Monday, December 15, 2008

Blame The Bailout On Mister Rogers? Really?

Odd as it was for Christofer and I to find ourselves defending Mister Rogers legacy as we traveled around the Northeast shooting "Mister Rogers & Me" a few years ago, it's odder still how his values continue to be twisted and held accountable for all sorts of modern woes.

Some found his gentle spirit "creepy," and associated him with all sorts of unfounded, unsubstantiated malfeasance. Other had fallen prey to the rumors that he was a former Navy SEAL or Army sniper ("That's why he always wore long sleeves," more than one reasoned with us. "To hide his tattoos.").

A few months ago, you'll recall, the Wall Street Journal scapegoated Mister Rogers for a generation of "entitled" kids.

Well, Fox News is at it again, blaming Mister Rogers for the economic bailout.

My pal, Save Mister Rogers founder Brian Linder, has already crafted an articulate reply to the "Fair & Balanced" assertion:

The rampant greed and narcissism of the Me Generation may indeed be responsible for the current economic crisis, but to blame any part of it on Fred Rogers, even if it’s somewhat in jest, shows a gross misunderstanding of the expressions of care that this special man attempted to touch children’s lives with through his television work.

This piece seems to be a riff on a similarly misguided statement that an LSU finance professor made in a July 2007 Wall Street Journal piece, and I said the same thing then.

The idea of "Me first, I get what’s mine first" runs completely counter to every sentiment ever expressed on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

Rogers’ belief that every child and grownup should have a proper sense of self-worth, the awareness that every individual is unique and special, and the love of one’s neighbor, are the very antidote to the cultural problems of entitlement, elitism, and conceit that have brought us to this unfortunate place.

I hope you’ll find the following quote from Fred Rogers to show that if we had all listened more carefully to him, then we’d surely be better off today:

“When I say, ‘It’s you I like,' I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch… and that deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive: love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.” - Fred Rogers
Thanks, Brian. I couldn't have said better myself.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What's Going On With "Mister Rogers & Me"?

What's going on with Wagner Bros. Pictures, LLC's still-forthcoming documentary, "Mister Rogers & Me?"

I'm glad you asked. Or, I'm glad my pen pal Magnus did.

"When I inquired about the documentary a few months ago [you said] it was on hold," he writes. "I don't know what the progress is, or what's holding it up, but I just wanted to encourage you to keep at it. I know you are extremely busy with all your other endeavors, but this project is as important now as it ever was. Keep at it! You were chosen to remind people of the deep and simple."

Thanks, Magnus.

Yes, I am busy. My day job at MTV News continues to expand. And I'm releasing two records in the next three weeks: my own "Live At Rockwood Music Hall" tomorrow, and our second holiday benefit CD, "A Holiday Benefit, Vol. II," December 1.

So here's the deal.

It took us an inordinate amount of time to get the first thirty minutes together for our Independent Film Week application. We worked every night until three o'clock in the morning for about a month. Then we didn't get in, which knocked the wind out of our sails. Then summer swallowed me up: Movie Awards, Video Music Awards, etc.

After a period of deep discussion and soul searching, it became abundantly apparent to my brother, Christofer, and I that he didn't have the bandwidth to finish the edit. His day job requires him 10-18 hours of non-linear editing as is. Plus, he's a father of two with a third on the way.

So, "Golden Days" director Chris Suchorsky currently has a drive with all of our footage, and has agreed to edit the Tim Russert segment on spec. If that works out (which we should know by Thanksgiving at the latest), Wagner Bros. Pictures, LLC, will hire Chris to finish the film with us.

If not, I'm going to take over. I've learned enough ProTools to self-produce my own albums (see: "The Invention Of Everything Else"). I figure I can do this too. I just won't do anything else after work and on weekends until it's done. If I were a bettin' man, I'd say that's where we're headed. Which is fine with me, as no one is more committed to finishing "Mister Rogers & Me" than me.

Mister Rogers is everywhere in my life. Here in my office, there are three photos of him within eyeshot of my computer monitor, and one more on the shelf above my head. At home, he's on the fridge, and in the living room. Rare, then, is the day pass in which I don't pause, look at him, and smile.

So, Magnus, thanks for asking.

We will finish the film.

I promise.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Fred Rogers Center, Brian Linder & Me

Just shy of a year ago, Chris and I drove through Latrobe, Pennsylvania, looking for a sign of Mister Rogers in his hometown. We couldn't find a statue or school, didn't know his childhood adress, and didn't think visiting his grave was in keeping with the film.

We drove to the highest spot we could find, looked out over the valley, spotted Saint Vincent College shining in the distance. There, just below the twin-steepled, red-brick basilica, we could scarcely discern a muddy patch of construction where the Fred Rogers Center For Early Learning & Children's Media sat half-built.

Truth is, we'd done little more than a drive-by less than an hour prior. At the time, while we had Mrs. Rogers' blessing, we still weren't sure whether we had his Family Comminications'. We didn't want to jeopardize it by setting up a tripod and camera outside the center, so we slowed down, shot out the window, and kept going.

Fast-forward a year, and the Fred Rogers Center has officially opened its doors.

The center's mission is to advance the state of early learning and children's media by acting as a catalyst for communication, collaboration and creative change across both fields.

Moreover, the center has a new director who appears to understand just how radically the media landscape has shifted in the five years since Mister Rogers passing.

"The distinction between a child being a user and consumer [of media] has been obliterated," said Maxwell King, who became director of the center last month. "We want to provide guidance and standards" for children, parents and educators.

In a stroke of synchronicity, "Save Mister Rogers" advocate Brian Linder called yesterday.

Seems Brian -- who's frustration with PBS' decision to cease daily delivery of the show to its affiliates inspired his movement -- is finding himself drawn to the storytelling around The Neighborhood too. Specifically, he's connecting with former cast members like Neighbor Aber (Chuck Aber), Lady Aberlin (Betty Aberlin), and Handy Man Negri (Joe Negri), all of whom have terrific stories to tell.

I told him that if I had unlimited resources and time, I'd quit The MTV today, and we'd go interview all of 'em together. Brian (who works for IGN, is married and the father of twin daughters) laughed and agreed; unfortunately, resources and time are limited.

Instead, we hatched a plan to meet at the Center -- with or without cameras -- sometime soon.

"It's written into the films' epilogue anyway," I told him. "I'll send you the script."

I hope we can pull it off.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mister Rogers, Divorce & Me

"Mister Rogers Talks To Parents About Divorce" premiered on Sunday February 15, 1981, just as my parents' marriage was falling apart.

Unfortunately, it took twenty-five years to learn of the show's existence, and until this afternoon to see it myself for the very first time.

All I knew of Susan Stamberg's relationship to Fred Rogers when I walked into NPR's Washington, DC, studios way back in November, 2006, was that the two had taped some television specials together in the '80s. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered the topic of the specials was divorce, something my family had endured, and about which Mister Rogers and I had conversed.

When our copy of the show was finally shipped from FCI last week, my sense of serendipity was heightened still when Chris told me the original air date.

The hour-long special is nothing if not deep and simple. Susan hosts, fielding questions from the WQED studio audience, while Fred and author and bereavement counselor, Rabbi Earl Grollman, respond. Periodically, Fred tosses to brief interview segments with young children.

The set, graphics, and wardrobe are antiquated to be sure. Still, the premise, pacing and patience is so Fred Rogers: deep and simple through and through.

At one point, Susan asks him why the Neighborhood had recently taken its viewers on a tour of the inside of a plane.

There are a lot of children who have to fly alone back and forth between their mothers and their fathers. And I've talked to stewardesses who say that sometimes they're scared, and sometimes they cry.

For any of you who know anything about my recording career (and for those of you who don't, my 2001 song, "Crash Site," was a metaphor for my parent's divorce, and the airplane trips shuttling between them), it was a section I had to watch twice.

As Susan wrapped up the show, and Fred said his final words -- warm and sage as always -- I found myself standing there in front of the television with a big smile on my face, and even bigger crocodile tears in my eyes.

"Remember," he said, "How persistent the feelings of childhood are all through our lives."

Friday, August 01, 2008

Saving Mister Rogers

I'm blessed and lucky for my brief but meaningful time with Mister Rogers, and the wheels those few moments set in motion.

