Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue’s new movie, It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, is more than just an emotional, funny story about the real-life friendship between a journalist and Fred Rogers that will get you teary-eyed. While it is a powerful reminder of the joys of family and friendship, perfect in time for Thanksgiving, it also offers some powerful reminders of why writers do what we do.
As journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) states in the beginning of the movie while accepting a National Magazine Award, we write because doing anything else wouldn’t really seem like living. The character Lloyd is based on Tom Junod, who wrote the November 1998 Esquire cover story “Can You Say…Hero?” The film is based on this 10,000-word Mr. Rogers profile and Junod’s friendship with Mr. Rogers.
Here are five lessons that writers can learn from It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. If you need any more reasons to go see this movie, Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers. What’s more sweet than America’s dad of today playing America’s dad of 1998?
1. Seek to write about goodness where you can.
Lloyd is assigned to write a profile of Mr. Rogers because his previous articles have earned him a bit of a reputation, and no one else is willing to be the subject of one of Lloyd’s pieces. He isn’t known for kindly portraying his subjects and initially thinks Mr. Rogers’s kindness is a façade that he must reveal. The opposite turns out to be true, and this helps Lloyd’s life to change for the better.
When writing investigative pieces, writers are well aware of our duty to expose corruption and injustice when we see it. But that doesn’t mean it should be the only thing we see. It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shows that it is equally important to keep an eye out for stories that expose the goodness present in the world. As the article that Lloyd eventually writes shows, uplifting stories can be just as powerful and necessary as an expose. While it is our duty unveil lurking evils so that they may be stopped, it is also a writer’s duty to inspire hope and encourage readers to take positive action themselves.
2. This is How Magazines Are Made
In the style of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the movie takes a break from Mr. Rogers and Lloyd to demonstrate how magazines are made. The scene shows factory machines mixing ink and printing pages, then pans to editorial offices where people decide what goes in the magazine and write the content and lay out the pictures. It’s worth watching the movie just to reminisce about how magazine pages used to be designed by hand before Adobe graced us with InDesign.
(I assume—I was four when the events of this movie took place so the only knowledge I have of how magazines were made in 1998 comes from Mr. Rogers. Being in Mr. Rogers’s target demographic at the time of this movie, I also vividly remember watching a scene in the real-life show that reveals how socks are made. Mostly because my brother remarked that putting socks in a box must be a terrible job.)
3. Find Healthy Ways to Release Your Emotions
When writing, it is important to let the story—not your emotions—control you and the flow of words coming to the page. It can be especially detrimental to your work-in-progress if negative emotions cloud your mind. Many WD Interview subjects—including the January/February 2020 cover star Dani Shapiro— say that it is never a good idea to write out of revenge. Malice should never be a writer’s intent when portraying real-life subjects.
At the same time, writers are also human and are bound to experience negative emotions from time to time. So it’s important to find a way to release your anger before sitting down to work. In the movie, Mr. Rogers suggests healthy ways to deal with anger, such as pounding your fists into a lump of clay or slamming your hands on all of the lowest piano keys at once.
One thing that defines Mr. Rogers’s character in It’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is his ability to be in the present moment—to truly listen to others around him and be aware of the gifts they give him by their being in that moment with him. In Mr. Rogers’s first conversation with Lloyd, he states that the most important thing to him is always what he is doing at the present moment, prompting Lloyd to snap out of his distraction and actually listen to what he is saying.
Remaining truly present in every moment is easier said than done, but Mr. Rogers is shown waking up early each morning to do activities that calm him—saying prayers for people by their names and swimming laps. Doing something calming to release any emotions or thoughts unrelated to your work-in-progress and set your brain into a writing state of mind is a good way to start off any writing session.
4. Don't Have an Agenda—Let Interview Subjects Guide You Where They May
In Lloyd’s first few interviews with Mr. Rogers, he becomes frustrated when Mr. Rogers doesn’t directly answer his questions, steers their conversations off topic, and asks Lloyd personal questions about himself instead.
Every writer has had their fair share of difficult interview subjects. This is especially frustrating when working on tight deadlines. But it is important to take the hint when your interview subject diverts their attention from the questions you had in mind. They are telling you—perhaps unconsciously—that the story isn’t about what you thought it was. It’s about something else. This can lead to a better article or book, more follow-up articles or chapters about an interesting topic you hadn’t previously known about, and more. Open the gifts that your interview subjects give to you. I won’t tell you what gift Mr. Rogers gave Lloyd by being somewhat uncooperative in their interviews, because that would spoil the movie.
5. Be a Friend to Your Sources.
Spoiler alert: Mr. Rogers invited Lloyd into his life, and Lloyd eventually accepted this gesture of friendship.
When you interview someone for your book or article, they are being gracious enough to show you their world and tell you about their life. No one has to do this—your sources also have the option to never talk to you in the first place. They can withhold details that might color the story differently.
Be sure to always thank your interview subjects for their time. Be attentive to both their words and needs—if certain questions seem to difficult for them to answer, be patient and steer the interview in another direction if you need to. Recording your interviews so that there is less pressure to take notes is a good way to do this, freeing you to really stop and listen to what the other person has to say.
In other words, treat your sources as you would treat a friend. Always be polite, dare I say kind and compassionate, to them. In-depth stories require you to get closer to your sources than short-form pieces, spending more time with them inside their lives. While you may not be lucky enough to write a profile on someone like Mr. Rogers and have your work inspire a Hollywood movie starring Tom Hanks, treat every relationship you develop as a writer as if it’s that important.
In conclusion: Be the kind of writer that Mr. Rogers would want you to be. Despite all the chaos that comes with living as a writer, remember that this chaos still makes for a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Because you wouldn’t rather be doing anything else.