Why the Mister Rogers Documentary is More Needed Than Ever

Director Morgan Neville on making his film and why Fred Rogers is more important than ever.

Filmmaker Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom) was part of the “first wave” of viewers who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at a very young age (he was born in 1967; the show went national in 1968). While he moved on, like many of us, as he got older, something about the way Fred Rogers spoke with his viewers resonated with Neville and never quite left him.

Years later, the subject of Fred Rogers came up again and led to Neville’s new film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The film chronicles how Fred Rogers — a writer, producer, puppeteer and minister who was apparently every inch the persona that children saw on TV, radiating goodness, earnestness and compassion — launched a show that came into American homes for 30 years and spoke eloquently, directly and simply to children about issues such as sadness, love, intolerance and grief.

In the years since the show ended, and since Rogers passed in 2003, his legacy has grown and the singular nature of what he did and how he impacted the lives of generations of children has only become greater.

At a time when the very fabric of our society is becoming meaner, less civil and less tolerant, we need the wisdom of Fred Rogers more than ever. Den of Geek spoke with Neville about his movie, which is not only one of the best documentaries of the year but perhaps the most necessary.

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Den of Geek: You were a first generation viewer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Is that correct?

Morgan Neville: Yeah. I was watching the show before I have a memory. I was probably five months old when he went on. I know I loved the show as a kid. What’s interesting about those of us who grew up watching the show is that next to our family it’s probably the oldest relationship we have, or certainly our oldest cultural relationship for many of us. In making a film about him it asks you to revisit a part of yourself you haven’t thought about in a very long time, which is an interesting bit of therapy.

I think people have the same experience: if you watch him at a very young age, then again as a preteen or as a teenager, you kind of get this different view of him. It’s important to go back and see it again through sort of a new set of eyes in a way.

It’s interesting because I feel like for many of us our relationship with Mr. Rogers is reflective of our emotional growth. Kids are very open and direct, as is Fred Rogers, and they respond to him very directly. They get him and he gets them.

When you’re a teenager and you’re basically all about disguising your emotions and shielding your vulnerabilities with sarcasm and other things, you make fun of him. Then, as an adult if you have kids or you grow up hopefully you rediscover some of that emotional honesty you had as a child. Revisiting him as an adult is kind of a revelatory experience. It’s a chance to kind of understand things that you understood as child but had forgotten in a way. Without a doubt, watching Mr. Rogers, he spoke to children, but it worked on multiple levels at the same time.

That was his great gift, to make these things seem so simple when he was talking about these very profound subjects.

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I think a lot of people mistook simple for superficial. I think culturally a lot of people think of Mr. Rogers as the quintessential two-dimensional milquetoast character. But he was simple and deep. It took, as you see in the film, an amazing amount of work and willpower to make things that simple and deep.

It was Yo-Yo Ma who helped steer you in the direction of thinking about the film, right?

I was making a film with Yo-Yo Ma. Right when I was getting to know Yo-Yo at lunch I happened to ask him, “How did you figure out how to be a famous person?” He said, “Oh, Mr. Rogers taught me.” I chuckled. He said, “No, for real. I went on his show when I was a young man and he saw that I was grappling with fame. He went out of his way to mentor me over the years to show me how I could use fame as a positive force and a force for change and not as a weight in my life.”

That was really the kernel of an idea that led to the film. In fact, years later when I really started thinking about making the film I called Nicholas Ma, who is Yo-Yo’s son and who’s a filmmaker and who knew the family and was on the show. I said, “What do you think about this idea, a Fred Rogers documentary?” He said, “I think that’s a great idea and I want to help you make it,” which is great because I have my own insecurities around making a film like this.

You wonder, can you make a deep film about a character that doesn’t seem deep? Can you? Is the subject serious enough to make a serious film? It was my own baggage as a documentary filmmaker that I had to kind of think about, but very quickly when I started to really do research those concerns disappeared.

This tapped into something with everybody, from the family to the financial backers, because you had a lot of great forward motion on this in a fairly quick fashion, relative to what it takes to get other films made.

