It took nearly a decade to get their movie made--or from another perspective, to gain an understanding of a “foreign” language that’s overlooked by, if not invisible to many. Either way, the film was worth the wait for writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, promoting a deeper appreciation of that language’s universal value and the message it imparts.
The film penned by Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster was A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Sony Pictures). Their journey began by chance one day when Harpster, then self-described as “struggling with insecurities as a new dad,” was grappling with how to communicate to his stubborn toddler. He put an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood up on his computer screen and his daughter stopped misbehaving. She watched and listened to Fred Rogers “in a way I had never seen her listen to anyone then or since.” Harpster phoned his colleague, Fitzerman-Blue, and told him of Rogers’ magical impact and gift for “speaking toddler.”
Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster then delved into Rogers with the hope of telling his story. But it was a story that didn’t dovetail well with a traditional biopic. “He wasn’t a good protagonist in the traditional sense,” observed Harpster. “Being unwaveringly awesome for 74 years doesn’t make for a great lead character.”
So the writers began looking at the people around Rogers, whose lives were changed for the better by him. While many folks had been impacted by Rogers, finding the one who would help them delve most meaningfully into the beloved man’s life and character was a difficult, time-consuming task.
Time was also needed to gain the trust of Bill Isler, then chief exec of the Fred Rogers Co., as well as Rogers’ widow, Joanne. Initially the writers were met with the declaration that there will never, ever be a Fred Rogers movie.
While trying to convince the Rogers’ estate that they could create a movie worthy of him, Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster, who already had written an initial script, earned enough trust to gain access to the Fred Rogers Archive at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. There, they found a box marked Tom Junod, a reporter who wrote a profile of Rogers for Esquire. While familiar with the Esquire piece, Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster weren’t aware of the friendship that developed between the journalist and Rogers. The box contained more than 200 letters and emails they had written back and forth to each other. The correspondence revealed a complicated and wonderful relationship that lasted until Rogers’ death.
Upon the discovery of this, Fitzerman-Blue recalled, “For us the story then became alive. We got an idea of what this movie could actually be.”
Junod’s perspective, which became that of a cynical reporter named Lloyd Vogel (portrayed by Matthew Rhys) in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, became the ideal access point into Rogers (Tom Hanks). The movie’s director, Marielle Heller, told SHOOT, “It’s hard not to feel cynical in this day and age, and Lloyd’s perspective helps bring us into the story.
Junod in real life begrudgingly took on the assignment to write a profile piece on Rogers only to find that his perspective on life was transformed by the children’s show creator and host. Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster’s treatment with Junod’s POV ultimately got approved by Isler and the Rogers’ estate.
Reunion with Heller
Heller coming onto the project marked a reunion with Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster. The writers had worked with Heller on an episode of Transparent, Jill Soloway’s breakthrough series for Amazon. Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster were also producers on Transparent and in that capacity earned a primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2016. They also garnered four Writers Guild Award nominations for Transparent from 2015-’17, and won a Peabody Award.
Heller meanwhile is a rising directorial star, demonstrating a talent and affinity for teaming with actors to help nurture tour de force performances from them--a prime example being 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.
Fitzerman-Blue recalled he and Harpster being asked by Heller who would be their dream pick to portray Rogers. Their response: Hanks. The writers had sent Hanks a Fred Rogers script years back but he didn’t respond. Heller, though, was undaunted. She sent Hanks an email, got him the new script and secured him for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
As for lessons learned from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Fitzerman-Blue has a different perspective on time. “We thought we were waiting all this long time for our movie to come out. But maybe this was the moment--10 years in--for this movie, for Fred Rogers to be in the world this year. You think about the world 10 years ago and it is quite a different world now.”
Today’s world is fraught with cynicism, full of trolling. Fitzerman-Blue said he’s “happy” that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood can serve as a much needed “kindness that gets to be counter programming.”
Fitzerman-Blue concluded, “When you work on something for so long, it becomes like the air you’re breathing. Noah was a desperate father of young kids when we started this project. When we were shooting it, I was that desperate father (with a toddler). What Fred Rogers has done for us off-camera to help us become better fathers has made a difference in who we are, how we work and how we see the world. We’re both forever grateful.”
This is the 11th of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, January 13, 2020. The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.