'Beautiful Day' Director On Mister Rogers' 'Radical Notion': Telling Kids The Truth | Connecticut Public Radio
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'Beautiful Day' Director On Mister Rogers' 'Radical Notion': Telling Kids The Truth

Nov 20, 2019
Originally published on November 21, 2019 12:20 pm

Director Marielle Heller remembers tuning into Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as a kid, but it wasn't until she was an adult watching the show with her 3-year-old son that she fully appreciated the host's gentle, direct manner. Watching an episode in which Mister Rogers finds that a pet fish has died, Heller was struck by the way he addressed the audience.

"He wasn't afraid of any of the hardest parts of childhood or talking about the most uncomfortable things," she says. It's "a radical notion, but he tells kids the truth."

Heller's new film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, was inspired by the true story of Rogers' relationship with journalist Tom Junod, who was assigned to profile Fred Rogers in 1998 for a special issue of Esquire on American Heroes. Junod had acquired a reputation for saying the unsayable in his profiles and for his cynicism. The two men — one known for kindness; the other for his skepticism — formed an unlikely friendship.

Heller is adamant that her film, which stars Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys, is not a biopic; rather, it's a study in how Rogers, who died in 2003, interacted with and impacted the people around him.

"He elicited real, fundamental, catalytic change out of people who he came into contact with," she says. "He had this way of kind of shaking people to their core and breaking them down in some way — and changing them."


Interview highlights

On why Rogers' widow, Joanne, told Heller she didn't want him portrayed as a saint

She said, "It's important you don't think of him as a saint. And the reason it's important you don't think of him that way is then his message is unattainable, what he was aiming for is unattainable." And something about that just clicked for me. So we put that verbatim into the movie, because it made it so clear.

The reason that they want us to know Fred was a person is because then we can all aim to be more like him. And that's what he was hoping for, was that we would all see the ways in which we could choose kindness. We could all see the ways in which we could choose to be more empathetic, and that we could listen to each other more, and we could see that everybody was a child once, and see that everybody has value. And so it was never about exalting him above anybody else or making it that somehow he did things other people couldn't do. The point was that we all could.

On helping Tom Hanks embody Fred Rogers

The positive thing going into this was obviously the way the public feels about Tom Hanks has a similar quality to how we feel about Mister Rogers. So there was a warmth that we were starting with, there was so much that was already done there, but the truth of the matter is, Tom is a very different person energetically than Mister Rogers. He's very funny. He's very charming. He's actually got a loud booming voice and walks into a room, and you know he's there. He shakes everyone's hand. He cracks jokes. He's boisterous. He's really vibrant, and it's never awkward when you're talking to Tom Hanks. I've never seen him have an awkward conversation with anybody.

And what we figured out in our research about Fred was that he really was comfortable sitting in silence and awkwardness, and he would ask questions to people and he would wait for an answer no matter how long it took, and he wouldn't fill that silence in. And he had a stillness to him, too. So a lot of what I had to do, especially in the beginning, was to kind of rein Tom's natural buoyancy back and settle him into a kind of zenlike state where he was being hyperpresent in every moment.

On finding the right pacing for the movie

Fred had a very specific cadence. I don't think anybody could've watched his show and not noticed that he spoke at a different pace than the rest of the world. And we heard from a number of people that when you would be with Fred, it felt like time would slow down. He kind of controlled time, in a way.

Part of the casting of Matthew Rhys was I wanted to cast somebody who had a different pace. It was about these two men who were sort of foils to each other coming together and having these sort of emotional duels. So Matthew, he is somebody who moves very quickly. His mind is always racing, and he's got a lot of energy pulsing through his body, so the idea was, in our rehearsals and also in the way that we shot these scenes, between these two men, it was about really kind of controlling time.

When there were pauses, they were carefully crafted. I had to kind of force them to pause even longer than they were comfortable pausing. But it was also about what was happening in those pauses. What are the emotional back-and-forths that are happening? What was just penetrated? What memory is being triggered? What are you thinking about in that moment, and when will you respond, and how carefully will you respond?

On watching the Mister Rogers episode about death with her son

We were having a snow day, and so he was home from school. But it was a day that I kind of set aside that I was going to watch a lot of episodes of Mister Rogers. So I asked Wylie if he wanted to watch some episodes with me. And I let him pick out based on the kind of thumbnails on the Internet. And he picked the fish one because he was very obsessed with underwater stuff, ocean stuff. But I knew just looking at the icon that the fish one, this is the episode about death. And I thought, "Are we going to go here? OK."

So in the episode, Mister Rogers goes to feed the fish and one of the fish is dead. And he tries to revive it and he puts it in some saltwater and he sloshes it around and it kind of limply sloshes around, and he says, "It looks like it's moving, but it's not actually moving." And he buries the fish. And he tells the story about his dog, Mitzi, who died when he was a kid.

