The Knockturnal had the opportunity to hear from Morgan Neville about his latest documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? which opened in select theaters on June 8.
The Academy Award-winning director, best known for his film Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal, opened up about Fred Rogers and the ideas that inspired this film. As a self-proclaimed “first generation Mr. Rogers fan,” Neville spoke about growing up with the show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, “I loved the show as a boy and then I didn’t think about it for forty years.” His reconnection with Fred Rogers later in life, though, was what gave him the idea to make this documentary.
Early in the Q&A, Neville was asked about what brought him back to Fred Rogers and encouraged him to make this film. He describes reacquainting himself with Fred Rogers to be casual, watching many of Rogers’ speeches late at night. But after listening to speeches upon speeches, Neville began questioning the simplicity of Fred Rogers’ show and message. Neville noticed that our world today is missing a voice like Rogers’. He asked the crowd, “Where are the grownups like this that are speaking about, you know, basic civility and radical kindness?”
Neville elaborated on the process of pitching the film to the Rogers’ family and foundation. He said, “the pitch was we don’t want to make a film about the biography of Fred Rogers, we want to make a film about the ideas of Fred Rogers.” The family supported this idea, as Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife, even said that Fred believed that his life would’ve made an extremely boring film. Though protective of Fred Rogers’ legacy, the family turned over complete control to Morgan Neville in the making of this film because they believed in the kind of film he was trying to make.
“What we wanted to do was the thing that Fred wanted to do,” Neville said. The film acknowledges that Fred “struggled with the fact that nobody ever appreciated what he was doing or the depth of what he was doing” and Neville made it his goal to showcase just how important Rogers and his message was. “He [Rogers] made a show that was simple and deep and people mistake simple for superficial,” Neville said, “So I think this idea of actually taking him seriously was really appealing.”
Besides discussing this creative process, Neville revealed some of the fascinating anecdotes about Fred Rogers that can be seen in the film. “He at one point was getting 11,000 letters a year and he responded to every letter he got which was incredible,” Neville found, “He felt if a child wrote to him the child believed they had a real relationship.”
Morgan Neville’s fascination with Rogers is apparent in all of his passionate remarks. He made the film to highlight the ideas behind Fred Rogers, the person, and Mr. Rogers, the character. Besides just the ideas, though, it’s clear that Neville sees a hole in society for a figure like Fred Rogers. His remarks about the film leave us to wonder if anyone will ever come close to the singular, unique man that was Fred Rogers.
You can see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in select theaters across the country.