A timely story of kindness triumphing over cynicism, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod. When jaded investigative magazine writer Lloyd Vogel [Matthew Rhys] is assigned a profile of Mister Rogers [Tom Hanks], he approaches the children’s icon with cynicism, not believing that anyone can really be that good of a person. But he is immediately thrown off guard by Fred, disarmed by his honesty, and the way he seems to somehow look into his soul. Lloyd overcomes his skepticism, learning about kindness, love and forgiveness from America’s most beloved neighbor.
Director Marielle Heller received critical acclaim for her first two films DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL and CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Impactful without the usual manipulation of audience, the films were particularly noted for the clarity and brave truthfulness in which they were presented. So, it comes as little surprise and great delight that equal plaudits are streaming in for A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.
Fred Rogers was dedicated to helping children deal with the truths of life. He said, “Anything that's human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.
When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”
Mari Heller reveals that she rediscovered Mister Rogers when she became a parent, through the current show DANIEL TIGER’S NEIGHBORHOOD, which incorporates the teachings of Mister Rogers. “We use episodes from that show to help us deal with difficult parenting moments, and it’s brought me back to Mister Rogers and all of his teachings.”
She chatted with SET DECOR about the making of the film, and her entire team’s dedication to presenting him and their larger story, in which he is the cornerstone but not the key protagonist, as truthfully and accurately as he would want...and about how the sets helped bring that about.
Adding to the depth and the joy of the conversation is perspective from one of the founders of SET DECOR magazine...and of our umbrella organization, the SDSA...who is also a Governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an Emmy® winner, a former Oscar® nominee, and everyone’s dear friend, Jan Pascale SDSA, whose first television job was Propmaster of MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD for three seasons!
Enjoy the conversation, we know you will!
The story is about this hard-driven, cynical investigative journalist, who has skewered important politicians in deep profiles for ESQUIRE magazine, now being assigned to cover Fred Rogers, an assignment which he finds unacceptable. It is so out of his bailiwick, which might apply to his new role as a father as well. The conversation begins there...
SET DECOR: Lloyd & Andrea’s loft is very New York, but it’s not that pretentious intellectualism we so often see portrayed, although they’re both bright professionals.
Can we talk a little about that look for you?
Director Mari Heller:
One of things we were trying to convey with that set was that these were very professional people who had an established life before they had a kid, and the kid doesn’t necessarily quite fit into that established life...
And one of the things I had experienced when I first had a baby was, having rented a house in LA for a while, not realizing what you need when you have a baby! Open style living is the worst possible when you have a baby, because there are no doors to close, there’s no place for you, stuff explodes everywhere...and much of what you need with babies is rooms that can be shut off and be quiet.
So, a lot of what we talked about is, “What did the apartment look like before they had a baby?” “And what does it look like now?” This was not a life built for babies, these were people who maybe didn’t think they were going to have a kid, and it changed at some point. So, a very grown up apartment with lots of books and their interests very clear, but one that would have been very cool...these were two young cool people...and now it has this layer of baby crap that’s laying on top of it.
SD: And it’s only beginning...
And it’s only beginning! We had a scene that got cut out of the movie where Lloyd
is coming home late at night and is tripping over the car seat and baby toys, little tinkling bells are going as he knocks into something. You know, just this idea of this apartment had a different life and now we’re seeing it in a new light.
Also, where did they live in NY City? She’s a lawyer, but not for a big firm, so she’s making money but not crazy money. They’re not, this is not a rich couple, but they’re a cool couple. He’s a hip writer, and I picture them in the Lower East Side...Soho before Soho was Soho, this is 1998. We talked a lot about how their loft may be converted. They probably put in the bathrooms, so we built the bathroom in that way. And a lot of detail went into, “What does this say about who these people are?” You know, where they are in their lives, where they are in their creative lives, in their professional lives...
SD: Yes, and it shows for instance on the shelves...the books and the art...
What about some of those choices of art? Again, as you were saying, this is an adult place, not a child’s place.
Right. And even the shelving. I look at that shelving now as a mom, and I think, “Well, as soon as your kids start walking, they’re going to try to climb those shelves. That’s not safe!”
It’s not childproofed, you know. It’s literally not childproofed.
To speak to what’s on the shelves and around the apartment, the thing about Lloyd Vogel
is he’s based on Tom Junod, who was such a world traveler and somebody who was really well-versed in politics, with cool eclectic taste. I hoped to really kind of capture people who are interested in the world, who are engaged in a wider world, in a deeper way, and we wanted to show that.