When I need a dose of calm, or insight on managing my anger, sadness, or fear in the face of this crazy, crazy world, I don't have to go anywhere or do anything. I just pause, and I hear him in my head.

What's more, he's rarely out of eyeshot. At my office, a photo of us in the living room of his Crooked House rests on a shelf above my desk, and a postcard reading, "It's such a good feeling to know that we're friends" is tacked to my bulletin board. At home, I've framed the very first photo he sent me, one that reads, "For my real ACK neighbor!" Another postcard (this one reading "You make each day a special day by just your being you!") is on the refrigerator.

When the news broke a few weeks ago that PBS told member stations it would send them just one weekly episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" instead of one daily, I'll be honest: I was sad, but not terribly surprised.

He is a permanent part of my life, as influential as many of my friends and family. What's more, by the time I have children old enough to watch, best as I can tell from my conversations with FCI, Fred will be available either on DVD or on-demand, or both.

As media executive, I wasn't terribly shocked. Throughout the making of "Mister Rogers & Me," Chris and I have seen tiny examples of Fred's on-air presence diminishing on the local level. At one point, I launched a small letter writing campaign.

In general, though, while Chris and I discussed addressing it in the film, and even advocating on the show's behalf, it felt like more than I could chew given the context of my day job, the film, the music, etc. Plus, it felt like a different story than the one we were trying to tell. And, honestly, I was exhausted from hitting our IFP deadline.

Television is a rapidly-shifting landscape. When "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" premiered, PBS was the fourth of four networks. Fred insisted that "We have to remember to whom the airwaves belong, and we must put as great an emphasis on the nurturing of the human personality as we can."

I believe that those of us who are the producers and purveyors of television -- or video games or newspapers or any mass media -- I believe that we are the servants of this nation.

But the market place has exploded. There are hundreds of channels, thousand if you consider online video -- all of which are radically fragmented and commodified.

To be just a little jaded for one second, I witness corporate media machinations every day. And while, in my experience, intentions are generally the best, the bottom line always prevails -- even with strong advocacy. With Fred gone, the power of that advocacy is too.

Now, I'm not entirely sure that's what's at play here. As I've witnessed at work and as I understand it (and as I witnessed first-hand when I toured Iowa Public Television last month), broadcasters are increasingly digital.

The aegis will be on local stations to manage their own "Neighborhood" libraries, no easy task as you know from keeping all your files straight on your computer. It also means that there will no longer be a shared experience; what airs in Columbia, SC, will be different than what airs in New York City.

That said, it's the subtext of the once-weekly vs. daily transmission that's disconcerting. It suggests, however implicitly, that "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" lacks daily urgency or import.

In these days of global unrest, economic insecurity, school shootings, and a news media more interested in Lynn Spears than Lynn Cheney, Mister Rogers' soothing, patient and sage insights are

Which is why South Carolina journalist and parent Brian Linder did not rest so easily when he heard the news. As the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette put it, "he didn't have to be told twice what to do with the mad that he felt, to paraphrase one of Fred Rogers' songs."

And so, Save Mister Rogers was born.

Brian's premise is simple, his intentions the absolute best:

We’re asking PBS to please reconsider their decision, and allow Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with its timeless expressions of care for children, to remain a part of their syndicated Monday through Friday schedule.

Brian and I spoke real quickly yesterday. He's doing his best to helm this increasingly-visible project while retaining his day job (ours are remarkably similar: he's a freelance writer for IGN Movies) and parenting his newborn twins, Grace and Zoe. He sounds sweet, smart, and passionate. I appreciate his efforts, and look forward to speaking with him further and helping however I can.

I have every confidence that the "Neighborhood" will remain available, though, to Brian's point, it may be increasingly difficult and expensive to find and thereby increasingly limited in its reach.

The key, as always, is to remember that the airwaves belong to the public. And so the public must remain vigilant with its local PBS station in demanding that deep, simple, and essential programming like "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" remain free and unfettered on all media platforms.

For me, then, the best part of Brian's efforts, the show's future discoverability notwithstanding, is the reminder that, in this increasingly fragmented, emotionally disconnected world, we are all neighbors.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Ixnay On The Independent Film Week Debut

Rare is the day that I don't ask myself, 'What would Mister Rogers say?'

In fact, just now, I was staring out the window at the sunset doing just that. And as always, I heard his voice in my head.

"It's fine," he said. "Just keep trying."

The question?

What would Mister Rogers say when I told him our documentary, 'Mister Rogers & Me,' was not accepted to Independent Film Week?"

That's right. "Mister Rogers & Me" was not accepted to Independent Film Week. I got the email as I was walking through the turnstile at work. "Dear Benjamin," it started.

Thank you for your submission to the Documentary Work-in-Progress section of the 2008 Independent Film Week’ Project Forum. We regret to inform you that your project, “Mister Rogers & Me“, was not selected. We are only able to accommodate a maximum of 75 projects in this most competitive documentary section, which had approximately 500 submissions and numerous strong projects not selected this year.

Please be assured that all submitted projects were carefully reviewed by the Selection Committee. Final decisions were based on a range of criteria, including compliance with all application requirements, amount of financing in place or needed, available rights, artistic merit, and quality. That said, many projects "passed" these criteria, yet still could not be included due to space limitations.

I think I said, "Damn," before stepping into Times Square and cranking Billy Joel's "A Matter Of Trust" (of all things).

My first thought? 'Next!'

My second thought? Many.

First, I thought about early this afternoon. I was sitting in my office scheduling out the next few weeks: San Diego for ComicCon, Indianapolis for Brickyard 400, Meadowlands for Springsteen, Nantucket, Seattle, Nevis and on and on and on.

'I'm pretty blessed,' I thought then.

'Maybe this is some sort of message,' I thought now.

Second, I thought about how difficult the home stretch towards the Independent Film Week deadline was for Chris and me.
'Maybe this is some sort of message,' I thought.

Finally, I thought about how many times I said that, if all else failed, we'd load the movie into a van and drive it to every church basement and rec center that'd have us. Which still stands.

And then I thought, 'Back to work.'

We just have to keep trying.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mister Rogers On The Penny?

My friend Jen Snow over at 826NYC sent me this link.

Kinda' hilarious, huh? I'm not sure I ever thought of it, or noticed it, but it sure made me laugh this morning.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert, Mister Rogers & Me

The New York Times just confirmed some sad news: Tim Russert has died of a heart attack.

You'll recall that Chris and I visited Tim in his NBC offices in November, 2006 to interview him for our documentary.

We scored the interview courtesy of my uncle, with whom Tim had worked for years, after I read Tim's wife, Maureen's, remembrance of Mister Rogers in The Nantucket Inquirer-Mirror some months earlier.

It was a cold, drizzly Monday morning as we pulled into NBC's Washington, DC, bureau. Despite a fair dose of preparation, I felt exceedingly nervous. Here I was -- some kid from Iowa -- interviewing on of journalism's foremost interviewers. Worse, it was only Chris and my third shoot, and one that had to take place under challenging circumstances; we had just fifteen minutes to get what we needed.

We were ushered through the lobby by his assistant, Lisa, past the "Meet The Press" set, to a large, off-white, windowless conference room dominated by a huge, oak table. Chris and I quickly conferred on our set up, and tossed up our two lights -- one of which, we discovered, was missing its bulb. Moments before one of the biggest interviews of my life, I dashed through the rain to our car for a replacement.

I was pacing the conference room when Tim finally walked in. I'd asked Chris to roll on our handshake, which he did. He asked about our uncle, asked about the film, made a quick sports reference of some sort (which I probably feigned to understand), then sat down and began mic'ing up like an pro.

I remember noticing some makeup in the corner of his eyes, presumably left over from a previous TV appearance. I led with a question about Nantucket, which threw him a bit. "Is the film about Nantucket? Or FredRogers?" I explained, and we were off.

We talked a while longer than fifteen minutes, moving from his first trip to Nantucket as a college student to meeting Mister and Mrs. Rogers when his son, Luke, was five-years-old. Then I asked about his parents.

Benjamin Wagner: Reading your book, it struck me that your parents and Mister Rogers were somehow on the same page.

Tim Russert: I remember my mom would wake me up every morning she would stand at the foot of the steps and say,"Tim, Tim, Tim." Very soft, sweet voice. But she had a direct frequency to my heart. And it taught me so many lessons which I use every Sunday morning.

