The Queerty Interview

Marielle Heller director of ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ on the lessons of Mr. Rogers

Director Marielle Heller and Tom Hanks. Photo by: Lacey Terrell

Few movies arrive at the Toronto International Film Festival with as much fanfare as A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, directed by Marielle Heller.

The Tom Hanks-led film features the actor stepping into the iconic presence of children’s TV entertainer Fred Rogers, and had its world premiere at this year’s festival. It opens nationwide November 22.

The film follows the depressive life of journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who gets assigned to write a profile on Mr. Rogers. Lloyd resists the assignment, especially after Mr. Rogers encourages him to get in touch with his feelings. Lloyd’s marriage to his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) is on the rocks and his relationships with his sister Lorraine (Tammy Blanchard) and alcoholic father Jerry (Chris Cooper) are in even worse shape. As Lloyd begins to learn the power of Mr. Rogers’ message, he begins to regard his life in a whole new light.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood had begun to generate Oscar buzz even before it premiered; buzz only briefly muted when sound mixer James Emswiller suffered a heart attack and fell from a second-story balcony to his death several weeks into shooting. Heller canceled press for last year’s hit, Can You Ever Forgive Me, as a result.

Director Heller greets us in a grand ballroom at one of Toronto’s classiest hotels, the Royal Fairmont, her wide, chestnut-colored eyes almost as bright as her smile. Queerty was lucky to score a few minutes with director Heller to talk about the power of Fred Rogers, his lessons about masculinity, and the tragedy that shocked the production.

We’ve been chasing you down for a year. We were supposed to talk for Can You Ever Forgive Me, but press got canceled.

Oh yes.

So how do you go from an alcoholic hoaxer writer to Mr. Rogers?

Doesn’t it make perfect sense?

In my mind it does, but my mind is a scary place.

I don’t know. It’s so funny, I feel like I can’t pull myself back and look at the bird’s eye view of my career in that way. I just know I can only work on movies that move me from an emotional standpoint and that I love the people involved. And I love Lee [Israel, of Can You Ever Forgive Me] and I love Mr. Rogers and I love Lloyd [the main character of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood] and I love Minnie from Diary of a Teenage Girl too. I love people struggling with what it means to be a person in the world, and that it doesn’t need to be a big fancy plotline. It’s really us with each other in our own minds.

Tom Hanks Photo by: Lacey Terrell

Ok.

So for me, I didn’t ever really think I was going to make a movie that wasn’t about women. I kind of thought if I just made my career about making movies about women, we still wouldn’t have enough movies about women. But then Mr. Rogers—I joke that Mr. Rogers is the one man who could make me make a movie about men.

[Laughter]

And really, its a movie about masculinity in many ways.

Absolutely it is.

But I really don’t believe that gender is binary, so, whatever.

It’s all good. The appeal of male bonding is essentially what this film is about at its core. It’s about affection between men.

And also men struggling with the fact that they’re taught to not be affectionate and taught not to know or own their emotions, or to communicate their emotions. It’s not just their bonding, it’s also their pain, and the disservice we do to men and to boys when we don’t allow them the same access to emotions. That was something Mr. Rogers believed fundamentally: that we all need to feel our feelings.

Totally. And in that way, Mr. Rogers is considered something of a queer icon, if an ironic one. He’s been called bisexual, not in the sense that he ever wanted to have sex with or felt attracted to other men, but in that he never shied away from showing affection to other men and encouraged other people to embrace that.

And he was sensitive. He wore sensitivity on his sleeve and never tried to appear macho or promote masculinity in that other kind of way.

Yes.

And he was so comfortable being soft in that way. That made people uncomfortable as well, and that was a radical thing he allowed: for men to see someone like him on television.

That’s still radical. Even by today’s standards.

Pathetically, I agree.

Mr. Rogers was, and still is, the most empathetic man on television. Watching the film last night, I kept wrestling one question: who was Fred Rogers at his core? There’s something so elusive about him.

Yes.

Something hidden. For you as a director approaching this kind of material, I think you need to make a choice about that to construct your film and direct your actors.

Related: Mr. Rogers was apparently bisexual, and Twitter is loving it

Yeah.

So who was he at his core?

I think it was important that he was human at his core, with pain, with anger, with heartache, with regret, and who is working every day to be better. He is accessing his better self, but he is still human. It was really his wife Joanne who said to me “He is not a saint, and if you think of him as a saint, it’s not attainable what he was aiming for.” And it makes all the rest of us feel like oh, I don’t have to try to be like that. He wasn’t born that way. For me, it was about showing him as a complex human. The truth is when you talk to people about him, everyone heaped their baggage on him. Everyone came to him with their story.

He’s like a therapist in this film.

And he helped them! When we asked people, like the real Bill Eisler, “Did he talk to you about other people’s burdens or pain that they brought him?” He would say “No, go ask Joanne .” And Joanne would say “I don’t think so. You should ask Hedda.” And they all would say “No, he didn’t talk to me about that.”

