Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mister Rogers & Me: The Outline

I've been scripting segments all weekend. Bo, Amy and Tim are done. I'm on Susan Stamberg now. After that, I have four to go, plus making sense of the whole Pittsburgh trip and our visit to 826NYC.

Basically, the process entails transcribing each interview, and then pruning the conversation to its most essential elements. Not a huge challenge for a fifteen minute interview like Tim Russert's, but pretty daunting when you spent an afternoon with someone as we did Bo Lozoff.

When I'm done scripting, I send to Chris who's doing rough cuts of each segment. Next we'll identify still images, b-roll and footage we'll need to licence, borrow, or otherwise procure. In some cases this'll be a simple financial transaction, like dropping a few hundred bucks to licence, say, a photo of Mister Rogers receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush. In other cases we're going to need to get in touch with folks we've already interviewed, like Tim Russert who will hopefully share photos of his family on Nantucket. In all, I imagine we're going to need to acquire at least 100 pieces of additional media. Yunno, in our copious free time.

Sometime in the middle of all that, I'm going to write VOs (voice overs) for each which somehow summarizes the last interview while setting up the next.

I expect to confirm another (big!) interview or two, but here's a rough outline of the film as it exists right now. Let me rephrase that: here's a rough outline of the film as it exists in my mind right now, because it doesn't really exist anywhere else.

That said, at the very least, a rough cut of the film needs to exist by March 1, which ought to be just about time for the Nantucket Film Festival submission deadline. I figure it's out best shot at a festival, being that March 20, 2008 would be Mister Rogers' eightieth birthday, and the film's all about Nantucket. Plus, as I said to Chris, we can't be working on this thing forever, and I like deadlines.

Anyway, the film's much more interesting than this, but this is what we've got.

1. Open (NYC)
- Walking to work
- My Bio
2. Backstory (Nantucket)
- How we met
- What we discussed
- Why I decided to make the film
3. Smithsonian (DC)
4. Bo Lozoff MOS (SC)
- Driving VO (1:00)
- How They Met: Book orders, silent support
- Deep & Simple 101
- Walk and Talk
5. Amy Hollingsworth (VA)
- Driving VO (1:00)
- How They Met: CBN Shoot
- What She Learned: silence and song
- Letter: seeking connection
6. Tim Russert DC)
- Driving VO (1:00)
- How They Met: Nantucket
- What He Learned: Respect
- How Manifests: DC
7. Susan Stamberg (DC)
- Driving VO (1:00)
- How They Met: TV show
- What She Learned: Community
- How Manifests: On-air
8. Tim Madigan (NYC)
- How They Met: TX interview
- What He Learned: Death and spirituality
- How Manifests
9. Linda Ellerbee (NYC)
- Driving VO (1:00)
- How They Met: TV
- What She Learned: Four Rules
- How Manifests: Nick News
10. Marc Brown (NYC)
- Walking in (:30)
- How They Met: Arthur
- What He Learned: Advertising
- How Manifests: Arthur
11. Davy Rothbart (Pittsburgh)
- Driving (1:00)
- How They Met: Nantucket, This American Life
- What He Learned
- How Manifests: Found
12. Pittsburgh
- Statue
- Children's Museum tour
- Latrobe
13. 826NYC
- Tour
- Volunteering
14. Conclusion (Nantucket)
- Recap
- Now what?
15. Credits
16. Epilogue(s)

With any luck, this ought to constitute some 75 or more minutes of film. I'm sure the rough cut'll come in much longer. Heck, Bo, Amy, Tim and Susan already clock in at twenty minutes, and that's without any set up, b-roll, etc.

Anyway, it won't be "Mission: Impossible," but it'll be good. Slow, steady, deep and simple.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Opening Scene

Despite the fact that the first person objective pronoun, "me," in the title of our film, I'm not terribly comfortable on camera.

This was made abundantly apparent to me again just now as Chris and shot the opening scene of the doc.

