Morgan Neville Reflects On Fred Rogers' Legacy, Relevancy
Morgan Neville
Filmmaker’s documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" carries a special poignancy in today's society
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Morgan Neville is a lauded filmmaker whose 20 Feet From Stardom won the Best Feature Documentary Oscar in 2014 and the Best Music Film Grammy the following year, among assorted other honors. 20 Feet was nominated for the Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Grand Jury Prize, as were Neville’s films Troubadors in 2011 and Best of Enemies (co-directed with Robert Gordon) in 2015.

So the bar was set high when it became known that Neville was making a documentary about iconic children’s television show creator/host Fred Rogers. Neville’s film, the recently released Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Focus Features), has already gone a long way towards meeting those lofty expectations as it too made a major splash at Sundance, debuting at the fest back in January, earning glowing reviews along the way and this past weekend becoming the summer’s second documentary to crack the box office top 10, generating $1.9 million on 348 screens. But perhaps most gratifying to Neville is that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has been dubbed by many as his “most contemporary film” to date--even though it centers on a man whose Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered on public television 50 years ago.

Rogers, who died of stomach cancer in 2003, has an undying relevancy, explained Neville. “He was dealing with fundamentally human emotions--like Shakespeare, like in the Bible. He was trying to help children figure out how to be people. His main demographic was two to six year olds, helping them to navigate, as he said, ‘the difficult modulations of life,’ how to treat other people, how to treat yourself and make sense of a world that can be scary. Those are things adults need to do. We live in a time when there’s quite a bit of cultural trauma and we don’t process it. Most of our society is set to capitalize on it. That’s dangerous. Mister Rogers was nurturing a neighborhood as a loving, giving place.”

Rogers’ message is contemporary also because of who he was: a nice, unassuming, thoughtful man conveying a message in a calm, caring manner--quite a departure from the current norm of loud, often shrill voices screaming for attention. “His voice is what we need in our culture today,” affirmed Neville.

That voice promoted kindness, tolerance and the Golden Rule while at times even addressing traumatic events ranging from divorce to tragedy and disasters. His advice for and answer to the most horrific disasters: “Look for the people who are helping.”

Neville’s approach, thus, was to be true to that voice. He didn’t want to make a fact-filled biography of Rogers but rather a film about the ideas and emotions that drove his life and inspired others. This orientation went a long way toward winning over Rogers’ family and gaining its commitment to cooperate with Neville on the documentary without controlling the process or final outcome. 

Nicholas Ma, a producer of the documentary, also played an integral role in Rogers’ family taking a leap of faith, entrusting Neville to tell Fred’s story. As a boy, Ma appeared in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood twice with his dad, the virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The senior Ma became a close friend of Fred Rogers and got to know the family. Meanwhile Neville bonded with the Ma family when he directed the 2015 documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. Nicholas Ma helped to unite Neville and the Rogers’ family.

Additionally. Neville’s body of work over the years helped secure the trust of Rogers’ widow, Joanne, the couple’s two sons and Fred’s sister who each consented to be interviewed. These interviews yielded meaningful insights, including for example Joanne noting that both she and her husband came from households that weren’t emotionally expressive, which may have led to Fred needing an inventive outlet in order to share his feelings. That outlet was the shy, sensitive Daniel Striped Tiger character who took the form of a hand puppet through which Rogers in his show at times talked about fears, anxieties and concerns.

At the same time, Neville’s documentary showed that some feared Fred Rogers as demonstrated in news footage of his funeral service at which a group of people nearby protested his tolerance for gays. There was also a snippet in the documentary of a Fox News show in which a pundit view blamed Rogers for ruining America by telling children they are special and thus promoting a sense of entitlement which has marred a generation.

For Neville, the documentary was very much about “Fred building a utopia and then Fred defending that utopia” where kids could see value in themselves and those around them.

Radical lessons
Neville has also been active in shorter form filmmaking, specifically in the ad arena with spots for such brands as Google, Microsoft and Samsung, as well as an Audible campaign which debuted on the 2017 Academy Awards telecast. And in the branded content arena, he helmed a 20-minute documentary for audio headphone and speakers company Bose. Neville is represented by RadicalMedia for commercials and branded content in North America. He had a positive working relationship with RadicalMedia prior to coming aboard its commercialmaking roster last year, having executive produced and directed two episodes of that production company’s eight-part documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design, which broke on Netflix after its world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Neville also directed RadicalMedia’s Keith Richards: Under the Influence, another Netflix project.

Asked how his work in branded fare has informed his documentary filmmaking, Neville noted that he had experimented with vintage anamorphic lenses on a short-form project. That experience was so favorable that he wound up shooting his Keith Richards documentary on vintage anamorphic lenses.

“With commercials, you have bigger crews, more toys than you would for a documentary,” he observed. “You get the chance to spread your wings a little bit, and sometimes that can find its way back to your feature work.”



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