You don’t have to be loud for people to pay attention to you. And I think that's something that Mister Rogers taught too. You can walk into a room and be respectful, and be civil, and have very strong views but learn how to disagree agreeably.

And the thing that baffles me about Washington as we sit here and talk is that we all learn these same lessons but somehow people come here and forget them. And I think that the world would be a lot better off and I know that the relations between Congress and the White House would be a lot better of if they remembered and listened to Big Russ and Mister Rogers.

As we wrapped our our interview, I drew a parallel between the two shows, "Meet The Press" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

BW: "Meet The Press" is the nation's longest running network television program. And "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" is public television’s longest running program. I wonder if you can draw some meaning or connection from that fact.

TR: Well, they’re both national treasures. I happen to be a temporary custodian. And I think Fred would see himself as a temporary custodian in allowing more and more people to see it as it's replayed and replayed even after his death. And the essence of those programs was to get people of good intentions and open hearts to sit down and talk with one another, and learn from one another.

I've always believed as my mom and dad taught me and as Fred Rogers taught millions of Americans that true quality, true wholesomeness does rise and is embraced and respected.

His warmth, substance, intelligence and humor really shone through in our interview. You can see it in our trailer: his is the first testimonial at roughly 1:10 in.

Just like with Mister Rogers, it seemed like there was a segment of culture that wanted to tear Tim down in some way, whether for being too partisan, or not too partisan enough, or playing some role in the Valerie Plame case, or whatever. I don't really where the truth is on any of that and, to be honest, I don't really care to.

All I know is that this immensely well-connected and busy gentlemen took a half an hour out of his day to talk with a couple of young guys making an independent documentary about something as esoteric as the need for depth and simplicity in modern culture. In addition to contributing a few terrific stories and some great insight to "Mister Rogers & Me," Tim's participation lent an air of legitimacy to the rest of our production.

As I've said before, eulogies are usually hurried and artless. This is surely both.

But it is also well intentioned, full of love, and full of gratitude. I'm so grateful Chris and I met Tim Russert, and spent a little bit of time talking about some pretty important stuff: soft voices, good intentions, and open hearts.

Friday, May 23, 2008

"Mister Rogers & Me" Applies To Independent Film Week!

I don't know much about gambling, or numbers, but I like to think that submitting our Independent Film Week online application at precisely 7:11 is somehow fortuitous; these two seem pretty good together.

In addition to two DVD screeners, and a $60 entree fee, the application called for a 25 word logline, 60 word synopsis, 500 word summary, and 500 word artistic statement. Here's what I came up with.

LOGLINE: American's Favorite Neighbor, PBS icon, Fred Rogers, sends a young MTV producer on a quest for depth and simplicity amidst a shallow and complex world.

SYNOPSIS: An MTV producer's life is transformed when he meets the recently retired host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," Fred Rogers. Friendship with the PBS icon sets the young producer on a hero's quest to find depth and simplicity amidst a shallow and complex world through conversations with Susan Stamberg (NPR), Tim Russert ("Meet The Press"), Marc Brown ("Arthur") and more.

SUMMARY: I first met Mister Rogers at his summer home on Nantucket, Massachusetts, in September 2001. My mother rented the cottage next door. Mister Rogers really was my neighbor.

On the afternoon of our first meeting, he asked me about my job as an MTV producer. Though I’m absolutely certain he didn’t intend it, the inquiry felt like an indictment coming from one of PBS’ founding fathers. Here he was an icon of substantive television. Me? Not so much. At the end of our conversation, he said, "I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than complex."

The following summer, I told him how I’d thought all year about what he said.

"Spread the message, Benjamin," He said. "Spread the message."

It was only after his death in February 2003, that it dawned on me how. Armed with an HDV camera, my brother and I set out to meet some of Mister Rogers’ neighbors to find out more about the man himself, what he meant by “deep and simple,” and where in our junk food culture that ethos still survives.

Our travels led us to Durham, North Carolina, where Mister Rogers' friend, mystic, author and activist, Bo Lozoff, runs The Kindness Foundation. There we learned the three core tenants of a deeper life: contribute to community, reflect daily, and be wary of material.

In Virginia we met “The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers” author Amy Hollingsworth, with whom we discussed how this ordained minister’s faith manifested in his work on television.

In Washington, DC, we visited Mister Rogers’ iconic red sweater at The Smithsonian. Across town, Meet The Press” host Tim Russert shared his tale of meeting Mister Rogers on Nantucket, and spoke to how deep and simple values hold up in our nation’s capital. Later, we interviewed NPR’s Susan Stamberg, with whom Mister Rogers shot numerous television specials in the ‘80s.

Back in New York, “Arthur” author Marc Brown told us how Mister Rogers inspired his entrĂ©e into children’s programming. Later, “Nick News” host, Linda Ellerbee, amplified the challenges facing the modern media programmer. And “I'm Proud of You” author Tim Madigan shared the lesson he learned from his relationship with Mister Rogers: that friendship comes from the least expected sources.

In Nantucket, photographer Beverly Hall shared her memories of being Mister Rogers' actual neighbor: surprise visits, tiny gestures, and quiet moments.

Our path then led to Mister Rogers’ adoptive hometown of Pittsburgh, where "This American Life" contributor Davy Rothbart told us how his two encounters with America’s Favorite Neighbor continue to inspire his appreciation of reflective moments (even as they elude him).

Finally, we arrived in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where groundbreaking for The Fred Rogers Center For Early Learning & Children's Media has begun on the hill above Fred Rogers' hometown.

In the end, we came to know more than just the man and his luminous legacy. In the end, we uncovered the forces acting against depth and simplicity, and developed tactics to advocate for and make for us deeper, simpler lives.

ARTISTIC STATEMENT: In making "Mister Rogers & Me," I am making good on an assignment given to me by Fred Rogers himself one dark and stormy night in Nantucket, Massachusetts. There, in the firelight of my family's rented cottage, America's favorite Neighbor -- our actual neighbor -- quietly told me to "spread the message."

That message, that "deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex," is more than a cultural tension. It is a personal one. When I was offered an opportunity to launch MTV News Online's daily news operation in 1996, I worried that -- as much as I loved the channel growing up -- it wouldn't make for a meaningful, substantive career. Worse, I was concerned it would detract from my real passion: writing, recording and performing my own music. Still, I took the job.

When I met PBS icon (and fellow musician) Mister Rogers five years later, he asked about my music, and my career. I stammered something that felt like half-justification, half-truth. Music had been an important refuge for me growing up, I said. And music journalism like Rolling Stone and MTV News had revealed to me that my idols wrestled with the same things I did: familial strife, self esteem, and addiction.

"You know, Benjamin," he said staring out to sea, "I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex."

It's difficult to characterize how radically that meeting, that conversation, and the assignment Mister Rogers handed me has affected me. I talk about the man, his message, and our friendship every day. I try to make good on his values in everything I do. And I have spent the last four years putting this documentary together with my brother in our own time and on our own dime.

Creatively, I've endeavored to tell this story in the best, most-engaging way that I know how: the first person. In doing so, my investment and curiosity is palpable as I act as proxy for the audience, asking and answering questions on their behalf.

I've often described the story as a hero's quest. In it, I leave my community (New York City), seek wise elders (Bo Lozoff, Susan Stamberg), discover deeper meaning to probing questions (How do we create deeper lives amidst an increasingly shallow culture?), before returning home to share the good news.

Visually and aurally, my brother and I endeavored to contrast our frenetic, often shallow and always complex modern lives in New York City with our tranquil, deep and simple moments on the corner of Nantucket Island known as Madaket.

Philosophically, our goal is simple: to afford the viewer the opportunity to reflect not just on a great man, but also on the values he espoused and embodied every day: compassion, kindness, and reflection.
Once IFP confirms receipt of our DVDs, entry #898 is official. By July 23d, Chris and I will know if "Mister Rogers & Me" has in audience come September.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On The Road With Mister Rogers

Our 26:20 "Mister Rogers & Me" Independent Film Week submission is comprised of four parts (three of which will make the final edit):

1) An introduction (in which I introduce myself and tell the backstory of Mister Rogers and me)

2) A biography section (in which I give the briefest sketch of Mister Rogers life)

3) A visit with Bo Lozoff at The Human Kindness Foundation (in which we learn the three core tenants of a deeper life)

4) An outro intended to demonstrate what will come next in the film.