I've spent more than a few dozen mornings listening to David Byrne's "Glass, Concrete & Stone" while walking to the office or -- more often still -- heading to the airport for business. The song sounds like 5 a.m. in a sterile terminal waiting on a flight feels: spaced-out, disconnected, and kinda' depressing. The lyrics reinforce this urban disconnect.

I'm wakin' at the crack of dawn
To send a little money home
From here to the moon
Is risin' like a discotheque
And now my bags are down and packed for traveling

Lookin' at happiness
Keepin' my flavor fresh
Nobody knows I guess
How far I'll go, I know

So, as I've mentioned, I've asked my colleague, Rich Sancho, to record an instrumental version that I'm going to sing over. That song, partnered images from my walk to work -- the jagged skyline, dirty streets, and clumps of pedestrians -- and intercut with credit slates (yunno, "Wagner Bros. Films Present") will constitute the first two minutes or so of "Mister Rogers & Me."

The idea is to set the tone (slow, steady, visually metaphorical) while demonstrating the disparate nature of Nantucket and New York City, Mister Rogers and me, deep and simple and shallow and complex (though I don't think of myself as shallow and complex, in the film, I am a proxy for culture's predominant shallow and complex tendencies).

I have no idea whether we achieved any of the above in the three uncomfortable hours that just elapsed, but we tried. I stoically (and rather grumpily) walked down the street while Chris raced around me setting up shots. New Yorkers -- incapable of being flummoxed by anything, watched out of the corner of their eyes and wondered, "Do I know him?"

No, you don't.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Mister Rogers On "Deep & Simple"

As I mentioned, I'm in the process of re-launching Benjamin Wagner Dot Com, and in doing so have been re-reading and editing some five years and nearly 1300 posts. I just came across an entry dated February 27, 2003 -- the day Mister Rogers died.

I spent all day at work crafting my remembrance of him, then all night emailing it to The New York Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nantucket Mirror, etc. The next morning, a half dozen emails thanked me for my efforts, empathized with my loss, but suggested that they had already published secured their reportage. (The Times, for example, tapped my now-pal, Davy Rothbart for a piece entitled "A Friend In The Neighborhood"). I remember wanting to blame my day job at MTV for missing a deadline that didn't actually exist.

None of which is my point.

Re-reading that post just now prompted me to find the The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from which I quoted Mister Roger' on "deep and simple."

After production of the program ceased, Mr. Rogers devoted his time to working on the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" Web site, writing books and fulfilling long-booked speaking engagements. Even then Mr. Rogers often spent his mornings at his "writing office" away from the hustle and bustle of his Family Communications office. The older he got, the more he cherished silence, he said in spring 2001.

"You're able to be much more mindful of what is deep and simple and how essential that is, in order to keep on growing," he said. "And whatever our expression of care might be, whether it be television or the Internet or all of these books that the people want us to write -- whatever that expression is -- it must come out of the depth of understanding that we continue to nourish.

"Otherwise, you know it could get superficial. That's not going to happen with us."

A lot of things about this short passage interest me.

For starters, I often wonder if I dreampt the whole thing up. I mean, I know I met Mister Rogers; I have the photos and subsequent letters to prove it. But sometimes I wonder if he really said what he said. Or what, exactly, he meant.

The above quote, though, not only confirms that depth and simplicity was on Mister Rogers' mind, but also suggests it was very much in his thoughts at that time. The quote is from Spring 2001. I met him just a few months later.

Moreover, the quote suggestst that he himself was exploring deep and simple in a way that he hadn't before; the "cherished silence" of his retirement allowed it.

It's also worth noting that when I Googled part of his quote ("deep and simple and how essential that is"), I ended up with a page full of results on spirituality, democracy, meditation, breathing -- in short, all of the subjects we've tackled in "Mister Rogers & Me" (including, as it ends up, this very website).

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Mister Rogers, Superheros & Me

Chris and I spent Friday afternoon at 826NYC, that nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills you hear my talking about so much.

