“Fred Rogers Practiced Confrontational Kindness” Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster On Writing ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’
Most people know the name Fred Rogers. Many children grew up watching the PBS host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from 1968 – 2001 and remember feeling like he was talking directly to them. He related to them on their level. “He wanted children to find a positive way to deal with their negative emotions,” claimed Micah Fitzerman-Blue, one of the screenwriters behind A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks who serendipitously, is related to the real Fred Rogers.
“Rogers shaped a whole generation of young people and their parents on how to cope with what it means to be alive in the world. On the program, he wrote hundreds of songs, performed operas, and had famous guests like Yo-Yo Ma, but all the while, he would speak directly to children.”
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was more than a guide to better living for children. Fred Rogers took the time to explain the world to inquisitive and confused children in a patient and positive way that nobody else did. In many respects, he was a surrogate parent providing comfort and guidance. The richness of the TV show served as the springboard for Noah Harpster and Michah Fitzmerman-Blue to write It’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood.
“Everything Fred Rogers did on TV was steeped in the best scientific practices for early childhood psychology and development. We loved him because of who he was on screen, but also who he was off-camera. Our movie focuses on the relationship he had with a journalist, based on Tom Junod who wrote the original article on which the film is based.”
When Welsh actor Matthew Rhys (The Americans, Burnt) received the screenplay, he actually wasn’t aware of Mister Rogers. When he watched the TV show, the slow pacing and non-capitalist approach was unusual when compared to children’s TV shows of today.
Rhys stars as the fictionalized journalist Lloyd Vogel, opposite Tom Hanks, who plays Mister Rogers. “Junod, the was given the assignment of reluctantly profiling Fred Rogers for Esquire Magazine in 1998 and in the process of researching him, his own life was transformed by this man.”
The screenwriting duo maintained a high fidelity of the character of Fred Rogers to the real man. Conversely, Lloyd Vogel, although loosely based on Junod, was more of a dramatic construct of the screenwriters to illustrate a cynical, troubled man and his relationship with his father.
Before making his way to television, Mister Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. His series didn’t mention God, but it was God-like. His background did shape how he went about his day and how he spent time with people. “He would pray for people by name and send dozens of letters to his viewers every single day.” He did this personally, not through an intern or publicist.
While conducting the research for the film, screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster traveled to The Fred Rogers Center in Latrobe, Pennsylvania to dive into the Fred Rogers Archive. “We saw this box labeled ‘Tom Junod.’ There, we found a couple of hundred letters that the two men exchanged over the course of five years until Fred died in 2003. We said to each other, ‘This is our movie.’” That was their aha moment!
Known for their work on the series Transparent and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, the Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue knew the creation of Fred Rogers the character was a major responsibility, balancing authenticity with dramatization. While working in television, the writers learned how to stick to hard deadlines.
By using these pressure points, they could abandon their egos and stick to the work. “When you’re making a movie like this, working with all of these people to make the best possible film, it requires the same skills as TV writing. Listen carefully. Execute quickly,” they confirmed.
“Fred Rogers was wildly consistent in his work. He persisted for many, many decades. We often talk about the idea that we’re never writing our masterpiece. The moment we think that the thing we’re writing is ‘the thing,’ then we’re setting ourselves up for failure. We just try to do the work.”
“We try to make whatever it is we’re working on in the moment… the purest and the most sincere thing that we can. We don’t try to intellectualize or what we think people want to buy or see, we have to be able to feel it. We have to write from an emotional place. The only successes we’ve had in our career have come from writing things people told us not to do. But the thing everyone wants is a unique emotional experience.”
Harpster said, “When Fred Rogers decided to get into television, it was because he saw the children’s programming in the early 50s was very slapstick, throwing pies in faces, and he was taken aback by that. He thought we could do better for children. He set out “in the moment” to create better programming for children, so they could learn and grow through the medium of television.”
“Both of our children have benefited from watching Fred Rogers, as have we as fathers, but as for the Fred Rogers message today, in cynical times, we hope his message will chip away that that cynicism. We hope it offers the chance for people to listen better and listen longer, or be kind, or be empathetic. In that way, his message isn’t dated at all. It’s ahead of its time.”