That outro is four soundbites (Tim Russert, Susan Stamberg, Marc Brown, and Linda Ellerbee) set to music (The Poem Adpts "Bear & Racoon," as previously reported) sewn together by voice over ("The Human Kindness Foundation was only the beginning...") and driving footage.

Which is what Chris is cutting now.

In fact, he just cut down three hours of travel footage (mostly me gripping the steering wheel and staring out the window stoically) shot over the course of some 48+ total hours.

"All that driving," he said, "And we got four and a half minutes of useable footage."

Meanwhile, I'm in the back row chipping away at our summary (just a few words to go!) and artistic statement (only one graph done). After a Goodburger (works, heavy mustard), fries and a Foster's, I'm onto Coke and Snickers.

The deadline for submission is Friday. It's Tuesday night (for another 58 minutes, at least) right now. It's gonna' be down to the wire, but we'll get there...

Monday, May 19, 2008

"Mister Rogers & Me" In 25 Words Or Less?

I've been drafting our Independent Film Week application as Chris fine tunes our submission.

We've made some elegant revisions tonight, including the addition of a cute piece of footage of Ethan and me, some evocative driving b-roll, and a song by Davy Rothbart's brother's band, The Poem Adept, "Bear & Raccoon" (though we haven't officially asked Peter's permission yet).

Thing about non-linear editing is that there's no track record of what was, only what is. The project evolves before our eyes. That is, when my eyes aren't on this blog.

Anyway, other than the usual information (age, rank, seriel number), the application -- which is due in roughly 72 hours -- calls for five major items: logline (25 words), synopsis (60), summary (500), artistic statement (500), and bios (100 each). Right now, I'm 3/5 through.

The summary's not ready for prime time, though -- being that it's approaching midnight and I've been moving since 7am -- so here's what I have for now:

Logline: American's Favorite Neighbor, PBS icon Fred Rogers, sends an MTV producer on a quest for depth and simplicity amidst a shallow and complex world.

Synopsis: An MTV producer's life is transformed when he meets the recently-retired host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," Fred Rogers. Friendship with the PBS icon sets the young producer on a hero's quest to find depth and simplicity amidst a shallow and complex world through conversations with Susan Stamberg (NPR), Tim Russert ("Meet The Press"), Marc Brown ("Arthur") and more.

The other pending issue is that the application calls for us to commit to either being a work-in-progress, or a rough cut some September. A work-in-progress puts us in a position to seek finishing funds. A rough cut enables us to keep our momentum, and seek distribution (and spend all summer editing after work).

Two guesses which one I'm lobbying for.

Tune in tomorrow for the answer, and the exciting conclusion to our IFP edit and application (and my immediate fall into a deep, dream-filled slumber).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Mister Rogers, Quiznos & Me

Years ago, when I was recording the first of two albums ("Almost Home" and "Love & Other Indoor Games") at my pal Kevin Anthony's Control One Studios, I began most sessions with a delicious, toasty Turkey Ranch Sub from Quiznos.

Tonight, Chris and I are editing just a few blocks from there, so I reprised the ritual... with extra pickles, as always.

The neighborhood feels a little different. Madison Square Park (where I recorded the city sounds you hear throughout my cover of John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane"), for example, use to be dark and sketchy. Now, there's a trendy little outdoor dining venue (Shake Shack) beneath a canopy of bright-white lightbulbs.

Tonight, the Flatiron building was dark, but the Empire State Building was cast in a warm, purple glow. The trees were in nearly-full bloom. The city was bustling with spring energy.

Here in the edit, Chris is assembling the bio portion of the film. In this section, we give a brief overview of Mister Rogers' life through major milestones such as his premiere airing in 1968, Senate hearing in 1969, and NATAS Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

It isn't a complete portrait of his life by any means. It isn't meant to be. PBS' own, "Mister Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor" is the definitive work to that end, as are the oral histories Family Communications has begun assembling.

Instead, it's our objective to give the casual viewer enough to go on. Deeper details are revealed throughout the film. This section -- roughly nine minutes into the film -- sets the stage.

Chris just cut the famous Senate hearing in which Mister Rogers gently pursuaded Senator John Pastore (D, RI) to fund PBS from seven minutes to one. The process isn't much to watch from this vantage point, but the end result sure looks cool.

Meanwhile, I just dashed off an email my Tim Russert's people asking for, amongst other things, pictures of Mister Rogers with his son, Luke.

And harkening back to those Quiznos-fueled recording sessions, I even spent a few minutes corresponding with The Nadas' bassist and Sonic Factory Studios recording engineer, Jon Locker, about my next album, "The Invention of Everything Else."

Everything comes around, after all.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Mister Rogers, The Emmy Awards & Me

This is a crucial piece of footage.

It's Mister Rogers' acceptance of his 1997 Lifetime Achievement Award from National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, aka The Emmy Awards. In the clip, he accepts his statuette from actor Tim Robbins, and says the following:

So many people have helped me come to this night. Some of you are here, some are far away, and some are even in Heaven. All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take along with me ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. Ten seconds in life. I'll watch the time.

It's a crucial component to our film (for reasons that will become apparent to you when you see it). And yesterday, we received good news from our uber-AP, Kathy Kim, who not only tracked down the tape, but with a special surprise. Daytime Emmy Award Manager Steve Rogers wrote us the following:

Since your subject matter is so near and dear to the Academy’s mission of excellence for programming, particularly for children, we’d be willing to waive the fee for a donation of any amount to our Foundation. In addition, when the film is complete we'd love to take a look and perhaps feature the work on our site with a clip and a profile of the project and filmmaker.

We are blessed, and grateful.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The View From Here

These days, this is my vista on the making of "Mister Rogers & Me."

I'm in the back row of the edit emailing ("Do you have and would you please share photos from your trip to meet Mister Rogers at FCI?"), making notes ("Statistics? Biblical passages in text?"), and -- to be honest -- surfing the web.

Chris and I have exactly seventeen days to get our edit done for the May 23 Independent Film Week deadline. (I know I wrote in my last post that our deadline way May 5; that's when they began taking submissions. Also, I was being loose with the deadline to be sure we hit it.)

Tonight, we're cutting our visit to Bo Lozoff's Human Kindness Foundation. It's a segment that, quite frankly, we've been putting off for months.

Chris kept saying, "Man, I'm afraid to even look at it."

What we thought was going to be a brief, one-hour interview turned into an entire afternoon dining with Bo, his wife, and commune members, touring the grounds, and talking about super, crazy deep stuff.

When we got home, we had nearly eight hours of tape. When that tape was transcribed (which I paid two college student to do), it came out to 64 typed, single-spaced pages. That's a lot of footage to cut down to somewhere between 8-15 minutes.

Bo was the first stop on our road trip. Actually, he was the second stop on the the first trip, but he sets up "deep and simple" -- our thesis -- so nicely.

We're endeavoring to cut the first and last interviews (Bo and Davy Rothbart, which is already rough cut) plus the set up and conclusion to dazzle the IFP submission committee. So we couldn't put Bo off any longer.

Right now, Chris has it down to eighteen minutes.

It's interesting to watch him work. I wrote and recorded all the voice over in a very linear manner. That is, I basically set up and concluded each interview. Chris, though, thinks in some crazy inter-woven 3D puzzle. He thinks spatially. So he's tied the sit-down interviews, the walk-and-talk, and the graphics (photos, statistics, etc) into one, cohesive, layered story. It's way different from my vision, but more advanced.

And requisite. When you talk with anyone about anything for eight hours (heck, one hour) then try and boil it down to its essence, you gotta' cut somethin'. And you gotta' cover that cut with something too.

Anyway, it's approaching midnight. We've made a lot of progress. We've got almost thirty minutes. We're roughly 3/4 of the way home ... for the IFP submission, anyway. After that? More views from the back row of the edit. See ya' there!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Scripting "Mister Rogers & Me" -- Twice

It's been Groundhog Day for the last month; every weekend is the same.

I walk to the deli across the street and order a cracked pepper turkey on a roll with mustard, mayo, vinegar, lettuce, tomato, and onions. I grab a 16 ounce Coca-Cola out of the cooler, a bag of Baked Lays from the display, pay for everything, and walk home.

