Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Insight At The Intersection Of Faith & Reason

I called Bill Moyers today.

I've been a fan of his since watching his groundbreaking interviews with Joseph Campbell, "The Power of Myth," in college. Anyone who can connect the dots between "Star Wars" and Odysseus, between modernity and myth, is good with me.

Moyers studied journalism at North Texas University. He interned for Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, and, when LBJ took office after JFK's assisination, acted as his special assistant. He was an International Fellow at University of Edinburgh, and received a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. He was ordained two years later. He's been working journalist at PBS since 1971, hosting "Now," "Bill Moyers Reports," and "Faith & Reason," amongst others. He has received 30 Emmy awards over the course of his 25 year career, including a Lifetime Emmy Award in September.

As I pointed our rented Taurus down Bo Lozoff's driveway, I turned to Chris and said, "We have to get Bill Moyers." Bo had staggered us with his explanation of "deep and simple," its foundation in the world's great religions, and its inherent opposition to our modern, accelrated culture. If anyone could help us make sense of faith and God and sex and children's prgramming, it was Bill Moyers.

Well, his assistant, Karen, wasn't quite sold. "He's in production and not making any further committments," she said. "And he told me he didn't know Mister Rogers that well anyway."

That Chris and I aren't endeavoring to make a film about Mister Rogers, per se, is the challenge of this entire undertaking. In exploring what is "deep and simple," we are hiking a trail blazed by Mister Rogers, yes. But we're not making a biography. We're exploring the man, and what he stood for, and why we need it now more than ever. Hence our interest in Bill Moyers.

"If you just give me a second to explain," I said.

"Actually, I have three people one hold. Why don't you email me." So I did.

    In short, Fred Rogers really was my neighbor. In conversation, Fred (a sage, public television icon) and I (a young, idealistic MTV News producer) constantly explored his belief that -- in life, and on television -- "deep and simple is for more essential than shallow and complex." The summer prior to his death, he urged me to "spread the message," which I am endeavoring to do via my documentary, "Mister Rogers & Me."

    Much of Mister Rogers' "deep and simple" ethos -- a phrase he plucked from author/activist/mystic (and friend) Bo Lozoff's book, "Deep & Simple" -- was based on his unique perspective a Presbyterian minister, and as a participant, observer and activist within our accelerated media culture. Thus far, we've interviewed Susan Stamberg, Tim Russert, Marc Brown, and Mr. Lozoff to that end.

    My co-director (and brother) and I interviewed Mr. Lozoff at his North Carolina commune. He (and his devotees) live by three tenants derived from world religions: live simply (wary of material), contribute to the greater good, and practice spirituality daily. These were Fred's core values as well. And these, as it ends up, fly in the face of contemporary values: we have more things but less satisfaction; we have more need for altruism, but less engagement; and we have more distraction, and less tranquility. And so, as we drove away from Mr. Lozoff's commune, I said to my brother, "We need Bill Moyers to help us make sense of all this."

    Whether through his work with Joseph Campbell, immediately after September 11, or "Faith & Reason," Mr. Moyers has been a constant source of insight and inspiration in at the intersection between the gravitas of spirituality, and the frivolity of an accelerated culture. To that end, we seek Mr. Moyers answers to questions such as: "Has American culture become shallow and complex?" "How does media and consumer culture conspire against depth and simplicity?" And "To whom does culture look for deep and simple inspiration?"

    Our request, then, is for just twenty minutes of Mr. Moyers time. We are a small, nimble, enthused crew of two shooting HDDV with a small light kit. We will be in and out in under an hour. And we will be so grateful for the wisdom and insight that only Mr. Moyers can provide; there is no one else as deep, or who communicates with such clarity, and simplicity.

It's a complicated transition: from Fred Rogers, to "deep and simple," to the basic tenants of world religions, to contemporary culture. Fred explained it to me in one sentence. But, according to Chris (who has been making select reels of all of our interviews), it took me six minutes to explain to Marc Brown.

