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!