Back home, I microwave the sandwich for forty-five seconds, set my laptop up on the dining room table, and get to work on the doc...

Today, I finished. Sort of.

The script is done! Both of 'em.

The first is the rough cut sketch version. It consists of voice over, interview transcription, plus some video direction ("VID: Driving In NYC"). Entire sections, though, are summed up in single phrases -- like "Pittsburgh Children Museum Tour" or "Smithsonian MOS." It comes to about 15,000 words, or twenty-five pages.

The other is a condensed version for IFP's Independent Film Week. The Independent Film Week is an annual confab of indie studios, distributors, and festival bookers. Everyone we've talked to (which at this point is pretty much Paul and Chris) suggested we screen at least a work in progress there before getting into the festival game. The deadline is May 2, which, given our rate of progress, is way too soon for the full rough cut.

Fortunately for us, IFP is all about new filmmakers, so they'll except even a few rough scenes for potential admission (bearing in mind that they accept only the top 15% of submissions). The condensed script, then, is basically the open (which is in pretty good shape), the close (which is written, and not too complicated), with two segments in between: Bo Lozoff (which Chris has flirted with but not tackled; Bo's vociferous and super deep) and Davy Rothbart (which Chris has already rough cut).

I have to read a few VOs tomorrow night, then I'm handing the whole thing off to Chris. He edits twelve hours a day, and is a husband and father of two, so we've been having one heckuva' time squeezing in "Mister Rogers & Me" edits. But the clock's tickin'...

It's been a long road, and I know that we've only just begun. Two quotes are currently pulling me through.

I found this one in a blog post I wrote about a Tribeca Film Festival panel I attended some years ago. Steven Gaghan was talking with Sydney Pollack about a project that had languished in pre-production for three years. Pollack said, "Don’t worry about it, kid. Any project that means anything takes nine years to get made. Nine years. You’re only a third of the way there."

The other was in today's New York Times about actress Helent Hunt's directorial debut, "Then She Found Me." "I was particularly defeated," she said, "So I asked someone, 'Whose movies get made?' He said, 'It’s the people who don’t give up.'"

As it currently stands, the film's prologue is a quote from another one of my heroes, Bono.

"The true life of a believer is one of a hazardous uphill pilgrimage where you uncover slowly the illumination for your next step."

I believe...

And I'm ready for the next step.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Reveal

Just yesterday afternoon at work, I told the head of a major studios' publicity department, "Our audience craves one thing: the reveal. Show them something they haven't seen before."

What I meant was, nothing drives clicks in the movie news business like exclusive trailer and clips. It's not rocket science.

Still, studios roll out these sneak peeks in strategically-timed microscopic pieces. They don't want to give too much away.

Our buddy, "American Hardcore" (and Slamdance founder) Paul Rachman, though, suggested to Chris and me months ago now that we deluge the Internet with clips.

Which brings me to tonight.

It's nearly midnight. We're editing. Well, Chris is editing, and I'm making (strong) suggestions over his shoulder.

We're working on the open. We've scarcely made it past my first line of VO ("It seems to me..."), which means we're approximately .005% into the film, and means that, at this rate, we'll have a rough cut sometime in 2010. Still, it already looks like a film. Which kind of blows me away.

The New York City footage is great: frenzied, chilly, and blue (in contrast with Nantucket's warm reds). Chris also digitized a bunch of 8mm footage my dad shot when we were kids that, frankly, is amazing stuff: me in a crib, Chris pushing me in a stroller.

I don't know how many times I've thought (and said), "What the hell have we done!" Little by little, though, it's feeling like the real thing. The script is 97% written. And we probably have 75% of our footage together. It's coming together. And it looks cinematic.

So I wish we could show you, and make good on Paul's suggestion. And we will. But not tonight.

I'll bring a FlipCam into edit next time and show you what I mean. But it's gonna' be a while before we roll out clips in earnest. So for now, trust me. It's good. It works. You'll see.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Golden Days

Like a lot of guys of my generation, Chris Suchorsky's mind was blown by "The Empire Strikes Back." What distinguished Chris most of the rest of us, though, was how geeked out he was by the making-of documentary he saw on HBO.

When Chris saw Kevin Smith's no-budget, 1994 Sundance phenomena, "Clerks," he wanted in on his New Jersey neighbor's racket. A self-described "typical everyday Slacker, C student," he doubled up and even audited film classes at Seton Hall. Once graduated, he began working in advertising, saving money, and writing his screenplay, "Executing Love."

By the summer of 2000, I'd had it with the Advertising Agency and decided to shoot my film. I based my actions/steps on Robert Rodriguez's "Rebel Without a Crew," an autobiographical account of his attempt to make, "El Mariachi." Rodriguez shot the film by himself for $7000, and sold it to Hollywood for around 1 million.

I set out to shoot a 95 page script in 6 six days, I rented equipment I could not afford, and I hired people (friends) who could not act. This was my failure.

A day or so after my film career ended, I had an idea. Why not turn my failed attempt into a documentary? Why not tell the story of a person trying to achieve a life-long dream and watch it fall apart? This film would become "Failure."

Check your local listings; Chris' how-NOT-to-make-a-movie documentary, "Failure" is probably playing on IFC right now.

I came across Chris via his new film, "Golden Days." The doc follows indie rockers, The Damnwells, through a major label tussle not dissimilar from Wilco's (also documented in Sam Jones' "I Am Trying To Break your Heart").

Megan Gilbert of Zoom-In described the film thusly:

Suchorsky, explores the concepts of artistry, musicianship, intra-band communication, songwriting, fame, dreams, and success. The "American Dream"-like rise and fall of a Little Band That Could provides an excellent tension that pushes Golden Days out of the dustbin of live music documentaries and into the realm of art.

Chris is still seeking distribution, but has screened the film at sixteen noted film festivals thus far, including Big Sky, Vail, Waterfront, and Phoenix.

As a singer/songwriter and first time documentary filmmaker, you can imagine my interest, in meeting Chris, and learning about the making and marketing of "Golden Days." So I emailed him, and offered to buy him a beer.

Last Monday, we had five.

We sat at the bar at O'Lunney's on 44th Street just east of Broadway for a few hours. Chris is scrappy and compact. He was a wrestler at Seton Hall, where he refused to allow a diagnosis of Hodgkin's Disease derail his wrestling career.

Chris' leg bounced the entire time we sat there. This is a guy who gets things done. I like that. Moreover, he's a natural storyteller. And sound bite machine. With nearly ten years struggling to break through the independent film world, and dozens of festivals under his belt, this is a guy with something to say.

"People love misery and chaos," he said.

"Everything corporate is bullshit."

"Documentary festivals and distributors only want films about three things: Iraq, religion, and the environment."

I felt a little silly talking about my sweet little film, given that it was none of those things, and not even a little bit rock 'n roll like "Golden Days."

"What's your log line?" he asked.

I sighed, grinning.

"I knew someone was gonna' ask the eventually," I said, stalling. "A PBS mind in an MTV world seeks illumination through the mentorship of American Icon and actual neighbor Fred Rogers?"

It was more of a question than a statement.

"What's yours for 'Golden Days,'" I asked.

"A struggling indie rock band signs to a major label only to have their album and career nearly destroyed by the people who signed them," he said. "That's what 'Failure' is about too, I guess: trying to find success in a world that won't allow you to."

I told him I thought he was kicking ass, and that I'd get back to him on my log line.

I thanked him for hangin' out with me. We stumbled into the neon-lit madness of Times Square. And I smiled the whole way home.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Friday, March 28, 2008

WQED Studio A Renamed Fred Rogers Studio

This morning, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports:

WQED Multimedia's Studio A, which was home to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," will now be called the Fred Rogers Studio in honor of Fred Rogers' life and work in children's television, WQED board members decided yesterday. The station will open the studio in August for a series of open houses for those who want a look behind the scenes of the long-running PBS series.

"When he retired, he said, 'I miss my playmates at the studio the most,'" the late host's wife, Joanne Rogers, who was on hand for the announcement, told board members. "It was work, and it was hard, but he played there."

Chris and I spent a few minutes shooting exteriors outside of WQED last year. At the time, we still held hope that we'd be invited inside, so we were treading lightly.

