Being Good To Your Neighbor and Having A Few Words with Director Morgan Neville about ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’

It’s a strange thing these days, that when something pleasant and dare I say life-affirming gets put in front of us…most of us are waiting for the catch and the other shoe to drop, that is until now.

Opening exclusively in Toronto tomorrow, next week in Montreal and Vancouver before rolling out nationwide throughout the summer; Won’t You Be My Neighbor takes us to the life and times of one of the more iconic children’s performers of the modern times, Mr. Fred Rogers who through a simple message played such a huge part in shaping a generation of young minds.

Directed by Academy Award Winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) the film not only looks at the man and the times that he was living in but he deftly asks the question if we today as a populace are still upholding the simple yet beautiful values that he taught through his television show.  Now I know what you are thinking…hasn’t there already been a movie about this?  The answer is quite obviously no, but much like us even director Morgan Neville really had to talk it through when he was in development on this film.

The funny thing is that it actually didn’t seem like an obvious film to make.  It’s just one of those things because you know his videos go viral once in a while and I know a couple of people who knew him and they would tell me things about him from time to time that would genuinely surprise me.  There were just a number of these little tidbits and nuggets of ideas that were floating around going “Maybe he isn’t exactly who I think he is?”. 

Obviously, I loved him as a kid. I was born in 1967 so I really was the first generation of kids watching his show and then late one night I watched a bunch of YouTube videos of him giving commencement addresses and they were just striking me in this truly profound way, but I was still a little embarrassed by the idea and I kept tossing around if a serious filmmaker can make a serious film about a subject like Mr. Rogers because it almost sounds like a joke.  Then I asked my wife it was a stupid idea to go and make a film about Mr. Rogers and she said ‘no way’.  I spent a lot of time really testing the waters on this one with so many different people which led to me ultimately calling Nicholas Ma (son of Yo-Yo Ma) who is one of my producers, and he knows the family.  I asked him, and he was onboard with the idea right away.

I really had a lot of hesitation because he really could be treated as this cardboard, milk toast figure in pop culture and making sure we did a film that has real dimension was important to me.  And then once I started reading more about him and talking it out and finding out more and more about what kind of man he was lead to us going down to Pittsburgh and meeting everyone including Mrs. Rogers; who is such an incredible lady and the one thing she said to me that really stuck with me is “Don’t make Fred into a saint” which was just such great device because he was never the two dimensional person we all saw on TV but was very much a three dimensional human being.  The difference Mr. Rogers and Fred is that he was the children’s version of a much more complex person, but it’s not a different person, it’s the same guy.  Then we had to dive into this guys was a pacifist, spoke five languages but was also a very willful individual at the same time.

Even though Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian Minister, the message that he deliver through his show was never one of religion or of god, it was a humanistic approach that was just unheard of.  He was loving and inclusive but also very aware never to alienate anyone in his audience no matter their age, which is kind of ironic considering the age we live in now where everything is designed to be as divisive as humanly possible and that really strikes to the core of what Mr. Neville wanted to get across in this film…

It’s funny because another film of mine; ‘Best of Enemies’ is almost about the exact opposite of what this one is.  It’s a film that shows what happens when people figure out that they can make money by promoting conflict and divisiveness and it’s sad because conflict and hate are much more beneficial to the bottom line and making money then kindness, goodness and love has ever been; and that’s the trap that we are in.  If everyone is incentivized to be divisive then who is ever going to speak up on behalf of kindness and civility?  Other than Mr. Rogers; it’s really nobody and that’s kind of what I was responding to when I started to think about making the film.  Trying to find that voice that we really aren’t hearing in our culture right now, because there really is no lobby out there for kindness…

Being kind and nice to one another is just one of those virtues that has been lost in recent years as well as those things that we’re just supposed to be doing as decent human beings are being pushed into a kind of package that is supposed to be incentivized rather than expected out of the populace.  Neville as a filmmaker deftly puts his audience into a very unique place with this film…

To me the film is just about asking a lot of question about how we should treat each other and it’s nothing something I ever wanted to scold people with or to even provide any answers but just to look inside yourself and see if you’re living your life in the fashion that Mr. Rogers would have wanted you to.

Won’t You Be My Neighbour opens exclusively in Toronto tomorrow and expands to Montreal and Vancouver next week.

If you want to read my uncut interview with Morgan Neville you can visit me over at In The Seats right here to keep reading and learn more about this film.