Monday, November 19, 2007

Mister Rogers, Jack & Me

Ask anyone. I'm not a huge fan of The Grateful Dead.

At the moment, though -- traveling seventy miles-per-hour on the Pennsylvania Turnpike some 37 miles west of Harrisburg -- "Truckin'" is kinda' doin' it for me.

Earlier, I remarked to my brother -- who is a huge Deadhead, so huge that the only CDs he brought on this trip are The Dead -- that, while Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir can clearly sing, there's something grating about their voices. And I'm not about to retract that.

But cruising through the Allegheny Mountains in the dark after a long weekend of standing in the cold looking through a camera's viewfinder, eating sporadically and sleeping even more so, Jerry and Bob's well-worn, time-tested harmonies seem just about right.
    Sometimes the lights all shinin' on me
    Other times I can barely see
    Lately it's occurred to me
    What a long strange trip it's been

I remain surprised and amazed at the journey that Mister Rogers (inadvertently) began by (inadvertently, presumably) initiating this "Mister Rogers & Me" project.

This morning found Chris and I wandering the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh with its Marketing Director, Bill Schlageter.

The Museum has been home to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" exhibit since 1998. Developed in partnership with FCI, it replicates the show's set -- it's all there: King Friday's castle, X the Owl's tree -- but in a hands-on way. Kids can be on or behind the camera, drive trolley, put on their own puppet show, or play Mister Rogers' piano.

Picture Picture's there too. We watched a video on the making of the exhibit narrated by David Newell. There was Mister Rogers wearing an overcoat and glasses, standing next to Bill Isler and smiling.

Mister Rogers' spirit was everywhere. And smiling.

Still -- and I've felt this way numerous times throughout the making of this film -- his absence was palpable too.

Puppets from The Land of Make Believe stood in glass cases in the hallway next to the exhibit. And while it was exciting and even moving to see the real Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday, it made me sad to see them staring back at me all glassy-eyed, lifeless and dusty.

I miss Mister Rogers, and often wish he was here to help Chris and me. I think he would have let us shoot him in Nantucket as I'd originally wished. You may recall that I'd been scribbling "Write Mister Rogers" on my daily To Do list for weeks prior to his death. If I'd only been half as confident or assertive then, we may have captured some of the magic I experienced first hand that September afternoon in 2001.

That's not how it unfolded, though. Or, I believe, how it was intended to unfold.

Instead, Chris and I -- and David Newell, Bill Isler, Amy Hollingsworth and all of the people he inspired in some small way -- are left to carry the message.

Heck, I shouldn't even put us amongst that list. We're not building a library or a museum, but, in some small way, we're trying to do our part on behalf of his legacy.

I'm still unsure of how it will manifest for us. I felt a tingle of excitement standing outside of WQED yesterday, but I also felt to outside of it all.

Likewise this afternoon as Chris and I drove past the Fred Rogers Center for Childhood Learning at St. Vincent's College just outside of his hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The building is still under construction, but I didn't want to blow our chances of being invited back to interview archivist Brother David Kelly because of an unauthorized shoot.

Still, we soldier on as, I believe, Mister Rogers would have us do.

We drove on to Latrobe, nestled there in the golden-brown Alleghenies, and searched in vein for a scenic overlook from which to shoot the valley. The city was sleepy and gray, and felt almost out of time. Main Street was an empty collection of storefronts, though it wasn't impossible to imagine its great granite buildings in their mid-fifties glory.

We finally arrived on the hospital's parking garage whose five stories towered over the old Rolling Rock Brewery. We climbed the ramps and looked out over it all. The nearby gas station and strip mall made it difficult to visualize a bucolic childhood, but a distant train passing over an arch stone trestle helped.

I stood there next to Chris shivering in the waning afternoon and wondered what the heck we were doing three hundred miles away from our wives, jobs, and homes.

It felt like Latrobe was a bust. We got a few scenics, but the Chamber of Commerce didn't even know where to send us.

As we headed out of town, Chris said, "Why don't you take a left and see if there's a view up there."

We drove around a hillside neighborhood for a few blocks, but were under whelmed. As we turned down the hill to leave town, though, Chris spotted St. Vincent's on the top of the hill across the valley. I parked, and he set up the tripod in the middle of the street.

As we stood there shooting, a teenage wearing jeans and a black Transformers t-shirt walked up the hill and through the shot, all the while staring at us quizzically.

"Whassup, dude?" I said.

"Hey," he responded. "Nice camera."

The kid's name, it ends up, is Jack Denny.

We talked a while. I asked him why there was no sign of Mister Rogers in Latrobe ("Because this town kinda sucks."). And he asked me about our film.

"Who's is it?" he asked.

"Ours," I answered.

"Where's it for?" He followed.

"Theatres," I said.

Jack, it ends up, is an aspiring filmmaker.

"What I really want to do is direct."

We stood there quietly overlooking Latrobe as the sun broke through a tiny hole in the slate gray clouds and shone on Saint Vincent's twin steeples.

We shook hands, then turned to go.

"There are a thousand stories in this town, Jack," I said. "And you've got a camera and a computer. Go tell 'em."

As we wound our way through the mountains towards home, I thought about the quote on the top of this blog:

"There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person."

Suddenly, eight DV tapes of footage or not, even the 350 miles of dark, snowy highway ahead of us seemed well worth the trip.

Pittsburgh Day III: Children's Museum

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Pittsburgh Day II: B-Roll & Bridges

After a chaotic Saturday driving clear across Pennsylania, checking into out hotel, rushing off to meet and shoot Davy Rothbart's "There Goes The Neighborhood" show at Pittsburgh's Future Tenant, then interviewing him back at the hotel 'til 2:30 in the morning, Chris and I had a relatively quiet Sunday grabbing b-roll of exteriors and scenics.

Looking east towards Pittsburgh from the West End Bridge over the Ohio River, one can see Heinz Field on Pittsburgh's North Shore to left, downtown mid-frame, and the South Shore on the right.

Looking west towards Johnstown from the West End Bridge. Six trains passed on three seperate tracks in the twenty minutes we were shooting there. Ethan would have loved it. Heck, his dad and I sure did!

Chris shoots the Fort Pitt Bridge from the West End Bridge insulated against the dull-gray, 30 degree day by "the finest GoreTex money can buy!"

The remains of the Manchester Bridge just south of Heinz Field will soon become "A Tribute to Children" featuring a fifteen foot high statue of Mister Rogers. Now, though, this bridge foundation serves to motivate Steeler fans (who, best as I can tell, don't need much motivation). Chris and I might hire Industrial Light & Magic to remove the banner.

Chris shoots exteriors at WQED Pittsbugh, home of FCI Communications and "Mister Rogers Neighborhood," not to mention the first community television station in America.

Chris and I both had a bit of a tingle as we approached WQED.

"This is where the set was?" Chris asked.

"This is it!" I said.

There wasn't much evidence of Mister Rogers' presence, save for a dinosaur wearing a red cardigan out front, presumably the remainder of one of those civic art initiatives.

I walked around the building and noticed that a stage door was ajar in the back. I poked my head in, hoping for some sign of the Neighborhood set, but saw nothing. Still, it was difficult not to imagine Mister Rogers lighting up the place.

Pittsburgh Day I: Lost & Found

The Found Magazine guys -- Davy and Peter Rothbart, plus their sidekick Andrew Cohen -- have learned a thing or two performing some 180 shows over the course the last three years.

They know how to find every Subway sandwhich shop within three miles of any given highway.

And they know how to put on one hell of a show. Equal parts literary reading, fund drive, lost and found, show and tell, stand-up and rock performance, it's and hour and a half of substance and form.

Moreover, they've applied the kind of top-notch, added-value salesmanship that Madonna and The Eagles honed years ago.

The VIP Ticket.

For four times the cost of a normal ticket, Found Magazine devotees can hang backstage sharing pizza and PBRs while the guys sign the contents of their shiny red gift bag: Peter's CD, the latest issue of Found (the "Crime" issue), a poster, some buttons, and -- I love these guys -- a bright yellow poster encouraging you to spread the good word about Found Magazine.

Marketing geniuses, these guys.

Which explains how the sold out New York's Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater last month, their hometown Michigan Theater last night, two shows here at Pittsburgh's Future Tenant, and -- assuming the trend holds -- 25 more venues before year's end.

And here's the best part: it's all for charity. Tonight's shows benefit Mister Rogers company, Family Communications. Which explains why I"m in Pittsburgh on a rainy Saturday night..

Davy, who's a regular contributor to "This American Life," has been compiling his hilarious and heartbreaking collection of found notes, receipts, and emails online and in Found Magazine for a few years. His tours consist primarily of him reading a fistful of found items, turning over the stage to his brother to sing a few songs based on found items, circulating an email list, pitching the merch table, then reading a few more. Thing is, it's completely cool, and completely compelling.

Did I mention hilarious?