As Chris shot a series of wide, mid, and close-up shots, I wandered around the grounds. The building is on the edge of the University of Pittsburgh campus, and so was teaming with students. In fact, it appeared by the volume of pedestrian traffic that the parking lot on the west side of the building was some sort of a short-cut. So I followed the kids around the back of the building.

I noticed an open door on the side of the building, and tiptoed towards it. From the looks of it, I was at the back door of one of the station's cavernous sound stages. My heart was beating as I stepped inside, hoping that I'd spot some little corner of King Friday's castle.

No such luck.

I've since spoken with FCI and relinquished my fantasy of being invited inside WQED, on camera at least.

I still like to imagine, though, that I was just a few steps from X the Owl's tree.

Either way, in some small way, I always am.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mister Rogers & Me In 5:32

The first rule of film -- heck, of storytelling in general -- is "Show, Don't Tell."

Given that I never got back to Mister Rogers Crooked House with a video camera, Chris and I are left to retell the origin story -- that is, the story of my first meeting with Mister Rogers -- by reconstructing it through words and pictures.

And so, in roughly 5:32 of voice over recordedjust now in the studio picture here (yes, that's my wife's robe overmy shoulder), I usher the viewer from Iowa City, Iowa, to Nantucket, Massachusetts. Here's a sneak peak:

It seems to me that there just a few crucial moments that define every person's life. For me so far, they are as follows:

I was born September 4, 1971, in Iowa City, Iowa, to a graduate student and a nurse. Three weeks later, we moved.

In October of 1981, my parents divorced. My mother, brother, Christofer, and I moved for the fifth time in ten years to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I retreated into my headphones, the most-recent copy of Rolling Stone Magazine, and the fantasy that one day I’d be a rock star.

In 1993, I graduated from Syracuse University with dual degrees in creative writing and journalism. Shortly thereafter, Chris and I moved to New York City where timing, luck and experience conspired to afford me my dream job at THE preeminent music video network -- yeah, THAT music video network.

Perhaps THE defining moment of my life so far, though, occurred in September of 2001 on a tiny island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts…

I sent the file to Christofer so he can begin cutting to it. Next steps?

1- Mister Rogers bio VO
2- All intro VOs
3- Bev Hall segment
4- 826 segment
5- Outro VO

The goal is to have a rough cut by May 1.

Very abmitious.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The End Is The Beginning Is The End

Putting this film together has been an excercise in time management. I don't have the luxury of producing "Mister Rogers & Me" as my day job, so I'm working on it -- tangiably or not -- the rest of the time. New ideas, then, are often unexpected surprises at odd moments.

Like this morning. I went for a five mile run along the Hudson River and through Central Park, cranking tunes the whole way. What with the traffic, the chaos, and the rock 'n roll, it was kind of the opposite of meditative or reflective. It was suprising, then, to step into my apartment and immediately come up with the opening voice over for the film.

I've been puzzling as to how to pull together a few disperate strands for a few weeks. We've already taped the opening shots of me walking to work, idea being to establish the chaos of the city in order to stanf in contrast to the tranquility of Nantucket. But the audience needs to know who I am, not because the film's about me, but because the conflict in the film -- every good movie needs one -- is my conflict: being a PBS mind in an MTV world. If the audience is going to be invested in the story, I figure, they need to be at least a little invested in me. Plus I had to establish a few notes -- like my parent's divorce -- as they figure into the story. Finally I had to get the film to Nantucket, then onto the road.

I knew I'd be spending time on the film today, and knew I had to write the opening voice over, but I wasn't thinking about it when I ran, or when I walked into the door. I think I figured it out, though. And it ties nicely to how I plan to end the film. Now I just have to tie everything up in-between.

I had to smile as I sat there typing everything out this afternoon when I noticed that Abbi had placed a bunch of daffodils on our desk; Nantucket's Daffodil Festival kicks off in a month. Today, I was a few steps ahead.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dear Mister Rogers

Dear Mister Rogers,

My memory isn't the best, but one moment I'll never forget is meeting you.

It was September 4, 2001. I'd arrived on Nantucket just a few hours prior. I remember going for a run, then swimming in the bay at sunset. By the time you walked over from The Crooked House, there wasn't a trace of sunlight to be found; the sun had fallen below the waves. The stars had yet to come out. It was completely and perfectly dark.

I was standing on the back porch, beer in hand, when I heard your unmistakable voice inquire, "Has the birthday boy arrived?"

I don't remember what I said, or what happened next, but I remember exactly how I felt. For the first time in a long time, the increasing pressures of modern, accelerated adult life slipped away. For the first time in a long time, I felt like a little boy; wide-eyed, full of wonder, and 100% unique.

I couldn't have imagined then just how radically spending time with you that weekend would affect my path. Meeting you was a turning point, a moment where my existing values, interests and -- frankly, anxieties -- began to galvanize around a new mission.

I'd only just recently broken free from the haze of low-level but insidious drug addiction, and begun to address some of my own demons: the dual traumas of my parent's divorce, my broken jaw, and the resulting low self-esteem that accompanied both. Creatively, in my music, I was still wrestling with the tension between style and form. I was still -- metaphorically, at least -- dressing for a roll I thought I needed to play, not living in the clothes that fit and were comfortable.

I was, come to think of it, only beginning to find my voice. You helped me. You helped me settle into myself, and into the realization that I was good enough just the way I am. I stopped trying to be something or someone else, and began to just be me.

So much has changed since then: September 11, Afghanistan and Iraq, iPhones, The Long Tail, MySpace, integrated marketing and psychographic ad targeting. Everything feels darker, more self-absorbed, more disconnected, and less engaged than ever before. From cell phone video of Saddam Hussein's hanging to paparrazi snaps of Britney's meltdown, it seems like we're entertaining ourselves to death. Were you still here, I'm sure you would have some gentle, substantive advice for us all.

My hunch is that you would remind us that we're all more alike than dissimilar. You might encourage us to reflect a moment on something beautiful: a sunset, a flower, the memory of a loved one. And then you might have us simply turn to our neighbor and ask, "How can I help?"

In the absence of that calm, patient voice, though, and in the face of so many blustery and boisterous ones, I'm not sure who or what will remind us of those simple values: community, reflection, modesty. In the absence of you soothing presence, I'm not sure who or what will remind us to slow down, tune in and really listen to one another.

You know, Christofer and I visited your home town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a few months ago. We didn't go to your house, or your grave. Instead, we just drove around looking for the highest point from which to take it all in. Oddly enough, as the sun began to fall over the Western Pennsylvania town, we couldn't find a clear vantage point from which to see everything. We could only see what was immediately in front of us: a weather-beaten factory, a rusted out rail car, a chipped and faded duplex. You'll recall also that we had all but given up and were headed out of town when we spotted St. Vincent's Cathedral -- little more than a tiny, red-brick tower clear across the valley -- illuminated in the setting sun.

There is so much to say to you today, Mister Rogers, on the celebration of what would have been your 80th birthday. For now, though, just this: Thank You. Thank you for helping me find my own cathedral on the hill, something to stare at, reflect on, and believe in even when everything else seems completely and perfectly dark.

Love, Benjamin

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mister Rogers, Serendipity & Us

Brace yourself; the following story may blow your mind.

Just this past Sunday, Nada front man Jason Walsmith and I were sitting around his Beaverdale, Iowa, living room recovering from the previous night's show and preparing for the next. We were watching TV when he said, "Lemme' show you this documentary."

He surfed around his Tivo menu until he found Iowa Public Television's "More Than A Game." The film, "a look back at girls' 6-on-6 basketball and what it meant to generations of young women who played it," features a new song from my Des Moines rock star friends, "Play Like A Girl."

Fast forward to Tuesday night. Chris and I are saddled up to the bar at The Dead Poet. We're well into our second pint, and nearly done with our cheeseburgers. I'm scribbling all over the film's outline, clarifying our respective assignments for the coming days ("Chris: Cut Davy. Ben: Script Pittsburgh").

"Excuse me," the gentleman next to us says. "Is that some sort of script?"

"Yeah it is," I say. "My brother and I are working on a documentary about Mister Rogers."

"Really!?!?" he says. "I work for PBS."

My eyes light up as we reach for our respective business cards."

"In Iowa."

"What!?!" I say. "I just got back from Iowa. I played a few shows with my pals in The Nadas who ..."

"Whose songs are in '"More Than A Game!'"


