Interviewed by Dave Curtis
Morgan Neville is a well-known documentary filmmaker, he has made numerous films that focus on music and culture. His latest films include Won’t You Be My Neighbour which is about iconic children’s television host Fred Rogers and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead which tells the story of Orson Welles and his last film The Other Side of the Wind. Whilst he was at the London Film Festival premiering not one, but two new documentaries we got to sit down with him and ask him a few questions about his love for Fred Rogers, Orson Welles and we get into the process of documentary filmmaking.
Was this a passion project for you or did somebody come to you?
It was my project, I mean it was a passion project in that I loved Mister Rogers as a boy and then I didn’t think about him for decades but every time he came back in my life as an adult it surprised me somehow. So, it was something as an adult, these viral videos would go by as Fred Rogers in America and they always just struck me as a voice that is missing in the culture. And so, the real instinct to make the film was not a nostalgic instinct. I am not a big fan of nostalgia, it was actually ‘how do we get a voice like that into the cultural discussion today.’ So really for me it was a film about the same issues I come back to again and again in my movies which is “how do we find common ground as a culture,” “what happened to all the grown-ups in our culture.” So, I’ve made a couple of films that circle these same issues but it is something I care a lot about and in America, if there is any figure who transcends partisanship then it is Fred Rogers because he was dealing with kids that zero sense of partisanship.
I’ve never seen a program like it, I didn’t know who he was until I told my Canadian wife I was doing this interview and watching the movie and her face lit up and she gave me a crash course in all of it. It bought loads of memories back for her as well which was really exciting to watch.
Did she watch it when she young?
Oh yeah. She watched it with all her sisters when they were growing up. She was surprised when I said he didn’t really come here. I think all we had was Gordon the Gopher with Phillip Schofield on a Saturday morning, but we never had anything like Mister Rogers It was very emotional watching it with her. Did you cry when you watched it for the first time?
Well I was making it but it was very emotional to make and even when we were watching the mix back for the sound I started crying.
I don’t think you can help it. Especially that last question (when you had to think of someone). Was that always going to be your endpoint?
No, it wasn’t. He (Fred Rogers) had done that in speeches so I just thought from the first interview I’ll ask people. I didn’t know if it was going to make it in the film, but I just thought let me try it and then it became the ending.
It is a really strong ending. It packs a punch. I could imagine if you saw it in a cinema people would be sobbing everywhere.
The first screening we had at Sundance, because I didn’t really expect that, you know.
It’s done really well in the States…
It has been the biggest documentary in five years in America (laughs). So, it has been a smash in America.
I think it just shows that so many people still connect with Mister Rogers and his themes which is good.
It is. It’s interesting because also a lot of people went to see the film who didn’t watch him as a kid but maybe were a parent at the time. It’s been interesting, it has also played for liberal audiences and conservative audiences which is really rare.
He was a Republican, wasn’t he?
He was. Being a Republican meant something and there were different types of Republicans then, particularly in Pennsylvania, there were a certain type what they call Rockefeller Republicans which is a Liberal Republican, which seems like an oxymoron now, so he was of a type that doesn’t really exist anymore. But really all of his ideas that you could consider to be liberal were based in theology. So, to him it’s not a big leap to go from won’t you be my neighbour to love thy neighbour.
Is that going to be the sequel?
Was it emotional talking to the family? Were they all up for it when you purposed the documentary?
The sons had never done interviews before. They had always kept it at arm’s length.
You can tell that one looks like Fred and the one looks like his mother.
They had never done anything or talked about it and Joanne, she is amazing- his widow. In the beginning, when I told her I wanted to make the film, I said I want to make a film not about the biography but about ideas. She said that sounds like a great idea because Fred had always said if anybody made a film out of his biography it would be the most boring film ever made. Which I don’t entirely agree with. The advice she gave me when she gave me permission to make the film was “don’t make him into a saint.”
I think you succeed with that. You made him very human.
Well, that was the thing, no ever treated him as human, they treated him as a cardboard character. I think that was frustrating for him.
Do you think that bothered him after a while?
I think when bad things happen and he had to talk, I don’t think that bothered him because I think he thought that’s when he was needed. I think the other thing is at one point he got more mail than anybody in America, and he responded to every letter he got. So, he would spend 15 hours a week doing letters.
Obviously all hand written that point.
Yeah, and for him, that was as important as the show. It was like if a child writes to me, you have to write them back and to them, that is a real relationship. Part of his thing was ‘my relationship with a child through the television is real to that child, to that child it is a real relationship’ and he also only ever talked to a single child through the lens, he was never saying ‘Hi kids, he was like, how are you today?’ So if you were a child, you thought he was talking to you. So it was a one on one relationship between you and him.
When did you start the process, are we talking years?
It was probably the very end of 2015 that I started thinking about it, and then really 2016 that we kind of put it together and started production in October 2016, just before the election.
That’s quite a quick turnaround for a documentary.
We premiered it at Sundance in 2018, so that was pretty fast.
How do you go about picking what goes in and out because there must be hours and hours of footage?
There is tons of stuff but I have been doing this long enough that I have refined my process and I feel a lot of times people who are doing archive documentary or documentaries, in general, cut a six-hour version of the film and then cut down it down to four hours, then three hours and I can’t stand doing that.
So, there are no director cuts out there or anything?
Well, there are scenes I cut out but I think the idea, in the beginning, is what is that we really want to say and what are scenes we want to talk about. I put together a list maybe 32 scenes and we cut those first and we had 100 minutes.
Was the animation always intended to go in, because that really works.
