For decades, Fred Rogers entertained young audiences with his soft voice and kind demeanor. His simple show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, always began with him singing the iconic “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” song as he changed into a sweater and sneakers. The :30-minute episodes aired on PBS and introduced children to different neighborhood friends, such as the mailman Mr. McFeeley, local handymen, artists and teachers.
Through “Picture Picture” — a framed video screen — he’d take the audience on a tour of local businesses and cultural performances. And, at some point, a mechanical red trolley would pass by his window, leading to a transition into the “Neighborhood of Make Believe”, where viewers would enter a fantasy world populated by hand puppets such as King Friday XIII, Daniel Striped Tiger and Lady Elaine Fairchilde.
TriStar Pictures, a Sony Company, released A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood on November 22nd, with Tom Hanks portraying Fred Rogers and Matthew Rhys acting as jaded Esquire reporter Lloyd Vogel, who’s been given the assignment of profiling the American legend. The film is as much about Lloyd overcoming his own skepticism, as it is about Rogers’ incredible ability to show forgiveness.
Marielle Heller directed the feature and called on editor Anne McCabe, ACE (pictured, left), to cut the film, continuing a working relationship that included 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?.
“She kindly asked me to come back and work with her on A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood,” says McCabe of the director. “We had a great experience. She’s an incredible director — so smart [and] really attuned to people’s emotions — in film particularly. It was great. Because we worked together before, we had a kind of shorthand. We were finishing each other’s sentences. And we have a great relationship in the cutting room, too.”
The look of the film is decidedly low-tech and takes place in the late ‘90s, reflecting when the magazine feature came together. The film is presented mostly in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but where scenes reflect the production of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the aspect ratio changes to 4:3.
“The cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes is incredible. He did an amazing job,” says McCabe. “I know they did a lot of research about what the actual show was shot on. And they used Ikegami cameras, which were like a vintage camera, and it shot in standard definition. So the show parts of the movie are shot on that and they have an aspect ratio of like 4:3. Then, the actual movie was also shot slightly low-res on an Alexa Mini in HD format.
“It was really the vision of the cinematographer and Marielle Heller,” continues McCabe on the low-tech look. “The two of them came up with this concept of how it’s how it was going to look, and we really embraced it…Mr. Rogers’ show was not super slick and high tech…and he himself was a very sincere, calm, patient man. He wasn’t interested in everything [looking] super glossy, so it felt like it had a warmth to it.”
Deluxe handled dailies for the project, creating Avid files for McCabe, who was initially working out of The Harbor Picture Company in New York City, and later, Light Iron, where she cut Can You Ever Forgive Me? with the director. She edited the film within Media Composer 8.10.
McCabe says she watched many episodes of the original PBS program to get a feel for its flow.
“It’s not a lot of editing,” she notes of the original program, “but…it’s sort of live editing. So when it would cut to a close up, [it] would always be a little bit behind. It’s basically two cameras.”
The original series often featured a segment called Picture Picture, where Mr. Rogers would take viewers on field trips to local businesses, such as the bakery or a factory where crayons are made.
“We had a little moment like that in our movie…about how a magazine is made,” notes McCabe. “And that was also edited in the style [of the original]. We tried to very much be true to the show about how that was cut.”
As an investigative journalist, Lloyd is first reluctant to take the assignment, but challenges himself to see if Fred Rogers is in fact the same person as the on-screen icon that Americans have grown to love. There are numerous sit-down interviews between the two throughout the film, and while Lloyd thinks his tough questions might reveal an undiscovered fact about the icon, he’s not prepared for Rogers’ questions, which trigger a painful past.
For McCabe, there are two sequences in the film that came together through editing to create a strong emotional statement. In one, Lloyd is returning home to visit his father, whom he knows is dying. The scene is intercut with footage of Fred Rogers swimming, which he alluded to as being a way to work off stress, anger and sadness earlier in the film, along with him praying at his bedside.
“When [Marielle] came into the cutting room, she had the idea of putting in this Tracy Chapman song that was like really gut-wrenchingly emotional,” McCabe says of the scene. “I think it was Mari’s husband, who suggested, ‘Why don’t you to actually intercut that with this other scene that we have, where he is actually praying?’ That was something that came together in the edit, and I always get choked up because it comes from the moment that Matthew Rhys says, ‘My dad is dying.’ I think everyone could relate to that — that going-home feeling, and going home and talking to somebody that you have trouble with. It really gets me choked up.”
Another scene that McCabe is fond of takes place in Rogers’ apartment, where Lloyd is conducting a follow-up interview. Rogers responds to some of the tough questioning by taking out one of his hand puppets and asking Lloyd a few light-hearted questions in return, all while using the character’s voice. He hits a nerve when he asks Lloyd if he ever had a favorite stuffed animal?
“It just was a huge range of emotions and humor,” says McCabe of the sequence. “I loved cutting that scene.”
The film’s visual effects are minimal, the most obvious one appearing when Lloyd has a mental episode in which he finds himself puppet-sized and in the Neighborhood of Make Believe. The footage of Rhys was shot against a green-screen and composited against the castle set.
Miniatures, however, are used throughout the film as transitions. Much like the original show, in which the camera passes through the neighborhood from up above, ultimately arriving at Mr. Rogers’ house, similar segments were created to illustrate Lloyd’s travel from his home in New York to Pittsburgh, where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was shot.
“I love the miniatures,” says McCabe. “You’re always asking for transitions when you’re cutting…I thought it was a really inventive way of doing something different on this movie.”
While not all of the miniature segments made it into the main portion of the film, many appear during the end credits. McCabe says the film went through many edits and screenings before arriving at its final run time of one hour and 48 minutes.
“Many, many, many rounds for sure,” she recalls. “We’d like to screen a lot. It’s really torturous, but you have to put it up in front of people and see how they respond.”
Rather than lose any of the scenes between Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys, McCabe says she instead tightened them up.
“They shoot what was written and that sort of changes things,” she says of the production process. “Then when you get to the editing process, you’re doing kind of another shaping and rewriting…It never ends up being exactly as the script was. Marielle’s intention was always not to do a biopic. Won’t You Be My Neighbor — that documentary — was incredible. But this was a very different thing. This was more about seeing how Mr. Rogers affected somebody. It’s based on a true story.”