'A Beautiful Day' Screenwriters: Mr. Rogers' Male Vulnerability "Isn't Out There Right Now"

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood - Publicity Still - H 2019
Lacey Terrell/Sony

Scribes Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster detail how personal experiences with fatherhood led to their new film.

For screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, their decade-long journey writing the script for the Fred Rogers movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood began with something as innocuous as a child admiring the cardigan-wearing icon on a computer screen.

"I was sort of struggling with how to communicate with a very stubborn toddler and also looking for interesting people to write about," recalls Harpster. "I put an episode of Mister Rogers on my computer and my daughter turned to the screen and started listening in a way that she had never and still has never listened to me. I called Micah and I said, 'There's this warlock named Mr. Rogers and he speaks toddler.' "

What followed was a deep dive into the world of Fred Rogers, who hosted Mister Rogers' Neighborhood for 33 years. The writing duo quickly found that Rogers himself did not fit the bill for the protagonist of a traditional biopic because, as Harpster said, "he's unwaveringly awesome and steady in his life."

While researching Rogers and all of the people that the TV personality (as well as producer, writer, musician, puppeteer and Presbyterian minister) had connected with in his life, Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster discovered Tom Junod's 1998 Esquire article, "Can You Say … Hero?" in which Junod interviews Rogers and goes on to develop a friendship with the children's TV host.

However, before working on the film, they first needed to gain the trust of those protecting Rogers' legacy since his passing in 2003. The writers approached Bill Isler, CEO of the Fred Rogers Co., in 2013 to discuss the film and were told, kindly but succinctly, "There will never, ever be a Fred Rogers movie."

But the scribes didn't give up. They continued to talk to Isler, who eventually introduced them to Joanne Rogers, the widow of Fred Rogers. After more than a year of courting them, Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster sent a very long letter to Isler in 2015 that broke down exactly how they'd approach the story. It was after reading that letter that Isler agreed to grant them the rights. Around the same time, Joanne gave Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster access to thousands of Fred's letters and other correspondence. "Eventually we got to a big box and realized Tom had corresponded with Fred very regularly up until Fred died in 2003," says Harpster. "That's when it became clear to us that the story we wanted to tell revolved around Tom Junod."

Along with an abundance of research and personal anecdotes at their disposal, Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster were given one clear direction from Joanne Rogers on how to portray her husband. "The only thing that's important to me is that you don't make him into a saint," Fitzerman-Blue recalls Joanne telling them. "She said, 'Because if you make him a saint, then what he does seems unattainable. I want you to know that he worked at it every single day.' "

Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster found the best way to show Fred Rogers teaching kindness to a writer estranged from his father was Rogers' own format. "From the onset, Noah and I wanted to write a movie that was an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood that's for grown-ups," Fitzerman-Blue tells THR.

The two admit that the most challenging parts of the story to write were the other relationships, such as the journalist Lloyd Vogel's (Matthew Rhys) with his estranged alcoholic father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). Vogel is reunited with his father while grappling with being a new parent himself with wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). These storylines more closely paralleled Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster's own place in life — both being new fathers. Also, Harpster's father became sick and passed away during the writing process. "I think the reality is that it was therapy for us," Harpster says.

"My wife said it was incredibly punk rock that we got to make a movie about kindness," Fitzerman-Blue adds. And Rogers' scenes dismantled cynicism and honored vulnerability, especially masculine vulnerability, "something that maybe isn't out there right now."

"In most cases, the only emotion that we allow men to express is anger," says Fitzerman-Blue. "Fred Rogers is teaching something entirely different. Not just what it means to be a man, but also what it means to be a person."

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.