Morgan Neville is the Oscar winning director of 20 Feet From Stardom, who has made a career of creating such audience embracing docs as Best of Enemies and The Music of Strangers. His craft is unparalleled, and his deft touch and impeccable credentials make for films that are both highly provocative and intelligent while managing to speak to wide audiences, a rare feat that’s nearly unmatched in the world of non-fiction filmmaking.
His latest film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, was received with great enthusiasm at its Sundance premiere and is making its way through the festival circuit before its theatrical debut this summer. In anticipation of its bow at Hot Docs, Neville spoke to POV magazine about this remarkable film about an even more remarkable subject, the pioneer of Children’s television, Fred Rogers.—Jason Gorber
POV: Jason Gorber
MN: Morgan Neville
POV: What is your earliest memory of Mr. Rogers?
MN: Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was for two to six year olds, so my relationship with Mr. Rogers predates my memory….That’s part of how I’ve seen people react to the film, [in that] we have a relationship with him that we had with hardly anybody else outside of our family. Part of how we think about him is in our pre-history, before we knew who we were. It accesses a part of your own inner child, who you probably haven’t accessed in decades. Watching the footage I would recognize things that I couldn’t have remembered otherwise, that were so deep in my earliest possible memories.
POV: In any biopic there’s a challenge to avoid hagiography. You want the subject to be more than a two dimensional icon. When you’re dealing with a person who helped to form early childhood memories, there’s a real danger of creating a simplistic, almost childish, view of what he was.
MN: Mr. Rogers is almost the definition of what people think of as a two dimensional character. When I started thinking about the idea of making this film, I kept asking people if this a crazy idea. Mr. Rogers has been a punch line for decades. Are you a serious filmmaker if you’re looking at somebody like [him]?
POV: It’s as if you are only a “serious filmmaker” if you’re there to uncover something awful or troubling, shattering our expectations and finding evil where we thought there was purity.
MN: Exactly! When I told people I was working on the film, so many people said, “oh, so you’re going to dig up the dirt,” or else warned me, “don’t you dare destroy Mr. Rogers!” I had a pretty good idea from the work I did before we started making the film—and talking to people and meeting the family and reading a lot—that he was a much more complex version of the person he played on TV.
The real Fred Rogers wasn’t dissonant from his televised character: he was a much deeper harmonic version of that character. He was simple and deep. As a filmmaker, it’s very difficult to be simple and deep…The amount of thought and struggle and work that went into [making] a show that seemed so simple felt like a metaphor for work I do every day.
POV: The closer you look, the more remarkable he becomes.
MN: We don’t even go into all of this in the film, but he spoke five languages. He would wake up early in the morning and read the Bible in Hebrew or Greek. He had a sign over his office door that said “Please, Lord, let some of these words that I speak today be yours,” or something to that effect. He was struggling and working very hard to make something that seemed so simple.
POV: His struggle and gift was to simplify to the point that he could communicate profoundly, and directly, with young children.
MN: He was willing to be vulnerable at all times and I think that’s what kids reacted to. There was no adult artifice. You really have to kind of be vulnerable in the same way to make a film about him. Kids are incredibly direct about what their questions are and what their emotions are. As we grow up, we learn how to mask all of those things. Fred was able to maintain his childlike view and capacity for expressing emotions and a worldview without the pollution of adulthood. It’s inspiring.
POV: Is it fair to say that the reflection of all of that has changed not only the way you made this film but also the way you will make subsequent films?
MN: I don’t know. For years I told the subject I was working on that making this project was going to be like therapy for [them]. It took me a long time to realize that making each film is therapy for me, too! None more so than this film. It made me question lots of things about my value system. I really wanted the film to try and ask the questions Fred was asking of me, as a filmmaker, to the audience. Fred was not ever about tidy answers, he was all about questions. And I think as a filmmaker, I’m so much more interested in questions than answers.
POV: This a fascinating cousin or companion piece to Best of Enemies.
MN: They’re definitely related.
POV: Best of Enemies is about conservative vs. liberal discourse, how that combative discourse originated, but also how both sides became simplified. What you do with Rogers is show, for me, the most pure form of compassionate conservatism I’ve ever seen expressed.
MN: I’ve made several films about finding common ground. I think Best of Enemies was about that, and I think even Music of Strangers was about it. A lot of what I wanted to do with Ugly Delicious was about it too. It’s something I come back to again and again.
A lot of what happens in documentary film, not to mention political journalism, is about preaching to the converted. And I feel I had a real opportunity here to make a film…where we can have a common discussion. Fred was a Republican minister, but at the same time, a lot of people look at his values and say they were very liberal. [We] kind of step back and ask questions about how our relationship to Fred Rogers predates any political labeling. Our affection for him isn’t tied up in any sense of partisanship, of which we find all kinds in our culture. So he’s a unique figure to ask these kinds of questions…Can we agree on loving thy neighbour? Can we agree on a sense of empathy and understanding? Fred even says it in the film, “I’m not doing this to be Pollyanna. I’m not a wimp.” He was anything but; he was somebody who was a warrior for love and peace in that way.
POV: Like a certain longhaired Jew that he seemed to like. They made a musical about him. It was a whole thing 2000 years ago.
MN: I think Fred was trying to instill something into everybody who grew up watching him—-a certain value system, which is really a humanist [view] of how we should treat and love each other and ourselves. When people ask me who’s the next Fred Rogers, or who’s the Mr. Rogers of today, I think what Joanne Rogers told me in the film. The question of what would Fred do or think, that’s the wrong question, because Fred’s dead. The question he would want to ask is what are you going to do? Fred’s legacy is in all of us. He taught so many millions of us…Whatever little bit he left behind of his own message…is really the legacy we should be focusing on. It’s what I ended the film on, because to me that’s more empowering.
POV: And you can provide that legacy without sanctifying his image
MN: Joanne said to me when we first met was, “Don’t make him into a saint.” I think the importance…[and] wisdom of that is that it both makes him human, which he very much was, but it also shows that one has to struggle to do good. To sanctify Fred is to say that he existed in another place and we don’t have to measure up. It absolves us from responsibility. I think that’s the opposite of what Fred would have wanted. I think he wanted everybody to take responsibility for themselves and for each other.
POV: And your film is constructed in a way for us to engage with this responsibility, not to preach to us a particular vision of the man.
MN: When I think about some of my all-time favourite films — All the President’s Men, F for Fake — [they’re] films with a lot of questions in them. I started my career as a journalist and I still think what I’m doing is a form of journalism. I think it’s a career of asking questions and a career of curiosity. Acknowledging our lack of having all of the answers is the wisest path we can choose. To make films that are polemical—it’s not only bad filmmaking, it’s bad politics. Whenever somebody tells me what to think in a film, I instantly tune out. When somebody invites me to come to my own conclusions, I am hooked.
It’s empowering, and I think trusting your audience is a huge part of what that’s about. I think about that all the time, letting an audience jump to their own conclusions or be ahead of you, as a storyteller, and then rewarding them for being ahead of you.
I think there are any number of ways you can think about 2018 as a context for this film, though I never wanted to mention any of that. I feel like it’s up to the viewer to bring that, and I feel that, if anything, in the editing, I cut out a number of moments that would have been much more heavy-handed. I didn’t want to have people alienated by the film or feel that I was trying to make a point about Fred, because I wasn’t.
I was trying to ask questions.