Even the trailer for the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about the legendary children’s television figure Fred Rogers, had a lot of people in tears. But the film, which has been touring the festival circuit before making its theatrical debut on June 8, doesn’t traffic in nostalgia.
Instead, director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Best of Enemies) was motivated to make the film by a deep-seated belief that what Rogers had to offer to the world over decades of his show is missing from our culture today — and desperately needed.
So the movie is less of a cradle-to-grave biographical documentary and more of an argument for simple kindness and empathy of the kind Rogers displayed. And, it turns out, that message can move us to tears even as adults.
Neville talked with me by phone about making the film, Rogers’s Christian faith, and whether TV and movies can still unite us today.
The following conversation has been edited lightly for clarity.
Where do you start in making a film like Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
From the beginning, I wanted to make a film about ideas. In fact, when I first went to Pittsburgh and met everybody including the family, when I met [Fred’s widow] Joanne Rogers, I said, “I don’t want to make a film about the biography of Fred. I want to make a film about the ideas of Fred Rogers.”
And she smiled and said, “I love that, because Fred always said his own story would make the most boring film of all time.” I disagree! But I think the idea from the beginning was not to make a film about nostalgia, but to make a film about these ideas that are timeless, and in fact timely.
So making the film was a very instinctual, emotional reaction to listening to a bunch of speeches Fred Rogers gave and feeling like this is a voice that’s missing in our culture today. How do I reintroduce that voice? That’s kind of an unusual way of thinking about making a film. But when I respond emotionally to something, then I figure that other people may too.
The difficulty with a character like Fred Rogers is he’s in many ways a quintessential two-dimensional character, in the popular conception, with no dramatic tension and no character development. The reality is he was a very dimensional person, with a lot of dramatic tension and a lot of self-doubt.
There were a number of hints that I got early on, before I actually started making the film. When I was still deciding on that first trip to Pittsburgh, I went to the Fred Rogers Center and spent a day going through materials there to kind of get a better sense of where this story might go. The first thing I looked at was the Bobby Kennedy assassination special, because it only aired one time and it was never repeated, and I’d read about it. But I hadn’t been able to see it. When I watched that episode, I knew I could make a film. Any doubts I had about depth or dramatic tension were gone.
So that was kind of my toehold as a filmmaker: to understand that [Rogers’s story] feels so simple but actually has so much complexity. A lot of the struggles I have had are the same struggles that Fred had — he made a show that was very simple and very deep. But we tend to mistake simple for superficial. How do you make something that’s very straightforward but also profound? Because I think that’s what Fred did.
At a certain point, you have to just kind of lean into the sincerity of the subject. He’s such an emotionally honest person, and to make a film that is so uncynical feels almost radical in today’s culture.
You get the impression he’s a kind of countercultural figure, something we might not have detected as children. The Bobby Kennedy assassination episode is especially surprising because most of us probably never saw it, since it only aired once. What was it about that episode specifically that really struck you as a linchpin for the film?
The story behind the episode is that Bobby Kennedy was killed on a Wednesday night, and his funeral was to be televised that Saturday. Fred insisted that he put together this special to air Friday night because he knew that children around the country were going to be watching on Saturday and would have questions, and they would know something bad had happened. Rather than letting those fears fester, he said, “You have to level with kids. You have to tell them. Help them. Explain to them in age-appropriate terms what the bad things in life are.” He knew from his own background that if you tell kids to not worry about things, that does not stop them from worrying.
In fact, I think he felt that the greatest — I don’t know if he’d call it evil, but I think he thought the most negative forces in our lives stem from fear. Fear was the thing that festered and led to things like anger and hatred and resentment. So he was always about trying to quell fear.
The episode showed me somebody who just was speaking to children. But as an adult watching it, it resonated in a whole different way. And you realized that we all live in a culture with a certain amount of trauma, and we tend to not process those things. It felt like we all need to process our fears with a little more Fred Rogers.
Something interesting about the film was how many people talked about how Rogers saw his show as “ministry.” That might be a surprising feature of his life for some people, that so much of his work was rooted in that part of his life.
Fred was a Presbyterian minister, but he studied all religions. He was very interested in Catholicism. He was very close with Henri Nouwen, the religious philosopher. He studied Quakerism quite a bit. He studied various Christian denominations. He read the Bible every morning. But he also studied Judaism and Islam and Buddhism. He spoke Hebrew; he spoke Greek. He was very much a seeker.
I felt like what he was doing was looking for the common humanist values that exist in most of the world’s religions and trying to impart those — that kind of basic morality that undergirds most of the world’s religions. That’s what I find so powerful. His show was not overtly Christian. It’s humanist.
When I started trying to digest his message down to something, what I came up with was “radical kindness.” But I think Fred himself would have called it grace, because he talked about the concept of grace quite a bit. Grace is the idea of bestowing good to people, even if they don’t deserve it, and with no expectation of anything back. It’s a selfless idea of putting good into the world and treating people with understanding and kindness.
That shouldn’t feel like a radical notion, but we live in a culture that often expects something in return for good deeds. That kind of selfless kindness and civility feels radical, in a way. But it shouldn’t.
I think part of what I wanted to do with the film was just have a discussion, to ask the most basic questions about how we should be living together and how we should be behaving. We live in a culture that incentivizes disgraceful behavior, that incentivizes divisiveness. (I made a film called Best of Enemies, which is all about that.)
It’s about thinking about the neighborhood we all have together as being something that must be nurtured and not taken for granted. The more we live in a culture that presumes we will always have a neighborhood, the more fragile it becomes, and the more dangerous it becomes. I know that all sounds heavy, but it does feel urgent.
You brought up your film Best of Enemies, which I was thinking about while watching this film. This is something that you keep going back to as a filmmaker: the way we got to where we are, and how our interpersonal relationships have changed based on the way we talk to one another. Best of Enemies argues that TV made it worse because it rewards loud, bombastic rhetoric. But Fred Rogers was trying to counteract just that thing.
Yeah, absolutely. Without a doubt. It’s a subject I come back to again and again — how culture is, and how we can find a way of communicating with each other. I feel like the tragedy of Best of Enemies is that you have two cultural figures [Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley] who were grown-ups, who were free thinkers, who I think lamented the thing that their debates gave birth to. Even though they didn’t like each other, they liked the fact that they could come together and have a platform to have a discussion in front of everybody.
So it’s this question of television as a place where you can build community. Fred says it in the documentary: ”Television could build a community, a real community.” I feel like we live in a time where television’s doing the opposite. It’s dividing us, along with everything else. That lost opportunity is something that I want people to reflect upon.
You’re a filmmaker. Do you ever feel conflicted about exploring these ideas on yet another screen? Or do you see the potential in the medium?
I mean, it’s interesting because I made this film for everybody. There’s a lot of debate in the documentary world about who our audiences are. Are we making films for each other? Are we preaching to the converted? Are we all in our own filter or bubble today?
So I think very consciously about trying to make films or TV shows that anybody can watch and recognize something of their own experience in. I feel like this is a film that anybody can take ownership over. Having screened it for a number of different types of audiences, I feel like it has that potential.
For me, it’s not because I want the biggest audience — which would be nice! — but it’s really because I feel like if you can remind people of the things they agree about, then maybe we haven’t passed the tipping point of keeping our neighborhood together.