Morgan Neville on Won’t You Be My Neighbor? And what he learned about Fred Rogers.
I saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor? at Sundance back in January. This emotional documentary, which shines a light on the man best known as Mister Rogers was my favorite film from the festival and is currently one of my favorite films of 2018. Directed by Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? shows an audience just how remarkable Fred Rogers was as a human being and how he treated everyone with respect and kindness. I was lucky enough to sit down with director Morgan Neville to discuss the film and what it was about Fred that spoke to him and made him want to tell Fred’s story to the world.
Scott Menzel: Hi Morgan, lovely to meet you. I don’t know if anyone has ever said this to you before, but I’m honored to be quoted on the poster and in the trailer for this movie.
Morgan Neville: No way.
Scott Menzel: When I see a movie that I love and want to support it is a great feeling but to be quoted for that movie makes me feel so incredibly happy.
Morgan Neville: Well, thank you for your support and thank you so much for your quote.
Scott Menzel: No problem! So, I saw this at Sundance.
Morgan Neville: What screening?
Scott Menzel: The very last one. The very last public screening. This year it was kind of weird at Sundance because there wasn’t as much buzz for a lot of movies when compared to previous years. But your movie was the one that I kept hearing about. And I grew up like most people watching the show…
Morgan Neville: Like me.
Scott Menzel: Yup. And, I wanted to see, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to squeeze it in, but I went to the last screening, and I came out, and I was crying, and then I went to see An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, which was the worst movie that I saw at the festival. So I went from the best to the worst. Anyway, can you talk a little bit about Sundance because I feel the festival has been very kind to you and has been home to some of your films? What is it like premiering a movie there?
Morgan Neville: It’s funny because people never quite believe it, but you really don’t know what people are going to make of your film until you screen it. On Twenty Feet From Stardom we never had a great test screening, and then we screened it, and it was like, the film blew up instantly. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was a film that was very personal for me. The motivating factor was me feeling like I wanted to hear more of Fred Rogers and our culture and that spoke to me. But I had very little sense of how many other people cared, or how emotional it would be. I really didn’t understand that until we screened it at Sundance and at that first screening, it was emotionally devastating in the best way possible. I realized the communal experience of watching this film with other people was one of the greatest experiences of my career. It felt exactly what I’d been feeling, and it turns out a lot of other people felt the same way that I felt. I’d struck a nerve with people because I was striking a nerve with myself. I will tell you that doesn’t always happen, and that happened on this film this way. But like I said, my motivation was very personal. It was me thinking about what I wanted.
Scott Menzel: So, with that being said, why was it so personal for you?
Morgan Neville: Well, for two main reasons. There is a common theme in a lot of my work. Actually, over years there has been a lot of common ground where we find a place where we can all at least agree about these things. The film, Best of Enemies, which is about Gore Vidal and William Buckley and these debates is actually an odd companion piece to this film. It’s about television in the same time period. One’s cautionary tale, and one’s a hopeful tale. But they’re both about finding the common ground where we can have a discussion with each other. To me, it’s that Fred Rogers is a character, like a very rare cultural character who supersedes any kind of labels, because he’s talking to two to six year olds. We didn’t have labels watching him as a kid, so we have no association with him as anything other than Fred Rogers. This kind of warm host who taught us how to behave. And I feel like what his message was about, won’t you be my neighbor, is Fred trying to ask what kind of neighborhood do we want to have, and what kind of neighbors do we want to be? Essentially, he is asking the viewer, what kind of society do we want to have? And how should we treat one another in our society. And I feel like the basic social compact by which we agreed to live in society together needs to be nurtured, and it’s something Fred was nurturing again and again. And I feel like our culture has taken it all for granted and stopped nurturing those places where we can have common ground. In fact, our politics and our economics and often our media push us in the opposite direction, because it’s a lot more effective to get votes or eyeballs by playing to people’s divisiveness rather than kindness. There’s no kindness lobby in our culture. I feel like if Fred’s not a hero for kindness, then I don’t know who is.
Scott Menzel: Oh, for sure. I watched this movie again just a couple of weeks ago, and I mean it’s still emotional as it was the first time going into it. My wife was tearing up within the first five minutes of the movie. And she’s not as attached to Fred Rogers as I am. She’s younger than me, but she said that his message and inspiration, and how there’s nobody else like him was compelling to see. It is just sad in a lot of ways to think about that. By the way, did you ever get a chance to meet him before his passing?
