Director Morgan Neville on Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and the enduring legacy of Fred Rogers

by Andrew Parker

“No one could be that good.”

That was a frequent sentiment many utter quietly to themselves when thinking about iconic children’s entertainment personality Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister who forewent a career in the church to dabble in the then freshly minted medium of television. After working as a puppeteer in his native Pittsburgh and developing his first show for the CBC in Canada, Rogers returned to his hometown and PBS broadcaster WQED in the late 1960s to work on what would become one of T.V.’s most endearing, iconic, educational, and emotional series: Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

Communicating with kindness and respect for his young audience, Rogers used a combination of rationality, imagination, and playfulness to tackle sometimes difficult subject matter that parents sometimes had difficulty talking to their children about, including divorce, illness, civil rights, assassination, and everything in-between. Adored by children who appreciated the often sweater clad Rogers for his warmth and candor, Mr. Rogers was an unlikely success: a television personality and producer that technically, morally, and creatively broke almost all of the young medium’s established rules.

Although Rogers had some darkness in his life, many cynical adults found it hard to believe that someone that focused on kindness, equality, and emotional awareness could be that chipper and well mannered without being a complete phony. As award winning documentarian Morgan Neville shows in his biographical documentary look at Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (opening in Toronto this weekend and expanding across the country in the following weeks), those cynical adults were absolutely wrong, and that Rogers, who passed away in 2003, might have been an even gentler soul than many realized.

Neville (Best of Enemies, the Oscar winning 20 Feet from Stardom) first became curious about the beloved television host after an exchange with musician and frequent Rogers collaborator Yo-Yo Ma while making his prevous film, The Music of Strangers. After Ma said that it was Rogers who taught him how to approach celebrity with a sense of kindness and humility, Neville gradually began performing more and more research about Fred, eventually changing the filmmaker’s own opinion that no human being on earth could have been as good and pure as Rogers claimed to be.

Through collaboration with his producer, Yo-Yo’s son Nicholas Ma, who still had connections to the Rogers family, Neville was able to gain access to a wealth of footage and material from the understandably protective Fred Rogers Company, including some footage that hasn’t been seen for decades, and some private movies and outtakes that have never been made previously public. The result of Neville and his team’s hard work is – perhaps improbably – one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the normally blockbuster driven summer movie season. If that isn’t a testament to what Rogers tried to achieve with his groundbreaking television series, I don’t know what is.

We were able to sit down and chat with Neville about Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Fred Rogers’ enduring legacy while he was in Toronto last month for the film’s Canadian premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival.

While I’m sure there will be some people who might think you’re an interesting choice to be making a film about Mr. Rogers, I can see why you would be a good fit. You’ve worked on films about music before, and one of the biggest loves of Fred’s life was music. And one of the things that I loved about him was that he was always trying to share that passion for music with his viewers. Was that one of the things that might have initially endeared him to you as a subject for a film?

Morgan Neville

Morgan Neville: Oh, yeah, Fred loved music. He was a composition major when he was in college! But weirdly it wasn’t what really got me going with Fred. He wrote every song on his show, which amounted to over two hundred songs, and I always cared a lot about how his music was used. I worked a lot with our composer to make sure that it was well represented. I did love getting into that a lot; choosing what kind of instruments we would use in the score and what the tone of it should be when trying to connect it to what Fred did. We brought in a lot of themes from some of Fred’s songs for the score. The song “Tree, Tree, Tree” is one of the best represented in the film because there’s a portion of that one that comes up a few times throughout the score. I loved working with Fred’s music, but that wasn’t the initial impetus to do this.

One of my big themes that I gravitated towards as I look back on it now is this creation of a sense of common ground. How do we speak to each other and how can culture work as a meeting place for common communication and understanding? Best of Enemies is actually more of a mirror documentary to this one, even though it’s not musical in nature, because that’s also almost all about the art of communication. It’s the same time period, it’s about television, and it’s about the potential for good and bad within the medium.

And while Best of Enemies is about two wildly opposed people like Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley trying to debate each other, in some ways Fred’s job was even harder because his methods and the topics he was choosing to take a stand on were more divisive, mostly because he was often talking about how various things that we don’t like thinking about would impact us emotionally instead of politically or economically.

Morgan Neville: Exactly, and that’s one of the biggest reasons why Fred’s so special. He was the only person on television who was speaking to people who had no identity yet: children. You’re talking about two to six year-olds who don’t have a sense of self yet, much less a capacity for labelling or accepting labels. He was speaking to people about the principals of humanist behaviour. How are you supposed to be a human being? What does it mean to be a person? How should you treat yourself? How should we treat others? These are first principles, and that’s what’s so powerful about his message, and for me that’s what made me want to make the film.

