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– by Gig Patta

Millions of children grew up with Mr. Fred Rogers as their favorite neighbor on the small screen for decades.

With his humble beginnings with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968, he became an icon for children’s programming and education–even to being known for advocacy in public causes.

Former Academy Award winning director Morgan Neville brought Fred Rogers’ personal story and journey in the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Neville won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2014 for his acclaimed film 20 Feet From Stardom. Another documentary, Best of Enemies, on the debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, was shortlisted for the 2016 Academy Award and won an Emmy Award. He also been nominated for four additional Grammys for his films—Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story, Muddy Waters: Can’t Be Satisfied, Johnny Cash’s America, and The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.

LRM sat down in a personal one-on-one interview late last month with Morgan Neville on developing this documentary and research with decades of videos and messages.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will be in theaters nationwide on June 8.

Read our interview transcript below:

LRM: Hey, I love your documentary.

Morgan Neville: Thank you.

LRM: It’s very, very moving and very emotional.

Morgan Neville: Thank you.

LRM: It’s a shame you didn’t have a chance to talk to Mr. Rogers himself.

Morgan Neville: But, in a way, I feel like I did. It’s not like I wonder what would he have thought about that. I feel like he left a pretty clear record of what he thought about everything. Not just in the shows and his speeches, but going through his letters. He wrote almost a million [correspondences]. I mean he got almost a million pieces of correspondence. He responded to everyone.

LRM: Did he really?

Morgan Neville: Yeah. So there’s an incredible kind of record of what he thought about almost most everything. There was actually a great book called up Dear Mr. Rogers, collection of letters he got in his responses. There were so many windows into kind of how he felt that I feel like a lot of ways I feel like I knew him.

LRM: If he was alive for your documentary–what questions would you have asked him?

Morgan Neville: I think something I struggle with is–hope so. I’d want to ask him how he maintained his hope. Because he did, even though he struggled with it. I mean he struggled with everything, but that having a fundamentally optimistic and positive point of view on humanity is a tough thing maintain at times. [Chuckles] Particularly in this kind of divisive time, you just wonder what kind of neighborhood are or living in. I mean essentially what he was talking about — won’t you be my neighbor? What kind of society should we have? How should we treat each other?

It feels like people take a lot of that stuff for granted these days in terms of what kind of neighborhood we should be living in. We assume that the neighborhood will always be there and always be healthy even if we mistreat it.

LRM: What actually confounded me, and impressed me, is how you managed to turn a documentary about Mr. Rogers for these past few decades into a social commentary for today. Was that all on purpose or is this just coincidence that he managed to foresee all of this?

Morgan Neville: I think it was on purpose, because when I started to think about making the film it was [due to] I watched some of his speeches on YouTube. I just felt like this is a voice I don’t hear in our culture today. There are a lot of people trying to kind of rile us up and appeal to our baser tendencies. But, I don’t hear people advocating for civility and grace like he was. Like adults and grownups, the grownup voices in our culture who were empathetic and who worry about our long-term health of our neighborhood. So for me it was I wanted to help give that point of view a platform today. He’s a superhero for some of us. [Chuckles] In a way, he was like a man of steel who was battling for essential human goodness. If that’s not heroic, then I don’t know what it is.

LRM: What in particular did Rogers a touched you through all through all these years? What, what aspect of him that you were particularly impressed?

Morgan Neville: What he did for kids was helping them process fear. Kids were afraid of going down the bathtub. Or they were afraid of going to the dentist. He would do episodes about them. So many of his episodes are really about trying to help kids understand things. Understand something that could be fearful and let them process it. What he understood was that if you don’t process fear — it grows into things like anger and hatred. I feel like adults need that just as much as kids that adults don’t necessarily process that their fear. I see a lot of destructive behavior in our culture coming out of essentially fear and insecurity. What Fred was saying to kids was really what adults need to hear. That’s what I needed to hear, you know? For me, I feel like his message was just as profound for adults. Probably, more profound for adults than for kids.

The film is not for kids. It’s PG-13. It’s a movie for adults. You’ll realize is that on what he did, there’s the whole other adult dimension of what he was doing. The whole, the profundity of what he was doing was urgently necessary for adults too. When he was doing a show for kids, he was also doing a show for the adult in the room watching the show. He came to really understand that the show always worked at two levels. It wasn’t just for the child, but it was kind of for the broader message.

LRM: I did notice that you used animation in some certain parts of the movie to portray, Daniel the Tiger. Why did you do that? And why Daniel?

Morgan Neville: The animations are all really talking about Fred’s own childhood. When you get into learning about Fred, you realized the Daniel the Tiger essentially was Fred’s own insecure childhood self. Daniel is the perfect avatar for a young Fred Rogers. In a way, if you understand that what Fred took from his childhood were those things that he needed to put into the TV show That feeling those rather than kind of explicated them made more sense. It wasn’t about the facts of his childhood as much as it was about the feelings of his childhood. By doing it with animation, it allowed us to kind of put you more into how he was feeling about his childhood. And how he pulled from that to do his show.

LRM: Fascinating. How much footage did you actually have to go through? Or how many letters? There must have been 2000 episodes?

Morgan Neville: There were about 900 episodes.

LRM: Nine hundred episodes!

Morgan Neville: But on top of that, there were tons of speeches and outtakes. There were a lot of stuff. There were a whole team of us. There’s my assistant editor, my editors and my producers. All of us were just trying to digest wherever we could. We ended up going through pretty much every episode.

LRM: Wow. [Chuckles] That’s pretty much your life for the past few years. That’s a lot. Was there anything that was left out that you wished that you had it in the documentary due to time constraints?

Morgan Neville: There’s one idea that I thought was really interesting that didn’t make the final cut. As the show went on, he wanted to show it to be evergreen. An episode could be run forever. He wanted there to be enough episodes that a child could make it through their young years without ever seeing a repeat. As times changed, he would look back at things he had said in early episodes maybe where he was presumptuous about. About gender or about a pronoun, he’d go back and dress up in the same clothes, shoot inserts and change old episodes to keep them as kind of up-to-date as possible. If he felt like he was being maybe a little sexist in terms of question,he asked somebody from an episode three years before, he would go fix it.

LRM: Wow. One last question, if people do actually check out your documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, what is the one thing that you hope that people will learn or get out of your documentary?

Morgan Neville: The documentary is about asking people what kind of a neighbor do you want to be. It puts responsibility on you to decide what you take away from the film. We know what Fred thought and I know what I think. But, the film is not about telling people what to think, but asking people to come up with their own answers based on all the evidence of what can we do to make the best neighborhood possible. I think that’s kind of a question Fred asked himself all the time. We could all use a little more neighborliness culture right now.

LRM: A great answer. Hey, thank you very much.

Morgan Neville: Thank you. Nice talking with you.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will be in theaters nationwide on June 8.

Source: LRM Online Exclusive

Gig Patta is a journalist and interviewer for LRM and Latino-Review since 2009. He was a writer for other entertainment sites in the past with Collider and IESB.net. He originally came from the world of print journalism with several years as a reporter with the San Diego Business Journal and California Review. He earned his MBA from the Keller Graduate School of Management and BA in Economics from UC San Diego. Follow him on Instagram @gigpatta or Facebook @officialgigpatta.