“I’ll tell you, when I started documentaries were the spinach of filmmaking, and now they’re the cool kids,” Morgan Neville said on the eve of his latest Sundance Film Festival debut Won’t You Be My Neighbor? “The kind of freedom we have as filmmakers now, whether in terms of getting funding or just distribution, has just made it night and day from where it was even 10 years ago,” the Oscar winner adds.
A longtime veteran of the Robert Redford-founded fest, Neville will see his feature documentary on the life of Fred Rogers get a double-shot premiere Friday afternoon at the MARC in Park City and then down the road in Salt Lake City in the evening.
Having won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 2014 for his backup singer-focused 20 Feet From Stardom, Neville has in more recent years developed a relationship with Netflix in both longform and series projects. Just this morning it was announced his food docuseries Ugly Delicious will launch next month on the streaming service.
Before the Focus Features-acquired Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has the first of its five screenings at Sundance, I chatted with Neville about making a film about the beloved and simultaneously much-mocked Mister Rogers. The director also discussed his concerns about the state of civility and documentaries in America 2018, that food series with chef David Chang, and his upcoming Orson Welles film.
DEADLINE: I’ve got to tell you, a film about Mr. Rogers is about as far as you can get from your 2015’s Keith Richards documentary and the Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley pic. So why?
NEVILLE: Honestly it was 100 percent my choice. Nobody came to me with the idea. It was my idea, and I think part of it was that it was the voice I needed to hear right now.
It started with a conversation I had with Yo-Yo Ma five years ago when I was starting a film with him. One day during lunch I asked him how he figured out how to be a famous person, and he said, oh, Mister Rogers taught me, and I kind of laughed. He said no, for real. He said I went on his show many times and he saw that I was struggling with being a public figure and he really went out of his way to mentor me over years to how to use my notoriety as a force for change and something positive.
I just thought wow. That is not what I expected.
I, like most people, grew up with Mister Rogers and then kind of laughed at him when I was a teenager, and then really didn’t think much about him again. But there were a whole series of little crumbs like that conversation with Yo-Yo that led me to this, feeling like oh well there’s a real adult, and we’re in this period in our culture where I feel like nobody wants to be an adult anymore.
DEADLINE: Sounds like you are on the verge of saying the name Donald Trump there…
NEVILLE: (laughs) Well, I started the film before Trump was elected, and I feel like my hungering for people to act more adult has been happening for a long time. Just feeling like our leaders, in many ways, have kind of abandoned the idea of actually caring about what’s best for us, and care a lot more about what’s best for them. I didn’t — and this is important, you know — I didn’t want to make a film that was just going to say, oh see, Fred Rogers was a liberal, because that’s not it.
Fred was a Republican pastor. To him these weren’t liberal values they were Christian values and I think that’s what interests me. What I liked about Fred is we all watched Fred before we were Republicans or Democrats, before we had any labels attached to us. In a way a character like Fred Rogers takes us back to who we were at our inception to kind of speak the first principles about how we should treat each other. You know, everything was informed by his faith, and I think we’re in a time now where I think it’s an interesting discussion to be had about what is the Christian thing to do.
DEADLINE: Has the culture that allowed a Fred Rogers to speak directly to America’s children irrevocably changed for you?
NEVILLE: Fred said the outside of a child’s life has changed a lot, but the inside of a child hasn’t changed at all. In other words, every child comes from the same unformed type of clay, and that we shouldn’t just become numb to where we’ve wandered to as a culture, whether commercially, or politically. This film is really not about preaching to people because I don’t like to do that. It’s just about asking questions. It’s about what our priorities are.
To me when I really tried to distill what Fred was talking about to one thing, I came up with the phrase radical kindness. This idea of, what could be my neighbor’s version of love thy neighbor, and that understanding that everybody has something unique and special about them. Why I think Fred was so profound in his day was that he was the perfect person that came along at the right time, at the right place, with a new medium. For the first time there was a generation of kids being raised by a television, and Fred was somebody who was there basically as a substitute parent in many, many households.