The pair, Wayne and Jerry, were in town to meet with The Metropolitan Opera. They'd stopped into The Poet (my favorite bar in New York City simply because it is anomylous in its authenticity) on the recommendation of a colleague. Which is where they found us.

In a city of 10 million people and 1000 bars, these two Iowans found two more.

In a city full of bankers, brokers, actors, dishwashers and directors, these two public television programmers found us: two documentary filmmakers aspiring to air their freshman effort on ... public television.

Once we got over our initial surprise -- including the additional revelation that we'd shared the same flight from Des Moines Monday morning -- we spent a few hours talking about the film, public television, and Iowa. We had a great time, until I looked down at my watch and realized that, for the fourth night in a row, I was out well past midnight.

Chris and I were still shocked, amazed, and thrilled at our collective serendipity as we stumbled towards Broadway.

"Mister Rogers always said to look for the helpers," I said as I hailed a cab. "Maybe the helpers are looking for us too."

* * *

By last night, the story had boomeranged from New York to Iowa and back. "More Than A Girl" director, Laurel Bower Burgmaier, emailed Jason (who is in Austin, Texas, at the SXSW Music Conference. He immediately forwarded her note with a one-liner, "Aren't you glad I made you watch that doc?"

Ms. Burgmaier wrote:

Hi Jason. I have a funny story to tell you. Two colleagues of mine at IPTV were in NY earlier this week and after scouting something, went to a bar called "Dead Poets". They were sitting by two guys who looked to be working on a script and asked them about it. When the two guys found out my colleagues were from IPTV, they said, "You're kidding! You mean the station that did 6 on 6?" They said they were from Waterloo and were friends of the Nadas, particularly you. One works for Sony and the other is from MTV News and said he just played this past Saturday with you guys in Des Moines. They are working on a doc about Mister Rogers. They exchanged cards with one of my colleagues who is the local production manager. What a small world in a city of 12 million, they'd run into these two guys!

What was once a cliche apparently bears repeating: it is a small world after all, especially when you have a guardian angel looking out for you.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mister Rogers (& Me) In The Nantucket Independent

I was thrilled when I received an email from Nantucket Independent reporter Mary Carpenter last week.

Mary and I spoke on Wednesday. I turned my chair away from my desk, and looked out across Times Square towards the sea. I spoke slowly, both because she was taking shorthand notes, and because I wanted to sufficiently communicate the reverence I feel for the man right. Somehow, staring at the clouds made that reverence a bit more approachable.

Here's an excerpt of how Mary's article turned out.

Professional photographer and Madaket neighbor Beverly Hall met Mister Rogers shortly after his family started spending summer seasons on the island. Not only did she treasure their friendship and the fact that they shared being ministers, she produced an extensive collection of photos of him she lent to summer visitor Benjamin Wagner, who works for MTV News and met Mister Rogers six years ago. Wagner felt so much admiration for him he is producing a documentary called "Mister Rogers & Me."

Wagner, now 36, met Fred Rogers on his 30th birthday and the following day was given a tour of his home during which time Rogers played "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" on his piano. Wagner's mother Mary Bolster rented a cottage next to the Crooked House and became friends with the Rogers in part because she was studying for her master's degree in theology, a deep interest of his.

"He took an interest in everything and everyone he met. I have yet to meet an adult who is more thoroughly invested in the moment or the person before him than Mister Rogers," said Wagner, whose documentary represents his personal memories and impressions.

"In short, he changed my life," said Wagner, recalling a conversation they had about Wagner's job and Rogers' observation he never forgot. "Standing on his back porch he said 'I feel so strongly that deep and simple are far more essential than shallow and complex.' In his show he took time to explain things well and clearly in a way kids and adults could understand, and he didn't shy away from hard questions like what happens when my goldfish dies or why are my parents divorcing. I think that takes a special kind of courage, especially in the culture we live in."

Wagner's documentary is in the editing stage and he anticipates it will be released as an independent film next year.

"It is my remembrance of him and goes into details of our conversations about crucial cultural values," said Wagner. "I grew up watching Mister Rogers, but he moved me as an adult. There are very few people in the world who have that curiosity in others. He was a really special, unique man."

I'm not entirely sure how I did. Feels like an understatement. Still, it's nice.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Mister Rogers, Rain & Me

This has been a long road, and we're nowhere near our destination.

Though we only began shooting in earnest in June 2006, Chris and I have been talking about this film since 2002. And though we're gathering steam, it's slow going. There's no way we're hitting the March 15 Nantucket Film Festival deadline.

And yet, as we soldier on, there's no shortage of really cool, really meaningful, and really inspiring moments. I had one today when my friend Jen emailed:

I was talking about Mister Rogers with a dear friend of mine and he referenced a song from Mister Rogers that I vaguely remember about the rain. It was sung by him partially in French. I have Googled "il pleut" and "rain" and "France" and "Mister Rogers" and I am coming up with NOTHING! Do you have any resources that can help me find the words to this song, O le Expert?

I responded, CCing my new friend, Holly Yarbrough who's working on a CD of Mister Rogers' songs called, "Mister Rogers Swings!"

Oh my word, Jen, that's some advanced stuff. But I'll bet who'll know...

Meet Holly Yarbrough who's about to released a lovely new CD, "Mister Rogers Swings." She's the expert! Holly?

Holly -- who's father, Glenn, is a folksinger whos first record was the first record to be released on Elektra (later home to Judy Collins, Phil Ochs and The Pixies) -- responded almost immediately, CCing her friend Joe:

That song isn't on any of the Mister Rogers recordings that are still in print. I vaguely remember it from childhood too.... Joe Negri (of Negri's Music Shop) is the closest connection I know of to Johnny Costa, Fred's musical collaborator and accompanist.

If Joe doesn't remember it, he might know who we could try contacting next. Joe? Any ideas?

And so it was -- just like that -- I was in an email chain with Handyman Negri!

Every time something like that happens -- every email from Tim or Bev, every letter from Amy or package from Lynn, every comment and email from a stranger, and every extra minute with my brother -- is some sort of awesome, unexpected gift.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Mister Rogers, The Sweater & Me

Fifteen or more years ago, in the lingerie secion of Bloomingdales (I can't make this stuff up), a fortysomething store clerk (perhaps an early-adopting "cougar") said upon inspecting my MasterCard, "Benjamin. Hmmm. That's a nice name. Like a warm sweater."

The description flattered me. And it stuck with me. I remembered it just now, as I reflected upon Mister Rogers forthcoming 80th birthday and its attending celebrations. From The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

March 20 would have been the late children's TV host's 80th birthday, and Family Communications Inc. is urging everyone -- not just in Pittsburgh, but all over the world -- to wear a favorite sweater that day in honor of Fred Rogers' legacy. Family Communications is the production company behind the long-running "Mister Rogers" public TV series.

Mister Rogers said he wore a sweater “to make it seem like a comfortable time. It’s a symbol of staying a while, of settling down for some quiet time together.”

Of course, Mister Rogers' Grandmother McFeely sewed each one for him. One (which Chris and I vistited in August, 2006) hangs in The Smithsonian today.

I'm not sure that Bloomingdales clerk was prescient or not. That is, I don't know if I am anything like a warm sweater. I hope so. I certainly aspire to being warm and approachable. Mister Rogers certainly was, in spades. He was the epitome of warm and approachable. It takes great courage, I think, to be that way.

Madelaine D'Engle said, "Rightousness begins to reveal itself as that strength which is so secure that it can show itself as gentleness."

Most days this time of year, I wear a cardigan over my dress shirt but under my sport coat. And most days, I think, I exhibit some warmth. Regardless the weather come March 20th, I plan on both in remembrance of the man who has helped me become more of a man myself.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: It Was 40 Years Ago Today

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" premiered on PBS forty years ago today.

Family Communications is marking the anniversary with a series of announcements which, according to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is to include:

Groundbreaking for the "Tribute to Children" statue of Rogers on the North Shore is scheduled for on or near March 20, which would have been his 80th birthday. The riverside statue will be located close to Heinz Field and facing the Point.

In the meantime, Family Communications will launch "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Days in mid-March, a series of events involving the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, the National Aviary, the Carnegie Science Center, the Senator John Heinz History Museum, The Andy Warhol Museum, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, the Pittsburgh Symphony, Carnegie and regional libraries and other organizations in the region.

