Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Year-End "Mister Rogers & Me" Update

Dear Kickstarter Friends,

As you may have guessed by now, "Mister Rogers & Me" was not one of the 2% of submissions accepted for the Sundance Film Festival. Chris and I always knew it was a long shot, but would never had made the submission deadline without your support. We're now focused on Tribeca, Nantucket and beyond.

Meanwhile, many of you may be wondering when your signed DVDs, CDs, and photos will arrive.

I just ordered 50 8x10" prints of one of my favorite spots on Nantucket. It's a photo I took in Madaket looking west towards the sunset from the Ames Avenue Bridge over Hither Creek. It's the last print in this series (and pictured above). The bridge leads to Smith Point and Mister Rogers' Crooked House.

Signed "Almost Home" CDs and prints, then, will ship within the next ten days. Before I can ship anything, though, I need you're "snail mail" addresses. Please send me a message here, or via benjamin [at] mtvi [dot] com.

DVDs, of course, will have to wait until the film's official release. At this point, we don't really know when that will be; it all depends on what happens with the premiere... whenever and wherever that is. We'll keep you posted!

Meanwhile, best wishes for a happy, healthy and joyous new year.

:), Benjamin

Saturday, December 05, 2009

"Mister Rogers & Me" Not Headed To Sundance

Figures that I'd hear from the Sundance Film Festival about the fate of our sweet, little film just as I head to Hollywood to cover one of the most-ambitious, expensive blockbusters of all time for work, right?

I knew we'd hear no later than Wednesday, so -- not surprisingly -- I wasn't sleeping terribly well. My car to the airport was at seven, my flight was at nine, but I woke up at four and checked my Blackberry. I tossed and turned another hour, then got up to get ready. And there it was in my inbox, subject header "2010 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL NOTIFICATION."

Dear Benjamin,

On behalf of our Programming staff, I would like to thank you for submitting your film to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Unfortunately, we are not able to include it in our program this year. We received a record 9,800 submissions this year, and many tough decisions had to be made in order to narrow the field down to under 200 films. