Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will almost definitely make you cry. The film – which is playing at select theaters and will open wide this weekend – has garnered intense reactions since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and now is positioned as a film that people will be talking about as we head into awards season. It’s a remarkable thing: listening to the words of Fred Rogers in 2018 and being moved so much it brings adults to tears. But in this current climate we live in, it’s like we need someone like Fed Rogers to still try and tell us it’s all going to be okay.
Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2014, so he’s no stranger to this kind of acclaim. But as he explains, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a whole different kind of animal. It’s almost like we’ve all be so void of true sincerity lately, our emotions don’t quite know what to do when we see it in its purest form.
Ahead, Neville tries to wrap his head around why people are reacting the way they are to his film. Also, he talks about a couple of specific moments from Mister Rogers’ life that appear in the film that not many people know about, including a very awkward interview with Tom Snyder.
Why do you think people, myself included, start crying during this movie? Because I don’t think it’s necessarily just that it’s just Fred Rogers, I think there’s a lot more going on.
I mean, it’s complicated. I think there are reasons – like those of us that grew up watching the show have a relationship with Fred Rogers unlike anybody else other than our family. But the fact that I’ve seen this film connect with audiences who didn’t grow up with Fred Rogers means that there’s something else. And that naked sincerity is something that, after 90 minutes, at a certain point, you’re going to crumble. He’s going to find it. In a much more cynical age that we live in today and to be confronted by such emotional sincerity is overwhelming and ultimately, I think, kind of cathartic.
The motions almost envelop you in this blanket, I’ve never had quite a reaction like I had to this documentary. I’m sure you’re getting that a lot.
I am. You know, I wish I could bottle it. It’s wonderful.
Sell it on the street. People would buy that.
And part of it is that typically, you’d watch Mister Rogers and maybe you’d graduate to Sesame Street and Electric Company and then Zoom…
Zoom… it would be funny if your next documentary is about the the Zoom kids.
I know. But I feel like a lot of what he was doing, you know if his audience is really 2 to 6-year-olds, I feel like he’s explaining to these unformed people what it means to be a person and a neighbor and a citizen. And how we should think of other people and how we should think of ourselves. It’s like the most fundamental messages of what it means to be a person.
With the current climate and president, even as an adult now, you watch it and you’re like, I just want someone to tell me it’s going to be okay. And now here this guy is from the past telling me it’s going to be okay.
Well, because I feel like a lot of what Mr. Rogers was doing was helping kids process fear. I mean, I think he saw the two pulls that govern our lives as it’s the pulls between love and fear.
The doc gets into the fact he tried to do an adult show and it failed. Well now here he is in this documentary speaking to adults, not knowing he’s speaking to adults, and it is hitting people very hard. It’s us as adults wanting to hear this.
Well, I feel that if a big part of what he was doing was helping kids process fear, it’s learning that adults need to process fear too, and we don’t. We have a lot of bottled up anxiety and tension that manifests in very unhealthy ways because we don’t process the fear in our lives.
Do you think it’s because of who the president is right now?
We live in a world where everything is wrestling. It’s kind of the opposite of what Mr. Rogers believed in. And I understand that humans are programmed to respond to outrage and entertainment and sensationalism and all those things. We’re programmed to follow those things, whether they’re on Twitter or TV shows. At the same time, I feel like Fred represents what people now talk about when they talk about mindfulness. It’s a term I don’t think existed in Fred’s time, but it’s this idea that we should be considered and take a moment to reevaluate and to appreciate. And the question is, how do you make that as urgent as everything else? And that’s tough. I mean, Fred says in the film, how do you make goodness attractive? You know, real goodness. And that’s a tough struggle.
A couple of specific moments I want to bring up just because I couldn’t believe either of them happened. The first one was the Tom Snyder interview. What was that?
I couldn’t believe that. I mean, I’ve seen Tom Snyder interview people before, but I can’t believe he asked Mr. Rogers if he’s gay in the way he did.
I know. In fact, I heard about that. Before I’d seen it, I was talking to Yo-Yo Ma about it, because I know Yo-Yo and his son’s my producer. And Yo-Yo said, “I remember years ago seeing Fred go on to the Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder and he asked him such a rude question that I had to turn off the television.” And instantly I said, “I have to make sure I get my hands on that episode.”
And then Fred Rogers pulls out a puppet and starts talking to Tom Snyder with the puppet. Could you imagine if that happened today? Could you imagine how viral that clip would go?
I mean, there’s also a great clip online of when Fred went on The Tonight Show when Joan Rivers was guest hosting. And she’s a tough cookie. And he sings to her in the puppet’s voice and she just melts, too. It’s this thing he did with John Pastore in the Senate. He had this ability to take these hardened figures and make them come to him, on his terms, which is pretty amazing.
And then there’s the episodes where he deals with Robert Kennedy’s assassination. I had never seen that.
No, it only aired that one time. I mean, that assassination special was the first thing I looked up when I went to the archives, because there was no other way to see it. And when I finished watching it I knew that I wanted to make the movie. You know, it was the thing that made me have a toehold into making the film and not knowing where the story would go. But knowing that any questions I had about depth or tension or profundity were okay, that it was all in there.
He also hated superheroes because kids were trying to fly off roofs, like Superman. He would not enjoy the way movies have gone lately if he were still around.
No. I mean, he was so sensitive to those things.
Today you don’t hear about kids trying to be Iron Man and jumping off buildings.
Yeah, I think kids are, for better or worse, they’re jaded. Kids learn at a very early age that everything is entertainment, and there are good things about that and there are bad things about that. They understand what make-believe means, but they also have a hard time understanding that there are times when people want you to believe things are make-believe.
The end of the film explores if he’d even want to do his show today in today’s climate.
Well, yeah. The thing is, young children – because of bunch of the old episodes are now on Amazon Prime, and I do know friends of mine who have very young kids that are showing them it – and the kids love it. Kids aren’t born with ADD. Kids come out fresh every time, so it’s more a matter of what the media diet is that we give our children these days as a matter of fact that just quickly indoctrinates them into this kind of culture we’ve built, and it’s not healthy. As a parent myself, I tried very hard to – and I don’t know how much success I’ve had – but I’ve tried hard to give my kids the space to be creative and imaginative and mindful.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.