Morgan Neville: I never met him. It’s been fifteen years since he’s been gone. My producer Nicholas Ma, who is Yo Yo’s son, was on the show twice and knew Fred, but in a way I feel like everybody who watched him knew him and Fred would say this too. The relationship he had with the viewer was a real relationship. He received hundreds of thousands of letter over his career, and he responded to every single letter. When he met a child he acted as though he knew that child, because that was a real relationship that he wanted to create. I think he believed it, and those of us watching him believed it. He knows who I am and I know who he is, so, in a weird way I felt like I knew him. You know, I never got to meet him, and by when making the film, the fundamental question you ask, “is this guy for real?” There’s a collection of letters that he put out that I love called Dear Mr. Rogers, and it’s just a small sampling of the hundreds of thousands of letters he received when doing the show. The first letter in the book is something to the effect of “Dear Mr. Rogers, are you for real? Are you for real or not? Are you under a mask like Big Bird? I want you to come out of the television and tell me whether or not you are for real.” – Daniel, age five. And I feel like that’s the question we all have. Is this guy for real? And the answer is yes, and in a way, the difference between Mr. Rogers and Fred Rogers is that Fred is in no way dissonant with Mr. Rogers, but he is actually more impressive than Mr. Rogers. He’s like a deeper, more willful, more intellectual, more dimensional version of Mr. Rogers. And so, there was never a moment where I felt like I didn’t understand what he would have thought about something. And also just going through his papers and the letters, you can find him talking about almost anything and he was so kind, open and direct that I feel like what I ultimately tried to distill what he was about. I called it radical kindness. But I think he’d probably thought about it in terms of grace, which was an idea he talked about a lot, which is the idea of putting kindness in the world with no expectation of anything back. iI was just thinking about this last night where the poles of his world were essentially love and fear.
Scott Menzel: Love or the lack of it.
Morgan Neville: Right and the opposite of love is fear. And what happens with fear is if you don’t tend to it and you let it fester, it metastasizes into things like resentment and hatred and anger. So, if you look at what undergirds most of the bad things in our culture, or any culture, it comes out of fear. So essentially what he’s trying to do is help children process fear, not bottle them up, or tell them don’t worry about it, which is what some of the adults want to tell children to do. Though kids are too smart to not worry about things. They know when things are happening. So helping things process something that’s fearful, so that it doesn’t become something even worse when they grow up. And I feel like that’s the thing that as adults we still need to process which is fear.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I completely agree.
Morgan Neville: When I look around our culture, I see a lot of people acting out in very unattractive ways because of some underlying resentments or fears, so that’s why revisiting him as an adult, I realized this whole other dimension and level to which he was speaking. His message speaks to me as an adult even more than it did as a child. And the film is mostly for adults. It’s not for kids or teens.
Scott Menzel: I could probably talk to you for hours about this film, but sadly this is my last question since this is such a short interview. When creating this documentary, what was the biggest surprise that you learned about Fred Rogers?
Morgan Neville: That he was really funny. He had a great sense of humor. And his puppet voices like his son says in the film, he would use his Lady Elaine voice at the dinner table or whatever. But Fred called people all the time with all kinds of voices and he loved to laugh. He actually loved a bunch of people on the set, and you get a sense of this in the film. It’s like Johnny Costa his piano player or Nick Tallo, and everybody, they were all pot smoking jazz musicians and miscreants but Fred loved being around those people. He loved laughing with them and when somebody would tell a dirty joke Fred would laugh. However, when somebody else would come in and ask Fred to tell that joke again, Fred could never bring himself to tell the joke but he loved laughter and humor. It’s something people talk about all the time and that is just how funny he was. That was something I didn’t expect.
Scott Menzel: Well Morgan, it was very nice chatting with you.
Morgan Neville: Thank you so much!
Scott Menzel: No problem at all. I’m going to keep spreading the good word about this film, and I hope it gets a big push for Oscar season because I loved it and it has such a great message.
Morgan Neville: I can only hope that it connects with audiences as much as Fred did to me.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will open in select cities on Friday, June 8, 2018.