One found item is a grocery list consisting of the following items:
    Rahman Noodles
    Rahman Noodles
    Rahman Noodles
    Rahman Noodles
    Lubricated Condems
    Rahman Noodles
On this pre-Thanksgiving leg of the tour, Post Secret founder/editor Frank Warren ("The Most Trusted Man In America") is sharing the bill. Frank's conceit is similar: he posts anonymously contributed secrets to his website every week, and as collected the best and most-poignant ones into a few books.

"We all have a choice," Frank says. "We can lock our secrets away in a box and bury it deep inside, or we can find it, bring it out and share it."

Afterwards, I tell Frank that his mission reminds me of my favorite Mister Rogers' quotes: "That which is mentionable is manageable."

Which is why I'm here: community, and communications.

Well after the second show, when the chairs are stacked, the volunteers are gone, and the last fan has left the building, Chris, Davy and I headed back to the hotel to squeeze in a quick interview before Davy, Peter and Andy point their rented mini-van towards Columbus. We order room service, clip on our lav mics, and settle in beneath the bright lights.

It's late, we're tired, and deep into our PBRs. The edges of Davy's eyes are red, though his iris shines bright green like his Eastern Michigan jersey. We do our best to piece together a conversation -- he tells me about meeting Mister Rogers as a four-year-old, then visiting him again as an adult, and tries to draw some parallels between Mister Rogers' work and his. But it's late, though, and we're tired. Moreover, his posse's getting wrestles. And so, some forty-five minutes later, we fold his room service cheeseburger into a napkin, send him on his way to Columbus, and then collapse into deep, dreamless sleep.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Mister Rogers & Me" Pittsburgh Shoot Schedule

I've spent the last three days juggling the day job, the the benefit cd, and the documentary. It's been an interesting flirtation with schizophrenia.

Not really. I'm kidding, of course.

Some of this weekend's Pittsburgh plans have fallen through, but here's the deal for now.

1) Davy Rothbart's "There Goes The Neighborhood" performance (Future Tenant, Pittsburgh)

1) Davy Rothbart interview
2) Pittsburgh & Latrobe b-roll
3) Fred Rogers Center exteriors

1) Children's Museum of Pittsburgh "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" exhibit

It's a busy weekend. I'm psyched.

Moreover, it looks like I might have a minute to enjoy an Iron City Beer and catch up with with my brother, which, much as he'll miss Jennifer, Ethan and Edward, and I'll miss Abbigail, was probably part of Mister Rogers' plan too.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mister Rogers, Music & Me

Fred Rogers was, perhaps above all, a musician.

My mother was seeking her MA in theology when she met Mister Rogers. She was sitting on the bay reading Martin Buber. He passed by en route to his daily swim. Conversation, and friendship arose.

My mother is nothing if not proud of her sons, and at some point, I assume, mentioned that her youngest (me) was a singer-songwriter who worked for MTV News.

Music and television (or, Music Television), then, brought us together.

It's little wonder that my acoustic guitar was slung over my shoulder as I headed towards the Crooked House for that first afternoon we spent together in September 2001. Just a few moments after arriving, I sat in front of The Rogers' great bay window in their otherwise cool and shadowed back room and performed "Summer's Gone" from my then-forthcoming CD, "Crash Site."

And so, as Christofer and I approach our final shoots and consider the start of editing, I am beginning to develop a sense of the soundtrack.

The opening (yet-to-be-shot) scene of me rushing through through Times Square will be set my cover of David Byrne's "Glass, Concrete & Stone." The song is a delicate, almost ambient one chronicling (to my ear, anyway) corporate life in our accelerated culture.

    I'm puttin' on aftershave
    Nothin' is out of place
    Gonna be on my way
    Try to pretend, it's not only
    Glass and concrete and stone
    That it's just a house, not a home

My colleague, Rich Sancho, is producing the track. I'll sing it.

There's a lot of driving to voice over in the film, so -- while I don't know which track I'll use where -- I do know some of the tracks I want to use.

Rich is recording a cover of Air's "Mike Mills." This instrumental electronic track is one of my favorites. I sounds like forward motions feels, and is one of the most-played songs in my iTunes collection.

I've asked Amy Hollingsworth's son, Jonathan, if I can use on of his original composition's, "October's Farewell (Matthew's Song)." It's a beautiful instrumental acoustic song that sounds just like it's titled. It's a gorgeous recording from a great kid who's still in high school.

I fully expect, of course, to dip into my songbook. In addition to "Summer's Gone" (which, budget and timing notwithstanding, I hope to re-record), we've already used "Hollywood Arms" and "Dark Blue" on the trailer.