But also, part of our thinking along those lines is that now there’s nowhere that Lloyd
can go when Fred
calls. We had a lot of different versions, like in the stairwell with the cord pulled taut...he has a work call and has to go out there because the baby’s crying or the baby’s asleep. You know, a hallway as office. There’s this idea that when you work from home and then you have a baby, you’ve sort of lost your place to work.
You don’t even see it that much, but he has a work desk that’s covered with folded laundry and baby clothes. This idea that he’s lost a sense of his...of himself.
SD: Yes, the very dose of reality. There’s also the reality and metaphor of that corridor outside, with the fire escape window, where he’s looking down on his dad in the street, there’s a bicycle leaning against the wall in case of need to escape, but equally realistic is the garbage can next to the elevator door...it’s sort of metaphoric for his life...
Yeah. He’s trying to have this work conversation while he holds a bag of dirty diapers. It’s obvious that it’s something he’s not comfortable with yet. And he hasn’t figured out his new routine.
SD: And that is the story isn’t it? He hasn’t figured out about how to be a father, yet. Or whether he can handle it.
And he hasn’t figured out the balance. He hasn’t figured out if/how he’s going to be a father. Is he still going to work? Is he just going to lean into work and uses that as an excuse to not be a present father? Is he going to build resentment toward it, or try to find a way to integrate this into his life? But, then too, things are not integrated yet.
SD: We also loved how you brought in Andrea. The reality there. She’s is in a more advanced place, but at the same time, she’s is out of place a little bit, too.
Yeah, she’s more advanced, as we know happens with women because they carry the child, they’re often a little further on in realizing that their life is going to be changed and turned upside down, but she also is in that life being turned upside down and she doesn’t know exactly what that’s going to look like for herself...
SD: Yeah, and there’s no big cushy rocking chair, or any of those mother-nurturing things that you kind of picture with a baby.
is a little bit sometimes like my husband...certain things, if they weren’t cool looking, they didn’t want them in our lives, even though they would make our lives more convenient for having a baby. Eventually, he had to give in on certain things, but there was a resistance of going the baby route and letting your life just get overrun with this baby stuff.
SD: Well, since were on the subject of fatherhood, let’s talk about Jerry’s place.
[Editor’s note: Jerry is Lloyd’s estranged father
was such an interesting character to get to know, from his costumes to his place—just how “cool” this guy is. This New Jersey guy who left his family, but is having this second chapter in his life, where he actually has found somebody in Dorothy who is his partner, and they have a very established life. Part of what we wanted to show in their home...especially because it’s not till later that we get to know Jerry
...so, we wanted to show that he is somebody who has also forged a new life that Lloyd
doesn’t know about, and that life has a lot of warmth to it.
SD: Yes, we loved that it was. At first you think she was going to be the typical newest date, and then we discover they’ve been together for years, and are very loving.
Yes, exactly. At first, Lloyd
thinks that she’s his father’s newest in a line of bimbos, but no, this is actually the person he’s with and who has actually helped him come to this point where he’s trying to make amends in his life.
SD: Yes, she’s actually been a catalyst to a lot of it.
She has! And we wanted to show it in their home. I think it shows something in Jerry
that he’s let this very feminine touch come into his life, in this house. With all of her knickknacks and there’s sort of a real girly touch to the house, and that’s how he lives now. He’s a changed person, you can see that reflected in his house.
And they have a lot of pride. They’re not people who have a lot of money, but one thing Chris Cooper decided about his character that I really loved, is that Jerry
has started to make money by kind of doing contracting work, doing renovations for people. So Chris picked parts of the house he thinks Jerry
added on to the house himself, which we loved.
The room that Andrea
stay in was this wood-paneled basement with the laundry room in the corner. It felt so...you know, when you’re a grownup and you go back and stay with your family and you’re staying in the basement next to the washing machine? “I’m a grown-up. What am I doing sleeping on a foldout couch next to the laundry machine? But there I am.”
The things we do for love, you know?
SD: And Jerry and Dorothy had their own sense of style, like those cocktail glasses right out of the ‘70s/’80s. So it shows the era probably when they met and got together, or shows the layers of eras...