And I just watched my kid watch this episode, knowing that we hadn't spoken really very much about death, and as Mister Rogers is telling the story about the dog dying, Wylie he looks at me with this kind of skeptical look and goes, "Dogs don't die!" I had this like Mister Rogers in my head and went, "Well, no, dogs do die." And I told, I guess, what's a little bit of a stretch of the truth, but I said, "You know, when they're very old and their bodies are tired, you know, dogs do die and and cats die." And we have two cats. And he looked at me and went, "Cats? Cats die?" And I said, "Yeah." And he said, "But we have great cats!" ...

And I held him and I was crying. And all I could figure out to say was, "I know this hurts. I know this is so painful. I don't know what to say. But this, this really hurts." ... Then later that night, as I was putting him to bed, the dreaded question came, which was, "Well, what about people?" The way he said it was. "People don't get dead, do they?" And then we had our kind of second round of weeping that happened that came out of this episode of Mister Rogers.

I don't think I handled it great, and I still feel sort of guilty for how this all came up. I felt like was it too young for us to kind of go there? But I also felt like I like all had to guide me was Fred telling me, "We let the kids guide these conversations, listen and tell them the truth." And so that's what I tried to do.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I'm too old to have grown up watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," but I love the new film "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. My guest is the film's director, Marielle Heller. She also directed one of my favorite films from last year, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" She previously joined us to talk about her first film, "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl."

The new film is inspired by the story of Rogers' relationship with journalist Tom Junod, who was assigned to profile Rogers in 1998 for a special issue of Esquire on American heroes. Junod says the assigning editor thought it would be amusing to have him, a journalist determined to say the unsayable, write about the nicest men in the world. But talking with Rogers changed Junod's life.

Junod wrote a new essay about his relationship with Rogers published in The Atlantic to coincide with the film's release. He writes, a long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him. He was the first person I ever wrote about who became my friend, and our friendship endured until he died.

In the movie, Tom Junod's name is changed to Lloyd Vogel. His personal story is changed too. Let's hear a scene from the film in which Lloyd is interviewing Rogers. Lloyd has a bloody cut and a bruise on his face, which he told Rogers he got from a softball game. But he really got it at his sister's wedding when he got into a fight with his estranged father.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD")

MATTHEW RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) This piece will be for an issue about heroes. Do you consider yourself a hero?

TOM HANKS: (As Fred Rogers) I don't think of myself as a hero. No, not at all.

RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) What about Mr. Rogers? Is he a hero?

HANKS: (As Fred Rogers) I don't understand the question.

RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) Well, there's you, Fred. And then there's the character you play, Mr. Rogers.

HANKS: (As Fred Rogers) You said it was a play at the plate. Is that what happened to you?

RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) I'm here to interview you, Mr. Rogers.

HANKS: (As Fred Rogers) Well, that is what we're doing, isn't it?

GROSS: (Laughter) Marielle Heller, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film.

MARIELLE HELLER: Thank you.

GROSS: What did you do to help Tom Hanks embody Mr. Rogers in the movie?

HELLER: I mean, the positive thing going into this was obviously the way the public feels about Tom Hanks has a similar quality to how we feel about Mr. Rogers. So there was a warmth that we were starting with. There was so much that was already done there.

But the truth of the matter is Tom is a very different person energetically than Mr. Rogers. He's very funny. He's very charming. He's actually got, like, a loud, booming voice and walks into a room, and you know he's there. He shakes everyone's hand. He cracks jokes. He's boisterous. He's really vibrant. And he doesn't really - it's never awkward when you're talking to Tom Hanks. I've never seen him have an awkward conversation with anybody.

And what we figured out in our research about Fred was that he really was comfortable sitting in silence and awkwardness. And he would ask questions to people, and he would wait for an answer, no matter how long it took. And he wouldn't fill that silence in. And he had a stillness to him too. So a lot of what I had to do, especially in the beginning, was to kind of rein Tom's natural buoyancy back and settle him into a kind of zen-like state where he was being hyper-present in every moment.

GROSS: I know on the radio, like, a pause can be a very kind of dramatic thing when you hear, like...

HELLER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Oh, somebody's thinking, or somebody's mad or - you know. But...

HELLER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...But if the pause goes on too long, everybody just gets uncomfortable. So how did you deal without it making the movie - like, you wanted pauses. You wanted...

HELLER: Well...

GROSS: ...Slowness. But if it's too much of any of that, it's just going to be...

HELLER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Uncomfortable for everybody in the audience.

HELLER: I mean, Fred had a very specific cadence. I don't think anybody could have watched his show and not noticed that he spoke at a different pace than the rest of the world. And we heard from a number of people that when you would be with Fred, it felt like time would slow down. Like, he kind of controlled time, in a way.

And part of the casting of Matthew Rhys was I wanted to cast somebody who had a very different pace. You know, it was about these two men who were sort of foils to each other coming together and having these sort of emotional duels. So I - Matthew was also - he's somebody who moves very quickly. His mind is always racing, and he's got a lot of energy pulsing through his body.

