Director tells audience what inspired him to make his Mister Rogers doc -- and who urged him, 'Don't make Fred into a saint'
The IDA's fall Screening Series is off to an impressive start, with a showing of the most successful documentary of recent years.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? played to a packed house at the Landmark Theatres in West Los Angeles Wednesday night, with director Morgan Neville on hand. His film about the late children's television personality Fred Rogers has earned more than $22.5 million at the box office to date.
My relationship with Mister Rogers goes back to when I was born.
"My relationship with Mister Rogers goes back to when I was born," Neville told the audience during a Q&A following the screening. "I was born in 1967 so I was like a first generation Mister Rogers fanatic... I loved his show."
Below are more of the top quotes from his conversation with moderator Dana Harris, editor-in-chief of IndieWire.
This is not a film about nostalgia and it's not a film about going back, it's a film about going forward -- how do we get that voice into today.
Neville noted that after his childhood delight in Mister Rogers, "I didn't then think about him for decades of my life." But he began to rediscover him in recent years, finding Rogers' message of inclusion, acceptance and love markedly different from the divisive rhetoric common to current public discourse.
"Somebody had sent me a viral video [of] Fred Rogers and it sent me off in this YouTube deep dive into Mister Rogers commencement addresses," he recalled. "And I stayed up really late watching them. And it just hit me in this profound, moving way that this is a voice I don't hear today."
Can you make a serious film about someone people don't take seriously?
Neville discussed the challenges he faced approaching the Fred Rogers project, among them how to get beyond the caricatured image of his subject as a sort of cardigan-clad creampuff.
"In many ways Mister Rogers is the quintessential cardboard character in our culture. He's been kind of a punchline for so long," Neville observed. "That was my own kind of baggage about it. Step by step I realized that in fact it was the most profound story I could tell and it was a story I needed to tell, for me. I felt like this film was my way of dealing with the culture."
They've been approached over decades to make films and they've never said yes.
After Neville came up with the idea for a Fred Rogers documentary he faced the task of selling the TV host's family, including his widow Joanne, on the idea.
"My pitch to them was, 'I don't want to do a film that's a biography of Fred Rogers. I want to make a film about his ideas. And you also can't have any control over the film,'" Neville recalled. "I think they just decided to trust me. Once they decided to trust it was 100-percent."
Joanne said to me, 'Don't make Fred into a saint.'
The director noted of Mrs. Rogers plea, "That's the best thing a filmmaker could ever hear is what Joanne said to me."
Neville added, "If there ever was a character who was easily sanctified it's Fred Rogers, but in a way to treat him sanctimoniously is to keep him in the same two-dimensional cardboard box that everybody always has him in, not to appreciate the human struggle that he put into it... To treat him as somebody who existed on another plane is to absolve us as an audience from having to measure up and to not appreciate the sacrifice he had to do to do that work and that we can't just leave it to saints to take care of it for us, that we all have a responsibility."
At one point he got more mail than anybody in America.
Not only did Rogers receive an immense amount of mail, Neville told the audience he also answered it.
"He personally responded to every letter," the director commented, "which is unbelievable. I mean, it was a big part of his week, which was doing correspondence. For him, he didn't see it as an obligation. He saw it as his work... The TV was just a tool to reach people that needed help."
Neville also pointed out Rogers refused offers to monetize his show.
"Fred... turned down every merchandising dollar. He said, 'If I sell something to a child then I'm polluting the relationship I have with them.' So he refused to ever do anything," the filmmaker affirmed. "Fred refused to ever perform before more than 30 children... He was walking the walk in every single instance."
That's the question everybody asks. Is this guy for real? Can he be a real person?
Responding to the moderator's comment that Rogers was "as twisted as they come in terms of what we really expect to see," Neville conceded, "He is an odd duck. But I think a big part of his strangeness is that he talked like a child. And I mean that in the best possible way."
Neville elaborated, "When somebody comes up to you and says, 'I like you just the way you are,' that may seem creepy. But in a way he's just being brutally honest and sincere. We're just not used to that kind of sincerity. We live in a culture of irony. Everything is ironic. Our politicians are ironic, our superheroes are ironic these days. To have someone who is just so open in his heart and open in his deeds it's weird but it's also incredibly refreshing and inspirational."
For details on upcoming IDA Screening Series, films, including Science Fair and Three Identical Strangers, click here.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.