Talk to anyone over the age of, say, 20, and chances are good that they grew up learning about the values of kindness and self-respect from Fred Rogers, whose show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” brought Mr. McFeeley, King Friday XIII, Lady Aberlin and the rest of the gang to PBS from 1968 to 2001. Of the many whose lives were impacted by Mister Rogers, very few were lucky enough to actually have a chat with the man. One of those who got that chance is Benjamin Wagner, then a young journalist and producer at MTV News, who met Rogers at the cultural icon’s summer home in Nantucket, Massachusetts, which happened to be next door to the cottage Wagner’s mother was renting. That’s right—Mister Rogers was literally his neighbor.
Over the course of their conversation, Rogers said something that would inspire Benjamin and his brother Christofer to embark on creating their first feature-length documentary. “I feel so strongly that deep and simple,” Rogers said, “is far more essential than shallow and complex.”
Mister Rogers passed away in 2003 at the age of 74, but his message on the importance of keeping things “deep and simple” stayed with the brothers. They set out to interview friends and colleagues of Rogers, as well as people who were inspired by him, the result of which is the feature-length documentary Mister Rogers & Me, which comes out on DVD and iTunes today, March 20th, in celebration of Mister Rogers’ 84th birthday.
Benjamin Walker took the time to chat with MovieMaker about what he learned from Mister Rogers, both in conversation with him and during the process of making Mister Rogers & Me.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): What about your conversation with Mister Rogers made you want to make a documentary about him and his message?
Benjamin Wagner (BW): Oh man, everything. That first afternoon was so inspiring. At first, I was just awed to hang out with him at all, and then I discovered very quickly that he was in-person just as he was—more, even—on-camera: Warm, curious, engaged, interested, empathic, intelligent, genuine, authentic. He was the real deal.
It was a beautiful day on Nantucket too, all blue skies and light wind and diamonds on the water—almost cinematic.
And when he said “Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex,” it just stuck with me. It was something I thought about a lot, something I was trying to figure out, and he helped me begin to put language to it and then meaning to it and then—the next year—encouraged me to “Spread the message.” I felt like I had to do it. It quickly became imperative.
MM: What was your level of experience with making movies before Mister Rogers & Me?
BW: Chris and I made our first movies together when we were kids. There are actually a few seconds of our Super 8mm version of The Greatest American Hero and a Grease knockoff I called Shades in the open of Mister Rogers & Me. We’ve done a bunch of music videos together over the years as well. Chris worked on Tupac: Resurrection and “E.R.: The Real Drama,” among others. But we’d never tackled our own feature-length film before.
MM: In making this film, you had conversations with all sorts of public figures and people who knew Mister Rogers, all of whom shared their take on the man and his worldview. Was there any one interview that resonated with you the most?
BW: They were all profound in their own ways. Interviewing Tim Russert was exciting and a little nerve-wracking, because he was such a well-respected interviewer himself. [NPR’s] Susan Stamberg, too; I’d been listening to her for years. But the most unexpectedly profound interview was with Bo Lozoff. We didn’t know anything about him other than that he and Mister Rogers were friends and that he’d written the book Deep & Simple that Mister Rogers often spoke about.
So we drive on to his 70-acre ashram in the middle of North Carolina expecting to bag the interview in an hour, and spend an entire day—breakfast, lunch and dinner—with him. We talked for hours about faith and God and belief and capitalism and consumerism and media and everything deep and simple under the sun. When we finally left, it took Chris and I a few miles to even begin talking; there was so much to absorb. I described it later as “staring into the sun.” It was a lot to take in and a lot to think about even now, years later.
MM: Did you grow up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”? What was your view on Rogers before making the film, compared to how you see him now?
BW: There wasn’t a lot of parentally-sanctioned TV in our house except, yes, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “Sesame Street,” “The Electric Company,” “Captain Kangaroo” and, later, “3-2-1 Contact.” I don’t honestly remember feeling any more connected to Mister Rogers than I was to Cookie Monster or Ernie.
Before I met him, I thought he was kind and gentle and patient, and I could sing “It’s a Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood,” but I certainly wasn’t fanatical. It was meeting him in-person and feeling his genuine interest, empathy and authenticity that struck me and inspired me to talk my brother into making a documentary together about him.
MM: One of the universal truths about making documentaries is that they’re rarely easy to get funded. How did you get the money to make Mister Rogers & Me?
BW: For the most part, we got the money working our day jobs. It was largely self-financed. The other two executive producers are family (our dad and our cousin) who pitched in financial and moral support. And our mom put us up at her place in Nantucket, where we shot all of the beautiful B-roll. We were also graced with incredibly supportive employers. And when we hit a wall, we ran a Kickstarter campaign to get us over the hump. Every dime we’ve earned has gone back into the film and into “spreading the message.” And proceeds from DVD sales will be donated to the Fred Rogers Center.
It’s been a long road. This was an immense undertaking, larger and longer than I would have guessed. But people seem to be moved by the film, and certainly these values are worth all the effort in the world. So it’s gratifying.
For more on the film, and to find out about upcoming screenings, visit www.misterrogersandme.com.