So the idea was, in our rehearsals and also in the way that we shot these scenes between these two men, it was about really kind of controlling time. And when there were pauses, they were carefully crafted. It was really - I had to kind of force them to pause even longer than they were comfortable pausing. But it was also about what's happening in those pauses.

What are the emotional back-and-forths that are happening? What was just penetrated? What memory is being triggered? What are you thinking about in that moment, and when will you respond and how carefully will you respond? And is it an impulsive response, or is it a very thoughtful response? So we worked a lot on pacing. And only now that I'm doing all of these press junkets with all of my actors am I hearing about how slightly tortured they felt by me...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HELLER: ...During that period of time (laughter), that apparently I was like, we're going slower, guys. Here we go. And they were going, really? Slower? That felt so slow.

GROSS: What you're describing is the opposite of what's depicted in the movie on the set of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" because on the set, there are producers who are thinking, like, come on. Like, move it along.

HELLER: Right.

GROSS: (Laughter) You know? And they're...

HELLER: Apparently Fred was very hard...

GROSS: They're so frustrated with his slowness. Yeah.

HELLER: Yes. He was always running behind. He was always talking to people for hours at a time. It was really hard to move him through a crowd. It was really hard...

GROSS: Did people who he worked with tell you that?

HELLER: Yeah, we were so lucky when we made this movie because we went to Pittsburgh, where Fred made the show and lived for his whole life. And we were welcomed by his wife, Joanne, Bill Isler and all of the people who worked at The Fred Rogers Company, all these people who knew Fred really well. And they - after getting to know us and trusting us, they really shared with us millions of stories about Fred. And they painted a kind of complete picture of him.

And one of the things was, yes, he was - yeah, he worked on his own - he had his own timetable in all things, and he was very difficult to wrangle. And they were often very behind on shooting the show. And he would talk to everybody, and he was - it sounded - yeah, like, pretty impossible in certain ways.

GROSS: I'm not a big fan of biopic because usually the writers and director take a lot of liberties for dramatic purposes. And then you leave the movie not knowing the difference between history and fiction.

HELLER: Yep. Yeah.

GROSS: And the fiction is often confused with who the person really was, what really happened.

HELLER: I know. Yeah.

GROSS: But you get around that in the opening in a - in two really lovely ways. You know, the framing device is that - it's an edition of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," and he's telling all the children, look, it's a picture board. And on the picture board, there's a lot of different doors, and each door opens to another character who's from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." And so he opens each door and introduces each character from the neighborhood. And then the last door that he opens is a picture - and he says, this is a picture of my friend Lloyd. And it's - this is a picture of somebody whose, like - his face is bloodied.

HELLER: (Laughter).

GROSS: He's bruised. He's got a big cut. He looks angry and miserable. And that's the introduction to the main character, the journalist, Lloyd.

HELLER: Yeah.

GROSS: And you realize, this is going to be the story told through the lens of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." This isn't an actual story, literally true. This is if this journalist's life happened in "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

HELLER: Yes. We make it very clear from the very beginning. There's no chance you could confuse this for being a documentary or any - in any way. It's a story that we're telling. And it's a film, and it has very clear, kind of surrealistic device to it, which was that the whole movie is one large episode of "Mister Rogers'" (ph) for adults. And in the way that "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" would tell you what it was going to be about and then would kind of take you on a journey, we do that. And he steps out of the door, and we head out into the world to kind of check out this story about this person named Lloyd.

But I love things that don't tell stories in purely linear fashions - that either skip around in time or skip around with their storytelling - and this does that. It plays with time there. You know, you cut to this picture of him, and you see that he's - his face is bloodied. And then we go back in time, and when we meet him, his face isn't bloodied. And we get to see how his face became bloodied. And we - you know, I think we've become a little bit safe sometimes in our cinema, whereas in theater, we're kind of more comfortable with less naturalistic ways of telling stories. And I like movies that kind of push those boundaries a bit.

GROSS: And the other way that you make it clear this is a - the story as if it happened in "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" in the opening credits. We're seeing the city of Pittsburgh, where Fred Rogers shot "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," but it's all in miniature as if it was part of the set...

HELLER: Right.

GROSS: ...Of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." And I just thought, like, that was just such a really lovely thing to do and also very important in framing the whole story as this is in the context of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," not in real life.

HELLER: Right. Right. We sort of used the miniatures that they used on the show as our jumping-off point and then thought, but what if it went even further? What if you expanded that out? What if we - after you see the little miniature neighborhood that you've seen hundreds of times on the program, what if you widened out and you saw all of Pittsburgh, and then you panned over and you came to New York City, and that's how we got into Lloyd's story? And that's probably - if Mr. Rogers had made a movie for adults, that's how he would have done it. So let's figure out...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HELLER: ...If that's how we could do it.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and there's plenty of more to talk about when we get back. If you're just joining us, my guest is Marielle Heller. And she directed the new film, "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY COSTA'S "DREAM (MERCER)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Marielle Heller. And her new film is "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," which is a film about Fred Rogers and a journalist who profiled him and how the journalist was changed by his journalistic relationship and then friendship with Fred Rogers.