A Non-Traditional Biopic
“We don’t think of our film as a traditional biopic, because the character of Lloyd Vogel is a cynic with a complicated relationship with his father, who happens to cross paths with a popular television host. That event and Fred’s severe intimacy end up changing Vogel’s life. In a lot of ways, it’s a side door into a biopic, where Fred Rogers is not the traditional main character. That role is given to the character of Lloyd Vogel.”
Is Lloyd Vogel the protagonist or antagonist?
It’s not typical to use the “bad guy” as the main character, but in this narrative, the screenwriters concluded, “Fred Rogers is actually the antagonist in the movie. He’s the person who challenges and stands as an obstacle in front of our main character. Vogel is trying to write a straight-forward profile and Fred Rogers is uncooperative, to say the least. He doesn’t answer any of Lloyd’s questions.” He makes Vogel think of the motive behind his questions.
“Instead, he’s interested in Lloyd’s soul. He’s the obstacle our main character has to overcome. As such, he overcomes parts of himself and the real story is about a man and a broken relationship with his father. That relationship has reverberated through his marriage, his relationship with his newborn son, and unless he overcomes it, he’s not going to make it.”
The decision to make the journalist a composite character allowed for the screenwriters to create a more combative character than Tom Junod. While researching the archives, the screenwriters were able to examine information based on hundreds of conversations. Essentially, Fred Roger’s relationship with Tom Junod was not unique, because he befriended so many people during the course of his life and reached out regularly to share his thoughts and advice.
At the time, the writers both had children and dealt with family deaths, so they wanted to infuse their own perspectives into the character of Vogel.
The Cardinal Rules of Rogers
The next angle, of course, was filtering what to put in the story and what to leave out. “In the beginning, we put everything in, but as the theme and characters developed, those things fell away. Then, we only kept what went with the theme of forgiveness and dealing with your feelings. If they didn’t speak to that theme, they had to fall away.”
Throughout the story, there are various themes and topics, but “forgiveness” is the main idea. That said, the screenwriters also focused on themes from Fred Rogers.
The two cardinal rules for his life are:
1. You are perfect just the way you are, and
2. Everything that is mentionable is manageable.
“From the very beginning, we wanted to frame this movie as an episode of Mister Rogers about our main character. So we knew we wanted that kind of device structurally, so it could be non-traditional and playful, but also so Fred Rogers could look into the camera and speak to the audience. That was very important to us, so we could speak to the children in all of us, and speak directly to the audience.”
There were several unexpected things the screenwriters learned during their research that helped shape the character, even if those virtues didn’t make it into the final film. Rogers kept his weight at 143 lbs, which is code for I (1) Love (4) You (3) in his mind, but also the vast amount of correspondence – “the way in which he took the burden of others upon himself” – is what really differentiated Mister Rogers as a character.
“We tried to ask the question: Where does this burden go? Ultimately, we don’t know the answer, but some of that came out in his songs, the TV show, and his correspondence.” Some critics questioned whether anybody could really be that kind? Apparently Fred Rogers was.
Can You Say, Hero?
Junod’s original Esquire article in 1998 was titled, “Can You Say…Hero?” Meant to play off the childish tone of the series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Junod noticed an “energy” with Rogers, describing his demeanor as “fearlessness and an unashamed insistence on intimacy.”
Fitzerman-Blue said, “When we set out to write this movie, Noah and I had had this ongoing discussion of role models. Do they exist anymore? We had seen so many institutions fail us, in terms of moral consistency, that allow us as young fathers to point at. Role models are such an endangered species today, but Fred Rogers was a role model for men, in particular, and for us in particular.”
“But when you think about it, what are the emotions expressed as men? What are we able to feel? The emotion easiest to express is anger. Fred Rogers is the antidote to that anger. He recognized it exists in the world, but he taught us there are healthy ways to deal with it. We think about anger as a secondary emotion, but we express it because we feel shame over sadness or an inability to self-control,” mused the screenwriters.
“Fred was interested in the deeper self, so he’s not just a nice guy. He demands something of the people in his life. He demands we look at our origins, that we look at ourselves, and then look to an honest reckoning in the person we’ve grown into being. For all of those reasons, he’s an emotionally-demanding person. He’s confrontationally kind. For these reasons, he’s a hero.”
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