Morgan Neville, the director of the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom; Best Of Enemies: Buckley Vs. Vidal (with Robert Gordon on the feud between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley); The Music Of Strangers on Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, and They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, on the making of Orson Welles's The Other Side Of The Wind (a Special Events selection and highlight of the 56th New York Film Festival) was honoured at the National Board of Review Gala this week with the William K Everson Film History Award.
Morgan Neville on Fred Rogers: "His superpower was this piercing sincerity. He is so genuine that there's no way to escape his message."
Morgan and I met at The Roxy Hotel café in Tribeca for a conversation on his Oscar-shortlisted documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? the morning after he was a presenter at the Cinema Eye Awards, hosted by Steve James.
Fred Rogers, the creator and host of one of the most iconic American public television programs, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, that ran from the late 1960s for more than three decades, is the subject of Morgan's beautiful and devastatingly timely Won't You Be My Neighbor?.
Less concerned with biographical sleuthing, the film details a philosophy, a way of treating other people and an attempt to make children grow up in the best possible way. That is no small feat. "What is essential in life is invisible," Rogers says at one point and Neville's carefully chosen clips from the show speak of what these essentials are.
In 1968, a year that was marked by assassinations, Rogers provided specials to help children in their grievance. In a similar vein, he briefly returned to TV after 9/11 to once more give parents guidance on how to deal with what so clearly affected all ages.
Fred Rogers, trained as a Protestant minister, from the start disliked a great deal of what TV was offering to kids - far too much violence and rampant consumerism. The production value of his own show was low because he knew that beloved scruffy smart puppets beat out shiny empty new ones any day when it really matters and that it doesn't take much to stir a child's imagination.
Daniel Striped Tiger with Fred Rogers
Anne-Katrin Titze: Your film premièred almost a year ago at Sundance. Has your perception changed during this year?
Morgan Neville: In talking about it, you discover new things. And sometimes you go back and rediscover things you'd forgotten. Part of what inspired me to make the film was that somebody had sent me a video of a speech he [Fred Rogers] gave at Dartmouth College, a commencement address [in 2002].
And I watched that speech and it's what got me thinking about making a film about him. Just yesterday I went back and looked at that speech. And there was a quote that was so good, I actually wrote it down. I haven't even told anybody this yet. I wrote it down yesterday.
AKT: Thank you. I'll take it.
MN: Because he ends the speech with this quote. And this quote is so good. It's exactly why I wanted to make the film. He said: "What is essential in life are those things without which humankind cannot survive. I want to remind you of them today. They're love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed."
Won't You Be My Neighbor? poster in New York "A little kindness makes a world of difference." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: He ends with the word greed.
MN: Yeah. So, love conquers hate, peace over war, justice over greed. That's the message I want. Hearing that, I'm like, yes! Give me more of that! Like, how do we promote that? I mean, it's like the antidote to these toxic times and it's only gotten worse. That's why people responded to the film.
AKT: While making it you probably couldn't have predicted how much it hits right to the heart of so many.
MN: No, I mean, the film was like my therapy for dealing with the election in a lot of ways.
AKT: I suppose many people became a bit nostalgic and remembered seeing the show as a child. I had no connection to him. I knew the name, the face, the cardigans and I had some vague idea. It worked for me, you don't need the nostalgia.
MN: There's not a lot of nostalgia in the film at all. I'm not a fan of nostalgia. It's like a cheap emotion. It's like empty calories, fast food.
AKT: It depends. I'm quite guilty of some serious nostalgia.
MN: Ultimately, it doesn't ask much of the viewer to give them nostalgia and it's been interesting screening the film overseas. Seeing how audiences can connect to it who have no idea who he is. Ultimately I think the film will work with an audience whether or not they know.
AKT: When I brought up your film to my current students at Hunter College and told them that you and I were going to meet today, one of them said that she is concerned to see the film, because she doesn't want to ruin her memories. I said "Oh, no, Morgan is doing the opposite."