We pulled up to the Fifth Avenue storefront just before noon. Executive Director Scott Seeley, Development Director Jen Snow and volunteers, Emily and Anthony, were busy restocking the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store which front the tutoring center with products like Secret Identity Kits, Liquid Courage, and Powdered Muscles.

Jen gave us a tour of the shop and the tutoring space. Then we did one-on-one interviews with her and Scott exploring the center's mission, as well as what inspired them to be a part of this great organization.

Chris checks the one-on-one show (during which I typically sit in for the interviewee)

Jen Snow shows Chris 826NYC student's work

Jen and I in our Brooklyn Superhero Supply Secret Identity Glasses

The entire operation -- from it's great publications and whimsical products to its Cape Tester and secret bookcase entrance-- demonstrates a playfullness reminiscent of the Land of Make Believe. They make learning fun, and -- by publishing beautifully-bound books, running mini-film festivals -- do an amazing job reinforcing the value of kids creativity to the kids themselves.

It was a different sort of shoot than, say, Linda Ellerbee or Susan Stamberg, one I figured I could wing. Which explains why, just a few blocks away (as I raced back to MTV for a 4pm meeting), I thought of a few things I should have asked and shots we should have gotten. In fact, I may pop by again in the coming weeks.

In general, though, 826 -- like thousands of other non-profits -- was a great place to answer the question, "So what can I do.

They're doing it every day.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Free (At First)

I found this great quote from my creative writing professor as I was pouring over some old posts from my other blog, "The Daily Journal" (which I'm relaunching in a few weeks):

"It isn't just for the product of the story or the novel, but it's actually for the experience of that bliss that you sometimes do have when you write, as you're somehow transported or elevated. So that's what keeps you going back. It comes to you free, at first, and then you have to work for it."

Like everything else I've ever done, this film has been about the experience -- the process -- as much as the outcome. In fact, the process is most of the story.

Chris is beginning to edit the film on Monday, so I was prepping some materials for him as I'll be working much of the time. I emailed him thusly:

    The general conflict is that I am a PBS mind in an MTV world. This movie is road trip (or mythic journey a la Ulysses). As a proxy for our ADD audience, I try and figure out what Fred meant by "deep and simple is far more essential..." and how to apply it and manifest in my life.

    To that end, I'd encourage you to do cut downs based in the attached outline arc assuming that each vignette endeavors to:

    a) Flow like a conversation (when possible)
    b) Establish person's relationship with Mister Rogers
    c) Discern take-away message or lesson that person learned from/in relation to Mister Rogers

The bookings, the ideas -- everything came free at first. Now we're starting to work for it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Mister Rogers, Someone Awesome & Me

Just spoke with my pal Jen Snow over at 826NYC: Game On!

Friday morning Chris and I are going to shoot city exteriors: basically me walking to work, traffic, pedestrian chaos, etc. These shots will comprise the open to the film and establish a binary for the vibe of Nantucket.

Then we'll head over to Brooklyn where Jen's going to give us a tour of the place, explain it's ethos, introduce us to a volunteer, and talk about her own connection to Mister Rogers. Should be cool, and should be our chance to demonstrate how one can manifest depth and simplicity in their own life.

Oh, and I'll be handing over a thousand dollar check on behalf of "A Family Holiday" Benefit!

Also: I'm working on booking one last interview with someone I love and admire but haven't written about here. He's a huge hero of mine. He's an amazing deep and simple storyteller. And we've exchanged a few emails.

So... my fingers are crossed we'll get to talk with him, but I'd say it's 50/50 for now. Either way, I'll have at least one great story for the blog once I hear back from him.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Mister Rogers, Bono & Me

We released "A Family Holiday" Wednesday night.

It was definately a success. The Delancey was packed. The performances were excellent (Jeff Jacobson, Flying Machines and Chris Abad were standouts). And most importantly, CD sales are already in the black. I expect to hand off a check when Chris and I visit 826NYC on Friday (more on that shoot later).

