From the moment it was announced that Tom Hanks would play Fred Rogers in the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” there has been an extremely high level of excitement and anticipation around the project. One beloved national icon portraying another seemed a natural fit.
Inspired by Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers, the film has its world premiere on Saturday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. In the movie, Matthew Rhys plays a journalist assigned to write a profile of the children’s entertainer and finds his own cynicism dissolving when confronted with a philosophy of open-hearted goodness and acceptance.
But director Marielle Heller wants to be very clear that this is not a Mr. Rogers biopic.
“There’s no part of it that’s a biopic,” Heller said in a recent interview. “I mean, Fred Rogers is not the protagonist of the movie and there’s no cradle-to-grave part of this story.
“The thing is, Mister Rogers wouldn’t make a good protagonist for a movie,” she said. “He’s not somebody who has a lot of conflicts. He’s a pretty evolved human. But he makes a great antagonist because his radical way of seeing the world and his dark ability to tap into people’s true human pain make for a really good catalyst for somebody having a profound change in their life.”
Playing as a big-ticket premiere at a festival like Toronto ahead of opening in late November brings even more expectations. The movie is a presumed multicategory Oscar contender and has strong commercial prospects (especially following the surprising success of last year’s Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”). Which is all the more reason, Heller said, that she would like for people to know just what they are getting when they buy a ticket.
“I want people to know that it’s not a biopic,” she said. “I guess No. 1, I’m not really interested in making biopics. I sort of had the same conversation last year when I was making ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’”
That film, about the author and convicted forger Lee Israel, received three Oscar nominations. And yet, Heller still found herself battling the biopic tag.
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“Just because it was based on somebody who was a real person, that doesn’t make it a biopic,” she said. “You can actually make fascinating films that happen to be based on or inspired by a real person where that doesn’t make it a biopic.”
And following closely behind the successful “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” directed by Morgan Neville, could be something of a blessing and a curse for “Beautiful Day.”
“I think that the documentary and our movie are such great companion pieces,” Heller said. “If you want to just get a bunch of info, I think the documentary was beautiful .... The projects are friends or sisters, if you will. But I feel like that documentary gives you all of the life information you want to know about Mister Rogers .... Our movie really shows much more what his philosophy and practice looks like, how he operated in the world and how that life philosophy affected other people.”
She added, “What a gift that documentary was to the world and how many people got to feel and experience Fred’s message through it. I just think it’s a beautiful thing that they did. And I really do think if you’ve seen that documentary, it will make you enjoy our movie even more. And if you haven’t, I think you’ll watch our movie and then go seek out the documentary afterwards because you’ll want to know more about Fred.”