So... that's the latest. I also have letters into Teresa Heinz Kerry (who also summers on Nantucket, and sits on the Family Communications board), and Linda Ellerbee (who's "Nick News" is the longest running children's news program on television). That ought to get us into 2007. Then it's off to Pittsburgh, back to Nantucket, and onward to the big screen...

Monday, November 20, 2006

Arthur And The Tribeca Grand Gesture

As telling as it was that "Arthur" creator Marc Brown invited Chris and me into his Tribeca loft on a Sunday evening, it was the end of our interview that was the most revealing of his character.

Our original objective was to shoot Mr. Brown's presentation at the 92d Street Y, but the union buyout fee was to steep for our budget (as there is no budget). Still, I wanted to see the man in action. So Abbi and I -- conspicuous as the only to non-parents in the auditorium -- smiled our way through Marc's sweet and simple presentation.

The auditorium was filled with six-year-olds, but I was struck by how adult his presentation was. Though he spoke in simple sentences, much of his speech -- like the fact that he works with both Barbara and Laura Bush as a literacy advocate despite having not voted for either of their husbands -- was a wink and a nod to the parents. Similarly, he made a pitch for his crusade against child obesity with some staggering numbers: junk food advertisers spend $10B a year targeting young people.

His presentation was brief, and sweet. He showed photos from his childhood, of his home and studio in Hingham, MA, and even of Mister Rogers (as he promised). The event was something like an autobiography crossed with a book signing crossed with a reading. And when Marc Brown read, the room fell silent.

He revealed that he did't like being a kid, and thought other kids were "kind of odd." As an adult, though, he considers kids his bosses, and finds them interesting, and their parent's odd.

A few hours later, Marc welcomed Chris and me into his home. He couldn't have been more gracious and open, even going so far as to re-arrange furniture and lighting for the shoot. His loft was open and spacious, with just a few large, modern canvases on the wall. A giant, stuffed Arthur rested near a crib. His granddaughter, Sky, sat nearby at her computer, skeptically watching us preps her grandfather.

I settled into a deep, cream-colored couch and fell silent as he told me stories about meeting and working with Fred Rogers.

Though Marc had long trusted "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" as one of only a few sources of quality programming for his eldest son, Tolon (for whom he spun the first Arthur yard as a bedtime story), it wasn't until well into Arthur's PBS run that he met Mister Rogers in person. He told me of that meeting with a sense of child-like wonder, joy, and gratitude.

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" later visited Marc's Hingham, MA, studio. Soon thereafter, Marc drew Mister Rogers into "Arthur." What intrigued me, though, was the fact that the two had been discussing collaborating on a project just prior to Fred's death.

Both Fred Rogers and Marc Brown, I've come to learn, were self-described "chubby kids." Both built careers reassuring kids that they were unique, and special, and one-of-a-kind. The project they discussed was about a giraffe that didn't feel like he belonged.

It was difficult not to seize on the point, as one of the things that most endeared me to Mister Rogers himself was that he cherished each individual's uniqueness, even if that uniqueness (a handicap, a big nose, a stutter) made them feel broken or un-whole inside. Marc, like Susan Stamberg before him, described Fred's ability to find what's missing in a person, and address it. For all three of us, it seemed -- nay, for all of us -- what's missing was a sense of belonging.

Therein lies one of the challenges of these interviews, though. With notables like Tim Russert, Susan Stamberg and Marc Brown, my window is narrow. Though all three were generous with their time, energy, and emotional availability, it's difficult for me to really go deep with them. More succinctly, there is a part of me that wants to belong to them, that wants to be friends with them, that is needy in some way that Mister Rogers identified all those years ago. That is, of course, impossible. And not the mission of the film. But an interesting lesson.

