Sometimes a sense of comfortability with a filmmaker you’re set to interview has to be earnt, and sometimes it’s instant. Upon walking into the room to meet Marielle Heller, the wonderful director behind The Diary of a Teenager Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? – now in London promoting her latest feature, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, it came within moments. Sat cross-legged on a comically large sofa, with her shoes off, it had been a long day of speaking to the press, and we were her final encounter.
“Loved the film”, I said as I sat down opposite her, “but you must be bored of hearing that by now”. She smiled back, “It’s still really nice”. On the subject of nice, that’s a word you’d most definitely use to describe her latest feature, which tells the story of Fred Rogers, brought to life in a subtle and empathetic fashion by Tom Hanks. And we kickstarted our interview by asking about his very casting, which just seemed to perfect.
“It couldn’t have been anyone else,” she said. “We felt so excited and thrilled but also that we hoped we could live up to it, and make it work, because it could’ve not worked, you know? It could’ve been a recipe for disaster. We can look back on it now and say that he has unequivocally given one of the best performances of the year, it’s just so true, and it’s such a beautiful, nuanced and specific performance, but it easily could’ve not been, sometimes these things don’t work the way you want them to work.”
“Tom was so committed to getting this character right and I had such a specific vision of who he should be and that it couldn’t ever feel like an imitation or a caricature. It had to feel so truthful. I think people thought he just put on a sweater, like ‘nicest guy in Hollywood plays nicest guy from TV’ but the truth is, Tom is a really boisterous, extroverted, funny, loud person and Fred was very shy and introverted, it’s almost like his breathing was slower, his energy was slower, he was totally okay with being uncomfortable with people, and he was more awkward than Tom is, in many ways. So bringing him to the point when he could sit in that vulnerability took a little bit of work.”
Though much of the emphasis is on Hanks (isn’t it always?) who has earnt yet another Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the American TV show host, his sixth, no less – though he;’s merely a supporting role, collaborating with the likes of Matthew Rhys and Chris Cooper is this ensemble. And it’s the latter who made Heller cry.
“There were moments with Chris Cooper in this movie where his performance just made me weep at the monitor. Honestly when Matthew Rhys is singing to his child too, me and my script supervisor looked at each other and we were both crying,” she said.
I mentioned how I’d be wishing for Rhys to get a role of this magnitude for years, to which she replied, “Well I did, I heard you!”
“Matthew and Tom were such joys to collaborate with, they’e both smart filmmakers themselves and they understand the craft of it, and love the collaboration with the director. For me, the best actors want to be directed. They want somebody to help guide them. Neither of them come in with ego, they’re there to work, to go as deep as possible. You can make fun of them, there’s no preciousness. That’s the best sets. We had a love-filled set, it really was one of the best experiences, creatively, of my life. It just felt like I knew we were making something really special. I was asking them to go to difficult places at time, but they were so brave about it. It was just a really special shoot.”
This made us think, is the atmosphere on shoot often a reflection of the subject matter at hand? Fred Rogers was such a gentle, wonderful man that could it be that his very own outlook on life infected the entire set? Compared to Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which is a film entrenched in the theme of loneliness.
“Sometimes we felt lonely while making that movie,” she said of the Melissa McCarthy starring drama. “It does affect you, the subject matter. The days we were filming scenes about grief, they were rough days, hard days. So it did feel like being in Pittsburgh and making a film about Mr. Rogers, and surrounding ourselves with this beautiful philosophy about how to be a good person, it was a gift.”
But then, as Fred Rogers is such a kind man, why are we all so cynical? Why is many of our first impressions when encountering somebody so tender, to instantly assume they have some dark secret, or that it’s all just being put on.
“Because you’re Lloyd,” she smiled, referring to the film’s leading role. “I think it means that we’ve probably been hurt in our lives. We’ve had people who have disappointed us. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but something we have to examine. I do think it’s why having Lloyd as the protagonist was so smart because he is a stand-in for us an audience who come in with cynicism, and as his cynicism gets slowly chipped away at, so does ours.”
What transpires is a film that deals with masculinity, and vulnerability, in a unique way that shouldn’t be surprising, and yet is seldom seen in feature movies. Heller deals with father-son dynamics with a delicate sensitivity, and we asked where she took her inspiration from in that regard.
“I’m witnessing very close father-son relationships in my household, I live with my husband and my son and I watched him become a father to a son and deal with his own issues with his own father as we’ve navigated this whole becoming a parent thing. When you become a parent, your own childhood comes into reflection, whether you want it to or not, you start getting faced with questions like, how was I raised?” she continued.
“Father and son relationships, just like mother-daughter relationships, are very tricky and are not often explored in ways that feel real to me. I was just thrilled to get to tell this story and show a version of a man grappling to become a better man in ways that I truly value and more reflect the men in my life.”
Just before we left we couldn’t ask which of Mr. Rogers favourite quotes mean the most to her, and after a thoughtful pause, she had her answer.
“I have so many that I love. Like when he said, ‘we’ve been told for so long, don’t cry. But what we really mean is, I’m not comfortable with your emotions, I wish instead we’d say, go ahead and cry, I’m here with you’. I just feel like that’s something that I try to do in my life and it’s just a really touching sentiment. We don’t have to be afraid of it.”