The New York Times celebrated the anniversary differently, running a piece on Sunday pondering, "Is PBS Still Necessary?".

Its creative heyday has passed, the author reasons. Audiences are deluged with similar options. Moreover, ratings are down.

The first two points are arguable about the entire television landscape, but the last point is crucial.

If the marketplace alone decides what constitutes programming, then -- eventually -- our only option will be to watch "Real World XXV" instead of "Materpiece." If the marketplace alone decides what constitutes news then our only option will be to watch "Access Hollywood" instead of "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." If the marketplace alone decides what constitutes documentary, our only option will be to watch "Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?" instead of "Frontline."

Now more than ever, a marketplace of ideas free from the marketplace is essential.

Now more than ever, when every corporate confab has a lobby, every politician is for sale, and every conceivable surface is covered with advertising, we need a place that's safe from influence -- or at least more safe.

Now more than ever, when the average 3-year-old recognizes 100 different brand logos, and the average 18-year-old has witnessed 200,000 acts of televised violence, we need a place that's safe from influence -- or at least more safe.

That's what Mister Rogers stood for. In a 1967 Senate Oversight hearing, he put it thusly:

"I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that its much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger than showing something of gunfire. I'm constantly concerned about what our children are seeing. And for fifteen years... I have tried to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care."

Monday, February 18, 2008

Mister Rogers Photographs

Mister Rogers loved taking photographs far more than being photographed.

The afternoon I met him, he snapped a few of my mother and me, and later sent them to her. Tim Russert tells a similar story. And Bev Hall has more than one photo of Mister Rogers taking photos. Apparently, he was never far from his camera.

I spent the balance of this afternoon watching The Graduate on DVD while scanning and sizing the nearly six dozen photographs that Davy Rothbart and Beverly Hall sent to me.

It's an extraordinary blessing, really, that they've shared entire photo albums with me. Not only do appreciate their generosity and confidence, these photos make the construction of the film possible. I'm still waiting on Lynn Johnson's photo archive, plus the results of Katia's photo agency research, but already we already posess enough supporting material to finish the film.

Many of Bev's photos are from an blustery afternoon in 1967 when Mister Rogers shot an interview with local legend Madaket Millie for air on the "Neighborhood." As I think I've mentioned, her photos of Fred and Millie from that afternoon is a beloved image on Nantucket. It hangs framed in many an island cottage. The photos she shared with me -- over fifty in all -- afford an even warmer, more intimate portrait of that day. There's also more current fare, like this one she took at a Nantucket wedding. That's how I remember him.

Davy's photos look like they were pulled from the pages of my family's photo albums. I recognize the 70s well: the short shorts, Sesame Street t-shirts, a Dutch Boy haircut. And I recognize all the locations in the photos: Eel's Point, Madaket Bay, and -- of course -- Mister Rogers' Crooked House.

I finished scripting Davy's segment last night. Despite having interviewed him at three o'clock in the morning, he nailed the essence of the man:

It's easy to feel isolated, like you're dealing with something and you're the only one. But you pick up some note off the ground from a total stranger and it turns out they're experiencing the same difficult experience you're going through. It's a powerful thing to realize, 'I'm not alone here.' Somebody else is dealing with the same thing. Mister Rogers dealt with some pretty difficult things on his show especially for public television -- death, divorce -- and I think that was what he wanted to communicate. This is stuff we all have to deal with yunno? You're not weird because you're afraid you're gonna go down the drain, or your parents are getting divorced.

It's one of Mister Rogers' greatest lessons, I think, that we're not alone.

In fact, Abbi's out of town, so I've been alone with "Mister Rogers & Me" all weekend. Pouring over these photos and screening interviews with Bev and Davy, 826NYC and the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, though, I feel warm and welcome, like I'm a part of some great big circle of friends. I don't feel lonesome at all.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"A Tribute To Children" Approved

A little bit of news out of Pittsburgh today: the $3 million sculpture of 'Mister Rogers' has been approved.

I'll be honest: I thought it had already been approved, and was being unveiled during the week-long celebration of what would be Mister Roger's 80th birthday. Apparently not. Which explains why, when Chris and I shot the remains of the Manchester Bridge, there besides Heinz Field, it looked like they hadn't broken ground yet. Because they hadn't.

Here's the story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

The Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority has cleared the way for construction of a $3 million sculpture of children's television legend Fred Rogers on the North Shore.

Authority board members approved a development and maintenance agreement yesterday with Family Communications and the Colcom Foundation that allows for the work to take place.

Authority Executive Director Mary Conturo said she expects construction to start on the "Tribute to Children" memorial in the first quarter of this year.

The authority board approved a moratorium on additional memorials or public art proposals for North Shore Riverfront Park once the Fred Rogers statute and a World War II memorial are in place.

With those two additions, there will be six memorials or art pieces in the park. Any more would interfere with requirements for open space under the park's master plan, Ms. Conturo said.

The finished sculpture was going to be a component of our epilogue. Guess not.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Mister Rogers, Lynn Johnson & Me

I'll be honest. I was pretty anxious about calling. You would be too having read this impressive curriculum vitae:

Photojournalist Lynn Johnson is known for her intense and sensitive work. Over the years she had divided her time between assignments for LIFE, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and various foundations. Johnson has traveled from Siberia to Zambia and with her Leicas, climbed the radio antenna atop Chicago’s Hancock Tower and dangled from helicopters in Antarctica. Though she has photographed notables from Tiger Woods to the entire Supreme Court, her favorite assignments are emotionally demanding stories about ordinary people.

The plot thickens on her website, though: seven Golden Quills for Photojournalism, four World Press Photography Awards, the Robert F.Kennedy Journalism Award for Outstanding Coverage of the Disadvantaged, and Picture of the Year Award from the National Press Photographer Association and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

This is clearly a woman who gets it. She told National Geographic Photographer recently:

"For me, photography has been a mission. I don't mean on the grand scale, but in the sense of the daily awareness that each one of us is responsible for the wider community, that your sense of self and sense of responsibility outside yourself is as wide as you can embrace. It's a commitment to try to fulfill that responsibility by doing work about things that matter."

I came across Ms. Johnson rather by accident. I was doing research on photos to potentially license for the film when I came across this image of Mister Rogers staring out to sea. The photo seemed to communicate everything Mister Rogers and our film is about: seeking infinity, staring into the mystery, reflection, meditation.

On her Her website, I found a dozen of her Mister Rogers photos, lifted largely from the November,1992 issue of LIFE Magazine.

Each one of her vibrant, intimate, and clearly insider photos of Mister Rogers on Nantucket, in Pittsburgh, and on the "Neighborhood" set, indicated to me that she had spent serious time with them. Surely she had stories to tell, and lessons to impart.

I wrote her a novel of an email, explaining who I am, what I do, my relationship with Mister Rogers, and the "Mister Rogers & Me" project. She replied simply:

Hi Benjamin,

Ah, so you too have been transformed by Mister Rogers. Feel free to call me anytime.


When we finally spoke some two weeks later, I indicated that I nervous straight away.
"Mister Rogers would say that being nervous is part of growing up."

We met at the Empire Hotel Thursday night, and sat talking for well over two hours. Like most of the people I've met who knew or worked with Mister Rogers, she was patient, thoughtful and focussed. Unlike most, she was full of questions for me, many of which I hadn't considered, and some of which were in the process of changing.

Example. She asked me how I planned to effectively communicate what it felt like to spend time with Mister Rogers in person, the "physicality" of it. I told her that I hadn't really considered it, but hoped that the pace of the film, visual metaphors in it, plus the reverence of the interviewees would begin to hint at just how special it felt to spend time with him.

Example. She asked what our distribution plan was. I told her that the answer to that was in flux; where last week I would have said, "We're going to try and get it into the Nantucket Film Festival and then see what happens," this week I'd say, "We're going to get our rough cut done by March 15th and then decide."

Also. She loved how we're going to end the film.

I'm often reticent to speak with a potential interview prior to actually doing so in the event that they tell me great stories which they then have to try and retell me later with the same intensity. Luckily, we only scratched the surface, including the revelation that she interviewed Mister Rogers for her masters thesis and would be happy to share the tape.

Unfortunately, though, Lynn lives in Pittsburgh. She was in New York shooting photos for national Geographic for just a few days. So we're going to have to figure out when and where we're going to interview her.

I can't wait.