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This film took on a life of its own, and it’s continued to have a life of its own. It wasn’t going to happen this quickly, but everybody I mentioned it to said, “Yes. What can I do? Yes. How do we make this film?” Before I knew it we were in production and before I knew it the film was coming together. The edit, even though there was a massive amount of work it was the most frictionless edit I’ve ever had. Some of that has to be ascribed to the fact that we were all breathing in Mr. Rogers every day. We were living in the Land of Make Believe and being good neighbors to each other and it somehow just clicked in a way that’s it’s never happened to me on its own before.

Even seeing how people have reacted to the film, it has taken on a life of its own. It’s a very unusual experience, but a lot of that I have to ascribe to Fred, that there was something about the power of what he was doing that people are thirsty for these days.

One of the things you ask in the film is whether Fred Rogers would recognize this world we’re living in now and whether we’ve gone too far to get back to the kind of things that he was trying to tell us about.

That’s the question I want to leave people with. What I didn’t want to do was tell people, “Don’t worry. There’s hope. We’re all good,” and wrap it up in a bow, and I don’t want to leave people defeated. What I think Fred Rogers wanted was to hold up a mirror and ask people what they were doing in their lives to make their neighborhoods better. It really is about asking questions and not answers for me. I think different people have different answers, but it’s not tidy and it’s not clear, and it’s not finished.

I think that’s the other thing, is that we’re living at a time where a lot of these fundamental ideas of what kind of society we’re going to have feel threatened. We’ve built a culture that basically is incentivized to push to our differences or our fears or our resentments, not to push to our goodness. That is incredibly unhealthy. It’s not just politics. It’s media and economics and all kinds of things. I’m somebody who is always looking for common ground, and many of the films I’ve made and things I’ve worked on have been looking for ways we can find agreement. I feel like more often than not people are looking for disagreement.

The one clip that keeps coming to my mind is the Fox News clip about how he supposedly ruined a generation of children, or something like that, that was just so cynical. Have you gotten any similar responses to the movie?

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It’s interesting because I wanted the film to ask questions of everybody. Not just conservative audiences or liberal audiences. It’s questions about morality, how do we think about religion, how do we think about social responsibility. What I have found encouraging is that I’ve screened this for audiences of conservatives and religious audiences and liberal audiences. Everybody feels like they can take ownership over the message of it, which means that there is some common ground there that can be built upon.

It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens when the film really gets out there in the wide world because we do live in cynical times, and this film is a unabashedly sincere film and message. There is that question that is posed in the film: is there space for this, for somebody like Fred today in our culture? I’m an optimist, so I say yes.

What was the thing maybe you learned about Fred Rogers that surprised you in making the film?

There was nothing shocking about Fred Rogers. But there was a lot that was surprising. Everything was somehow consistent with what you might think. He was a vegetarian. The biggest swear word he would use was mercy. He spoke many languages. He would read the Bible in Hebrew or Greek. He studied the world’s religions.

There was a lot that was very deep about him, and he was a seeker, but there was also a part of him that I think was really kind of a tortured artist. I find that humanizing, that he wasn’t just a saint who did this with ease, that he did what he did with great effort and great sacrifice. I think that’s really useful for us to remember because it means that nothing that significant, nothing that profound can happen without that level of effort, the sacrifice. Nothing’s easy. Nothing that good comes that easy. We live in a culture where we’d like to take the most expedient route we can.

His sons and his wife were interviewed for the film. Have they seen the finished product and if so, what was their reaction to it?

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One of the sons has seen it. I’m screening it for the other one in a couple weeks. The kids have been really supportive. Joanne (Rogers, Fred’s wife) was the first person I showed it to when we were finishing the film. I was so nervous screening for her just because it was so emotional. She said two things to me. The first thing she said was, “It was so great I didn’t even cry,” which is funny because she’s probably the only person who would have had that kind of reaction to the film because to her it was — it filled her with a lot of joy to revisit Fred.

The other thing she said was, “Fred would’ve loved this movie.” I think that’s the best review I’m going to get, so that felt good.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is out in limited release now, and continuing to expand across the country.