I could hear his family stirring upstairs as Marc and I chatted. Soon, his daughter-in-law, Christine, was at the door. "I'll meet you at the restaurant in a few minutes," he told her. Suddenly aware of the time, I looked down to my notes to pick my favorite remaining questions. I asked them, asked that he sign a few copies of "Arthur's Nose" (for Ethan and Edward) and "Arthur Writes A Story" (for me), then called it a wrap.

"I hate to hold you up from dinner," I said. "But these lights will take a few minutes to cool down."

"Oh, that's fine," he said. "You guys can just show yourselves out whenever you're ready. No hurry."

And with that, "Arthur" creator Marc Brown smiled, wished us luck, gave us hugs, and left us -- two strange men he wouldn't have known from Adam just two hours prior -- alone in his home with all the trust and every confidence in the world.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Blessings

Chris and I were standing outside of NPR's Studio 3A listening to South-African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela perform on "Talk of the Nation." Moments prior, we had interviewed the incomparable Susan Stamberg, and hours before that, "Meet The Press" host, Tim Russert.

As Vusi, to whom we had just been introduced by our gracious NPR hostess Gemma Hooley, broke into the plaintive, spine-tingling chorus of "Silang Mabele" ("The Beauty of Our Land"), I steadied myself against the glass and thought, "Mine is a blessed life."

Our day of "Mister Rogers & Me" interviews was long, but so meaningful. It began with with a six o'clock wake up call. Of course, I had been lying in bed for hours, rolling questions over and over in my head. For me, the questions were all about connections. How did they come to know Fred Rogers? How did they feel their life work overlapped?

As an interviewer, your job is to immediately establish rapport, contextualize your interview, demonstrate that you've done your homework, all while keeping the conversation on target. Fortunately, with pros like Tim Russert and Susan Stamberg, it's an easy job.

Kind of. Collectively, Tim and Susan have interviewed thousands of the world's most influential, creative, and important people: Rosa Parks, Bill Clinton, Hamid Karzai, Condoleezza Rice, Dave Brubeck, Pervez Musharraf, and Luciano Pavarotti to name just a few. The pressure motivates a guy to do his homework, and (as one Newhouse professor used to say upon handing out blank blue books), dazzle.

We interviewed Tim in a generic conference room at NBC's Washington bureau. Chris scrambled to light it, and create a compelling shot, while I paced the room reading my questions over and over. Five minutes before Tim was scheduled to join us, Chris hadn't gotten the mics to work. "Dude, run out to the truck and get me the shotgun mic, will ya'?" By the time I returned from my brisk, anxious walk through the damp morning, he'd remedied the problem. Tim walked in a few minutes later.

"When I told friends and colleagues that I would be interviewing you," I said, "They all suggested I impress you with some Buffalo Bills trivia."

"Go Bills!" he replied, almost Pavlovianly.

"But since I know nothing about football, I brought you some H & H bagels from your old neighborhood."

Rapport: established.

The interview breezed by. I drew connections between his father (about whom, Tim's written the memoir, "Big Russ & Me") and Fred Rogers, as well as "Meet The Press" (American's longest running network program) and "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" (America's longest running public television program). Like I said, he's a pro. Ask the question, and you get a perfectly formed sound bite in return. (As Chris said later, "Everything Tim said is usable.") I expected him to be articulate, though. What I didn't expect was his warmth, and his authenticity. What I didn't expect was that his eyes would absolutely sparkle.

Afterwards, after we'd established that we were his colleagues nephews ("Oh, so your Iowa boys, huh? Corn fed and cow licked!"), after we'd snapped a quick photo, and agreed to send him a copy of the film, and invite him to the premiere, Chris and I just looked at each other, smiled, then began packing for the next shoot.

I have long been a fan and supporter of National Public Radio. On long stretches of interstate, and lonesome nights alike, Susan Stamberg, Noah Adams, and Bob Edwards have been constant, steadfast companions. To tour their facilities, then, is a fan boy thrill. To interview "The Founding Mother of Public Radio" was better still.

