Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Coming Soon: Trailer Two

Life really does happen in fits and starts, doesn't it? It often feels like Chris and I are crawling along with this project, and then all of a sudden we take a few big steps forwards.

I just screaned (and sent notes) on the first pass at our second trailer. And it looks fantastic. It looks like an actual documentary film.

Chris has a colleague at Sony, Paul Rachman, who's shot and edited a few docs, including the recent Slamdance premiere, "American Hardcore". Paul's given us a few tips, namely to a) hit the September Sundance deadline and b) show as little footage as possible prior to the premiere. Both have been guiding tenants.

But I still have some selling to do. Specifically, I need to get more than Mrs. Rogers' verbal blessing. I need to get Mr. Rogers' foundation, Family Communications', written approval. And as you'll recall, getting them -- specifically, FCI President Bill Isler -- on the phone (excepting Fred's former assistant, Elain Lynch, who is always quick with a conversation), is no easy task. (After a few months repite, I commenced my phone campaign yesterday.)

So I wanted to give them (and, by extension, you) something to demonstrate our progress (not to mention the reverence and committment with which we're approaching the project). And while I can't show youo that something quite yet, I can tell you that it features appearences from Tim Russert, Susan Stamberg, Marc Brown and Linda Ellerbee intercut with beautiful footage of Nantucket (much of which I'd never seen, as Chris spent an afternoon last summer shooting on his own). The tone is great, the commentary warm and insightful, and the conclusion... well, stay tuned.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Good Will Hunting

A few weeks ago, before the capitalist cogs of MTV chewed through senior management (including my supervisor and mentor of ten years who was -- it should be noted -- wildly supportive of this project), I sat through one of those particularly mind-numbing marketting meetings in which the nameless mega movie studio endeavors to excite the mega media network.

It was, by and large, a black hole of a meeting, mostly devoid of inspiration or creativity. Except that one of the studio's many trailers gave me an idea for the next iteration of ours.

And so I just screened our Tim Russert, Susan Stamberg, Marc Brown, and Bo Lozoff interviews for the first time since we shot them late last year. In addition to jotting down key soundbites like this one:

    Fred Rodgers wasn’t a scientist. He wasn't Mother Theresa. He wasn't a great politician. What was he? He was a man that was known throughout the land for his simple decency and good will.

I was making notes on what broll we'd need to acquire to cover the conversations, as well as what VO (voice over) I would need to write and record to make some cohesive sense of the interviews.

It will be, make no mistake, a Hurculean task.

The general arc of the film is simple. It is, in a nutshell (and as I think I've recently written), based on the classic myth hero's journey. In short: boy receives challenge, leaves village to find something, encounters resistance, overcomes adversity, receives reward, then returns to village to share reward.

In the case of "Mister Rogers & Me," then, the challenge comes from Mister Rogers when he told me to "spread the message" that "deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex." To spread the message, however, I need to understand it. And so I set out to learn what he meant. I travel to North Carolina (Lozoff), Washington, DC (Russert, Stamberg), and beyond. I explore the spiritual, economic, and political considerations of the phrase, "deep and simple," and then come home to share my learnings.

The bad news is that the spiritual, economic, and political considerations of the phrase are vast and many. It is a life's pursuit. I could conduct interviews until I am 73. (Heck, Mister Rogers did).

My interviews are not super cohesive. They're wide ranging, sometimes a bit fawning, even rambling. There are plenty of suspects to implicate: advertisers, fast food makers, Hollywood, Washington, DC. I don't push on certain subjects hard enough. And, in some cases, I don't think I knew what the pertinent questions were until after I conducted the interview. Making matters worse, we've been shooting one camera, have a minimum of

The good news is that I'm beginning to see what the whole thing might look like: a few minutes of set up (a rapid condensation of my original "eulogy"), followed by a series of brief, lightly-edited interviews, and concluding with a deep, simple, hushed epiphany.

