In Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Academy Award winning director Morgan Neville captures what made Fred Rogers such a special person. From his groundbreaking television show to his personal relationships, the film details who Mister Rogers was on and off screen.
Neville sat down to talk about how he got the footage for his documentary, people’s love for Mister Rogers, and a Mister Rogers’ love for Bob Marley.
Fred always said, “The outside world around a child changes, but the inside of a child never does.”
How did you get all this wonderful footage of Mister Rogers for Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Morgan Neville: The company, the family, and the estate. The hard part wasn’t getting it, although it took a lot of hard work, most of it was sitting in vaults. All the field pieces he did were shot on film. We had to go transfer all the film because we didn’t know what was on it. When I decided I wanted to make the film, I told them, to do the film I wanted to make they had to give me everything and they couldn’t control anything. They decided to sign off on it. Once they signed off, it was like Willy Wonka opening the doors to the factory, “Oh my God, I’ve been waiting for this.” It was every letter, even his notes, it was all of it. It was as if they’d been organizing it for 15 years waiting for somebody like to walk through the door. It’s never going to get better than that for me.
This is the one movie people keep messaging me about. You forget how important Mister Rogers is to so many people.
MN: It’s the thing I had no gage of. I knew what he meant to me, I didn’t know what he meant to anybody else. I knew I loved him as a kid and was responding to him as an adult. I’ve been blown away by how people have reacted to the film.
What made him so great was his ability to speak to kids about serious topics.
MN: What he did, that was revolutionary, was he didn’t condescend to kids. He talked to kids like they were real people. He realized kids are smart. Kids know when bad things happen. If you tell kids not to worry about something, it doesn’t mean they aren’t going to worry. The thing you should do is explain to them in a way they can process. That was what he did the whole time. [Mister Rogers] thing was to attack fear. He thought fear was really the thing that drove anger, hatred, and resentment. If you can quell fear, you can promote love. When he would come across someone who did something horrible his first question would always be, “I wonder what happened in their life that made them want to act that way.” He was always trying to understand. If someone did something horrible, the natural instinct would be to dismiss them. What he often quoted was something Christ said on the cross, “The thing that evil cannot stand is forgiveness.” He believed in the idea of grace. Grace is defined as the undeserved goodness bestowed upon you by God. In practice, to be kind to someone not because they deserve it or you expect anything, but to be kind. By doing that you create a virtuous circle where people are kind to each other. I feel like we now have this vicious circle in our culture that’s fed by resentment. It’s the exact opposite of what Fred Rogers was preaching.
There were points in the film where he goes away from the show and comes back and he seemed to wonder if he was still people would want this type of show.
MN: What was interesting about his experiment doing an adult show was how he was so effective talking to children because he talked like a child – I mean that in a positive way. Kids are direct about what they’re feeling and what they want to know. They don’t mask their intentions. When we get older, we hide our feelings and protect ourselves. Fred was always barrelling down on what your soul needed and what your deepest fears were. Adults have a lot of protections around them. In screening the film I see part of why people are getting emotional is because they’re sitting there with Fred barrelling down on them for 90 minutes. At a certain point he’s going to win.
There is so much footage in this film, what did you have to leave out?
MN: There’s one scene I had to take out. When Fred’s boys became teenagers, they wanted him to listen to their music. They played him Frank Zappa and The Grateful Dead, but the thing he loved the most was Bob Marley.
MN: Just think about it, One Love…it’s so on message. Then his son said, “Of course I didn’t give him the ganja songs” [laughs|. I had a whole scene cut to One Love by Bob Marley.
Do you feel like there’s space for a show like Mister Rogers Neighborhood today?
MN: I feel like there’s a need for it. Is there space for it…I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anyone who can be the next Mister Rogers, but I think there are people who can honor the things he honored doing children’s television. You can see in the film how television was always trying to sell sugar and toys to kids. He even said if he came along now, they wouldn’t have put him on television. Amazon Prime has 150 of the old episodes. People think kids don’t’ have attention spans like that, but Fred always said, “The outside world around a child changes, but the inside of a child never does.” At this point, I feel like adults need him more than kids do.