‘He just spoke to everybody’; producer of Fred Rogers documentary talks about film in advance of free screening

Fred Rogers appears in "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Photo by Jim Judkis, courtesy of Sundance Institute, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The community is invited to a free screening of the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Friday evening at 7 p.m. at the Eccles Fine Arts Center on the campus of Dixie State University. In advance of the show, St. George News sat down with producer Nicholas Ma.

Nicholas Ma, producer of the documentary film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” poses in front of Eccles Fine Arts Center on the Dixie State University campus, St. George, Utah, Aug. 24, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

The documentary film, currently playing in theaters nationwide, features the story of children’s television icon Fred Rogers, whose popular show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” aired on PBS for more than three decades.

Ma will be on hand to introduce the film and to answer questions from the audience immediately after the screening. The event is part of the Docutah International Documentary Film Festival, in collaboration with the Sundance Institute.

Ma told St. George News it didn’t take long for him and his fellow producers Morgan Neville – who also directed the film – and Caryn Capotosto to realize the potential impact of documentary about Mister Rogers.

“I think we realized that there was much more of a hunger for this voice and that the hunger for this voice was broader than just our own,” Ma said.

Fred Rogers appears in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” | Photo by Richard Kelly, courtesy of Sundance Institute, St. George News

“You have to make a documentary because you love something. But at the same time, I don’t think we had fully realized just how much other people not only loved Mister Rogers but were craving that strength and kindness in the world.”

Ma said he actually appeared on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” twice as a child, once when he was 6 and again when he was 16. Both times, he accompanied his father, famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who performed on the show.

Ma recounted when he and Neville first approached Rogers’ widow, Joanne Rogers, about creating the documentary.

When Morgan asked me about it, my only concern was I was thinking Joanne has always said no one should ever do a biography on Fred Rogers because it would just be too boring. And, he (Morgan) said, ‘I think it would make sense to do it on the ideas of Fred.’ And I said, ‘Now that, I think, is an idea that Joanne would love.’ And we went down and she was really enthusiastic. And, she then introduced us to the Fred Rogers Center, which houses the archive.

Ma described seeing the archive as being “sort of like a Willy Wonka experience,” as they walked into a room filled “floor to ceiling” with scripts, audio and video files, along with all of the ephemera from the show, which aired from 1968-2001.

Fred Rogers appears in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” | Photo by Robert Lerner, courtesy of Sundance Institute, St. George News

Ma said the archive allowed him “to see into (Fred Rogers’) mind and to see past what seems like such a placid exterior into someone who’s doing a lot of intellectual work, a lot of emotional work, a lot of artistic work to create something that feels very simple and primed for children.”

Ma cited Rogers’ ability to connect with viewers of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds on a deeply personal level.

“He just spoke to everybody,” Ma said. “You realize that there is this ability to say, ‘I’m going to give you exactly who I am and I’m going to tell you that if you give that to me, that is enough.’ That is a message that I think all of us long to hear.”

Even though Fred Rogers died in 2003, his message still resonates today with Americans young and old, Ma said.

David Newell and Fred Rogers appear in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a documentary by Morgan Neville. | Photo by Lynn Johnson, courtesy of Sundance Institute, St. George News

“I also think he gave us the tools to live in this day. We just have to use them.”

“I think we have been so glad that enough of Fred Rogers’ spirit is in this film,” Ma added. “It, too, has transcended so many of the polarizing dynamics in this country to remind people, hey, we have the ability to be unified.”

The 94-minute documentary film was the result of many hours of painstaking effort, as the filmmakers watched hundreds of episodes and edited the footage into the finished product.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” has grossed more than $21 million in U.S. theaters since it opened in June. It is scheduled to be released on DVD Sept. 4.

Event details

  • What: Screening of the documentary film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” rated PG-13 for thematic elements.
  • When: Friday, Aug. 24. Doors open at 6 p.m., with film showing at 7 p.m. following a brief introduction by producer Nicholas Ma. Ma will also be available for questions and answers from the audience after the screening.
  • Where: The documentary will be shown at the Eccles Fine Arts Center on the campus of Dixie State University, 225 S. University Ave. (700 East), St. George.
  • Cost: Free.
  • Additional information available at Docutah’s website.

Email: jrichards@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  • Not_So_Much August 25, 2018 at 6:18 pm

    Great evening! Well worth the time and now see ‘the neighborhood’ in a whole new perspective. Thank you DOCUTAH and Sundance.

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