Like many Americans born around the time that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” premiered in February 1968, filmmaker Morgan Neville has a long history with the children’s television pioneer. He loved the show as a child, but hadn’t thought much about it as an adult — until he was making “The Music of Strangers” with Yo-Yo Ma and discovered that the cellist was close friends with Rogers for decades. A clip he included of Rogers in that documentary received some of the biggest audience reaction — and Neville decided, with the aid of an introduction by Ma and his son, that he’d like to make a film about Mr. Rogers’ show.
Once he secured the cooperation of Rogers’ family, that film became “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the documentary that opened the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series in Los Angeles September 12. After screening his movie, Neville discussed the ways in which it helped him deal with an increasingly fraught political climate and why Rogers’ legacy endures to this day.
In 2015, Neville found himself in a YouTube spiral of commencement addresses given by the beloved TV host. “Can you make a serious film about someone people don’t take seriously?” he mused in front of the sold-out crowd at the post-screening Q&A. “This film was my way of dealing with the culture.”
After meeting with Rogers’ family and telling that he didn’t “want to make a film that’s a biography of Fred Rogers; I want to make a film about his ideas,” they trusted him completely. Their only request: Rogers’ widow, Joanne, asked Neville not to treat her late husband, who died in 2003, as a saint. “To keep him as someone who existed on another plane is to absolve us from living up to that,” he explained.
The documentary doesn’t focus much on Rogers’ early life, instead beginning with his foray into television rather than Rogers going into seminary after high school. It explores his quest to show young children how to deal with their feelings — and that it was okay to have them.
“He leaned into the messy things and he was happy living there in this place where you had to figure out how to feel about it and learn how to deal with those things,” Neville said, adding, “he essentially looked at the world as divided between love and fear, the two great forces.”
Rogers was a man who walked the walk — Neville said he learned that, at one point in time, Rogers received more mail than anybody in America. “And he personally responded to everyone,” Neville said. “He didn’t see it as an obligation. He saw it as his work … the TV was just there as a tool to give people help.”
Many of Rogers’ philosophies were ahead of his time. Today, people pay to download mindfulness apps on their phones, but Rogers encouraged that practice 50 years ago.
Ultimately, Neville said, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a reminder that the political divide in America is a result of people thinking the center can always hold — but it obviously can’t.
“How can we advocate and remind ourselves that it takes work to keep us together?” he asked. “And that’s what Fred did.”
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.