So I want to ask you about one of the scenes in the movie that borrows from what happened in real life, although it happens in a different way in the movie. In real life, Fred Rogers was receiving an award, a Lifetime Achievement Award, from the TV Critics Association. And while he was up at the podium accepting the award, he said, let's pause for 60 seconds and remember those people who loved us into being who we are.

HELLER: Yeah, he did 10 seconds.

GROSS: I'm paraphrasing. He did 10 seconds. OK.

HELLER: He did 10 seconds because I think he asked for 60 seconds. And from what I've heard, they would only grant him 10 seconds on TV.

GROSS: (Laughter) And I was thinking two things, two contradictory things about that. One is, what a really, like, lovely and thoughtful thing to do, making it about - you know, instead of, like, praising me, the award winner, think about...

HELLER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The people who made you who you are, and honor them. But at the same time, I was also thinking, if I was in the audience, I bet I would have resisted it. I bet I would have felt like, well, it's presumptuous of you to tell me that now is my time...

HELLER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...To be thinking about...

HELLER: But you know what? You look around - they do cutaways in the audience in...

GROSS: Yeah.

HELLER: ...That clip. And there's this wave that - you know, it's this moment where everyone's thinking about their ego. Everybody is there to win awards. Everybody's in some kind of a rat race to, like, win an award over another artist, right? And he just reminds them to think about the people who supported them along the way. And you watch tears fill up in people's eyes. I mean, it's incredibly touching. And he - Fred was - this was a bit of a - I don't want to call it a party trick, but Fred did that. That was something he did at events, but he also did it at dinner parties, where he would ask people to take time and to think about that. So it was something that he was sort of known for, and it is something that we have in the movie in a very specific way. And I think it's - yeah, it's one of the most cinematic moments of the movie in a lot of ways.

GROSS: Did you watch "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" as a child?

HELLER: I did.

GROSS: So is there anything that he said or did that you remember from your childhood?

HELLER: I have very clear memories of loving the part of the show that was in his house and then feeling scared of some of the puppets in the land of Make-Believe, and I think particularly Lady Elaine.

GROSS: What scared you about her?

HELLER: Well, she looks like a witch. She's got, like, this burnt nose and burnt cheekbones. And she had this very scratchy voice. And she was terrifying. I think she was terrifying for a lot of kids. And, you know, I've rediscovered the show now as a parent. I've had a very different perspective on it now that I'm a parent and I can watch it with my kid. And we also - the first way we really came to it was through "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," which is the modern-day incarnation of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" that the Fred Rogers Company makes. And it's all based on the teachings of Fred Rogers, but it's an animated show. And that show has just been the most incredible thing for my kid and for me. And he's now at the point where he's rejected it and is kind of outgrowing it. But it's just been an - it's been the thing that's kind of - that I was reconnecting to before I even was signed onto this project. That was the first show I let my kid watch, and it kind of got me back in touch with Mr. Rogers from a different, adult perspective.

GROSS: Tell me more about that adult perspective on the show.

HELLER: I think I have a memory of thinking that the show was just all happy go lucky or something or just easy. And then as an adult, looking back, I realized that he wasn't afraid of any of the hardest parts of childhood or talking about the most uncomfortable things. He tells kids the truth. I mean, that is a radical notion, but he tells kids the truth. And I was blown away going back and seeing the topics that he was covering on his show. I mean, I had this really painful experience of watching the episode about death with my 3-year-old at the time, which it's kind of - it was such a profound experience. We were having a snow day, and so he was home from school. But it was a day that I kind of set aside that I was going to watch a lot of episodes of "Mister Rogers'," so I asked Wiley (ph) if he wanted to watch some episodes with me. And I let him pick out based on the kind of thumbnails on the Internet. And he picked the fish one because he was very obsessed with underwater stuff, ocean stuff. But I knew just looking at the icon - it's the fish one. This is the episode about death. And I thought, oh, are we going to go here? OK.

And so in the episode, Mr. Rogers goes to feed the fish. And one of the fish is dead. And he tries to revive it, and he puts it in some saltwater. And he slashes it around, and it kind of limply sloshes around. And he says, oh, it looks like it's moving, but it's not actually moving. And then he buries the fish, and he tells this story about his dog Mitzi (ph), who died when he was a kid. And I just watched my kid watch this episode, knowing that we hadn't spoken really very much about death. And as Mr. Rogers is telling this story about the dog dying, Wiley looks at me with this kind of skeptical look and goes, dogs don't die. And I had this, like, Mr. Rogers in my head and went, well, no, dogs do die. And I told I guess what's a little bit of a stretch of the truth. But I said, you know, when they're very old and their bodies are tired, you know, dogs do die. And cats die. And we have two cats. And he looked at me and went, cats - cats die?

GROSS: (Laughter).

