Original-Cin Q&A: Won't You Be My Neighbor's Morgan Neville on Mister Rogers, his counsel to Yo-Yo Ma and his beautiful legacy

If you grew up between the years of 1968 to 2000 Fred Rogers was part of your neighborhood. 

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, a staple on American Public Television for close to 35 years, is examined in the emotional new documentary, Won’t You Be my Neighbor? from Academy Award winning documentarian Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom).   

The film shows Rogers as the universally beloved television host and benefactor that he was in real life and on screen.  Through behind-the-scenes clips and stories from producers and guests on the show, Neville offers a glimpse into how Rogers positively affected childhoods everywhere with lessons on divorce, violence, and the simple trials of growing up. 

Original-Cin’s Bonnie Laufer recently spoke with Morgan Neville in Toronto when Won’t You Be my Neighbor was shown at the Hot Docs festival.  The film will open in theatres on June 8th. 

 Fred Rogers: Yes, we'll be his neighbour!

Fred Rogers: Yes, we'll be his neighbour!

OC: Having grown up with Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, watching this film and bringing him back into the forefront was a real treat. What was it about Fred Rogers that made you decide you wanted to explore more about him and his life? 

MORGAN NEVILLE: “It’s hard to remember exactly what it was that made me want to do the film other than a feeling that this was a voice that I don’t hear anymore. 

“So essentially, you know, late one night for whatever reason, I watched a bunch of YouTube videos of him giving commencement addresses. I went down the rabbit hole of Mister Rogers videos.”

OC: You couldn’t fall asleep,,,

MN: “Yeah!” ( laughs) “I couldn’t fall asleep and my insomnia led to this film.  But there was something about the way he was talking that felt healing in some way. But it also just felt like an empathetic, mature grown up voice that I just don't hear anymore. 

“So really it was reacting to that and feeling like, ‘I think this is saying something to me, and maybe it's going to say something to other people about the issues I care a lot about.’ Things like public discourse, and disability, and common ground and kind of how culture can build bridges to other communities and other people.

“And all the things he was talking about, really about the neighborhood, became this kind of urgent feeling for me. So when he’s talking about, ‘Won’t  you be my neighbour?’ he’s saying, ‘What kind of citizen are you going to be and what kind of society do we want to have?’ Essentially, he’s asking these fundamental questions about how we treat each other and how we treat ourselves.”

OC: I understand that musician Yo-Yo Ma was instrumental in getting the film made as well. How did that come about? 

MN: “That was really one of the first seeds that probably led me down that YouTube rabbit hole. Years ago I'd started making a film with Yo-Yo Ma called The Music of Strangers. And one day at lunch, early on, I happened to ask him, ‘How did you figure out how to be famous?'

“He immediately replied, ‘Mister Rogers taught me.’  I kind of laughed, and he said, ‘No I'm not kidding. He really went out of his way to notice, when I first went on the show, that I was struggling with fame. And he mentored me over the years and we became very good friends.’

“(Ma) went on to say how he went on to learn how to use fame as a force for positive social change and not as a weight around his neck. So I thought that was so interesting and it completely blew up my conception of Mister Rogers in my mind. 

“He said that  he and Mister Rogers used to talk about fame, calling it, ‘the other F-word,’ and that it was really something that was toxic. And in a  way Fred Rogers was the least likely TV star in history. 

 Director Morgan Neville

Director Morgan Neville

“He actually hated television and  he didn’t need money. It wasn't those things for him. It was about his calling, which was, ‘How can I help people?’ It was his ministry. 

“He was a Presbyterian Minister and, without a doubt, what he decided that  meant was to look out for children and protect children every way you could. Essentially, what his show did at every turn, was to try to preserve what his show was all about and give children what they needed  and not what anybody else said what they needed.”

They must have really needed it, because the show ran for almost 35 years.  What was it about the simplicity of that show that struck a chord? The format never changed. Even while the world was changing, the show never did. 

MN: “You’re right, the show on its surface never really changed.  You can play all 33 years of episodes in a loop and you probably wouldn’t be able to tell what year you were watching. 

