Now playing: In midst of cruel Trump era, Oscar winner Morgan Neville revisits gentler Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
Won't You Be My Neighbor? director says Fred Rogers' message is sorely needed now: 'I can't find a better advocate for kindness and civility'
There is a certain Mr. Rogers-like quality about director Morgan Neville. From my perspective they're both warm, approachable and wise, with something teddy bear-ish about them. I don't think it would seem at all out of place if Neville were to pull a cardigan sweater over his shoulders, the attire Fred Rogers wore in countless episodes of his educational children's series.
The affinity between filmmaker and TV host goes beyond simply personal demeanor. Like Rogers, Neville demonstrates a deep concern for our shared values and the fate of our society, and through his films offers subtle insights into who we are and what we might aspire to be.
For those reasons I can't imagine anymore more ideally suited to explore the meaning of Rogers’ work than Neville, an endeavor the director undertakes in the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The film, which premiered at Sundance in January, opened Friday in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and select other cities. Distributor Focus Features plans to expand it to hundreds of screens around the country in the coming weeks (click here for details).
Where else in our culture do we hear this kind of very adult, empathetic voice that's looking out for our better selves?
“I made the film for very personal reasons in that I grew up loving Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,” Neville explained in an interview with Nonfictionfilm.com. “But it was more as an adult rediscovering Fred Rogers' voice and just feeling like it was voice I didn't hear elsewhere in our culture. Where else in our culture do we hear this kind of very adult, empathetic voice that's looking out for our better selves? This was something that was speaking to me and I wanted to pursue it with a film.”
Rogers (1928-2003) launched his show in 1968 on WQED, a public television station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He not only hosted, he composed the show's music, created puppets for it and voiced the puppet characters.
"It was an incredible amount of work but it was really in that way his vision," Neville observed. "Everything about the show was some part of himself. Every puppet was some facet of his personality."
Each episode featured moments spent in Mister Rogers' "real" neighborhood, a homey set where the host talked directly to kids through the camera about themes that often related to their emotional lives. And at some point in every show a toy train would transport viewers to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where King Friday XIII reigned, a monarch frequently beset by various anxieties.
"What he was doing with that show is that he would find something he thought kids needed to understand or something he thought the kids were fearful of and he would design an episode or a week of episodes around it," Neville commented. "And he would set it up in the beginning-- he would go the Land of Make-Believe which was his parable machine where he could use the puppets to act out and help children process what this thing is that people are afraid of. And oftentimes King Friday would be afraid of something and everybody else in the neighborhood would talk him down and prevail upon him that you should not be afraid of this thing that you were afraid of and here's why. And at the end he would sum it up with a song."
Part of what made the program so unusual was the way Rogers addressed children -- not as simpletons requiring broad entertainment and distraction but as emotional beings who were well aware of what went on around them. In his first season, not long after the death of Robert F. Kennedy, he aired an episode that directly confronted the word assassination.
"When you think about it, he was doing special episodes dealing with war and assassination because he knew the kids were too smart to not be aware of things like that happening in the culture," the director stated. "I think the adult instinct is to tell children not to worry about things. And I think he believed that was completely the wrong instinct because to stifle emotion creates fear. And to him, he really thought of fear as the great evil -- that fear and love are two poles and that fear basically was the thing that underlied resentment, anger and hatred.'
Neville continued, "When he saw somebody who was hateful or bigoted he would always ask what happened in their life to make them that way. What's the thing they're so fearful of that makes them so full of hate? And so much of what he did with kids is trying to stop fears from growing in children. And not only was [the program] ahead of its time but it was out of time because nobody's done it since. How many kids shows do you see today that are dealing with things like the war in the Middle East for two- to six-year-olds? It was radical in that way and I don't think anybody's touched it since."
Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, preached radical kindness, in Neville's view. Assessing the impact of his message, of course, is almost impossible.
"How do you measure how much kinder generations of Americans were because they watched Mister Rogers? I don't know. You can't measure that," Neville affirmed. "And looking around it's hard to feel like he succeeded in making everybody a better neighbor, but then you have to wonder how much worse would it have been [without him]."
On his show Rogers gently broke down racial barriers and welcomed disabled children onto the program.
"Just anecdotally, I've had dozens of people come up to me and tell me individual stories of growing up with a disability and it being the first time they'd ever seen somebody that looked like them on television," Neville noted. "Or growing up as a latch-key kid with no real parents around that he was a surrogate parent for them and how much that meant to them. I'm sure there are legions of those kinds of stories. So how do you evaluate that [impact]? I don't know."
Related: Morgan Neville talks Fred Rogers with Nonfictionfilm.com at world premiere of Won't You Be My Neighbor?
The documentary has produced emotional reactions among many adults who have seen it (I confess I am one of them). That has held true from the world premiere at Sundance through subsequent screenings at SXSW and other festivals, and now in its theatrical release.
"I knew I found it emotional but there's also something about seeing the film with an audience that elevates the emotion of it," Neville told us. "It's strange for a TV character essentially to play so well in a theatrical setting, but I think it does. I think there's something about the feeling of watching it with other people that really makes it feel more like a shared experience."
Part of the emotion the film has provoked must be ascribed to the sense of how different Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is from the America we're living in today. In Mister Trump's Neighborhood, the disabled are mocked, Mexicans and other minorities attacked, Gold Star families insulted and political opponents vilified.
"I think we're definitely in a moment-- and this is a long time coming. It's not like it just appeared and when we started making the film it was before the election -- but this has been in the air, the incivility and the coarsening of our public discourse," Neville stated. "It's something that I wanted to deal with in the film but I also wanted to make a film that people from different backgrounds could respond to. The film is not a screed. The film asks a lot of hopefully profound questions that people can ask themselves."
Can we at least agree on the basic principles of what kind of neighborhood we want to have and how we should treat each other?
In the film, Neville notes Rogers was a lifelong Republican. The filmmaker screened his documentary during Sundance for an audience in the Utah capital.
"At the Salt Lake City premiere were pretty much many of the leaders of the Utah state government -- the governor was there, many members of the state legislature, virtually all Republican. And they came up to us afterwards and said how much they loved the film and how much it spoke to them," Neville recalled. "And the fact that people can take some ownership for the ideas that Fred Rogers was standing up for I think is important... I feel like those of us in documentary have been having a lot of discussions about preaching to the converted and talking to ourselves and what's the value of doing that. I thought very hard about that in making this film, trying to make a film that could speak to people I may not always agree with and see again if we can find this common ground. Can we at least agree on the basic principles of what kind of neighborhood we want to have and how we should treat each other? And I can't find a better advocate for kindness and civility than Fred Rogers. That was the film I wanted to make."
It's important to Neville that his film be understood as speaking to the present moment.
"I didn't want to make a film about nostalgia and in fact I'm not a fan of nostalgia," he asserted. "I feel like the issues [Rogers] talks about are the ones that I care about, which are about basic ideas of civility and how we can find common ground. In an odd way I feel like I've made a number of films around this issue. Even a film like Best of Enemies [about the vitriolic political debates in 1968 between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley] that I made is like a companion piece to this film. It's about television in the same time period. But really that's a cautionary tale and this is a hopeful tale about kind of the power of the medium."
Neville added of Won't You Be My Neighbor? "It might be the most contemporary film I've made -- odd considering Fred Rogers went on television 50 years ago. But I'm really happy that people instantly pick up on that. Because I didn't make the film to look back. I made the film to look around."
Related: Name-calling and gay-baiting -- Best of Enemies evokes epic and ugly televised battle of wits
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.