HELLER: And I said, yeah. And he said, but we have great cats. And I thought, oh, God, what have I opened here? And then I pulled out a picture of one of our cats who had passed away when he was a baby. And I said, you know, remember I've told you about this cat who died who's buried in the backyard? And, you know, I believe - everyone believes different things, but I believe when I want to visit him, I can go to the cherry tree in the backyard. And I can visit him. And I could see kind of wheels turning, wheels turning. And we kept watching the show for a few minutes. And then Wiley turned to me, and he goes, mom, walruses don't die. And I said, well, walruses do die. And he started wailing in a way that I had never experienced before. He, like - it felt like he was weeping for all humanity (laughter) or, like, the entire universe and just asking me if we could bury all the walruses in our backyard so we could visit them. And I held him, and I was crying. And we - and all I could figure out to say was, I know this hurts. I know this is so painful. I don't know what to say, but this really hurts.

And then later that night as I was putting him to bed, you know, the dreaded question came, which was, well, what about people? You know, people don't get - the way he said it was, people don't get dead, do they? And then we had our kind of second round of weeping that happened and that came out of this episode of "Mister Rogers'." And I don't think I handled it great. And I sort of felt - I still feel sort of guilty for how this all came up because I felt like, was it too young for us to kind of go there? But I also felt like all I had to guide me was Fred telling me, you know, we let the kids guide these conversations, listen and tell them the truth. And so that's what I tried to do.

GROSS: That's an amazing story. I'm just trying to figure out what I want to say.

HELLER: It was so - it was also one of the first stories that I told Joanne Rogers when I went to Pittsburgh. I'm just remembering too. I haven't...

GROSS: Oh, what did she say?

HELLER: I haven't told this story at all in any of our press. But I think we sat in her living room, and she teared up. And we kind of held hands as I talked about it because it had just happened when I talked to her about it. And then she made a little video for Wiley not about that but just saying hello.

GROSS: My guest is Marielle Heller, director of the new film "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood." She also directed "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" and "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl." After a break, we'll talk about how she learned about death. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY COSTA'S "BLUSETTE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Marielle Heller, who directed the new movie, "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers and Matthew Rhys as a journalist assigned to profile him for Esquire magazine. Heller also directed the films, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" and "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl." When we left off, Heller had just told the story of how she and her 3-year-old son had watched an episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" that dealt with death, which was an upsetting idea for her son, who had never heard about death before.

Do you remember how you learned about death?

HELLER: I remember my grandmother's husband dying. But I think I was older. I think I was 7 or 8 when he died. But I remember that being the first real person I knew who died and I - and that my parents didn't let me go to the funeral. And I remember feeling like it was really unfair.

GROSS: You wanted to go?

HELLER: I wanted to go. I don't - I thought I wasn't - like, I felt - and I think about sort of Mr. Rogers in that way of, like, I felt like a full person, you know? I felt like I was having as big of an experience as everybody else. And why wasn't I allowed to go to the funeral? And I think they were trying to protect me.

GROSS: Was it upsetting for you to learn that such a thing existed as death?

HELLER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I - yeah. I was one of those kids who thought about death a lot. And we had the big earthquake in the Bay Area...

GROSS: Oh.

HELLER: ...In 1989.

GROSS: How old were you then?

HELLER: Ten. But that really - it scared me in, like, a deep, dark way, you know? It really shook my sense of what could happen in the world. It was just the first - my brother was trapped in a warehouse, and we couldn't get to him in Oakland...

GROSS: Oh, wow.

HELLER: ...Across a bridge.

GROSS: Yeah.

HELLER: And we didn't know if he was OK. And, you know, friends of mine, their parents were in San Francisco. And the Bay Bridge had collapsed. And we didn't know if they were OK. And there were people who were part of our community who died. And it was just so chaotic. It was just the end of the world. It felt like the end of the world at the time. It really did. And it definitely - you know, it was - it's still something that has meant, you know, meant something in my bigger emotional life that I'm still dealing with in therapy.

And, you know, I think back on myself as a kid, and I'm like, I - and I see it in my kid. I think that's why this experience of showing him that episode was so - I just felt for him so much because I remember what it was to be the kid who was thinking about the kind of dark questions of life and - while other people weren't.

But now, you know, I had this experience when I was preparing to make this movie. Before I went to Pittsburgh, I went to a talk at the Buddhist Zen Center in Brooklyn. And I think I had this idea in the little I really know about Buddhism or Buddha where I was thinking that somehow if you are very enlightened that you're very peaceful, that you're at peace, you're sort of happy. And this woman who is giving this talk said, the goal of Buddhism is not pure peace or to never feel any pain. The goal is to feel all the pain.

And that made me think about Fred at that time because all of the things we were hearing in the research about Fred was that he would empathize to such a great degree with the people he came into contact with. He would meet a stranger on the street, and they would pour their heart out to him about what they were going through. And he would almost hold it like a vessel. Like, he just became this great vessel for other people to pour what they were experiencing into. And I think he felt it all. He was present in the pain of the world and not denying it.

GROSS: And he grew up with a lot of illness. I mean, he was a sick child.

HELLER: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: He was often isolated. That's how he started doing voices, like, voices for his puppets. So...

