Opening this weekend in limited release is the Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Directed by Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom), the documentary attempts to take a holistic look at the ideas and philosophy of Fred Rogers and why his show and life were so impactful. It will almost definitely make you cry, but in a good way. Click here to read my review from Sundance.
Last week, I got to talk on the phone with Neville and during our conversation we talked about why he wanted to make a movie about Mister Rogers, the editing process, if there was a scene that was particularly difficult to cut, if the film made him cry while making it, and more.
Check out the full interview below.
What made you want to take on Mr. Rogers as a documentary subject?
MORGAN NEVILLE: Because he’s a voice I don’t hear in our culture anymore. I mean, it was really as simple as that. It’s me starting to go down the rabbit hole of listening to Mr. Rogers speeches and just feeling like, “This is such a profound, important message, and I’m not hearing other people speaking about these things.” For years, I’ve been asking questions about, “Where are all the grownups in our culture? Where are the people who are looking out for our long-term best interests?” I’m not hearing anything back. So part of it was just feeling like this is … If there’s a voice out there asking people, “What kind of neighborhood do we want to have? How do we be good neighbors?” That that was something that I just wanted to spend time with and think about and put back into the culture.
What do you think made Fred Rogers such a singular figure in our culture? What was it about him?
NEVILLE: I mean, he was both a singular person really unlike most anybody else. He also came along at such a perfect time. I think if he’d been born five years sooner or later it would have been a very different story. I mean, he happened to, just at the perfect moment in his life, see television and change his entire life’s course. Instead of going into the seminary, he moved to New York, and he worked at NBC to learn the ins and outs of television and dedicated himself to television, he said, “Because he hated it so.” But he saw the potential in it, and he knew that this was going to be the most powerful technology of his life and it also had the potential to do the most good. He believed television had incredible potential for goodness, but that it was likely misused. But even by the ’80s, he said, “If I came on today, I wouldn’t get a TV show.”
I think it happened kind of organically in a way that was not only ahead of its time, but I think it’s kind of out of time. In that, you know he was doing a show for essentially two to six-year-olds talking about things like death and war and divorce. And I haven’t seen anybody do that ever, even before a sense.
I think what his sense of what he wanted to do was just different from everybody else’s. And in fact he didn’t like television, he didn’t like fame. Those were just the necessary byproducts of what he did like, which was being able to communicate to children and try to help them.