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!


Joe and Rudy's said...

I wish you the best! I'm looking forward to seeing your film!

--Joel E. (Livermore, CA)

Linda Ellerbee said...

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for you, deeply and simply.

Linda Ellerbee

Joyce B. said...

I hope to see your movie at my favorite local theater, which caters to independent and buzzworthy films.

jill said...

Following your journey through your website has kept me on the edge of my seat and my hope for this film is that it "finds it's way!"

Good luck to you, your brother and "Mr. Rogers & Me."

Sam and Ben's Mom said...

Congratulations on this huge milestone!!

Mom to the other Benjamin Wagner

Jen Snow said...

I'm just catching this now. Congratulations!

Kendrick said...

Good luck! I look forward to having a chance to see your film.