HELLER: Right. He was - his parents were so nervous that he was going to be kidnapped that they had him chauffeured to school so that he was even more isolated from his friends.

GROSS: Oh.

HELLER: Yeah. And I think he was in his own head a lot in that way. But I think he also was very - he spent the rest of his life therefore trying to be super connected to other people rather than being so separated from them.

GROSS: I want to play one of Mr. Rogers' songs that you use in the film. I particularly like this one. It's the one called "What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel."

HELLER: Yeah.

GROSS: And it's all - it's a song all about learning to control yourself when your emotions get out of hand. And I think this is a song that most of us adults should learn by heart, too (laughter). So this is the real Fred Rogers singing it. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT DO YOU DO WITH THE MAD THAT YOU FEEL")

FRED ROGERS: (Singing) What do you do with the mad that you feel when you feel so mad you could bite, when the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right? What do you do? Do you punch a bag? Do you pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up friends for a game of tag and see how fast you go? It's great to be able to stop when you've planned a thing that's wrong and be able to do something else instead and think this song. I can stop when I want to, can stop when I wish, can stop, stop, stop any time. And what a good feeling to feel like this and know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there's something deep inside that helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a woman. And a boy can be someday a man. It's true.

GROSS: OK, that was Mr. Rogers. Do you play these songs for your son?

HELLER: I do. That one I play for my kid all the time. That song sort of became, like, our thesis for the whole movie, this idea that so many of us don't actually have practical ways to cope with our feelings. And, you know, it was us a song he quoted when he did that famous hearing in front of the Senate where he got money for PBS, but also it was a song that we put in the movie specifically because it felt like it was telling the story that we were trying to hit on with this movie, which is about this grown man who really hasn't figured out his own coping ways. He can't - he hasn't figured out what to do with his own mad, and what does that mean? What type of a man is he then?

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then there'll be plenty more to talk about. If you're just joining us, my guest is Marielle Heller. She directed the new film "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY COSTA'S "JEEPERS CREEPERS (WARREN)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Marielle Heller. She directed the new film "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," which is based on the story of Fred Rogers and a magazine writer who was profiling him for Esquire. And the film is a lot about the journalist and how Fred Rogers changes his life, but you also gain a lot of insights into Fred Rogers in the film. So the movie is in memory of Jim Emswiller, who died in a freak accident during the shooting. Could you explain what happened?

HELLER: Yeah. I don't think we'll ever totally know what happened is the truth. But we were filming the movie, and Jim was our sound person and a very beloved member of the Pittsburgh film community and somebody who had worked with a lot of members of our crew for 30 years. And we had a little part - we were filming in a new location that we hadn't been on that was an apartment building outside of town. And there was our main apartment where we were filming, and there was another apartment next door that was - we were using for holding that we hadn't seen ahead of time that had sort of been like - the building told us, well, whatever we have available on the day to kind of have your spill-over people in, we'll give you.

And this was an empty apartment, and it had a balcony that we discovered partway through. And so pretty much everyone who were smokers on the movie were going out there all day and using this balcony that had a pretty low railing. It was an old, old building that probably had older codes. And so it had been built a long time ago. And all we know is that when we called cut and we were setting up some lights, we heard something. And Jim had gone out there for a cigarette and fell. And it was - I mean, it was the hardest thing I've ever experienced on any possible shoot ever. And I mean, just - it's just so sad.

GROSS: What do you do after that?

HELLER: There's no protocol for what to do. That was the thing that was so hard. I mean, we - obviously, first thing was getting him to the hospital and trying to - you know, everybody starts packing up equipment because you have to, but we're just all standing there crying, trying to figure out what's happening, not knowing what's happened. And then we gathered - the producers and I and the cinematographer, we gathered the next morning. Well, that night, we all were together and - in the hospital, and he died. And so we were all in shock. And then, you know, the next morning, we both called Sony. And we were talking to everybody, and there was no set protocol. There was no sense of, OK, when this type of thing happens on set, this is what you do. And we looked at each other as the leaders of this project. But we looked at each other as a few things. We said, we're the leaders of this project. Everyone's looking to us to know what to do, but we're also guests here in Pittsburgh. We are - we've been welcomed as part of their film community. And Jim was part of their community. And we're sort of the visitors, so we decided that the best thing we could do was listen.

So we called everybody on the crew. We had, obviously, taken that day off the next day. And we kind of broke up the crew into our different divisions, and we each called people to kind of listen and hear how people were doing and to hear what people wanted to do. Did they want to gather? Did they want to come together as a group? What did they want to do? And there was already sort of a vigil gathering that was happening in an impromptu way, so we all came together, including Tom and Matthew and me and all the producers. And we all just - I mean, all I can say is we held each other. We cried together. We wailed. We didn't know if he had had a heart attack. We didn't know why he had fallen.

