Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Sweater, The Senator, And The Vox Populi

The initial plan for the doc was to follow Mr. Rogers around his Crooked House, and reprise our "deep and simple" conversation. In fact, I scribbled "Call Mr. Rogers" on my "To Do" list for weeks. And then, on the morning of February 27, 2003, I heard a report on NPR that dashed those hopes. For a while there, I didn't know what I could do to "spread the message."

So I wrote an essay, "Mr. Rogers & Me," and I sent it to a bunch of newspapers. Each one of them -- The New York Times, USA Today, The Pittsburgh Gazette -- responded thoughtfully. Early the next morning, The Nantucket Mirror called. And then... silence.

I ruminated for months on how to make good on Mr. Rogers' challenge to me to "spread the message" in light of his absence. Finally, it dawned on me to use our conversation as the point of departure for a journey, a hero's epic, as Amy (and Joseph Campbell) would call it. Along the way, I would interview key players in media, spirituality, and pop culture: Katie Couric, Yo Yo Ma, Teresa Heinz. The essay, I decided, would constitute act one. They journey itself would be the bulk of the film. How, then, would I transition from my memories of Mr. Rogers and me in Nantucket to this road trip?

Mr. Rogers' red sweater has been on display in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History since 1984. Visiting the sweater on camera, it occurred to me, could signal the transition from the personal to the universal (after all, Mr. Rogers himself -- quoting Henri Nouwen -- said, "That which is most personal is most universal."). Showing his sweater there amongst the great artifacts of popular American culture, I reasoned, would immediately communicate that Mr. Rogers held an important space in the cultural canon. And so I set out to shoot at The Smithsonian -- the nation's largest, oldest, and most hallowed museums.

Meanwhile, as the wheels really began turning on this project, I got an email from a friend telling me that Iowa Senator Tom Harkin had recently won the inaugural Fred Rogers Integrity Award. You'll recall that I was born in Iowa City. More synchronicity? Definitely. So I set out to interview the senator in his office on Capitol Hill -- the nation's massive, marbleized, political heart.

While there, I decided, we'd grab some man on the street ("MOS") interviews on The Mall. We'd ask Jane Doe and John Smith what they remembered about Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, how they felt about the man, his mission, and his "deep and simple" ethos.

In one trip to Washington, D.C., then, we would capture academia, a politician, and the people's sense of Mr. Rogers' place in culture.

The coordination of this shoot has been, in short, complicated. First we find out The Smithsonian is closing for renovation on September 4. Then we learn that Senator Harkin's summer recess begins August 5. Oh, and Chris and Jen were due to deliver their second child on August 10.

I drafted dozens of emails, explaining and re-explaining our objectives. I made phone calls, sent faxes, and called in favors from high school friends. for the last two weeks, I have teetered on the edge of persistent and annoying. Here's the upshot.

Jen delivered on Monday night.

The Smithsonian confirmed on Tuesday night.

We leave on Thursday night.

And our finger's are crossed that Senator Harkin will find fifteen minutes for a pair of Iowa-born filmmaking brothers.

The journey continues...

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