“When I met Joanne Rogers, I told her I wanted to make a film not about Fred Rogers’ story but about his ideas,” filmmaker Morgan Neville wrote about Won’t You Be My Neighbor? “She smiled and said that sounded pretty good, because Fred had always said his own story was the most boring story of all time. I respectfully disagree.”
The director won an Academy Award for the joyous film 20 Feet from Stardom about backup singers finally getting their due, and nabbed a News & Documentary Emmy for Best of Enemies (Independent Lens, 2016) about the debates of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. As much as audiences connected with those films, his latest documentary about the legendary but humble PBS children’s television host brings viewers to a different emotional plane entirely. (“I promise it will affect you in ways few documentaries do,” wrote David Zurawik in the Baltimore Sun, about one of the year’s most acclaimed films.)
Neville chatted with us about what surprised him the most about Fred Rogers, the musicality of the man, and how this film touches everyone in unique ways.
Do you have any early memories as a child watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood? And what was the moment when you realized there was more to Fred Rogers than you’d thought?
I was born in 1967, so I was a first-generation Mister Rogers fan. I loved him as a kid, and I’ve come to realize that he was probably the first significant adult relationship I had outside of my immediate family. Like most people, though, I kind of forgot about him for a long time. It was years later when I was working with [renowned classical musician] Yo-Yo Ma, and I happened to ask him how he dealt with fame. His quick answer was, “Oh, Mister Rogers taught me how.”
I laughed, and he went on to explain that it wasn’t a joke and that Fred Rogers had mentored him over years, into how to use his notoriety as a positive force for social change, and not as a loadstone that would weigh him down. That made me reevaluate the Mister Rogers I had remembered, and made me realize there was a lot more lurking under the surface.
Along those lines, what was the most surprising, even stunning, revelation to you about Mister Rogers in researching and making this film?
In some ways, Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers are one in the same thing, but I came to realize the deeper I dug, that nothing about Fred was a contradiction to who Mister Rogers was, but in fact was a much more dimensional version, full of surprises. If Mister Rogers is considered a ‘wimp’ in popular culture, the real Fred Rogers was the opposite – a man of iron will on a mission, and with a real vision. He was funny, he was devout, and he was deep.
You’ve made some great music documentaries, music films and bios and so on, before making Won’t You Be My Neighbor — and on the surface that seems like a departure, but could you talk about how there was a musicality to Mister Rogers.
Fred Rogers was a composition major at Rollins College, and wrote all of the songs on his show — over 200 compositions. Music and rhythm were incredibly important to his life and even the show. His sense of pace, rhythm, counterpoint, all informed how he put his program together and allowed me to approach the edit of this film with a similar musicality — tempo, tone, and rhythm are all just as important in editing as they are in music.
You’ve talked about Rogers’ ‘radical kindness’ before. How would you define what that means? Why is it actually a risk to be neighborly and kind to others?
There’s no doubt that Fred was a radical, in terms of what the word really means — which is that he dealt with things that were at the root of how the world works and how we perceive it. Fred was not interested in superficiality; he was always interested in the essence of a thing.
The kind of words we use around what Fred did — like kindness, neighborliness, niceness — are treated as quaint and old-fashioned. Fred’s argument, that I think resonates today, is that kindness, in fact, is not just window dressing. In fact, it’s fundamental to how neighborhoods work — which is how communities work and societies work. Without kindness, everything will fall apart; that’s sure how it feels now.
The film touches everyone who sees it. At the risk of asking you to overanalyze, what about Mister Rogers story do you think touches an emotional nerve with audiences today?
I think Fred spoke like a child in the best sense of the word — which is free of artifice and utter sincerity. Most adults don’t express exactly what they’re feeling or ask exactly what they want to know, they hide all of those things, but children don’t. Fred was able to use this incredible sincerity to reach people’s emotional bullseyes. In watching the film, I think people feel that somehow somewhere, Fred is going to connect with their emotional trigger, because his sincerity, by extent his vulnerability, is so manifest.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor will be a hard act to follow, but can you tell us what you’re working on next?
It is a hard act to follow, but I have lots of things I’m working on. Not much I can say now, but I’m always looking for stories related to culture and empathy.