Of course, Chris was there shooting the whole thing from the front row. I'm not sure whether we'll weave a brief vignette into the film or not. The "Family Holiday" project was certainly inspired by Mister Rogers, and my attempt to find ways to manifest deep and simple in my own life.

The real question will be whether the footage is any good. I'm sure what Chris shot is gold. I'm just not sure we can cut around some of the disappointing components of the night, like that some performers embraced the "Do They Know It's Christmas" finale more than others. That is, a few of us were singing and playing our hearts out. Others were just milling about cracking jokes with one another. I have a theory about this.

I think it takes courage to demonstrate enthusiasm. It makes one vulnerable to emphatically state, through words or deeds, "I like this!" or "I believe in this!"

I think that's one of the reasons Bono takes so much guff. He stands up and stands behind for his beliefs, regardless of how uncool they are.

"These days," he says, "Everyone wants John Lennon's sunglasses, accent and swagger, but no one is prepared to take their clothes off and stand naked."

Of course, Mister Rogers was the same way, I mean, metaphorically. Heck, I'm not even sure it occurred to him whether his beliefs were cool or not. He just was. That inspired me when I met him, and continues to inspire me today.

Still, there are those who just don't feel comfortable belting out 80s pop songs (or whatever). And some of them were on stage with me Wednesday night. (Heck, some of them outright avoided the gig.) They're the same types who worry about things like credebility and cool. Which, believe me, I understand. I have to fight the impulse to worry about appearences and perceptions every day.

I decided to embraced the spirit of the occasion, though. I lept up and down, flopped around on the floor, coaxed the audience to sing along, and danced with the front row. I sang like I'd never sing again. And smiled. A lot.

I say, if you wanna sing out, sing out.

PS - If you haven't purchased the record, please do.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mister Rogers, Jim Wallis & Me

Saturday morning found me in the kitchen well before dawn. Abbi and I had a 15k to run, so I was firing up the coffee maker and -- like so many Saturday morning's before -- listening to American Public Radio's Speaking Of Faith.

This week's guest was Reverend Jim Wallis, an Evangelical Christian writer, political activist, and founder and editor of Sojourners Magazine. He spoke with host Krista Tippet in low, patient tones. Still, standing there in the dark, I was moved by the depth and simplicity of his rousing, hushed sermon.

My hunch is that many consider his bold assertions -- like that inventing deliberately falsifying evidence to drive a nation to war should "not be forgiven" -- a bit much. I happen to think he's right on.

None of it's a surprise, though, given that he was President of Students for a Democratic Society at Michigan State. Inspired, like so many of his generation, by Ghandi and MLK, he writes, lectures and lobbies on behalf of social equity.

"How we treat the other -- the vulnerable, the poor, the enemy -- the one who's not at the table is the one we're going to be judged by."

"I want my kids to be raised in a country that values [that]" he said, "Not just the survival of the fittest."

"I love that Isaiah text where it says that your healing is tied up in your response to those who've been left out and left behind. This nation needs to be healed of it's division our deep inequality we don't know each other and we're diminished by that."

    Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
    when you see the naked, to clothe him,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

    Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
    then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lordwill be your rear guard.

    If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
    then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.

"The big choice for us today is between hope and cynicism. Hope is not a feeling or a personality type. It's a decision. Whenever change has come it's because a people believed in that possibility before it came to be so. Hope is a decision that makes change possible. So I believe hope is the most responsible contribution the faith community can offer the world. Things can change. They have, and they will."

Of course, I immediately wanted to interview him for the film. And I may just yet.

In addition to inspiring me, though, finding Jim Wallis (who is, no doubt, huge within his circles; the guy got Edwards, Obama and Hillary on stage in June to discuss faith, values, and social justice) so serendipitously -- right place, right time -- reminded me of something I'd been thinking a few days prior.

Much as I try to wrap this whole thing -- depth and simplicity and all of the values Mister Rogers stood for and aspired to -- up in a nice 90-minute bow, this film is just the beginning. This journey will take a lifetime.

Saturday, December 01, 2007