Yeah it was intended, just because I didn’t want to just talk about his childhood in an expository way ‘he did this and in this kind of house, he was born here at this time.’ I wanted his childhood to be told from his point of view in terms of how it related to the show and for it to be more in his imagination. So the only idea was to do animation and to come up with something that felt that animation I kind of based on 1940s children’s books and some Orson Welles actually, some magnificent “Ambersons” bit of lighting and things. I was really happy how it turned out.
So you grew up watching Mister Rogers, do I dare ask when that was?
I was born in ’67, the show went on in 68. So I was the first generation. Right from the beginning. Before Sesame Street, in America there was Mister Rogers, so that’s what I watched. So I love the show and I watched it every day. But I barely remember much of it because a lot of me watching that show pre-dates my memory. So it’s interesting revisiting him as an adult because you’re revisiting parts of yourself that you can’t even remember. So it accessing your earliest memories, which you don’t spend a lot of time doing in your modern life, and really trying to think about it. So, it’s all these things that are familiar that come back. You see an image and it reminds you of something.
I know you were very young, but did it teach you stuff that you have carried with you?
It must have done. And I’m sure it did with millions of people, but there is nowhere to gauge that impact which is one of those things about culture. We can’t say the culture is 10% more empathic because it watched Mister Rogers. But anecdotally, I heard story after story from people I’ve met talking about what the show meant to them. Even people who maybe didn’t have a father or had never seen an African American child on television before, or a handicapped child on television before.
That last scene of that clip when he jumps on stage, he didn’t even use the stairs.
Not even without waiting for him to get to the podium, he just jumps up there!
Why do you think this is a story worth telling?
I think its actually critical in that we live in a time where our culture has been built around divisiveness, you know people can get votes and eyeballs by pitting one group against another, stoking resentment. We live this cycle of resentment and it feels nobody is advocating for the opposite of it, reminding us that building societies takes hard work and is a fragile endeavour. So, I just feel like “who’s reminding us of the stakes here?” and what we have in common. So, for me, it was just trying to advocate for the opposite of what I see happening in our culture, in a loud way.
Well I think it has connected, especially in America.
Well in America it has, so for me I couldn’t think of a message that I wanted to put out there more than this. It’s just my way of dealing with the past couple of years. It was a really therapeutic process to work on this film. It was hugely helpful.
When you were watching it all back did you have any favourite episodes?
Again, it was all dimly familiar and there are episodes that probably won’t mean anything to you like him visiting a crayon factory or these episodes that stuck in my mind but it was more the land of make-believe and the puppets and the trolley and all these things that were very familiar.
My wife loved the little town apparently, she wanted that town.
Oh the model, I remember being so fascinated by that. The model is there in the office and I took my picture with it.
So there are museums somewhere?
There are two museums. All in Pittsburgh. You can see a lot of the things there.
Do you think the film has merit in UK, because he wasn’t really known, but it is a global message?
I didn’t make the film thinking about it, but I’ve screened it for people including for a couple of British audiences and I’ve had a lot of Brits and people see it at festivals that had no idea who he was.
I’ve been telling people at the London Film Festival about it.
I’ve been surprised at how well it has worked for an audience for people that didn’t grow up with him. Because ultimately it is a humanist message. What he was talking about is basic human values and how to treat people and how to treat yourself.
I can’t believe that there isn’t something on TV now which is similar.
That’s the thing, it’s like the idea he was talking about civil rights or war or hunger to two to six-year olds. Nobody has done that since.
The Bobby Kennedy footage for example.
Yeah that’s unbelievable talking about assassinations!
I’m going to have to ask about ‘They’ll love me when I’m dead’. How did you get involved in that project?
Another passion project.
So you weren’t approached for it.
There was a book about 4 years ago called Orson Welles Last Movie by Josh Karp who became my producer on the film and when I read that book, I decided if I can ever get my hands on that Orson Welles footage, I would love to make a documentary about it because it was Welles making a film about himself essentially, shooting it for years and years.
When I was young all I knew of Orson Welles was the Transformers movie.
Exactly! So, I actually put a tiny bit of the Transformers movie into Mister Rogers movie with Orson’s voice. That was me doing an Easter egg for myself between the two films.
I love that. So I’ve guessed you have seen the new film (The Other Side Of The Wind).
Yeah I’m such a Welles fan.
Do you have a favourite film of his?
I mean it isn’t his best film, but the film I’ve always just loved was ‘Lady From Shanghai’.
I love the quote in your film when they are talking about ‘Citizen Kane’ being the greatest film ever but it isn’t even his best film.
I guess it was a lot of fun making that.
That was great fun.
Were you making it as the same time as ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbour’?
It overlapped, but we didn’t edit at the same time. Right when I picture locked Mister Rogers we started editing Orson. That was a big gear shift going to one from the other. Although the similarity, because I thought about that this week having both films here (LFF) is that they are both people who didn’t care what other people thought about what was popular and what was good. They each had their own internal guidance for what they thought was important and what is right and wrong. As an artist that is exactly the kind of heroic figure you want, somebody who marches to their own drummer.
One last question. What is next for you?
I am working on some TV shows. I have a couple of shows for Netflix that I am doing.
That seems to be a good partnership at the moment. They are nailing it at the moment, Roma is so good.
It is! What is great is that they just give you a lot of freedom. It’s less of a burden to do a TV show than it is to do a feature. To direct a feature doc just takes so much time.
Are you going to stick to documentaries, are you not tempted to do a full length feature film?
No I love docs, I’ve been doing it for 25 years. I’m trying to find the next subject to fall in love with and part of is that I haven’t had time. I came up with Mister Rogers and Orson Welles just because I was able to read books on vacation.
So really you need a holiday to read books etc.
Yes, because there are a lot of things I’m interested in. I go on holiday and take a pile of books and I usually come away with some ideas.
We’d like to thank Morgan Neville once again for taking the time to chat with Dave whilst premiering both his new documentaries in the UK at the London Film Festival.