Though it just hit the big screen in December 2019, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has been a decade in the making. Conceived and written by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, the film takes a look at the beloved children’s program host Fred Rogers from the perspective of a journalist assigned to do a story on him. “We realized pretty quickly that Fred Rogers was not a good subject for a traditional biopic,” said Harpster in an interview with the Independent. “He was kind of unwaveringly amazing for all of his life and doesn’t have these big, sort of glacial turns that you want in a character. So, from the very first conversations about [the script], we were thinking about who was next to him, who was around him, that had been affected by him.”
Inspired by magazine stories written about Rogers — particularly Tom Junod’s piece that ran in Esquire in 1998 — Harpster and Fitzerman-Blue created a script in which the jaded journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) interviews Rogers (Tom Hanks) to uncover what makes him tick. During their many meetings, however, rather than discover ugly truths about Rogers, Vogel begins to confront his own demons. “That was Fred’s superpower,” said Harpster, a UCSB drama graduate. “He was so just so disarming. He was like an emotional archeologist.”
Harpster returns to his alma mater January 11 for the Pollock Theater’s Script to Screen series. I recently spoke with the screenwriter/executive producer/actor about hiring Tom Hanks, patience, and upcoming projects.
This film took 10 years from idea to screen. How do you stick with something for that long? There were so many times over the course of making this movie where it fell apart, or it was about to completely fall apart, or it almost got made. … It took us six years to get the estate to agree to make this movie. … At some point, this was just like the air we were breathing. It was just part of our lives of researching Fred and believing in getting his message out. And even when we didn’t have a director, we didn’t have actors or producers or anything, it was just something that was important to us. Also, you have to embrace the little wins that happen along the way, like when you crack the scene. … And then there are the bigger wins, like our script got on The Black List in 2013, which meant that everyone in town was going to read our script. … That was the day when our career changed, or I should say, when we got a career.
Was Tom Hanks your first choice for playing Mr. Rogers? He’s Tom Hanks, so he’s always everyone’s first choice. So we talked about him really from the beginning and at one point, we sent him the script and he had passed, and so we sort of thought that was it. And then later, Marielle [our director] came on and she asked us, “Who have you always wanted?” And we were like, well, Tom Hanks, but come on, let’s be realistic. And she cut us off and said to give her a shot at it. She sent him the script, they had a couple conversations, and all of a sudden, Tom Hanks was playing Mr. Rogers in our movie.
What other projects are you and Micah working on? We do a lot of script doctoring or weekly rewrites for studios. … Over the last three years or so, we’ve really started taking an active role in producing and shepherding other writers and other projects that we really believe in, but we may not be the best people to write them. So we have three different features set up now that we’re producing and maybe four or five TV projects that we’re just producing.
4•1•1 | Matt Ryan will host a Q&A with Noah Harpster on Saturday, January 11, 2-5 p.m., at UCSB’s Pollock Theater, after a screening of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. See carseywolf.ucsb.edu/pollock.