It won't be perfect, but it will be heartfelt. It won't be exhaustive, but it will be fair. And it won't be completist, but it will be representative.

Long ago, author (and Guardian Angel) Amy Hollingsworth -- our very first interview -- said to me, "I only hope that your project can begin to reflect the gentle spirit of the man." If all else fails, and the film is boring, pedantic, and amaturish (all valid possibilities), I know in my heart of heart that, if in intention alone, we have already succeeded.

You, Me & Us

Packed into a particularly uncomfortably subway on my way home from a particularly uncomfortable week at work, I couldn't help but notice that I was surrounded by nothing but the first person singular.

All around, my fellow passengers clutched their iPods and stared vacantly into space. On the stainless steel, graffiti-proof walls, signage for News Corp's recently rebranded My9 (formerly WWOR), -- in which "my" constituted 9 of 17 words in the ad -- made me think...

Is the Twenty-First Century all about I, me, and my?

Walking back from the deli yesterday morning I said, "Oh shit, I forgot to grab The Times."

"You can read it online," Abbi said.

And she's right. I could. And I did.

But reading The New York Times online is not the same as patiently sifting through section after section of the actual newspaper, digging into all sorts of topics otherwise too far afield -- or one too many clicks deep -- to elicit interest, or engagement.

The promise of the Internet has long been that of personalization, customization and niche. Like hip hop? Click here, and get nothing but. Want to know something about aardvarks? Google will get you to The Brookfield Zoo post haste. But who knows what you're missing by not browsing and discovering all kinds of music, or all sorts of African ungulates.

But where is the discovery? The happenstance? When is one's curiosity rewarded? One's horizons expanded?

Lately, of course, it's been all about "user generated content." It's all about you, about your fifteen minutes. See also: American Idol, America's Top Model, Project Runway, and the recent Grammy Awards telecast in which three young singers competed for the chance to duet with JustinTimberlake. ("In the future," I recently read, "Everyone will be anonymous for fifteen minutes.")

As programmers become more efficient at serving deeper but narrower demographic segments to advertisers, then, we find ourselves penned in like veal cattle. The rise of the niche, while potentially affording greater programming diversity, has really limited that which we consume. In a three network universe, the State of the Union was not to be avoided.

"Rising above the clutter," Times correspondent David Carr writes, "was a lot easier when we were all staring into the same campfire."

Now, though, brushfires have broken out across the planet. From space, the United States is awash in the blue flicker of the cathode ray.

Why watch "Frontline" report on the demise of journalism when there's a Celebrity Eye Candy marathon onVH1?

Why puzzle out the potential implications of the US invasion of Iraq when you can read all about Britney Spears' entrance, exit from rehab, plus her shaved head and new tattoos.

Why engage in anything at all when everything is so God damned complicated, and you can't do anything to change anything anyway?

One of my heroes, Bill Moyers, said recently, "We cannot build a nation across the vast social divides that mark our country today."

In a culture peopled by those obsessed by themselves, and those expressly like them, how can we learn anything at all?

There is, after all, no "me" in "us."

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

It occurred to me just now that, while Chris and I only began shooting in June, I have been making this documentary for fifteen years.

I have long referred to our film as "a road trip of sorts." Increasingly, I've come to think of it as what one of Bill Moyers' mentors, comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, called "The Hero's Journey."

My first real flirtation with mythology, psychology, and meaning came in two courses the second semester of my sophomore year at Syracuse: English Professor Bob Gates' "Reading Dreams" and History Professor David Miller's "Mythology & Religion."

Both drew heavily on the studies two men: Karl Jung, and Joseph Campbell.

Jung, the twentieth century Swiss psychiatrist, author, lecturer, and frequent correspondent of Sigmund Freud, contributed numerous concepts towards our modern understanding of the self.

    The overarching goal of Jung's work was the reconciliation of the life of the individual with the world of the supra-personal archetype. He came to see the individual's encounter with the unconscious as central to this process. The human experiences the unconscious through symbols encountered in all aspects of life: in dreams, art, religion, and the symbolic dramas we enact in our relationships and life pursuits.

