Marielle Heller has a talent and affinity for teaming with actors to help nurture tour de force performances from them. Her two last features are prime examples: Can You Ever Forgive Me? with Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant earning Oscar nominations for best lead actress and best supporting actor, respectively, earlier this year; and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Sony Pictures), which is scheduled for a November 22nd release and features a brilliant turn by two time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Philadelphia) as Fred Rogers, the beloved host of the PBS kids’ series Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Heller’s penchant for eliciting stellar performances comes from her being an actor herself. Her collaborations with McCarthy and Grant helped bring a movie to prominence that otherwise might have easily fallen through the cracks. And while A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has a much higher profile buzz going in, Heller’s stamp on the film is evident, bringing to fruition a story that lives up to lofty expectations given the feelings evoked by and for Rogers.
“Collaborating with my actors and crew are my favorite parts of directing,” said Heller. “That’s what I’m known for, creating an environment where they feel safe to do bold work, where I’m helping to shape performance within the emotional arc of the story.” While that reputation is known within the industry, the power of the acting performances in Heller’s films somehow in the mainstream press and even the awards show circuit gets separated from the work she did to help bring them about. “Maybe it’s something about women directors,” she conjectured. “Credit goes to everyone else, great actors, some magic that happened.”
Heller agrees that she’s been blessed to work with world-class actors--but she’s hopeful that women filmmakers in general will be recognized more for their talent for getting the most out of cast and crew.
Relative to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, among the prime challenges, she observed, was “making a movie about someone so beloved. Everybody would make a different Mr. Rogers’ movie. There’s a pressure to make sure you’re fulfilling everyone’s desire. I tried not to think about that too much. I thought others’ expectations might bog me down.” Instead Heller dealt with what to her was the foremost challenge at hand--“making a movie incredibly specific while needing to touch the universal qualities of Mr. Rogers. Everybody has a Mr. Rogers’ story, a personal connection to him. So many people felt like he was their dad in many ways. How do I tell his story, one story, and encompass all that?”
The perspective of a cynical reporter, Lloyd Vogel (portrayed by Matthew Rhys) who reluctantly agrees to profile Rogers, helps in that regard. “It’s hard not to feel cynical in this day and age, and Lloyd’s perspective helps bring us into the story,” said Heller who assembled a team of artisans to in turn bring that story to us, including cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes and production designer Jade Healy. Up until A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Heller had only collaborated on small projects with Lipes and had never worked with Healy.
Heller went to Sundance Lab together with Lipes as directors and became a huge admirer of him as a DP. They became close friends and when the cinematographer on her first two features (The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Brandon Trost, was unavailable because he was directing his first film, Heller thought about gravitating to Lipes since they shared a great rapport and the same film language. Her only hesitancy was the possibility that working closely together could put their friendship in a degree of jeopardy. Ultimately, she went with Lipes whom she said “was so the right person to shoot this film--he has a love for Mr. Rogers, is a young father, could relate to Lloyd, and was committed to telling this story in the right way,” which included deploying Ikegami cameras to film those segments on set for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, bringing that TV show authenticity to the film.
As for Healy, she was recommended to Heller by a friend and colleague. “She works from a place of love, in the same way that Jody works. She took so much care in recreating perfectly such venues as the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood set, and Fred’s house. I had a really special experience making this movie with her.
Asked to reflect on what her biggest takeaway has been from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Heller shared, “The impact on my life has been greater than the impact on my work. Living with the Fred Rogers message of love in my head for this long has been a gift, a reminder to stay patient, present and honest. It’s made me a better mom, hopefully a better leader of the ship when it comes to being a director, more conscientious. I’ve always tried to be conscientious but now I’m more aware of what’s important and what’s not. It helped put life into perspective. Last year I was going through awards campaigns (for Can You Ever Forgive Me?) as I was in the process of this Mr. Rogers movie. Anytime ego would rear its ugly head, I could fall back on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
As alluded to earlier, Heller has acting roots, most prominently in live theater, working at Berkeley Rep, La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego Rep, ACT, The Magic Theater, The Barbican and Birmingham Rep before moving to New York where she graced the stages of New Georges, Soho Rep, Clubbed Thumb and 3LD. She has also performed in film and TV projects over the years.
Directorially she made a major splash with her feature debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, starring Bel Powley, Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard. An adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 novel of the same title, the film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. She garnered the opportunity to adapt and direct the film after she was awarded the Sundance Screnwriting and Directing Fellowships, the Maryland Film Festival Fellowship, and the Lynn Auerbach Screenwriting Fellowship in 2012.
Heller’s second film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. An intimate portrayal of best selling biographer turned literary forger Lee Israel, the film was named a best movie of 2018 by The New York Times, TIME, Vanity Fair and Vogue, garnering nominations for three Oscars, three BAFTA Awards, a pair of Golden Globes and two SAG Awards. Can You Ever Forgive Me? won two Film Independent Spirit Awards, an honor from the National Board of Review, and two New York Film Critics Circle awards.
Heller’s body of work extends beyond features. She has directed episodes of the TV series Transparent (Amazon) and Casual (Hulu), and via production house Caviar has helmed some ad fare, including a recently debuted Nike Joyride shoes campaign starring Broad City alum Ilana Glazier for agency Megs and Shamus. In one spot, Glazer strives to track down the meaning of the “runner’s high,” which proves to be an ideal vehicle for her cheeky sense of humor.
Heller said of her forays into the commercialmaking/branded content arena, “Flexing your muscles in all different forms is really wonderful. It helps you form relationships with new collaborators. You get to meet a huge number of talented people, experiment with storytelling techniques, new toys. You can work on a movie for two or three years, and out of that time shoot just 30 days. This (commercials) is a way to get back on set and meet wonderful people to add to your talent roster.”