I mean, we were all sort of reeling from the news and trying to figure it out. And we tried to listen to the crew. You know, we, essentially, said, if you don't want to come back, we understand. We had a week left. I think I spoke to everybody. And I, essentially, said, you know, I know that we tend to have this, like, show-must-go-on quality to show business, but we're here making a movie about Fred Rogers. This is not a place where - you know, where you're not allowed to cry. We're here to feel what we're feeling. And you get to feel what you're feeling, so I want you to all be able to be honest with us. And if you don't want to come back, if you feel like this is too much, that is OK. And essentially, everybody said, Jim would want us to keep going. And we need to finish this movie.

I felt very inspired by our crew. I felt so touched by the way that this horrific event, in some way, brought everyone together in an even tighter way. We were so close to begin with. And this horrible tragedy that happened - it was like everybody linked arms and just cared for each other in the sweetest way I can possibly imagine when we came back to work after many days. It was like everybody was taking the time to look in each other's eyes and hug each other and be present with each other. And we tried to take the lessons of Fred and use them in this moment of tragedy. It was this weird moment of the lessons of the movie needing to be used at the exact moment that we were making the movie.

GROSS: Well, thank you for talking about a chapter of the film that I know is really horrible for you. But thank you for talking about it.

HELLER: Thank you.

GROSS: So I read that when you were making "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," you kept the shooting to a limited number of hours a day...

HELLER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...So that people like you could get home and, you know, put their kid to bed or...

HELLER: Yup.

GROSS: ...You know, spend some time with family. So "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," your previous film, came out last year. And what's the difference in age in the age that your son was between...

HELLER: So when I...

GROSS: ...that and the new one? And also, what did you learn from making...

HELLER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Your first film about what you needed in your life and in your family's life in order to keep doing this and not feeling like you were a neglectful mother?

HELLER: When I was making "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," I think Wylie was 2. And I would leave in the morning when he was asleep. And I would get home, and he would be asleep. And even though I was shooting in New York City, where we live, I felt like I was just gone. And it was really hard. It was really, really hard on all of us. It was hard on my husband. It was hard on Wylie. And it was hard on me. And I felt over the course of the next year, people were constantly asking me questions about, like, how can we have more women directors? Why is it so hard for women to direct movies? Like, what do we need? And I thought, well, one of the things we need to stop pretending is not true is a lot of us are moms. And how do we make it more sustainable for those of us who are parents to do this job?

It's really, really hard, not to mention the fact that there were a number of stories about crew members dying after 18-20 hour days driving home, long hours. You know, I just started to think, like, this is a pretty unsustainable life that we choose to live. And production particularly is really insane. There's this sense of - that you have to kind of kill yourself in order to do this job well.

And Melissa McCarthy was one who actually said to me, have you ever shot French hours, which we call them French hours, but it's not what they do in France, I've since heard. In France, they take, like, four-hour lunches with wine, I guess. But the idea behind French hours is that instead of doing a 12 and a half or 13-hour day with a lunch break in the middle, you do a 10-hour straight day. Everyone kind of eats food throughout the day anyway on the set. Nobody is going hungry on a film set. But you work straight through, and then you're done. And for me, it was the difference between getting home to put my kid to bed or not. So it was, you know, seven to five or eight to six. It was most days out of the week. And we didn't do it every day of the filming, but we did it a large majority of the days. There are certain days when you have, like, a big move or the schedule just makes it impossible to do that. You really need the longer day.

But a lot of days, we found it to be just as efficient. If we were in the same location not taking a break in the middle of the day, shooting less hours but you don't have this kind of dip in momentum that happens when you take a lunch, I found it to be just as efficient. And so it was something that I started talking about really early because I said, you know, I don't think Fred Rogers would want us to make a movie about him where we all abandoned our kids in order to make the movie.

GROSS: Yeah (laughter).

HELLER: So how do we do this? How do we find a way to do this? And I was just lucky that everybody who worked on this movie was really game for this idea. Pretty much everybody involved had little kids or kids or remembered what it was like when their kids were little. And a lot of us had kids under 5. And so figuring out a way to make that happen became a huge priority for me. And it worked great.

And I - you know, I found that the actors loved it, too. Chris Cooper particularly said to me, you know, I hate taking lunch on a - when we're in the middle of a scene. I hate breaking the momentum. I don't go - like going off and eating a big plate of potatoes. You know, I come back, and I feel like I don't remember how I was feeling, or I can't remember my lines. I just - I don't eat anyway because it just distracts me. And, you know, I often would find that my script supervisor or my DP or I would end up having meetings or working through lunch anyway. Nobody was really taking a break. So it wasn't actually functioning as the break that it was supposed to be.

So this became just sort of a mission for me and something that I want to talk more about, I want to talk to the unions about, I want to talk both to the directors union, to the crew unions, to everybody about this idea that this could benefit all of us, that it is a way that we can get more parents as directors because I think for a lot of us, it's the difference between this being a sustainable lifestyle and it not. But also that it's safer, and it could benefit all of us.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here.

HELLER: OK.

