Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville has been keeping one eye on the box office of late, and another eye on the Emmy race.
The director’s latest documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, expanded to 96 screens over the past weekend, collecting over $1 million, according to audience measurement firm comScore. The film focuses on the late children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers and his message of inclusion, decency and mutual respect.
“I wanted to make a film about why we need to talk about these issues today,” Neville tells Deadline. “Can we at least agree on the basic principles of what kind of neighborhood we want to have and how we should treat each other?”
A different set of questions emerges in the Netflix documentary program Neville has in the running for Emmy consideration right now, the food and travel-themed series Ugly Delicious. In each episode chef and restaurateur David Chang and food writer Peter Meehan explore how a different kind of food—pizza, tacos, or barbecue, for instance—is prepared and interpreted around the world.
“It’s a chance to talk about food as one of the most important parts of culture. So as much as it’s a food show, it’s also a show about culture and ideas,” Neville explains.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? can be seen as a plea for finding common ground in our politics. But Ugly Delicious celebrates partisanship—at least in the kitchen. Cooks, restaurant owners and assorted commentators argue passionately, if genially, over the superiority of their preferred take on a dish. In the pizza episode, Wolfgang Puck champions experimentation, as with his signature smoked salmon pizza; in Tokyo, chef Ryu Yoshimura makes a pizza topped with tuna and mayonnaise; chef Chang voices surprising appreciation for Domino’s fare, and in Naples, Italy, the president of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana defends a traditional, old-world approach.
“We really try to embrace disagreement” on the show, Neville contends. “The idea that people can disagree about food, just like you can disagree about culture…that’s a big part of it.”
Chang, founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, might be called the frontman for Ugly Delicious.
“If you think of Dave as the host, we use him in a very different way. Unlike all food shows that have a host, there’s no narration because that implies a kind of authority,” Neville comments. “It was really more about putting Dave into real situations and having him react and not knowing where it was going to go and really approaching it more like a documentary in that way.”
Food-related programs have become a staple of many people’s viewing diets, from Bravo’s Top Chef to the Netflix show Chef’s Table and Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Neville believes the popularity of the genre should not surprise.
“There’s a basic kind of beauty and almost kind of primal attraction to looking at food,” he observes, adding, “There’s nobody in all the planet that doesn’t have a relationship to food. And it’s like the most fundamental element of how we identify when we think of our childhood, when we think of our culture…So it just has an incredibly innate power for everybody.”
The success of food-themed shows, especially travel-oriented ones, owes something to Anthony Bourdain, who ignited interest in comparative cuisine with programs including the Travel Channel’s No Reservations and most recently CNN’s Parts Unknown. His death by suicide earlier this month came as a devastating blow to his admirers, as well as Neville and his collaborators on Ugly Delicious.
“I was always a huge fan [of Bourdain’s]. He was the godfather of this new idea of looking at food. His shows completely opened up this world and Ugly Delicious would not have existed if Tony hadn’t done everything he did,” Neville notes. “Dave [Chang] and Pete [Meehan] and my two other executive producers were very good friends with him and always called him Uncle Tony, and I think everybody always felt like they owed a lot of what they did, a lot of how they looked at food because of what he had done.”
Neville, who earned his Academy Award for the 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, serves as executive producer of Ugly Delicious among other roles.
“I directed a couple of episodes, but I was in the field a lot and I was deeply involved in the editing of all of the episodes. So I would say it was something that was one of the most important things I’ve done career-wise,” he states. “And it was just so much fun to do. There was kind of a looseness to it, which was kind of the idea from the beginning, that you can’t always do a feature film.”
The show not only advances the viewer’s understanding of world cuisine, but his own.
“Ultimately, the similarities in all of our cultures and foods vastly outnumber the differences,” Neville maintains. “And as much as we make a big deal out of the differences, underneath it we have basic human ideas of taste and nurturing and sustenance and tradition. I feel like that’s the direction we’ve been going with the show, just this idea that as different as all this is, it’s also all the same. And I find that a really positive message.”