From the neighborhood to Hollywood
Micah Fitzerman-Blue on his upcoming Mister Rogers film
Micah Fitzerman-Blue is a Tulsa-raised screenwriter who graduated from Holland Hall and Harvard University and now lives in Los Angeles. He worked as writer and producer on the Amazon show “Transparent,” which follows a family that undergoes a shock when its patriarch comes out as transgender.
Now he’s working on “You Are My Friend,” a feature-length film he wrote (with Noah Harpster) starring Tom Hanks, which investigates the relationship of Mister Rogers and a reporter who begrudgingly profiles him.
This year marks the 50th anniversary since “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired on national public television.
Zack Reeves: Tell me a little bit about your life in Oklahoma.
Micah Fitzerman-Blue: We moved to Oklahoma when I was three and never left Maple Ridge. I went to Holland Hall from first to 12th grade. We grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s in Tulsa. There’s a culture and climate of kindness that pervades the city. Whenever I come home, even with how much the city is changing, it seems like that’s even more the case now.
It used to be that when I would fly in from L.A., my parents and I would pass these houses that were a lot less expensive than the ones in L.A., and they’d slow down the car and say, “You know, you could move back.” My parents are the biggest Tulsa boosters in the world.
Reeves: The script for “You Are My Friend” appeared on the Black List [a voted-on list of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood] back in 2013. How did it feel to have your script on such a storied survey?
Fitzerman-Blue: It’s really cool; it was a big honor. I really admire what the Black List stands for: trying to get unproduced screenplays more visibility and to empower smart development executives all around the industry to let their voices be heard. It was a real honor to be part of that.
As much as all the bad things about Hollywood are sort of true, it’s also, at the end of the day, a community of creative people who want to make things that matter to them. So the Black List is an extension of that part of Hollywood.
Reeves: Can you tell us more about the film?
Fitzerman-Blue: If you were to approach the life of Fred Rogers as a straightforward biopic, it would not make for a very good movie. Fred Rogers was unfailingly incredible for 73 years, and then he died. I think everyone in Pittsburgh and Latrobe [Pennsylvania, where Rogers was raised], they kind of agree. So the question is: How do you tell a story about this guy? When you scratch the surface, you realize that Fred Rogers was involved in the lives of countless people, and he was behind the scenes, out of the public eye, just trying to help people all the time.
With him, there was no such thing as small talk. When he says, “How are you?” he means, “How are you?” And the second you give anything, all of a sudden, you’re gonna get a call from him. He gets involved in people’s lives. It was part of his own private ministry; he was a Presbyterian minister.
So, we thought the coolest way to tell the story of Fred Rogers is not [to tell] about Fred Rogers but about one of the people whose lives he changed. So the movie is the story of this journalist who’s a little jaded, who’s given this assignment that he doesn’t want to do, which is to profile Fred Rogers. And he ends up writing about himself. He ends up going through this whole process of change in his life that’s inspired
Reeves: What’s your personal relationship to Mister Rogers?
Fitzerman-Blue: To be honest, I was more of a Sesame Street guy.
Fitzerman-Blue: I’m not gonna lie to you. It was only later that I really began to discover Fred Rogers. It was incredible. The current media landscape is so fast, our attention spans are shrinking every single day. But then you put on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and suddenly the texture of time is different. It’s special; it’s a real relationship. It’s almost therapeutic, how patient and immediate he is. You couldn’t do that now. It almost feels avant-garde.
My wife and I had our first daughter two years ago, so this is all picking up when I’m becoming a dad. I could not ask for a better thing to be thinking about at work than Fred Rogers. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” wasn’t just trying to entertain or distract kids. Everything was vetted in a serious way for pedagogical value. They had a philosophy of learning that pervaded every aspect of the show. When I watch that series I feel a tremendous amount of trust that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” has my best interests, and my kid’s best interests, at heart.
Reeves: Why Mister Rogers now? What do you think this film has to say to people?
Fitzerman-Blue: We are experiencing a crisis of moral authority in our society. We don’t have very many heroes around that we can all agree on. It’s an honor and huge responsibility to portray Fred Rogers, who was a real hero. He devoted his life to help young people through their frustrations, their pain, their loneliness, and their anger. There’s no better time to be doing this film.
Reeves: You wrote on the first four seasons of Amazon’s show “Transparent.” What are the differences between working on a feature film and working on a TV show, especially when it comes to the writing process?
Fitzerman-Blue: I suppose it comes down to punctuation. With a movie, you’re saying something with a period, and with a TV series you’re ending with question mark. A movie has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s a self-contained story—a single experience.
With a TV series you’re asking a lot of questions. Structurally speaking, you have a beginning, a middle, and a question at the end. It’s a different kind of writing. You’re trying to keep a story going and let it keep evolving. Your task is to find increasingly sophisticated questions.
Reeves: Speaking of, which character’s arc in “Transparent” was your favorite to write?
Fitzerman-Blue: Maura’s arc was my favorite; it was like nothing I had ever done before. That was far and away the most challenging thing to write in the show. I think about writing as being paid to learn—that’s the scheme, and I loved learning about Maura. I loved learning about all the issues we dealt with on that series. When I’m doing my best work, it feels a lot more like journalism than anything else.
Reeves: What was your favorite movie of 2017?
Fitzerman-Blue: My favorite movie of the year was “Get Out.” And I’m adding “Coco” in there too. A two-hour Pixar film that just makes you think about your grandparents the whole time?