Professor Gates first drew parallels between characteristics of the unconscious (persona, shadow, etc) and characters in fiction, and then encouraged us to draw those parallels within the world of our own dreams. As a writer (Creative Writing was on of two college majors), singer/songwriter, and sometimes dreamer, I was no stranger to the unconscious. I had long been encouraged to listen to my inner voices, and explore my imagination. Professor Gates, through Carl Jung, put it all in context, though. He helped me to establish a framework with which to understand my feelings, and my dreams,. He helped give me the confidence to rely upon that which was not necessarily apparent before me, but hidden in the shadows, and corners around me. I call on those teachings every day.

Campbell's, "The Hero With A Thousand Faces," then, spelled out the basic tenants of the archetypal hero's journey, citing myths as diverse as "Ulysses" and "Star Wars." In summary:

    The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events. If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world, the hero must face tasks and trials, and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift or "boon." The hero must then decide whether to return to the ordinary world with this boon. If the hero does decide to return, the hero often faces challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world.

Campbell himself links mythology and psychology thusly:

    The repeating characters of the hero myth, such as the young hero, the wise old man, the shape-shifting woman, and the shadowy nemesis, are identical with the archetypes of the human mind, as shown in dreams. That's why myths, and stories constructed on the mythological model, are always psychologically true.

Those men, their works, and the works the proceeded them, have all laid the foundation for this documentary. It both carries the film -- our narrative arc is literally and figuratively a journey -- and the framework upon much of that which I hope to come to understand. Sure, my research, assumptions, and conclusions are based on both theoretical and empirical evidence. But they are also based on unconscious, dreams, and intuition.

And so, when I have sought out and been rebuffed by “the wise old man,” and I find myself hurtling through a shadowy underworld, I am able to look through myself, and find – as singer/songwriter Jeffrey Gains calls it – the hero in me. That is the quest.

Where does the road lead? When does the hero’s journey end? What “boon” will I return to my community?

Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Let Go

I'm not quite sure what drove home the realization.

Maybe it's the radio silence from Mr. Moyers camp, even after four, well-worded interview requests.

Or maybe it was the fifth, in which I offered to fly to Texas (despite the fact the he lives two blocks away).

Or maybe it was the conversation with my friends, Kristan and Jeff, in which Kristan said, "Has it occurred to you that maybe Bill Moyers and Fred Rogers had some sort of beef? I mean, why else would a guy who's that articulate and that verbose say, 'I'm not sure I have anything to say'?"

Either way, I realize that it's time I let go of Bill Moyers.

True, both he and Mister Rogers were present at the creation of PBS.

True, both he and Mister Rogers have been strong advocates for building community, fostering dialogue, and casting a weary eye towards materialism.

And true, both play the part of what Joseph Campbell characterized in, "The Hero With A Thousand Faces," the "wise old man" to whom I look for guidance on this epic journey.

At a certain point, though, my pursuit of him feels a like a bit much. He is an inspiration, a gifted, articulate, intelligent journalist and orator. But maybe, for reasons that may only become apparent later, or perhaps never at all, maybe Bill Moyers is not part of this journey. Maybe, as Kristan suggested, the answers to my questions are closer to home.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Optimism Of The Will, Part II

Because, apparently, I am a masochist, I've taken one final pass at a guy who was present at the creation of PBS, who I find hugely inspiring on the subject of depth and simplicty, and who I find it difficult to image our film without.

    Dear Mr. Moyers:

    It was a pleasure to meet you following Thursday night's "Media and Democracy" panel. The discussion resonated soundly with that which we're exploring in "Mister Rogers & Me." Your exploration of media consolidation, consumer disenfranchisement, and the vagaries of post September 11 censorship, was completely salient to my personal (and celluloid) examination of depth and simplicity.

