The director of the new documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ on how the iconic TV host was almost too good to be true
Could there be anybody dorkier than Fred Rogers? The creator and host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted nationally in 1968 and introduced kids to a world of make-believe populated by sentient puppets and kindly mailmen, has often been branded as the ultimate wimp: a smiling, unassuming pushover with the soft voice and conservative haircut. Mocked by Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live, Rogers was a devoutly religious man with a simple message: That childhood is precious, and we need to protect our youngest by showing them that they’re loved and valued. Most kids grew up watching his show, but eventually, we get too old and rejected him and his long-running program, moving on to more adult fare.
One of those kids was Morgan Neville, the 50-year-old Oscar-winning documentarian of 20 Feet From Stardom, who later in life began to consider the subconscious power that Rogers’ gentle message of love had on people like him. After speaking with Yo-Yo Ma, the subject of his 2015 documentary The Music of Strangers who was a fierce Rogers advocate, Neville wondered if there might be a movie to be made about the man, who died in 2003 at the age of 74.
This weekend that film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, comes to theaters, serving as a tribute to Rogers, his show, and most significantly, his worldview. It’s a delicate, funny and deeply moving documentary that features lots of archival footage, as well as interviews with family members and those who worked with Rogers. The movie salutes Rogers, but it also does a little digging, trying to find out what spurred his devotion to producing a children’s program for nearly 50 years. Along the way, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? makes a solid case that Rogers, despite his placid appearance, was actually pretty progressive, spending programs discussing difficult subject matter such as the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Not unlike Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was deceptively naïve, hiding a radical, subversive ethos underneath.
Neville recently spoke with me about his tearjerking film, discussing his own reservations about making a Fred Rogers documentary as well as his thoughts about why we all ought to reconsider Rogers’ gospel of kindness — and why that doesn’t mean we’ve turned into a nation of special snowflakes.
I’d been warned about how emotional the movie was. But even so, I cried a few times during Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — and I could hear sniffling throughout the theater. Did you know how viscerally it was going to affect audiences?
Not really. I knew I found the film emotional. In fact, I had this strange experience when we mixed the film — we were watching the film back just to listen to the mix — and I started crying. And I made the film! I was surprised by how it crept up on me, but I didn’t necessarily anticipate that would happen to other people. And what I really didn’t know until that first screening I had at Sundance was just how profoundly moving it could be to a lot of people. I knew what my relationship was to the subject and how therapeutic the film had been for me just to work on, but I didn’t know that other people would feel any of that. It’s strange that the film, in a way, feels like it was made by somebody else at this point. There’s some kind of magic happening that I don’t know how to replicate.
You started the film before the 2016 election, but it’s hard not to think about Trump and his bullying rhetoric while watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? He’s sort of like a dark cloud hovering over the movie’s message of kindness and compassion. How much did Trump affect how you put the film together?
If anything, I feel like I’ve pulled it back from being too hard on that point, because it’d be easy to be heavy-handed about it. To me, the film was more about asking questions and asking people to consider their own moral responsibility for what they think we need in our own neighborhood.
I talked to another documentary filmmaker recently: We were asking each other, “Are we making these films for ourselves? What are we trying to do with our stories?” What I liked about Fred Rogers is that he’s someone who supersedes any of [these current political conversations]. People who watched him were four-year-olds who have no sense of political affiliation — or identity, really. So, it’s a way of getting back to the most basic ideas of what we need to have a good neighborhood, which means to have a good society.
It seems like my relationship to Fred Rogers was similar to yours: I loved him as a kid, but I outgrew him and thought he was lame. Then, as an adult, I’ve come to realize how sophisticated his approach actually was — and how loving. I was thinking it’s like our relationship with our parents, where they become “uncool” when we’re teenagers, only to belatedly understand how great they were.
For sure — it’s how we mature as people. Children are incredibly emotionally honest and direct, but as we grow up, we build defense mechanisms and we hide our emotions to defend ourselves. But as you get older, you let those defenses come back down. So in a way, I feel like it’s the mirror of how we mature as emotional people.
What’s so interesting about Fred is he talked like a child would, in the best possible way, which is he had zero tolerance for dancing around the point. He was gonna go for the emotional bulls-eye of whatever it is you were thinking or feeling. So ultimately, whether you were working on the film or watching the film, that’s gonna get to you — I think that’s part of why the film works for people.
You had access to a lot of Rogers’ archives and material because you worked with the family. But you still touch on something that’s core to his public persona: We as a culture are uncomfortable with people who seem so nice. We don’t trust it, and as a consequence, Fred Rogers’ sweetness sorta freaks people out.
The family and the estate had never let anybody in to do any kind of a film about him. What I told them was that I wanted to make a film about his ideas — and that they had to give me complete control. That’s what I was asking for, and they agreed to it — after deliberation. I knew how important it was to make him human — it would be so easy to sanctify somebody like Fred Rogers and just talk about how great he is, but I feel like that does him a disservice. You need his insecurities and his mistakes.
I feel like the film says as much about the world as it does about Fred. And I feel like people’s reactions to Fred — and our suspicions of somebody as nice as that — were the same battles Fred fought in his life, where people thought that he was corny, two-dimensional or naïve. He didn’t care about being called wimpy — he cared about being called trite or insubstantial. He was doing a show that I think of as simple and deep, and too many of us mistake simple for superficial and don’t appreciate the depth that was there.
But you also mention the long-running rumor that he was gay. It’s sad that, because he wasn’t a macho guy, there’s this knee-jerk, homophobic assumption that he was closeted.