I think we’ve forgotten a lot of those basic principles of how we should treat each other and what kind of neighbourhood we want to have. We’ve really forgotten that stuff because it’s a lot more profitable these days to push divisiveness or otherness than it is kindness. There’s no lobby for kindness. (laughs)

I think a lot of filmmakers making a documentary about a famous figure would save the “why this person is relevant to our world today” portion for the end of the film, but here you actually start with it, via a clip from the first season of his show, where King Friday the XIII says he wants to build a wall around his kingdom to protect him from outsiders. Was that a conscious decision to let people know immediately why Mr. Rogers is still relevant?

Morgan Neville: Part of it was because that was the first season, and it was too good for it not to be there. Here’s a Republican minister who’s in many ways the definition of what a Compassionate Conservative should be, and to him “Love Thy Neighbor” is redefined by “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”. These aren’t radical notions. These are Christian, religious, and humanist notions that go back millennia. I think you need to understand from the beginning that he was never doing this to be a radical. He was doing this because he thought it was the right thing to do. He thought this was what Jesus Christ would do.

There were actually lots of other examples that were just as sharp as that one that I didn’t end up putting in the film because I didn’t want the film too heavy-handed. I also didn’t want to alienate people who I think should see the film. I never wanted the film to be partisan in that way. I never wanted it to scold the audience or tell them what to think because Fred wouldn’t have wanted that. At the same time, Fred believed in what I also believe in: asking questions and letting the audience come up with their own answers.

Is it a challenge to make a film about someone as driven by love and compassion as Fred?

Morgan Neville: Certainly. From the beginning, one of the biggest questions was about what the dramatic tension would be when talking about Fred Rogers. On the surface, he seems like someone who never changed, and the definition of dramatic storytelling is built around how a lead character changes. (laughs) But when you look at him under a microscope, you realize that Fred did change. The show was always changing in subtle ways, and that was always a reaction to the changes in the world around him. In that way, the tension is between Fred and the world and his ideas, which become increasingly antiquated or quaint over the years in the eyes of some. And it sometimes made Fred angry that people found him quaint or Pollyannaish, and I can see where that anger comes from, and I agree with it.

In terms of how he made his show, Fred broke almost every filmmaking rule in the book, especially when it comes to a program aimed at children. In many ways – and this is something your film shows – Fred was kind of like a child’s introduction to “slow cinema,” often documenting every step of a process, frequently without any talking or musical accompaniment. He had a tendency to let things play out naturally. Is it interesting as a filmmaker to go through all the footage of his show and witness how counterintuitive the show’s style often seems?

Morgan Neville: Sure! What Fred always talked about was being simple and deep, and any filmmaker knows that being simple and deep at the same time is incredibly difficult. To do something that seems simple is often very tough. Going behind the curtain and looking at Fred’s process, you realize that he put so much thought into every shot, line of dialogue, and all of his research. He would take almost everything on his show up with child development experts, and he would labour over every small detail. There was so much consideration put into that, and I wanted with this film to do my best to mimic and honour that vision to make something simple and deep at the same time.

I also feel like part of what I responded to while making it was how the things Fred were doing back then would be what we classify today as mindfulness, which is something people are talking about more and more these days in a culture that’s increasingly chaotic, fast paced, disconnected from other people, and connected to our screens. In a way, having that moment where we can have consideration over something simple and deep is great.

In fact, I interviewed – not for this project, but for something else – Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, who wrote a book about how computers are changing the way we use our minds and bodies, and she talked about the value of boredom. Boredom has a very important function in terms of how we develop our sense of self. Part of what Fred did was that he didn’t try to fill up every moment of space he was allotted to tell you what to think. He wanted to give you space to contribute something back to the viewing.

That’s why people, more so than anyone else on television that I can think of, were able to have an actual relationship with him. He spoke to kids individually. They would talk back to the television. They would respond in kind. So when Fred would meet children anywhere, he would always act like they had a pre-existing relationship, because they did. That was a very real relationship. It wasn’t just a TV host to audience relationship. It was a lot more one-on-one.

He was also a realist that entertained but never spoke down to children. The Land of Make Believe was very open about not being real. Fred never tried to trick or put one over on the audience for the sake of a thrill, laugh, or reaction. He always made sure that the kids knew that the puppets were puppets and that they were engaging in playtime, which I think could inspire more creativity. If this guy could do it, then a child would probably think they could do it, and that helps in those times of boredom.

Morgan Neville: Exactly. And it’s funny because you could always see Daniel Striped Tiger in Fred’s living room set, and he was never trying to create anything along the lines of H.R. Pufnstuf. He was always up front about everything. He never wanted to deceive a child about anything.

I think the most hate mail he got was when he did an episode explaining to children that Santa Claus wasn’t real. He thought that children would genuinely be afraid and maybe become paranoid by the whole “He sees you when you’re sleeping/He knows when you’re awake” thing, and that some kids might see Santa as this ominous figure who’s breaking into your house in the middle of the night. He thought this was something that adults shouldn’t be doing to children, and a lot of adults were angry and wrote in to the show.

