It’s Time to Bring Back Niceness and Neighborliness
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? filmmaker Morgan Neville shares why the world created by Fred Rogers isn’t corny — it’s “essential.”
HBO: What brought you to making a documentary about Fred Rogers?
Morgan Neville: My relationship with Mr. Rogers went back to before I have memories. I grew up loving him as a child, but never imagined I would make a film about him. In the middle of making Music of Strangers when I was talking to Yo Yo [Ma, whose son, Nicholas Ma is a producer of Won’t You Be My Neighbor], I happened to ask how he figured out how to be famous. And he said, “Mr. Rogers taught me.”
I laughed and he said, “No, I’m serious. Fred Rogers was a huge influence on me. He taught me to use fame as positive force.” And that was the first seed that grew into this idea — after that, every time Fred popped up in the culture I saw him in a way I hadn’t before. I realized that, as opposed to his public image, which was kind of a corny, two-dimensional children’s host, he was a radically important thinker and influencer to our culture.
HBO: Why did it seem like the right time to bring his story to a new audience?
Morgan Neville: Without a doubt the instinct to make the film was not a nostalgic one. It was more, “How do we get this voice into the culture today?” When I was listening and thinking about making this film, I was craving his voice, not nostalgically, but like, “Who else is speaking like this today? Who else is advocating for ‘the neighborhood’?” — meaning our community and society. Fred Rogers was an advocate for how we can live together, treat each other, and treat ourselves. Nobody’s advocating for civility anymore: Civility has been rebranded as “political correctness” and dismissed. Talking about ideas like niceness and neighborliness feels corny but it’s actually essential.
“It’s an opportunity for us all to think about ourselves in addition to thinking about him.”
HBO: So many people have been brought to tears by this documentary — why do you think people have responded to it so emotionally?
Morgan Neville: There’s a quote of Roger Ebert’s that says, “Audiences are more touched by goodness than by sadness.” And that’s what I think people find moving. To find somebody that’s so incredibly sincere, vulnerable and selfless kind of overwhelms our current constant state of skepticism. We live in such cynical times, when you come across a character like Fred Rogers you can’t believe him. But in watching, he will prevail over your skepticism. That was his gift.
He held up a mirror for us and asked questions, so the film asks a lot of questions, and it’s an opportunity for us all to think about ourselves in addition to thinking about him. To me, those tears feel more cathartic than anything else.
HBO: As a Christian and a Republican, Fred identified with what we today would consider to be more conservative groups — but he was still very progressive. How do you think he managed to get his message across in such an open way?
Morgan Neville: His show was completely secularized, which was really important to him. He bent over backwards not to ever mention God on the show because he felt if he ever tried to project a single identity it meant other kids would feel excluded.
For instance, a lot of people asked him to speak out against the Gulf War, and Fred hated war — he was a pacifist — but he said, “If I speak out against the war there might be kids whose parents are fighting in it who feel excluded, and I want this to be a safe space for everyone.”
He never talked about his political affiliation, that was something I discovered while making the film. I found it surprising and important to include. He was a Pennsylvanian Republican, friends with people like Senators John Heinz and Arlen Specter . It meant something very different than it does today.
Part of my mission in making this documentary was to make a film for people of all kinds of backgrounds. I consciously tried to make a film that spoke to people I don’t agree with, and tried to find some common ground.
HBO: In searching for footage to use in the film, what was your favorite?
Morgan Neville: Finding the footage of Fred swimming was pretty great. I knew he swam every day and we were talking about filming the pool he swam in. We came across that footage and it just made it come alive. You see him spinning around and feeling free. It was just such a great slice of Fred Rogers that you wouldn’t expect to see.
HBO: In reference to a line in the film, do you believe Fred Rogers’ “attempt to influence America” was successful?
Morgan Neville: Depends on how you measure success, of course. Is the world better off because of what he did? 100 percent. But you can’t say something like, “Our culture is 11 percent more empathetic because Fred had his show.” I have no doubt he had an influence on people and helped them with their lives. I have no doubt the world is a better place because he was there. That might be success right there, but I feel like there’s a long way to go to achieve what Fred dreamed of.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is now available to stream on HBO.