The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Why did you want to make this film?
Morgan Neville: I made the film not because I wanted to go back, but because I wanted to talk about today. A couple of years ago, through a number of circumstances, I found myself watching some Mr. Rogers speeches on Youtube late one night. And the thing that struck me about it was that this is a voice I didn’t hear in our culture at all today. And so part of it was me just starting to chase that voice. So having a grown up voice that’s looking out for the longterm health and fitness of our culture is the kind of voice that I’ve been craving. I’ve made a number of films over the years about similar issues. I’ve always been looking for these discussions of culture as a common meeting place and people who can take some moral responsibility for things. This has been in the air for a long time, the coarsening of our civil discourse. Really what Fred Rogers is talking about at its core is how we live together in a neighborhood. What’s the social compact by which we make neighborhoods and communities and societies? These things have to be nurtured and not taken for granted. And I think that was really kind of the starting point of me wanting to make this film.
“I wanted the film at the end to turn to the audience and say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ “
What do you mean when you call Mr. Rogers “radical?”
MN: I think he would have called it “grace.” Grace was a concept he talked about all the time. And really the fundamental biblical concept of grace is the undeserved goodness bestowed upon you by God. So it’s the idea that your God is good to others, not because we can get something back. This idea of that selfless kindness. I can’t think of a better formula for a healthy society, or neighborhood, then to put that kind of positivity into it. We live in a day and age that is often disgraceful. We have a culture that tends to incentivize disgraceful behavior because we’re programmed as people to respond more to fear than to love. That’s the battle he had. The battle I think we all have to some extent. I just wanted to start a conversation or continue a conversation with the film. I didn’t want the film to wrap anything up with a bow and say, “there you go, you know, Mr. Rogers is going to save us,” because he’s not. I wanted the film at the end to turn to the audience and say, “What are you going to do about it?”
From the thousands of hours of imagery to go through, can you talk about the choices that you made in terms of storytelling?
MN: One initial challenge with a film like this is, “How do you make a cinematic story out of a television character?” You really have to kind of use everything from score to animation to archive to really make it come alive. I went to Pittsburgh and met Joanne Rogers you know, and my original pitch to her was that I don’t want to make a film about the biography of Fred Rogers. I want to make a film about the ideas of Fred Rogers. It’s the ideas that have a dramatic story. One of the questions I had at the beginning is “How do you make a dramatic story of somebody who’s culturally perceived as the quintessential two dimensional character who has no obvious character development?” Now the reality is when you put it under a microscope, there are all kinds of changes, and he was not at peace. He was a bit of a tortured artist himself. Once I started to grapple with all that, we saw how he could shape the film really around ideas. And those ideas are completely contemporary in many ways. I mean many people said this is the most contemporary thing you’ve ever done, even though he started 50 years ago on television. A lot of biographical documentaries tend to fall into kind of a Wikipedia trap. I kind of wanted to throw all that aside and say “What’s the story as the ideas move?” There were other great things, great interesting things that we didn’t put it in the film just because they were factual and I felt it didn’t carry the story and the character.
What did you learn about Fred Rogers and how has your view changed about him?
MN: At one point he was getting more letters than anybody in America and he responded to every letter he got because if a child wrote him a letter, it’s because that child believed they had a relationship. A real relationship. And Fred honored that by responding to every letter. I don’t think he looked at it as a chore. I think he actually looked at it as a something that was as important as the television show. He put out this collection of letters called “Dear Mr. Rogers.” And the first letter of the book is pretty much the fundamental question everybody has. The letter’s from a five year old boy and it says, “Dear Mr. Rogers, are you for real? Are you for real or not?” I think the big revelation is that yes, he’s for real. That everything we discovered about Fred Rogers was never shocking, but it always surprising. He was a pacifist vegetarian who said he didn’t want to eat anything that had a mother. He spoke five languages. He would read the Bible most mornings in Hebrew or Greek. He studied the world’s religions. He was deeply curious. He was a seeker. I hoped Mr. Rogers would be like that. He’s one of the very few, maybe the only TV character I can think of where the person is actually much more impressive than the character. The real Fred Rogers was a much more willful, thoughtful person than the character. Something simple and deep was what he was always trying to do. That was his superpower, and he just keeps coming back to that. At the end of the day, that’s the thing that I found really just profoundly affecting for me and hopefully for the film because that that’s the kind of voice that I just don’t hear a whole lot of right now.