As I've said before, Mister Rogers influenced my songwriting by helping me feel more comfortable with my sincerity, earnestness, and simplicity. I stopped censoring myself, or trying to write "cool" songs. Neither "Stay," "Promise", nor my most recent song, "Breathe In" could have been written without him. So I'm sure they'll be included somehow.

My bassist, Tony Maceli, has offered to help score some tracks. I'm sure I'll tap my pal, singer-songwriter Chris Abad, as well.

And while I haven't broached licensing yet, I hope to tap my mother (herself an accomplished pianist) to re-record some of Mister Rogers (and his longtime musical companion, Johnny Costa's) songs.

I know, of course, just how the final scene unfolds (though I'm not going to tell you), and exactly how I want to leave the audience as they watch the credits and leave the theater: inspired. I've considered a few songs to that end, including covers of Aimee Mann's "It's Not Safe" ("All you wanna do is something good") and Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground." We'll see.

No matter what, we'll leave you singing.

How could a film about Mister Rogers do anything less?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Mister Rogers, "A Family Holiday" Benefit CD & Me

This weekend's 826NYC shoot, regretably, fell through. We are endeavoring to re-book a visit to the Brooklyn chapter of the youth literacy non-profit with founder David Eggers and volunteer/supporter Sarah Vowell sometime in the first few days of December.

Relatedly, though, the "Family Holiday" Benefit CD I've been compiling with my pal Wes Verhoeve has a release date and venue, as well as track listing. Proceeds from sales of the CD will be donated to 826NYC.

Liberated Matter & Hot Rocks Present:
"A Family Holiday" CD Release
Wednesday, December 5th 8-12pm
The Delancy (168 Delancey Street)

All: "Do They Know It's Christmas"
The Undisputed Heavyweights: "Baby, It's Cold Outside"
El Jezel: "Workin' On Christmas"
Misty Boyce: "The River"
Seth Kallen: "The Dradle Song"
Tarrah Reynolds: "What Child Is This"
Jeff Jacobson: "Frosty The Snowman"
Casey Shea: "My Holiday Song"
Flying Machines: "Right Around Christmas"
Wynn Walent: "Little Drummer Boy"
Chris Abad: "Feliz Navidad"
Wakey Wakey: "Oi! To The World"
Benjamin Wagner: "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"

Next Saturday, Christofer and I head to Pittsburgh to interview Davy Rothbart, shoot his Found Magazine: There Goes The Neighborhood show, visit Mister Rogers' birthplace in nearby Latrobe, and -- if all goes to plan -- visit the Mister Rogers' Neighbohood exibit at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Mister Rogers, 826 NYC & Me

There's a bit of a nail biter going on here in "Mister Rogers & Me" land.

Chris and I have a bunch of shoots in pencil approaching very quickly on our schedule. Which is a good thing. Problem is: they're in pencil.

I may have told you about the lovely and talented Jennifer Snow, 826NYC's Director of Development. We've been exchanging email like mad (including more than one sent from my wedding and one from my honeymoon -- the show must go on!), though we've yet to nail down any specifics.

    826 NYC (and The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Our services are structured around our belief that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success. With this in mind we provide drop-in tutoring, field trips, after-school workshops, in-schools tutoring, help for English language learners, and assistance with student publications. All of our free programs are challenging and enjoyable, and ultimately strengthen each student's power to express ideas effectively, creatively, confidently, and in his or her individual voice.

Awesome, right?

Author David Eggers ("A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius") founded 826. There are now seven chapters around the country. It's exactly the sort of grass roots, hyper-local good work to which I endeavor. And exactly the kind of place my pal Kristan Flynn was talking about when she asked, "Is there somewhere closer to home or someone who's not a celebrity that can profile?"

Well, we're trying to split the difference. (David is working with director Spike Jonze on a live-action adaptation of one of my all-time favorite books, Maurice Sendak's "Where The Wild Things Are.")

If we're lucky, author, "This American Life" contributor (spot a trend here?), 826 volunteer and supporter Sarah Vowell is going to give us the tour there. If we can move the shoot from the "pencil" to "ink" column.

There's also another cool idea afoot with 826. Here's the email I sent Jen:

    This one came to me one sleepless night in the Maldives (ideas are why I don't sleep): A youth songwriting program!

    Me, my singer/songwriter friends, and maybe even more prominent artists would review songwriting history from Cole Porter to the Brill Building to The Beatles and Bob Dylan, then facilitate kids' writing and recording of their own songs! They'd end the term with their own single!!!

Jen was enthused, and it seemed like it'll come to pass. Which is kind of awesome. And, I think, exactly the path Mister Rogers intended to set me on.