One movie you want to experience in a theater full of strangers is “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, Morgan Neville’s documentary about the late, great PBS children’s show host Fred Rogers. Last January, Sundance executive director Keri Putnam sternly ordered me to see the movie. “You won’t want to miss this,” she warned.
I started losing it when Lyndon Baines Johnson signed PBS into existence. Then lost it again when Rogers in 1969 argued for its continuation against tough Senator John Pastore, who buckled to his authentic sincerity, awarding $20 million in PBS funding. After that, forget about it.
As more people spread the word, this Focus Features movie about the benevolent piano-playing puppeteer host of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” (1968-2001), a show for children about how to build a neighborhood and live together in society, follows sleeper Ruth Bader Ginsberg biodoc “RBG” as a movie that shows us what a hero looks like. This weekend, on 654 screens, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” reached $7.5 million and will easily outstrip Magnolia’s $10-million “RBG” as the year’s highest-grossing documentary to date. What’s going on here?
I saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor.
Friggin’ face faucet, dude.
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) June 25, 2018
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Even Neville, who won the Oscar for “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” cried in the editing room as he listened to the final sound mix, he admitted at our recent Landmark Q&A. He’s been on the circuit since Sundance, getting feedback from audiences all over the world. Neville has been trying to understand why this movie hits people so hard — and it’s not just the usual liberal arthouse crowd.
At Sundance, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was the opening night Salt Lake City Sundance premiere for a theater full of Republicans and Mormons, including the Governor of Utah and half his legislature. Outside the U.S., in places that have never heard of Fred Rogers, they don’t get the immediate nostalgic hit — but the movie also works there, too.
“A debate I’ve had with my documentary peers,” Neville said, “is who do we make films for? Do we make films to make each other feel good, pat each other on the back, preach to the converted, or argue with the converted? This was an opportunity to make a film to reach all kinds of people. Mr. Rogers was a unique cultural figure; he has no cultural attachments. When you watched him, you didn’t know what a Republican or Democrat was. It speaks to the fundamental ways we speak to each other. If we can’t agree about Mr. Rogers, then we are really screwed.”
Rogers, an ordained minister, conservative Republican, student of Erik Erikson, William Orr, and Benjamin Spock, who read the Bible every day, radiates empathy and kindness. Was Rogers the last of his kind? “I don’t think they’re going to give out television shows necessarily to people like him,” Morgan said. “However, a lot of things we talk about in our culture he was doing then, like emotional intelligence, mindfulness, slow TV, and slow culture. There’s an appetite and hunger for that in our culture.”
There’s no question that Neville, a first-generation “Mr. Rogers” fan born in 1967, is on a mission. “Next to my family, he’s one of the oldest relationships I have in my life,” he said. “And like most people, I didn’t think about him for decades. But he kept reappearing over the last 10 years of my life.”
About 2 1/2 years ago, late one night Neville was deep-diving into Rogers’ speeches on YouTube when the idea to make a Rogers movie zapped him. “I wanted to go back and think about my childhood,” he said, “and where is this voice in our culture today? Where are the grownups in our culture? He was the consummate grownup voice I’d been craving. There was nothing in it for him. He was empathetic, he was looking out for our long-term well-being. It was more: ‘How can we have a cultural conversation with his voice in it?’ It was not about the man, but about his ideas.”
Over breakfast, he asked his wife: “Do you think it’s a crazy idea to do a film about Mr. Rogers?” The children’s librarian loved it. So did everyone else, including Rogers’ family, who had to agree to give Neville final cut. The documentarian never raised funding so fast.
“I wanted to make a film to remind people about the value of radical kindness,” he said. “Fred’s message, when I distill it, he talked about grace. It’s this idea that kindness is not a naive notion like believing in unicorns and rainbows or something. It’s like oxygen: It is vital, and needs to be nurtured.”
