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.