A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood screens Sat. Nov. 2, 7 p.m. at the Trustees Theatre. A Q&A with Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, and Tom Junod follows.
GENERATIONS of Americans grew up with the familiar soothing voice and manner of Fred Rogers greeting them after a stressful school day, in the iconic Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran on educational TV for an amazing 31 years.
Fred Rogers, who passed away in 2003, has had a remarkable public resurgence of late, spreading his gospel of goodness to a new generation.
A 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, garnered critical acclaim and wide viewership, becoming the 12th highest-grossing documentary of all time.
Now, a feature film starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, will screen the closing night of the SCAD Savannah Film Festival.
The screenwriting team of Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster is behind the project. They worked on a Fred Rogers script for a decade.
And according to them, nearly the whole time they were penning A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood specifically with Hanks in mind.
“Tom Hanks is genuinely spiritually connected to Fred Rogers,” says Fitzerman-Blue. “We didn’t want an actor just up there doing their best Fred Rogers impersonation, like an SNL skit. We wanted someone who could really embody the spirit of the man. Tom Hanks literally gives you the feeling of being in the presence of Rogers. He totally captures his essence.”
The duo didn’t write the script based on theory. They made several trips to Rogers’s hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, not only to soak up the vibe, but to garner the blessing and aid of the Rogers estate.
“We spoke to the folks looking after the Fred Rogers company. We were told right away, ‘Hey guys, just so you know, there is never, ever going to be a movie made about Fred Rogers,’” laughs Fitzerman-Blue.
“They put us through the whole process, making sure that we could be trusted. They are incredibly protective of Fred’s legacy, and rightly so. We wanted to make it clear that we wanted to be in partnership with them on the project. We were patient, and eventually were able to get access to Fred’s personal archives.”
The script’s premise is based on a 1998 Esquire short story by Tom Junod titled “Can You Say... Hero?” in which an attempt to write a regular profile piece turned into a genuine friendship. (In the film, Junod is played by Matthew Rhys.)
“Early on, we decided that Fred Rogers wasn’t really fit to be a protagonist, because he didn’t undergo those sort of sweeping, glacial changes that you want to see in a narrative,” says Fitzerman-Blue.
“So during the process of finding another person to focus on in that way, we came across Tom Junod’s article, about a journalist who gets assigned a story and then has Fred Rogers become a major impact on his life.”
The archives were revealing.
“We found out that the friendship between Rogers and Junod was much bigger than just the article. We saw that Fred Rogers continued to guide Junod through various points of his life. That’s when we knew for sure that Tom’s story arc was the one we wanted to follow.”
The continuing appeal and message of Fred Rogers through the present day is that “the world really needs kindness right now,” according to Noah Harpster.
“There’s a breakdown in civility. The world is badly in need of heroes. We see so many former role models disappointing people. There’s a broad crisis in leadership,” says Harpster.
Both writers say it’s not necessary to have grown up watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood to fully appreciate the message of Fred Rogers himself.
“I came to Mister Rogers when I had a two-year-old. She’s 12 now,” recalls Fitzerman-Blue. “I was struggling to be a then-new parent. So I put on YouTube to sort of fill the air, as you do, and I came across this wonderful man speaking in such a calm way.”
It was then, Fitzerman-Blue recalls, that “my stubborn, wily two-year-old who never listened to me, stayed totally still, just enraptured with Fred Rogers on YouTube. I though, wow, this guy’s a warlock! He’s cracked the toddler code!”
As for worrying about whether there’s an oversaturation of Fred Rogers material, Fitzerman-Blue simply laughs and says, “If there can be ten MCU movies in one year, there can certainly be two Mr. Rogers movies in two years.”