    Your quotation of Antonio Gramsci's "optimism of the will," though, spoke most profoundly to me. The further I have followed the path Mister Rogers suggested I walk ("Spread the message," he said), the more difficult I have found my MTV News day job, and the more desperate I have become to contribute to a deeper, simpler world. This doc is my best stab at doing so. Still, as you entertained that long line of Q&A, I wanted to ask you was, "What do I do!?! How do I affect change?"

    I respect and appreciate that, as you restated Thursday night, you're not sure what you have to say for our documentary. I wonder, then, if you would consider entertaining that one question -- Given the vast influencing factors to the contrary, how can one person affect change towards a deeper, simpler, more meaningful world? -- On camera in the next 3-4 months (after your massive April deadline!). With your blessing, and your staff's coordination, I can simply cover your next event or lecture, and inquire briefly afterwards. It would be, for our modest, soulful film, the penultimate insight.

    As you've gathered from my tenacious pursuit of your mentorship, Mr. Moyers, I have a fire in my belly for this. No one I know of can speak to it more eloquently, or with more authority, than you. And so, when you said Thursday night to "stay with it, and never give up hope," well, I'm sticking with it, and holding onto hope...

    Your kindred spirit,


I Don't

This was in my inbox when I got to work this morning.

    Dear Benjamin ,

    We certainly do appreciate your willingness to be flexible in regard to your project, but unfortunately, we are still going to decline your kind request.

    I appreciate your time and enthusiasm, and I certainly hope you can understand the nature of Garrison's commitments on his schedule.

    All the best with your project,

    [Name Redacted]

Obviously, I am disappointed. I actually can't imagine how a quicky interview impacts "the nature of Garrison's committments." I can't imagine not wanting to talk with someone about depth and simplicity, or using my voice to contribute to the greater good. All I can figure is that he doesn't want to be a part of something so small, or something. I dunno'.

As I read and re-read her note, though, I tried to ask myself how Mister Rogers would have handled the disappointment. It's difficult to imagine a similar scenario for him, as -- best as I can tell -- he had some pretty decent luck as a young whipper snapper. But I'm sure that somewhere, sometime, someone he admired said, "No," and he probably allowed himself to be sad a while, then moved on.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Anytime, Anywhere

One of the most challenging components of this film (shooting with no budget while working full time and wrestling with a vast and complicated narrative notwithstanding) is the disappointment of hearing my heroes say, "No thanks" to my requests for their participation.

Our track record has been really good. Amy Hollingsworth, Bo Lozoff, Tim Madigan, Susan Stamberg, Tim Russert, Marc Brown and Linda Ellerbee agreed in a heartbeat to participate. In the last few weeks, though, we've met some resistance with Bill Moyers and Garrison Keillor.

What follows is my latest appeal to Mr. Keillor:

    Thank so much for following up, [Name Redacted].

    Given that our documentary is, at its core, an exploration of depth and simplicity in modern culture -- a subject on which Mr. Keillor's perspective is unique and undisputed -- is there any possibility that diminishing the urgency of our ask and duration of our proposed interview might improve the odds that Mr. Keillor reconsider?

    Example, is there any chance we could do a three-minute stand-up backstage prior or subsequent to one of Mr. Keillor's Town Hall performances in March? Of course, we will gladly travel anywhere, anytime, I just want to introduce the possibility of quickly asking Mr. Keillor to comment on the value of good, old fashioned, unhurried storytelling in this accelerated, short-attention span age.

    In summary: backstage, no set up, three minutes, pure intentions and huge gratitude.

    Most sincerely, and most hopefully yours,

    Benjamin Wagner
I have no doubt that these gentleman will make excellent contributions to our exploration of seeking, finding, and creating substantive communication in these vacuous times, so I haven't thrown in the towel on either of them.