The organizations mission is painted in silver letters on an ivory wall just inside the front door of NPR's Massachusetts Avenue lobby.

    The mission of NPR is to work in partnership with member stations to create a more informed public -- one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures. To accomplish our mission, we produce, acquire, and distribute programming that meets the highest standards of public service in journalism and cultural expression; we represent our members in matters of their mutual interest; and we provide satellite interconnection for the entire public radio system.

I was barely inside the door, and already Mister Rogers' "deep and simple" ethos was affirmed. I was barely inside the door, and already Mister Rogers challenge to me had born fruit.

A half an hour later, as Chris and I set up Studio 5C under the watchful eye of Press Relations Intern Kyle Loden, Ms. Stamberg swooped gracefully through the door.

"Hello, gentleman," she said her familiar, raspy voice.

Ms. Stamberg was gracious, humble, warm, and lit from within. She smiled the whole time (as any longtime listener might imagine by the sound of her voice). She was engaged, and engaging, and patiently regaled us with stories about the two PBS programs she hosted with Fred, as well as the numerous times she called on him on air to contextualize world events for children. She even brought a photo of she and Fred. "I always love to look at his hands," she said. "He told me that 'Television is a medium of small gestures,' and I always remembered that."

Afterwards, Gemma joined us as we broke down our equipment. Then she gave us the grand a tour (Corey Flintoff in the elevator! David Kestenbaum in the newsroom!), introduced us to Vusi, and sat us down just outside the control room.

"The world is shrinking now," Vusi told Lynn Neary. "Your neighbor's problem is also your problem."

I smiled, and felt a rush of warmth inside. The hours of driving, the lack of sleep, the anxiety and uncertainty and ambiguity of it all slipped away as I realized how fortunate I am to have this inheritance, to have these friends, these experiences, and these opportunities. Then Vusi finished his thought.

"How much do you want to belong?"

Friday, November 10, 2006


I find myself moved to near-tears more and more often these days as I experience mini-epiphanies in the strangest places at the strangest times.

Example: This morning, I'm riding the 4 train downtown. I'm finishing up Tim Russert's book, "Big Russ & Me," in preparation for Monday's interview. Over and over I notice an overlap between Tim's upbringing and my own: Middle American childhood (Tim in Buffalo, me in Chicago), the positive influence of the faith (he attended a Jesuit high school and college, I was an alter boy), and an appreciation of simplicity.

And it struck me this morning, somewhere between 57th and 42d Streets, that our documentary is really an exploration of these themes: values, faith, simplicity, and the men and women who espouse them -- like Tim Russert, Bo Lozoff, Marc Brown, and Susan Stamberg.

But that's not what moves me. What moves me is when I connect the great loss in my life, and the first conversation that really bonded Fred and me -- his gentle inquiry into my parent's divorce -- with this project.

What moves me is when it occurs to me that Mister Rogers was, in his own way, leading me down a path towards healing, towards becoming a better man.

What moves me is when it occurs to me that -- intuitively or consciously -- Fred knew that I needed elder role models.

Intuitively or consciously, in saying "Spread the message," Fred set me on a path towards a deeper, more meaningful, more adult life. He was helping me fill an empty spot: the spot where my grandfathers never were, and where -- despite his best efforts -- my father couldn't be; geography prohibited it.

In doing so, he is helping me right myself for my children, and, if this film sees the light of day, or the inside of a theater, other people's children.

Pretty amazing stuff. Could make a guy tear up behind his sunglasses and iPod.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Marc Brown Adventure

How can you not love Marc Brown? He writes:

    Okay, Benjamin. I will pretend not to notice you shooting the Y event. I will mention Fred in my talk and use a slide of him in my powerpoint. Then we can meet at [my apartment] around 6pm after I do my autographing duties and get back to the house. My son and his wife will be at the house if you need to get in to set upbefore I return.

    I look forward to our adventure and remembering Fred.