Well, we talked a lot about how Jerry
was sort of in love with crooners and Frank Sinatra...that ‘50s era man was sort of in him and was never going to go away. And that’s sort of what I think happens for a lot of people, your sense of style gets established and it hasn’t changed, even though the eras change, you know.
SD: Yes, it really shows that beautifully, and tastefully.
Well, that’s the hope for me, when you’re doing something that’s period, is that you’re not hitting anyone up over the head with it, you’re doing it character-based, you know. Part of that is, if you’re shooting a movie, some people’s style is still from the ‘60s, and some people’s style is still from the ‘80s, and some people’s style is from the ‘90s. But not everything is all brand new. There are things from different eras.
SD: Right. You’ve probably got things from your Mom and Dad. And some other things you’ve been carrying around forever...
SD: Then, the other home in this film is the Rogers’ house...it really is a home.
MH: Yes. And you know, I visited Joanne’s apartment in Pittsburgh, where she and Fred lived after they moved from the house where they raised their kids. We based their real home on a lot of the decoration and the way this house felt. Part of that is there’s a warmth to the home and yet it’s a very beautiful home, very formal in some ways. It’s all based around these two pianos next to each other, which was real. Two grand pianos! And so, finding a home that felt like it reflected that and had that formality. There is something about Fred and Joanne, they are of a different era, too...listening to classical music and playing it...you know they would have a formal dining room. How do you make that also feel warm?
We definitely had things that were in the sets that were special from Fred’s real life that his generous, incredibly open-hearted wife just said, “Come in! Let’s look at things.” And she brought Jade and Merissa and Arjun [Production Designer Jade Healy, Set Decorator Merissa Lombardo, Costume Designer Arjun Bhasin] into her home and said, “Okay, here’s Fred’s clothes. Please take this stuff.” So Arjun made sure every tie that Tom wears as Fred
is a real Fred Rogers’ tie...
Also, we have a painting on the wall of three bananas. It’s in Fred’s bedroom, in the scene when he’s praying. It was a real painting that Fred’s sister had done for him, an inside family joke, because, I guess every time she would go to the market, she would say, “Do you need anything?” And he would say, “Three bananas, small.” So she did the painting titled, “Three Bananas, Small”, and we have that painting in our film. These were just little things that we knew for us, that made us feel like we were connected to the real person.
SD: And made it all the more real for us, even if we didn’t know.
Well then on the other side...the apartment in NY is obviously not a home, but a respite.
SD: So it has a jumble of mixed furniture...
Which is also based on what we heard about their real apartment in NY, which was in a very weird area, because it was in Hell’s Kitchen. It was an apartment that they inherited from Joanne’s uncle. So, it’s not something that’s necessarily reflective of their taste.
It’s just a place that they use, like a pied-à-terre. It was apparently so small, they felt like they both couldn’t stay there at the same time!
We wanted it to feel like a real New York apartment and have like the architecture that felt NY, but also, make it obvious it was not their home. Fred was not the type of celebrity who was living large with multiple houses. They had their home in Pittsburgh, and the NY apartment was more functional than anything else.
SD: Yes. It makes sense. It was just wonderfully presented. And it was sort of, almost claustrophobic.
SD: Particularly for Lloyd when Fred brings out the puppets. That was just a great scene.
Well, a lot of what we spoke about when hearing about Fred, was he didn’t necessarily respect personal space. He would walk down the street next to you and he would end up kind of leaning into you or would sit next to you and be a little closer than people were comfortable with, and so making the scene set in this apartment which was pretty small was part of the whole thinking behind it.
And Jade and Merissa did such a beautiful job of basing all of these on real elements but finding things that were incredibly functional for the filming...
SD: And that takes us to the complete to-scale re-creation of the studio for MISTERS ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD, which we know, your teams worked to be as true as possible, including the Land of Make Believe.
Yes, we even rebuilt the puppets all in the exact same way that Fred did.
SD: Wow, that’s fantastic.
Yeah, we had these incredible puppet makers, who had done SESAME STREET, and they were our puppet makers and puppeteers. They re-created the puppets meticulously, so much so that the people from the original show came in and said, “Are you using our puppets?”
SD: And you mentioned SESAME STRETT, Jan [previous Propmaster on MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD, see intro above] says that at the time when she was working on the show, there was outside talk of a rivalry between the two shows, so Fred had Big Bird come on to the show.