Wow.

So where we came to a conclusion was that he held it. He was holding the pain of so many people. So that’s what we try to allude to in the final moments of the film as well. He was not immune to that pain. He was so sensitive to that pain.

Totally.

For me, I’m an incredibly sensitive person. I remember I went to a zen Buddhist center in Brooklyn recently. They were talking about if the goal of Buddhism was to get to a point where you don’t feel pain or suffering anymore. And no, the point is to learn to feel it fully. And it made me think of Fred. That’s what he did.

Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) meets journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys).

That’s so beautiful. That also alludes to the other key relationship in the film, which is that between Lloyd and Jerry, his dad. By the way, thank you for giving Chris Cooper a good part.

Are you kidding me? He’s the most incredible actor.

And Tammy Blanchard. Two of the most underrated actors alive. You give them both good stuff to do.

Of course I do. I adore them. Watching Chris Cooper work in this movie was like a master class every day. I was weeping at the monitor. He is such a generous, kind spirit. He is such a phenomenal actor. He brings it in such a way I’m so moved watching him work. He’s incredible.

The scene where Fred whispers in his ear, and we just see the light reflected in his eye—somehow he emotes through that.

Me and my mother cried about that last night.

Aww! The Jerry-Lloyd relationship is so interesting in that…I don’t know if I should say this. I found myself thinking a lot about men in my family who I don’t think are bad men, but made some really bad choices.

Sure. There are a lot of men in all our lives who hold pain that we all are dealing with.

So who did you think about in your own life? I had to stop and think: is it the people we love most in life that are the hardest to forgive? It seems like it would be the other way around.

No, because when people have hurt us…you know– I thought about my father’s father. They were estranged by the end of his life. I can remember what that felt like for my dad. I was really lucky that I had a father who chose to become his better self, and to be a wonderful father. And his father was a wonderful father to him as well, but life got in the way and caused pain between family members. Which happens.

Tom Hanks Photo by: Lacey Terrell

Sure. Did making the film help to reconcile that for you in some way?

My dad was there last night and I need to have that conversation with him, and ask him how it made him feel about his own dad. I can only imagine. Really, I think the beautiful thing about this movie is we all have our own entry point to it. We all have things we relate to. I relate both to Fred and to Lloyd in different parts of myself. I don’t know…this is the first time I’ve been thinking about this, so I need to talk to my dad and see what he says.

I’d love to know what he says. So, ok, this is the last question, and it’s a tricky one. Part of being a director is being a leader. We tend to get caught up in the artistic vision element, but in order to make a good film, a director needs to lead a cast and crew.

Yeah.

We are living right now in a time where, as a society, we’re seeing a dereliction of leadership, and its consequences.

[A beat]

You had a tragedy, making this film. So my question to you is, how do you rise and act as a leader when tragedy strikes? How do you hold your company together to make something wonderful?

I really appreciate the way you frame that question, I have to say. For me…

[Long pause]

When we lost Jim, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced on a set. I felt at once responsible for everyone that was there, and for their emotions. I thought the worst thing we could do when making a film about Mr. Rogers, was just to push people forward without acknowledging the deep pain we all share.

[Marielle’s eyes shine like gems as they begin to well]

The first thing we did was listen. We said “We are guests and visitors to your city [the film shot on location in Baltimore]. We are part of your community because you welcomed us with open arms. Jim was one of yours. How can we help in this moment?” The crew wanted to gather, so we gathered and cried together. We spent many days crying together, and we let people know that this was a place where we were not going to push the show forward without letting people experience their emotions. It would not be what Fred would have wanted, and it wasn’t how we wanted to leave the show.

The truth is, there is no blueprint for how you move forward from a tragedy. Nobody called and said “This is what we do when this happens.” None of the producers had gone through this, so it wasn’t like oh we do this, then we do this. It was me and the producers sitting down and saying “How do we want to guide? How do we want to lead in this moment?”

[She wrings her hands as they begin to shake]

The most important thing was that everyone felt the space to grieve however they needed to. We basically said to everyone, if you need to leave you can leave. If you want to be with us, you can be with us. We will have grief counselors. We can gather. We will honor him. And everyone said “We want to be here. He would want us to finish this movie. He was happy making this movie. We are happy making this movie. We are all proud. We want to be together.”

So we all gathered together our first day back on set. We rolled a minute of silence for Jim, because he was our sound guy. And we all cried. And I spoke. One of the sound people played a song for him. And we held each other. From that moment forward, we were so bonded. I mean, the entire crew making this movie feels like family to me in a way I can’t explain. I was so moved and touched by the way people stepped up.

[A beat]

That is the only time I’ve discussed that in the press.

It’s a great answer. And the film is a great monument to him.

And it is dedicated to him of course.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens November 22 in cinemas.