“He wanted that to be consistent because kids love consistency. It’s the reason kids like watching the same movie 12 times. They also like transitions, all these things that we now know because we're somewhat more enlightened as parents. They were things nobody was talking about, but Fred knew because he studied cutting-edge child development. 

“When you actually dissect it, you see that Fred did subtly change the show over time, and as he became more confident and well-known and had a bigger platform, he decided that he could use the show to really tackle important questions, kind of address the issues of the day. 

“What's interesting is even as the show went on,  if he thought there was something done in an old episode that wasn't quite right anymore, he would go back and wear the same clothes, shoot an insert and fix it. 

“I think at one point he had met a woman, and in one of the first episodes say 1968-69  and Fred asked her if she was a homemaker or a nurse or a housewife. And a few years later, he thought that was out of step so he went back and changed it because he wanted the episodes to be fresh.”

Usually when documentarians decide to make a film - and you have done a number of them - they struggle with how they are going to find footage. You certainly did not have that problem with Won’t You Be my Neighbor.  I think you probably had way too much footage to go through for this project.  How on earth did you get through it in time and where did you even begin? 

MN: “There was an incredible amount of footage. That was the hard part, weeding down the footage. And so we had researchers and editors, myself and the production team weeding through it. The thing that was the godsend was that, when Fred passed away, they set up an archive of his material at the Fred Rogers Center (at St. Vincent College near Pittsburgh). 

“They've had an archivist working on his material for 15 years. You know, he got he got more letters than anybody in America and he would spend an hour or two a day just doing correspondence.”

 Mister Rogers and his pal, the Speedy Deliveryman Mr. McFeeley (David Newell)

Mister Rogers and his pal, the Speedy Deliveryman Mr. McFeeley (David Newell)

OC: That’s a job in itself. How on earth did he do it? 

MN: “A full time job if you ask me. But he had people that would help him. 

“He believed that a child that would write him a letter believed that they had a one on one relationship. He strongly felt that if he didn’t respond, he would be not to be honoring that relationship. 

“Then when we would get into things, we discovered that the letters had been categorized - for example if there were letters about disappointment, or bullies or death. This was hugely helpful and made it much easier for us to find things.

“It would have taken me another year to make the film if everything was just thrown into boxes. So that helped tremendously. In a way, when we showed up to make this documentary, we told them what we wanted to do which was to make a film not about the man but about the ideas of the man. They said, ‘We trust you.  You can have complete control and we’ve never done this before. But you can do whatever you want.’

“Once they made that decision, giving us the keys to the kingdom and full support, it almost felt like materials had been prepared for 15 years just for us. I was truly spoiled. It's never going to be this easy ever again. ” 

OC: What ultimately surprised you about Fred Rogers after finishing the film? 

MN: “There were so many things about him that surprised and impressed me. For instance, he spoke French, Greek and Hebrew. He would wake up every morning and read the Bible in Hebrew or Greek.  He went to France around 1947 and he visited orphanages. There was a young boy that he met that had a lot of potential, but there was no one there who could help him or who would take an interest in helping him. So Fred, who had family money, took a major interest in him. 

“The boy didn’t move to America but Fred sponsored him and ultimately adopted him. He paid for his entire education and the boy went on to become a very successful businessman running a cheese company.”

OC: Wow, how come you didn’t use that story in the documentary? 

MN:  “It's just one of those things, there was only so much we could put  into the documentary.”

OC I think you may need a part two! 

MN: “I know, there’s a lot more!” 

OC: Clearly people are very excited for this movie. I remember when the trailer was first released everyone was posting on social media how much they were looking forward to it and how Fred Rogers was a huge part of their lives.  I understand  that the trailer had over 11 million hits on the first day.  That’s unprecedented for a documentary!  

MN: “I think it’s the most viewed documentary trailer in history.”

OC: Why do you think people are so interested in Fred Rogers? 

