‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ has a dual television debut
Even long after his passing, leave it to Mister Rogers to bring a cable network and a broadcast network together.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” director Morgan Neville’s much-acclaimed documentary about famously gentle PBS children’s-show icon Fred Rogers, had a very healthy run in theaters last year. Now, it’s about to make television history: At the same time it has its HBO debut Saturday, Feb. 9, PBS will televise it as an episode of the series “Independent Lens” (check local listings).
“It’s been an incredible year, and I’m still taking it all in,” Neville says of the run he’s had with the movie that celebrates “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and its essential driving force. “This was kind of a rare instance of the audience taking ownership of the film from the first moment, in a way I’ve never experienced. From our first premiere at Sundance, the reaction was, ‘You made this film for me’ or ‘This film is about me.’ It was amazing. You can’t prepare for that.”
Already available on home video, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” stands as the most profitable biographical documentary made to date, and Neville reports Rogers’ family is “so happy” with the reception to the film.
“They’ve all been very supportive,” he reflects, “and (Rogers’ widow) Joanne is still going strong. One thing I think the film did for them is that Fred, in his lifetime, was never taken that seriously. Nobody really understood the depth of what he was doing, and now, I feel like they finally do. He was way more than just cardigans and sneakers.”
As enduring as Rogers’ legacy is, Neville reasons the effectiveness of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” largely rested in “shaping a story that is cinematic. The subject matter here is television, and I had people ask me, ‘How are you ever going to make a movie about television?’ It’s a challenge, but we worked hard to make it feel like a film.”
A current nominee in the Film Independent Spirit Awards (being presented Saturday, Feb. 23, the day before the Oscars), “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is one of several recent documentaries that have struck similar chords with viewers, Neville believes.
“This past year has woken up the outside world to the idea that documentaries can be compelling cinema,” he says, “and it’s not just my film. There’s ‘RBG’ and ‘Free Solo’ and ‘Three Identical Strangers,’ and I think that’s a testament to the films, but I think it’s also a testament to the types of stories documentaries tell. People want to hear stories that help us understand the world and process it in some way.”