Neville recognized that a conventional character arc on a remarkably consistent man wasn’t going to fly. “It’s a bit of a challenge, because on the surface Mr. Rogers is the quintessential 2D character: the show never changes, he never changes,” he said. “So if you’re thinking about character development, you wonder where this goes. You look under the microscope, you see subtle changes. The one thing hit us early: The real tension in his life was between him and the outside world.”
In the end, they followed a three-act structure: one, Mr. Rogers builds his utopia; two, he defends his utopia; and three, what is utopia? Neville noticed how many people expected him to find something wrong with the talk-show host. “They’d say: ‘Oh you know he was a Navy SEAL, a sniper, a serial killer,’ all kinds of things. The other reaction I got a lot was, ‘Don’t screw this up; my childhood can’t take another hit, please.’ I was looking to find out who this guy was. By the time I was really making the film, I knew I was not going to find any skeletons. I had talked to enough people, done enough research.”
While Neville initially planned to spend the usual few years developing the movie, “There was this sense that the film should be done this year,” he said. “Everything just clicked. It felt like ‘go, go, go do this.’
He would ordinarily take months to boil down mountains of archive material and 32 interviews into a dense rough cut. But he had his editors go another way, picking the essential moments they felt they had to use — which formed the spine of a 90-minute edit. Anything after that had to earn its way in. “It was starting with a very clear idea of what the film was going to do in the beginning,” he said. “We finished editing early, which never happens. Something about this film wanted to be born quickly.”
It premiered at Sundance 14 months later, and that’s when the weeping began.
“The funny thing is how many different people have come to me with different triggers,” he said. “People say, ‘Of course the trigger is this scene.’ There’s 20 different moments in the film. It’s a reflection of us, who are you and what are you bringing to it? What is your trigger? What I’ve come to realize is that Fred’s superpower was this penetrating emotional honesty and this ability to find one’s emotional bullseye. And ultimately if you’re trying to keep your adult defenses up, he’s going to penetrate those defenses. Your emotional bullseye is going to get hit at some point during the film.”
Audiences could take “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” to well over $20 million, especially with an inevitable Oscar push. Focus Features got the buzz going at Sundance, followed by a heavy screening program ahead of the June 8 opening. “The best publicity for this film has been WOM (word of mouth)” wrote distribution president Lisa Bunnell in an email. “We have found that the public has embraced the film as a cathartic way to deal with the world that we live in now. It gives them hope and inspires them to be a good ‘neighbor.'”
Find this movie. See this movie. It’s the perfect movie for these times. https://t.co/a1pmCQsmU4
— Mike Birbiglia (@birbigs) June 25, 2018
Focus Features didn’t ask celebrities with large followings to tweet on the behalf of the movie. Nor did they push moviegoers in Tampa, Florida to throw a Mr. Rogers block party in front of the theater, complete with a sweater and sneaker drive for children and sidewalk chalk art, along with other Mr. Rogers “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” clothing drives. Theater chain Alamo Drafthouse decided to collect donations for PBS at theaters showing the movie.
“I would like Donald Trump to see it,” one woman piped up at the Landmark. “But I don’t think it would make a difference.”
“It’s the most contemporary film I’ve ever done,” Neville said, “considering the show started 65 years ago. The things he was dealing with were human emotions and fallibility. Those things don’t change. It was in Fred’s nature to not give up and not judge. The PSA testimonial he did in the wake of 9/11 ticks off a number of things to keep in our hearts. The last three essential things are faith, pardon, and love.”
Next up: Neville is continuing to executive produce his two Netflix series, food show “Ugly Delicious” and design show “Abstract.” He had expected to debut his Orson Welles documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” at Cannes. When Netflix freed up use of the footage from Welles’ last movie, “The Other Side of the Wind,” which he shot over six years and never finished, Neville was able to make his documentary and producer Frank Marshall was able to finish the Welles feature. “It’s very meta,” Neville said. During a dispute with Cannes, Netflix pulled all its films from the festival and will unveil both Welles films at the fall festivals instead.