DEADLINE: The film has been picked up by Focus and it’s going to come out in June. Of course in March of this year we’re going to see a Mister Rogers 50th anniversary commemoration on a U.S. Postal Service stamp. With timing on your side, do you feel like 2018 could be the Fred Rogers 2.0 year?
NEVILLE: I do. I mean it’s funny, when I started working on the film somebody said,oh there’s going to be a 50th anniversary, which is what this year is. This didn’t happen because of that, but it’s a lucky accident that all this stuff just happened.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
NEVILLE: Well, I hope that this is going to help start a conversation about Fred Rogers again and the things he’s good for, because to me they’re the best of what we can be as a neighborhood and as a society.
DEADLINE: Speaking of a neighborhood, you are back at Sundance again after Best of Enemies and Abstract last year and the Chelsea Handler docuseries the year before. At this point in your career, what does Sundance mean to you?
NEVILLE: I still feel like it’s Christmas morning and opening the present is getting to watch the movie with an audience for the first time. I was just talking to my editor recently, and we were both just saying how giddy with anticipation we are of actually being able to sit with the Sundance audience and watch it.
NEVILLE: Yes, because the audiences love documentary, and they’re so enthusiastic. There’s no better place to launch a documentary than Sundance. So it does not get old.
DEADLINE: Neighbor is a big-screen release, but you have an ever-deepening history with Netflix, including a new show in Ugly Delicious. With the streaming services so invested in docs, where do you think the genre is in 2018?
NEVILLE: Oh, it’s the golden age of documentary. I’ll tell you, when I started documentaries were the spinach of filmmaking, and now they’re the cool kids. It’s such a world away from what it used to be when I started and I think there are so many reasons for that. Streaming platforms have been great for it and just the access people now have to documentaries have whetted that appetite in such a big way that I think so many people are so much more willing to go to a documentary, almost gravitate to documentaries more than feature films.
The kind of freedom we have as filmmakers now, whether in terms of getting funding or just distribution, has just made it night and day from where it was even 10 years ago.
DEADLINE: Among your projects coming up in the next year or so is a Netflix doc on Orson Welles called They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. It may seem silly to ask why make a film of a cinema icon, but what drew you to Welles as you were drawn to Fred Rogers?
NEVILLE: It’s funny because I think so many of the documentaries I’ve made are about things I was into by the time I was 15.
DEADLINE: How so?
NEVILLE: I was into music. I was into movies. I was into books. You know, it’s all the stuff I’ve spent my career doing films about, which is amazing. There are a number of times when making films I was like if I could show my 14-year-old self that I’d be, you know, hanging out with Keith Richards, or something, my head would’ve exploded. So to be specific, I was a big Orson Welles fan, but I never thought I was going to make a film about it until I got the rights to all of his dailies of this unfinished movie he made called The Other Side of the Wind, which is essentially about himself.
So it just presented this incredible opportunity of Welles telling his own story through a film, and I get to tell a story about Welles through his film, through my film. So it gets a little meta, to say the least.
DEADLINE: Netflix acquired the actual The Other Side of the Wind, so is the plan to coordinate that film with yours?
NEVILLE: The producers of that film, Frank Marshall and Filip Rymsza, are my executive producers, too. So it’s all kind of coordinated on the distribution and business side, but it’s very separate on the creative side. Partially, because the thing about the film was that Orson shot it for six years and he kept squirreling away characters, and re-casting. So I feel like most of what I’m going to use isn’t even going to be in their film.
DEADLINE: Will they premiere at the same time?
NEVILLE: They are going to go up on Netflix at the same time, but they are two totally separate projects.
DEADLINE: So we could see you back at Sundance 2019 with the Orson Welles docu?
NEVILLE: Could be. Could be sooner.
DEADLINE: Well, we know we’ll see your new Netflix docuseries with chef David Change on February 23. Is that another meta affair?
NEVILLE: (laughs) I’d say it’s like a culture show told through food. It’s a very different kind of food show. It’s kind of an anti-food show food show.
DEADLINE: You mean in the way that Abstract is a culture show about design?
NEVILLE: Exactly. Now you see my wheelhouse. I’m going through all the different parts of culture. Design, art, food, film, TV, music, you know. That’s what I am, a culture guy.