All I can do is hope that some small small bit of light from this most geniuine, most heartfelt mission can shine through my letters and emails, and inspire them, in some way, to remember their thirties, remember their struggles, and lend a helping hand to a well intentioned, complete stranger.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Optimism Of The Will

"My name is Benjamin Wagner," I said, shaking Bill Moyers' hand firmly. "I am the young man with the fire in his belly who has been doggedly pursuing you for my deep and simple documentary about my relationship with Mister Rogers."

"Oh yes," he said, looking up from under his glasses. "Oh yes."

* * *

I was leading a meeting on viral marketing late this afternoon when the email hit my inbox. "Seems Bill is taking action on the UWS!" Abbi wrote. She had happened upon a blurb about the PBS documentarian's activism against Upper West Side development (see "Historical Society Throwdown on the UWS"), revealing in the process that the PBS documentarian (and elder statesman for all that is good and right) is also my neighbor.

"And," she followed, "It seems he'll be at Barne's & Noble tonight!"

I cancelled my plans ("I've just learned Bill Moyers is doing a reading on 17th Street at 7pm," I wrote Chris, Tony and Ryan. "I HAVE to go for my film; we've been trying to interview him for months"), and raced through the remainder of the day nervous like a schoolboy after learning of a pop quiz.

The moon was full and buffeted by billowing clouds as I walked through Union Square. As I approached Barnes & Noble, I spotted a sign in the window that read

    The New School Presents:
    Democracy In Media
    Moderated by Bill Moyers
    Walter Isaacson, Michael Massing, and Ann Deavere Smith

Just inside the door, a display touted Mr. Moyers recent book, "Welcome To Doomsday," as well as his best seller, "Moyers On America." I grabbed copies of both, and then climbed three flights where a gathering of two hundred PBS die hards were already seated. I found a seat in the front row, took off my jacket, pulled my notebook and camera out of my bag, and waited.

The panel, featuring former CNN Chairman and current CEO of Aspen Institute Walter Isaacson, Columbia Journalism Review editor Michael Massing, and playwright, actor and Stanford professor Ann Deavere Smith, took the stage mere moments later. I smiled to myself when I spotted Mr. Moyers, certain that, as the youngest audience member in the front row, if not the room, he would think right away, "There's that pesky documentary kid."

The group tackled the weighty subject of the role of media in a democratic society, the risks of that role, and its recent failures, with insight, enthusiasm, and humor.

"Media exposure," Mr. Moyers said, "is the common denominator of ambition."

"Real news," he followed, quoting playwright Tom Stoppard, "Is the news we need to keep our freedom."

Through the panel's exploration of consumerism ("In a business society as we are, commercial considerations infiltrate and subvert almost every institution," Mr. Moyers said), media consolidation ("Are we too obsessed with what may be an obsolete form of mass communication?" he asked), poor reporting ("I really believe the dearth of good reporting is the greatest danger to journalism," Isaacson said), consumer disenfranchisement ("Maybe we've grown to comfortable?" Ms. Smith mused), and the subtleties of post September 11 censorship ("I call them the "patriotism police" Mr. Isaacson said), I kept asking myself, 'What are you doing still working for The Man?'

When the panel yielded the floor to questions, I fantasized about dashing for the mic, identifying myself to Mr. Moyers and asking, "So what do I do?" When I turned to spy a line of questioners thirty septuagenarians deep, I reconsidered. One audience member asked, "What do you tell young journalists?"

"The opportunity to be creative and signify are fewer and fewer," Mr. Moyers responded. "But if you have the fire in the belly and you feel the fire by reporting upon that which you see around you, then stay with it. Never give up hope."

As the panel wound down, it revealed its disparate perspective: Issacson, the technological optimist; Massing, the academic pessimist; and Smith, the hopeful centrist.

"I have to first differentiate for you between hope and optimism, because I think there’s a difference," she said. "And this is from someone some of you know fairly well, Cornell West, the scholar? He says,

    Optimism and hope are different.

    Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there's enough evidence out there that allows us to think that things are going to better, much more rationale, deeply secular. Whereas hope looks at the evidence and says it doesn't look good at all, says we're going to make a leap of faith, go beyond the evidence and attempt to create new possibilities that become contagious to allow us to engage in heroic actions, always against the odds, no guarantees whatsoever. That's hope.

Mr. Moyers, then, supplied the final word.

    There's an Italian philosopher who's had a big influence on me, his name is [Antonio] Gramsci. He talked about practicing pessimism of the mind and the optimism of the will, and by that he means -- and I take this as a journalist -- my job is to look around and describe the world as it is without any whitewash or illusions or romance. To say, "This is how the world looks. This is what's happening in the world." That's the pessimism of the mind. To look around and see that all the signs add up to potential calamity, whether it's global warming or the clash of civilizations or the uncompromising nature of present American politics.

    But, as a human being, as a father, as a husband, as a citizen, I don't know how to live in the world except to expect a more confident future and then, get up every morning and try to do something to bring that future about. That's the optimism of the will. I will myself to try to change the realities that I see that are so disturbing.

Moments later, when the applause gave way to a dull chatter, I was third in line for Mr. Moyers' signature. My heart was in my throat as I repeated my introduction over and over in my mind. Soon, I was standing before him -- the man whose wisdom and insight I have been seeking for months -- extending my hand.

"My name is Benjamin Wagner," I said, shaking Bill Moyers' hand firmly. "I am the young man with the fire in his belly who has been doggedly pursuing you for my deep and simple documentary about my relationship with Mister Rogers."

"Oh yes," he said, looking up from under his glasses. "Oh yes."

"It's a pleasure to meet you," I followed. "And to hear you speak."

"Well thank you he said," scribbling in my book.

"I hope you can understand my tenacious pursuit," I said.

"You know," he replied almost sheepishly, "I just don't know that I have anything to say."

I paused a beat, speechless, then squawked, "All right. Thank you."

"Talk to... talk to..." he said, looking at the line behind me.

"All right," I said stepping away. "Thank you."

"All right," he finished.

I walked away swearing at myself. 'Talk to whom?' I wondered, navigating the crowded room. 'Talk to whom!?!'

I rode the escalator three flights, paid for the book, and pulled on my jacket, all the while assaulting myself for being such a coward. 'Speak truth to power!' I said to myself. 'You idiot.'

On the street, I put on my headphones, but didn't push play. 'Mister Rogers called for daily reflection,' I thought to myself. 'Don't drown out your thoughts with music.'

I beat myself up all the way to the subway, frowning when I caught glimpses of myself in car windows. 'You failed,' I thought. 'You failed.'

Waiting for the 1 inside the 18th Street station, I opened my copy of "Moyers On America," and read the inscription.

"For Benjamin," it read.

His cursive was thin, long, and as unreadable as a doctor's. I puzzled. An allowed spirit? An alloy spirit? An aligned spirit? And then it hit me.

    For Benjamin,
    A kindred spirit
    Bill Moyers

I continued beating myself up as the train headed uptown. Somewhere between Times Square and 72d Street, though, I thought, 'You should have asked Mister Rogers what to say. You should have asked Mister Rogers for help.'

And then, staring out the window through my reflection I head his voice in my head.

"You're doing fine, Benjamin," Mister Rogers said. "You're doing fine."

Strike Two

Dear Benjamin,

I wanted to let you know that I heard back from Garrison in regard to the documentary you are doing on Fred Rogers.

First of all, I would like to thank you very much for thinking of Garrison as a component of your project. It is always nice to be held in high esteem, and your interest in him as a source is very much appreciated. However, at this time, Garrison’s schedule is incredibly busy with broadcasting the show and writing a book. Unfortunately, he simply does not have the time to do everything, as much as he would like to. As a result, he is going to have to respectfully decline your gracious invitation. We hope you can understand and accept our apologies.

Please contact me with any questions or concerns.

Best regards,

[Name Redacted]