Morgan Neville on Fred Rogers: "He knew that kids are way too smart to not know when bad things happen."
MN: I got that from a lot of people.
AKT: That they were afraid?
MN: That they were afraid.
AKT: You are ruining nothing!
MN: Well, I'm enhancing it. It's that the real Fred Rogers was in many ways more impressive than the character. He was more dimensional, more human, he worked harder at it. But he's so sacred to a lot of people's childhoods. You know, when I first got to Pittsburgh, I got into a taxi and the guy asked what I was working on.
And I said "I'm working on a Fred Rogers documentary." And he turned around, pointed at me and said: "Don't f… this up!" And I got a version of that many different times. There was a sense of "Don't ruin my childhood, please."
AKT: It's 50 years ago this year, that Fred Rogers gave the six-minute speech to secure funding [for the Public Broadcasting Service] to Senator Pastore [from Rhode Island].
MN: To John Pastore, yes.
Fred Rogers with the Neighborhood Trolley on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
AKT: Which is so impressive, so impressive to see.
MN: It's amazing and I think, part of what he does in that speech - but I think it's part of what he did in situations like that. His superpower was this piercing sincerity. He is so genuine that there's no way to escape his message. You can't make fun of him, he's just so open and direct.
AKT: I love piercing sincerity. That's perfectly said.
MN: Most people aren't that sincere. You have to be vulnerable to be that sincere. And Fred was always vulnerable in that way.
AKT: And in the moment. When he says to the senator "I'm grateful for your goosebumps." I love that so much.
MN: Even when he kind of questions the written statement, that the Senator is not going to read it. He says "I trust you and I trust that you're going to read what I wrote." It's like Fred putting him on notice.
AKT: I don't remember exactly what was his main argument for the funding?
MN: He ends up making that emotional argument. He ends up quoting that children need basically a place to … Basically, what public television can do is provide a safe harbor for children and can actually help them process their emotions and feelings and that will help them be healthier and more productive citizens. When he reads the lyrics to "What do I do with the mad that I feel?", which is a line he got from a letter that a child sent him and he wrote a song about it.
The Roxy Hotel in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
And what I found out later was that the Senator Pastore - I talked to his son - and Pastore grow up in the Depression and had to start working as a child in a factory and had no childhood of his own. And so then to have Fred Rogers talk about the value of childhood, I think that's part of what made that senator respond in that way and just melt. It's an incredible moment. I don't think it could happen today.
AKT: You see the smugness that vanishes before your eyes. You're right, you wish this could happen more often, that there were more people able to do this. And then there is Mister Rogers' bravery to have a week in a children's programme dedicated to Death!
MN: I know!
AKT: A week on Divorce, one on Getting Lost. Explaining 9/11 to kids! I was back in the classroom at Columbia University two days later on 9/13 and I don't remember what I did, but I wished I had someone like Fred Rogers there to help me.
MN: The thing is, he talked about these things because he knew that kids are way too smart to not know when bad things happen. Adults tend to tell kids "Oh don't worry about that." And he knew that kids know bad things are happening and not explaining them makes them worse. They fester.
The Roxy Hotel doorman and lead image photographer Don Reid Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
And he believed that fear was kind of the greatest negative force in the world. Because fear is what becomes hatred and bigotry. I mean, if you look under racism and hatred, most of it comes out of fear. People being afraid for their own livelihoods, their own security, whatever. So he said, "If I can explain away the fear, I can help explain away the hatred and the bigotry and the racism".
AKT: Children's fears need to be taken seriously before they can be dealt with.
MN: Yes and what I came to understand while making the film was that adults have a lot of unprocessed fear. We don't spend a lot of time coming to terms with how we feel about things. We just tamp it down in the same way and it comes out in very unhealthy ways.
The five documentaries to receive Oscar nominations will be announced on Tuesday, January 22.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebration takes place on February 24.