MN: “There is a great well of love for Fred Rogers and nostalgia for Fred.  My guess is that it’s a sense of somebody fighting for goodness, somebody who's speaking up for disability and speaking up for radical kindness.  Someone who is speaking up for how we can treat each other in a better way and not demonize each other. 

“There's so much in our culture now that profits by dividing us, whether it's our economics or our politics. And to have somebody who stands up and says, ‘I'm here to speak for the better of us, for people treating each other better,’ and how we all have the obligation, not only the ability but the obligation, to do that.

OC: It’s sad that children who are growing up now don’t really have anything comparable to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. 

MN: “There's nothing like Mr. Rogers and I think even by the early ‘80s, he was saying, ‘If I came on today, I would never make it on TV.’ 

“I think he was truly one of a kind and came on at that  perfect moment to make it on television. The kinds of things he was doing talking to kids about deep issues…….

OC: He certainly was ahead of his time.

MN: “He was way ahead of his time. He was pretty extraordinary. Now nobody in his wake is doing that. I don’t think there is anyone who will be like Fred. It took such an  incredible emotional maturity and understanding of childhood, in such a pure way, that I don't know if our culture can mature to the point where we can do that again.”

OC:  I agree. Plus people are so judgy these days it would be impossible to do a show like that.

MN:  “It is sad. And you see in the film that even Fred, in his lifetime, was starting to get criticized for being who he was. He was criticized for telling everybody that they’re special, and he's a Pollyanna character who was just a wishy-washy goody two-shoes. 

“That is the tragedy of it when you can’t look at somebody who was trying to do something truly good, for all the best intentions, and there’s always someone who has to tear it down.”

OC:  I got pretty choked up watching this movie, I  can’t even begin to imagine how emotional it must have been for you going through this process. 

MN: “You know it was extremely emotional although it was emotional in the best way. Spending more than a year in, The Neighborhood, basically living in the material, I think it permeated all of our behaviour. 

“The producers and editors and all of us felt like we were in this beautiful bubble of the neighborhood, and in a way was like the best way I could have spent last year. I really felt like we were doing something really constructive and it’s hard to put into words how deep our emotions ran.”

OC: Not many people know this but one of Michael Keaton’s first jobs was working on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. You don’t really touch on that in the doc but eagle eyed viewers will see him on the set in one of the scenes.  Did you approach Michael for an interview? 

MN: “I did, but he just couldn’t do it. His loss!” ( laughs) 

OC: I have to tell you that one of my favourite documentaries is 20 Feet From Stardom,  a film that went on to win a Best Documentary Academy Award. How does winning an Oscar change your life or help you getting more docs made? 

MN: “I’ve been making docs for 25 years. And I think, because I didn’t have huge success until my mid 40’s,  to me it’s a practical matter. I guess to quantify the difference, rather than spending 50% of my time raising money and 50%  of my time making movies, I spend 90% of my time making movies and 10% raising the funds.” (laughs) 

 OC: I’d say that’s pretty good! 

MN: “Absolutely! That is a huge trade off.  And I feel like why i have been able to be so prolific in the past few years is because I don't have to spend all this time raising money. I can just make movies.”

OC: I’m sure Netflix has been a big part of that with them streaming so many documentaries. Plus you produce Ugly Delicious, a great doc-series exclusively for them.

MN: “You’re not wrong about that.  Having Netflix in the picture has helped tremendously. Something I have heard for years from people is, ‘I love documentaries, I just don’t know where I can watch them.’  Now they can. Netflix is making them very accessible and I am so happy about that. There’s so much good work being done and so many opportunities and so that Netflix (and other streaming services) have placed the docs on an even playing field with thrillers and other genres is just fantastic.”

OC: Speaking of Netflix, your next film sounds very exciting! 

MN: “Yes, it’s a documentary about filmmaker Orson Welles focusing on the final 15 years of his life. It mainly centers around his unfinished final feature, The Other Side of the Wind, using archival and new audio interviews as well as outtakes from the film.  

“It’s something that has fascinated me for many years. I made the decision to make the movie before I even saw what material was available. All I knew was that there was six years of film and I figured there had to be some treasures to be seen there, and I was right.”