The creation of everything on Fred’s set was so authentic, especially Daniel Striped Tiger, who looks every bit like a well loved children’s toy. Just the sight of Daniel can make some adults start to tear up because they can instantly be transported not only to feelings of Fred’s show, but also something similar that they might have had in their own lives at one point. When you’re watching something that seems so realistic and rudimentary on a surface level, do you get an appreciation of how the simplicity of Fred’s show has created some truly iconic characters?

Morgan Neville: Absolutely. At one point we were editing a scene with Daniel, and we wanted to slide a shot, but there was a discussion that we had with the editors because if we slid the shot, it wouldn’t be in sync anymore. We carried on that conversation for the longest time until we realized that Daniel’s mouth doesn’t even move. (laughs) It hadn’t ever occurred to us that his mouth didn’t move because he was so real to us. None of the puppet’s mouths move! But it never occurred to us because they felt so alive.

It’s a powerful thing, and we talk about it in the film how Fred loved puppets because he was essentially a very shy person. These puppets would bring out all these different sides of his personality that we never got to see publically: the troublemaker, the paternal figure, the vulnerable figure, and then you have Daniel, who was really the key to understanding all of Fred’s insecurities and laying them out in the open for everyone to see.

Daniel was always Fred’s most personal creation, I think. Daniel was a tame tiger, and Fred talked about that a lot. I think Fred was someone who had a lot of anger at times, but he always tried to work through that anger and tame it. He used his music, his puppets, and Daniel specifically to really harness that anger and fear. He wanted to show through Daniel in a subtle way how fear sometimes manifests itself as anger, but that even a tiger could be tamed.

He was trying to eliminate fear, which was one of his main things with children. He wanted to seek out everything in the world that a child could be afraid of and try to explain it to them. His thing was that if he could get rid of the fear and get rid of the anger, you could talk about and understand almost anything.

One of the things that film talks about is that I never knew was how Fred Rogers set aside the kid’s show in the late 70s to make an interview show geared towards adults, where he would adopt a similar style of interviewing that he used on children. The little bit of footage of it that you have in the film is fascinating, and even though that show failed, it really helps to illustrate everything you’ve said about Fred and his ability to keep things simple and deep. What was it like being able to compare his on screen interactions with real adults and the characters on his show?

Morgan Neville: Kids are so nakedly emotional that they’ll tell you exactly what they’re thinking and often exactly what you want to know if you ask them. As you get older, you put up facades and mask your true emotions and intentions, and Fred never did that. I think it could be very intimidating for an adult to be approached by him and be asked quite openly, “What are you afraid of?” “Where do you find love?” He was asking these very deep questions that adults don’t even like asking themselves in private most of the time. We tend to run away from those questions, but children will answer those questions completely and honestly. There’ something therapeutic about those kinds of conversations, but I think they’re also really challenging.

There are a few episodes of that show that I really hope they bring back out. They only did about twenty-four episodes. There’s one with Hoagy Carmichael that’s really great. There’s one with Milton Berle where it’s a really HEAVY conversation. Milton GOES THERE with Fred and really gets into the sadness behind humour. It was such an interesting show, but it definitely wasn’t what anyone was looking for on television at the time. (laughs)

As the film goes on and starts to look at the later years of Fred’s life, particularly when he’s asked to come out of retirement to do some P.S.A.s in the wake of 9/11, it shows how even this iconic bastion of positivity was beginning to wonder if his words would have an impact anymore, and I think that’s how a lot of people are feeling these days. What’s it like to bring a film like this to an audience at a time when people are really starting to question the nature of the world around us and if our contributions to society will make any sort of positive impact?

Morgan Neville: I think people are wondering if we’re even going to have a neighbourhood soon. It definitely feels like we’re in a time where we can’t agree on what kind of neighbourhood we want to have. We can’t agree on how we want to treat each other, and we can’t agree on how we want to treat ourselves. When we see so much divisiveness, anger, and derision of the other throughout our culture, that’s so corrosive to all the things that we should be agreeing about, which is the joint set of emotional and ethical rules that we should all be living by.

When people ask me “who’s the next Fred Rogers?,” there is no next Mr. Rogers. What I’ve come to think is that within the millions of people who grew up watching him, he left a piece of himself. Really, it’s the responsibility of all of us to be the next Mr. Rogers. That’s his legacy: reminding ourselves of the radical nature of kindness and goodness. We don’t do that. It’s easy to laugh at those things as sounding naive, but I think it’s deadly serious. He was a warrior for kindness, and we should all be that. The thing that binds us together even in our disagreements is kindness.

And who knows what films can do to help this, but we do them in the hope that they will have some impact. I wanted to leave the audience with the thought that it’s not what Fred’s going to do, but what we’re going to do. Fred wasn’t just a saint who waved a wand and did good things. He struggled and laboured very hard with great doubts for decades to do what he did. We have to struggle with that, too. It’s hard work to be good and kind, but we should do that work.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor opens exclusively in Toronto (at Varsity Cinemas) and select U.S. cities on Friday, June 8, 2018. It expands to Vancouver and Montreal on Friday, June 15th and to additional cities on Friday, June 22.

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