GROSS: And then we'll come back and talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Marielle Heller. She directed the new film, "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" about Fred Rogers and his relationship with a journalist who profiled him. And she also made "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" and "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY COSTA'S "FLYING FINGERS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Marielle Heller. She directed the new film "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood." She also directed "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" and "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl."

Being an artist means being able to see the world and then express the world through your point of view. And you have to have confidence in that point of view, and you have to feel that you have an independent point of view worth expressing and not wait for everybody else's affirmation before you can express it...

HELLER: Yeah

GROSS: ...Not make sure you're in the majority in how you're perceiving something. Was it ever hard for you to believe in your point of view?

HELLER: No. I don't know. It's this funny thing because I obviously - I get asked a lot of questions about being a female director and the fact that, you know, there's - a lot of women feel not connected to their power. And I recognize that as a truth, and that a lot of women stopped raising their hand when they were 11 years old in class. They went from being an overachiever to being quiet and not wanting to raise - it just wasn't me. I never stopped, and I don't know why. I don't know what my parents did that made it that I just - I've always been fairly confident in what I feel and think. And part of that I think is coming from the Bay Area, where, you know, being an individual was very celebrated. Our culture of the Bay Area is a place where you want to be different. You want to be seen. You want to be heard. You want - conformity is the worst thing that you could aspire to. So I definitely have that, you know, that just in my bones, but also whatever my parents did that helped foster me as an independent person. I mean, I - anyone who knew me as a kid is like - and finds out I'm directing movies is like, yeah, that makes sense.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HELLER: Nobody's shocked, you know? I mean, I was like - I was definitely organizing little plays on my block and making all the kids do what I told them to do. So I was bossy from a very young age. But also, I knew what I thought. I knew what I wanted. And I knew - and I was very clear about it.

GROSS: You wanted to act originally. And you were in children's theater.

HELLER: Yeah.

GROSS: And it sounds like directing was a kind of fallback scheme. Oh, I'm not getting parts, so...

HELLER: No, I didn't even think about directing. I mean, I didn't even - I don't even think I quite knew what a - not in film. I didn't really know what a director did. I mean, that's not something you get a lot of images of as - you know, you kind of - you have images of what an actor does. But you don't - I guess I had images of what a director in theater did.

But, you know, I still consider myself an actor. Acting is the craft I studied in college? It's something I have a lot of respect for. I love actors. I think part of why I'm a good director is there's a secret, which is that a lot of directors are scared of actors and are afraid they don't know how to speak their language and don't know how to communicate with them or get what they want out of actors. And as soon as you talk to other directors, you start to realize, like, oh, actors are this, like, really scary entity for a lot of people. But that was the thing I was the most comfortable with because I was like, oh, well that's what I know. I know how to talk to actors about a scene because I know how I'd like someone to talk to me about a scene. I know how I like to be directed.

So when I came to directing, which was totally - it was totally not a plan; it was just because I didn't want anyone else to direct my movie I had written - I realized that these skills that I had as an actor, which were this huge benefit I had and that could really help me, you know, pull performances out of actors, and that the things that I was really scared of were all the technical stuff. I was really scared of not knowing the right lenses or not understanding how you write a shot list or these kind of, like, these skills that the other directors who all went to film school, those were the things they were very, very comfortable with.

But as I started directing, it felt incredibly natural to me more because as an actor, I sort of always felt like I was holding my tongue. Like, when you're an actor, you're not supposed to get involved in certain things. You're not supposed to get involved in every discussion, you know? Like, even if I was acting in a play and it was a new play and we were discussing how a scene was working or not working, you know, the director and the playwright might be discussing whether a scene is working or not. But as an actor, you're not really supposed to get involved in that conversation. You're sort of there to do your work. And I was - I spent a lot of years when I was working as an actor doing theater kind of holding my tongue where I wanted to be involved in those bigger creative discussions, but I knew it wasn't my place. And when I started directing, it was like, oh, great. Now I get to actually be involved in all of the deeper creative discussions and figure these things out and the problem-solving of storytelling. And, you know, and I try to involve my actors in that way as well and let them feel like they're not required to hold their tongue and that we can all be parts of these bigger discussions.

GROSS: Well, it's been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much for this interview and for the movie.

HELLER: Oh, thank you, Terry. It's such a pleasure to talk to you.

GROSS: Marielle Heller directed the new movie, "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the influence of foreign money on American politics with a focus on the Trump administration. Our guest will be Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy. He says the U.S. is at a high point in its vulnerability to foreign influence. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE GOT TO DO IT")

ROGERS: (Singing) You can make-believe it happens, or pretend that something's true. You can wish or hope or contemplate a thing you'd like to do. But until you start to do it, you will never see it through because the make-believe pretending just won't do it for you. You've got to do it, every little bit. You've got to do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. And when you're through, you can know who did it, for you did it. You did it. You did it. When you've tried and learned, you're bigger then you were a day ago. It's not easy to keep trying, but it's one way to grow. You've got to do it, every little bit. You've got to do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. And when you're through, you can know who did it, for you did it. You did it. You did it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.