Kleenex should consider cutting Morgan Neville in on a commission. The Oscar-winner for his 2013 documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” is currently making audiences across the country weep with his documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The film paints a loving tribute to Fred Rogers, the host of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a man who believed in inherent goodness and preached the idea that everyone was special, just the way they are. A critical hit since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the movie is now playing across the country to packed houses – in two weeks, it’s already grossed close to $2 million despite never having played in more than 96 theaters.
When Neville set out to make the film in 2016, he was greeted with two common responses. “People would say, ‘You know, Fred Rogers was a sniper, right?’” Neville reveals, referring to theories that have bounced around about the host’s dark past. “The other was, ‘Don’t screw this up.’”
You worked with cellist Yo-Yo Ma on “The Music of Strangers” and you’ve said he led you to Fred Rogers?
I asked him one day, “How do you figure out how to be a famous person?” He said, “Oh, Mr. Rogers taught me.” I laughed and he said, “No, really. I went on his show as a young kid and he saw me struggling with fame. He called it the other F-word. And he went out of his way to mentor me over the years and show me how I could use it as a positive force in my life and not something that’s going to weigh me down.” That was one of several things over the years that finally led me to thinking there could be a film here.
You reference and debunk the rumors about Fred Rogers having a violent past. At the same time, were you ever worried he wouldn’t be a good subject for a film because there aren’t really any scandals?
In certain ways, he’s the quintessential two-dimensional character. His show willfully remains the same, it never changes. He doesn’t even change his weight! So if you think about it, how do you make a film? Where’s the character development? Of course when you start looking closely, you see how he does change. But we realized early on it really was about Fred versus the world. People use the word “radical” to describe Fred a lot. Essentially what Fred was trying to do was reinforce what the root of what human behavior should be. I feel like the radical change came with the culture that moved away from that. We got away from these root principles of how to treat each other.
Kindness seems like such a radical idea today.
He would say, “I like you just the way you are.” And this sense of embracing your uniqueness is radical. Fred was a very unusual person and he was completely comfortable being that way. I find it really empowering, but it throws people off.
Kind of like it does in the Senate testimony where he’s trying to convince them not to slash funds for public television.
Exactly. You see him responding to Senator John O. Pastore, and most people would get thrown off their game and start saying, “Yes, sir” and being formal. Fred never changes what he’s doing. He makes the senator comes to him on his terms. You see it again and again. He’s always consistent and other people eventually have to enter [into] his way of communicating. It’s this amazing power he has. He’s vulnerable and he’s honest; he’s honest the way kids are honest. He’s direct. And that’s inspiring.
How were you able to get such access to his friends and family?
It was essential to get the cooperation for a film like this. When I sat down with his wife, Joanne, we had a long discussion. I said, “I don’t want to make a biography of Fred Rogers, I want to make a film about the ideas of Fred Rogers.” She said, “He would love that. He always said, ‘If anyone made a biography of my life, it would be the most boring movie ever.’” But I told her, “If you’re going to let me make this film, you can’t control anything.” Once she said, okay, it opened the gates to this trove of materials.
What was the most helpful thing for you?
His letters. At one point, he was getting more mail than anybody in America. And he responded to every letter he got. The number of hours a week he spent on correspondence was incredible. He didn’t think of it as a chore, he saw it as a way of helping people. We had about a million letters, and that was an incredible insight to anything you wanted to know.
Was there anything you wanted to include but couldn’t?
Because he wanted the show to be evergreen and felt these episodes were timeless, as the years went on, there were things he’d done in earlier episodes that he felt weren’t 100% right. For example, if he used the preposition “he” instead of “they.” Years later, he would put on the same clothes and go back and shoot inserts to update them.
The movie has had such an impact on audiences. Did you expect that?
It’s incredible. I never expect anything I do to have an impact but at the same time, hope has an impact. You make these things and you hope your parents like it. Then people can discover it and it has a life of its own. What’s interesting is, people tell me what scene gets them emotionally and I hear 20 different scenes. That’s something I didn’t know was going to happen with this film until I screened it for the first time at Sundance and heard mass sobs.
Did you cry a lot while making the film?
Yes. And during that time in the editing, we were all so nice to each other! We all took on the ethos of Fred Rogers, we were all in such a good place. During that time in 2016, the best place to be was the Land of Make Believe. Fred really showed that kindness is not naïve and quaint. I think kindness is like oxygen. It’s something we can’t live without and we live in a culture that too often takes that for granted.
How did his family react when they first saw the film?
I flew to Pittsburg when we had the picture lock to show Joanne. I went to the apartment she lived in with Fred for the last 20 years, the apartment Fred died in. It was one of the most nerve-wracking screenings I’ve ever had. I sat in front of her; at the end I turned around and she said, “That was so wonderful, I didn’t even cry once.”
She might be the only one who didn’t!
Right? I think there was a sense that we got him. She had said to us when we started making the film, “Don’t make Fred into a saint.” I think if ever there’s a character who could fall into easy deification, it’s Fred Rogers. But if you sanctify him, you’re not appreciating the human struggle. There were insecurities and mistakes and that makes it relatable and shows we have to struggle to do good, too. She said, “Fred would love this movie.” Which was the best review.