upward trajectory and she has completely brought me along for the ride, which has been a real joy. As the scale of her movies has gotten bigger, her and I have sort of discovered what we can do together, and what we can accomplish. In terms of balancing the personal with the professional, the fact that we are siblings and that we’re close, I would say is 95% a benefit to the filmmaking process.
I think there is a lot of reticence from the people who are making the movies about, “Well, this is your little brother. Does he really know how to do this job?” [Given] the fact that at each stage, from Diary [of a Teenage Girl] to Can You Ever Forgive Me? to this, the budget and the number of people involved has gone up and up, there’s always a conversation at the beginning where I have to get the job and prove I’m capable, and I understand that. Every composer has to do that.
That’s maybe the one caveat of working together: People maybe doubt that we’re capable of getting it done. But I would say for the most part, we’re positioned better to accomplish our goals than other teams, because a lot of times, a composer comes in for the last six to eight weeks. The film is already cut together, they’ve put in a bunch of temporary score as a placeholder, and a lot of times, a director or an editor will fall in love with a piece of music that they cut the scene together to. So, you face the challenge of, how do I replace this music that is their ultimate dream pick of what they would want to be in the movie?
I think Mari is aware of this, and has helped create this process that we have, where it is more of a back and forth. And the fact that I’m working early with her and her editors, and we have a really open dialogue, allows us to build the scene sometimes around a demo. For instance, on Can You Ever Forgive Me?, there was a piece I wrote before they started shooting. I didn’t know what it was going to be for, but I was just like, “This feels like New York. This feels like Lee Israel’s world. I’m just going to send this to your editor, and if there’s a place for it, great.” That piece changed and shifted, but ended up really driving one of the most crucial scenes of the movie, and I think we’ve had similar moments on this one, as well.
I would say another small drawback of me being involved so early is that I just have to get over going, “Wow. I wrote this beautiful piece of music for the scene, and the scene is either getting cut or rearranged. Or the musical needs that we thought the scene originally had have shifted.” That’s the only challenge for me, is I feel like, “Great. I wrote this wonderful thing, and now I have to be totally fluid with it until the editing process is concluded.” But ultimately, that’s just my own personal issue that I need to get over, in order to do the work.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about the projects you’re taking on next? I know you’re attached to a film called Sophie Jones.
HELLER: I wrapped on Sophie Jones. This is another movie that I was drawn to because it was a passionate first-time director, a young woman named Jessie Barr, and it was kind of a fun palate cleanser, coming out of doing this big, long production. Sophie Jones was a fun, indie scale movie where I got to do more intimate music, and I was able to do an original song for it, as well.
Coming out of this movie, I took a little bit of a break from scoring work to be more involved with family for a bit. Then, my other palate cleanser was going back to doing some more pop music. I’ve been working on a record with one of my good friends that hopefully will be done toward the end of this year. That’s kind of like a return to my roots, which has been fun.