The way I heard the story, was that they had asked Fred to go on SESAME STREET and he said the only way he would go would be if Big Bird took his head off and showed the kids that it was a man in the outfit. Because he thought it was really important that kids understood what was real. And SESAME STREET said, “No way.” So they had Big Bird come to The Land of Make Believe.
You know, part of his whole philosophy was to tell the truth, so he did episodes where he showed them how puppets worked. He showed them how The Land of Make Believe
worked. He made it very clear that this was fake and there was a reason...it was pretend, it was playing make-believe, and he didn’t want anyone to believe otherwise.
SD: And isn’t that just giving so much respect?
So much respect.
SD: You know, he talks about, “I like you just the way you are.” And, but he also respects children enough to share the truth.
Entirely. And I think that is really what they respond to, that they’re being seen and heard for who they are rather than being talked down to.
SD: Jan also said that she loved that your film used one of the devices, Picture Picture, for bringing Lloyd in. She thought that was fantastic, the perfect use of that brought forward.
And she also loved that you got the quiet and the humanity of it all.
That’s a huge part of the show, Fred’s pacing, and the fact that he listened. He truly listened. You know, as Americans, we’re just so not used to silence. To sit in Silence.
Tom Hanks is not like that either. He’s a talker.
SD: But he IS kind.
And Jan, who along with Tom Hanks, is one of the kindest people in Hollywood, says,
“Fred shaped me. You couldn’t help but have kindness rub off on you.”
SD: Going back to the sets, she was saying that as a propmaster, that he was a klutz, and that the tent was such a great example!
And one of her jobs was to Fred-test all of the props...and yet!
Oh, that’s so funny. Well, I love that he just allowed mistakes. You know, he was trying to show kids that things didn’t go perfectly.
And things didn’t go perfectly us, either.
We had the sweater, which we had handknitted. The zipper was constantly getting stuck.
And we had other things...
I thought about leaving those in the movie in, you know, in a send up for Fred, but I loved that he allowed anything that happened to become part of the lesson. If something went wrong, that was the lesson of the show. It was the way they were meant to go.
SD: About his cardigan, Jan said, “Fred was colorblind, so it was my job to have the correct cardigan that had been chosen for that week’s shows unzipped, so he would easily know which one to get as he reached into the closet.”
Right. We went through all those details of how they preset the show for him.
Um, I made one crucial mistake, which I didn’t realize until after we filmed the scene, which is that they would pre-tie his shoes with the first knot loosely done. And I didn’t do that. I had them fully untied, so Tom had to do the full tying the knot while singing...
I made it harder on Tom Hanks than it was for Fred!
And I didn’t even realize it until the next day, when I went back.
We had done so much research about where he had the shoes preset, where he had closet preset with the cardigan which way everything went, this arm and that arm...you know, all of these details in order to just have it go the way he had to go.
I didn’t want to tell Tom, when I realized it, I felt so bad that I made it harder on him.
And I even made him sing live, which we don’t usually do on films...make an actor actually sing live on camera, but...we were trying to be so exact...
Like the mailbag! We had the real bag for Mr. McFeely
And we went to great lengths, too, to understand how they did things for the show.
So, we knew, for example, that Fred did put in a switch for the trolley that didn’t actually work, but he wanted the kids to see the mechanics behind things, so he would always put his hand down and pretend to push this button, so it would look like the trolley’s not going by magic, he was controlling it. So, we put in a switch that did not work, too.
And then, similarly, when he would put in the tape for Picture Picture
...when it started out, they used film reels and then eventually they did it on a cassette tape.
So we asked, “Well, what did you do here?”
And they said, “Well we just had a slot, and there was a guy standing on the other side who would just slowly pull the tape from Fred’s hand.
We did that.
We tried to do things in the exact way they did the show.
Another little one was, they had something called the Knock Box, which was something they had built, just a hollow box with a microphone set up, but when somebody would come to the door, the guy backstage would just knock on the Knock Box and it made a good hollow knocking sound. Because if you had knocked on the actual set, it would have shaken it. So, we had this Knock Box. It was really fun, I got to do the Knock Box a bunch of times! And, when Nicky showed up, who had worked on the original program, he looked at us,
“You have a Knock Box! This was my Knock Box! I built this! I have it at home. I’ll bring it to you. How do you know about this?”
And so things like that...the detail and love that went into...that the art department put into getting the details right, was just joyful.
And they’re things you would never see onscreen.