It was something people asked me a lot when they found out I was working on the film: [whispering] “Was he gay?” There’s no way to make a film and not address it head-on. I felt like you had to do that because I didn’t ever want people to come out of the film and feel like, “Well, they never talked about that.” Or, “They sidestepped that.” I wanted it to be as direct as possible. I felt like that was essential.
The right would criticize Rogers, essentially saying that his message that everyone is special contributed to kids growing up feeling entitled. I think that argument is nonsense, but how do parents strike a balance between teaching kids that they’re valuable but also being tough on them?
As a parent, I know how important it is to be strict or a disciplinarian, but behind all that you also have to express unconditional love for your kid [so that they] understand where you’re coming from and to build trust in your relationship.
I think what Fred was responding to was thinking about kids who didn’t have unconditional love in their life. I feel like what he was saying was less about entitlement and more about kids feeling worthless. I don’t think Fred thought he was modeling how every parent should behave — he was trying to supplement how all parents already were behaving with their children. For children that didn’t get that kind of affirmation, he was gonna let them know it was okay to be different or to feel worthy of being loved.
Rogers was a Presbyterian minister and a Republican. It’s hard to imagine him fitting into today’s GOP.
I feel like we’ve reached this moment in late-stage capitalism and media where everybody is [concerned about] playing to our baser instincts. It’s a lot easier to get eyeballs or votes by playing to people’s fear than playing to their kindness. And I don’t think it means that there isn’t a big appreciation for [kindness]. I just feel like everything is set up to play to the opposite of that — that we take kindness for granted. Ultimately, we all agree that we’re gonna live in a society together and have a common set of rules, but as I look around our culture, we’re in a time where we have too long neglected our civility — to the point where I don’t think we should just count on having a functioning society.
The fragility of our society is something that I don’t think people appreciate. I feel like nobody is out there nurturing it. It’s part of what I responded to in Fred Rogers’ voice, which is he’s a grown-up. I don’t see a lot of grown-ups who care about anything more than the next quarterly report or election. I was just trying to find a grown-up who could remind us of how grown-ups should behave.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? wrestles with something that a lot of men wrestle with, which is how to be a sensitive, thoughtful person in a world that feels increasingly cutthroat. Rogers seems like this miraculous anomaly: He was the nice guy who finished first. But most men are trained to believe they need to be killers to get ahead.
Maybe, but I like to think that I’ve worked hard to treat people I work with as decently as I can. Maybe the documentary world is its own more humane corner of the film industry, which I think it is. Essentially, what we do in documentaries is we try and share people’s stories and use film as a way to build empathy. And to do that, you have to have a certain amount of compassion. There aren’t that many ruthless people in the documentary world — I don’t think they last. And look at Harvey Weinstein — there’s a certain moral reckoning that’s happening more and more. That’s a really good thing. Just the idea that nice guys finish last, I don’t agree with at all. I feel like that’s something that’s a lie that’s told to justify that behavior.
The documentary really flies along — it’s only about 90 minutes. Were there things that, because of time or pacing, you decided to cut out that you think also inform who this man was?
There’s one detail that I really liked that’s not in the film, which is he felt like the shows should be evergreen. As he often said, the outside world of the child changes, but the inside of the child never changes. So he thought his shows should play the same to two-year-olds now or 20 years ago. But as the years would go on, he would find things that had happened in old episodes that didn’t feel current, where maybe he used a pronoun “he” instead of “they” — or he met a woman and presumed that she was a housewife. So he would put on the same clothes and go back and shoot inserts and fix old episodes so that they felt as current as possible, so that he could stand by them 100 percent. I’ve never heard of that happening — it’s kind of amazing.
This is the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and there have already been a lot of appreciations of Rogers and his show this year. It seems like the whole culture is waking up to his significance.
Yeah, I mean, I was skeptical in the beginning: Can a serious documentary filmmaker make a serious film about Mr. Rogers that isn’t “Mr. Rogers, the Quintessential Two-Dimensional Character?” Are people gonna laugh at me? All these childhood insecurities, they come back.
I really had to think about it because I don’t know how other people thought about him. The first person I asked was my wife — she’s a children’s librarian, so she thought it was a great idea. But then I called Nicholas Ma, Yo-Yo’s son, who’s my producer, and floated the idea by him. He said, “Absolutely it should be done.” And so I started to get more confidence. But, really, the moment where I felt like, “Okay, I have to make this film” is when I visited the archives for the first time. I asked to see the Bobby Kennedy assassination episode, which had never been repeated — it only aired one time. I watched it, and at the end of it, I knew I had to make the film. Any doubts that I had about depth, tension or drama were gone. That was my revelation.
I feel in talking to people about the film, a lot of them say, “Well, I don’t know. I didn’t know what to expect. [I thought it would] just be some corny nostalgia.” But in many ways, I feel like this film is anti-nostalgia.
I think of nostalgia as the fast food of emotions, because it doesn’t ask anything of the recipient. Literally its origin means the “feeling of returning home.” But I feel like this is a film about going forwards. It’s a film about taking what you learned at home and doing something with it out in the world.
The ending in particular sorta speaks to that idea of being grateful and passing on kindness to others.
The idea that Fred talked about the most was the idea of grace. The idea of grace in the Bible is the undeserved goodness bestowed upon you by God — meaning that God, or anyone, should be kind and good to people, whether or not you get anything back and whether or not they even deserve it. And if we live in a culture where people do that, we’ll be a very healthy culture.
Tim Grierson is a contributing editor at MEL. He last wrote about the agony of loving Kanye West.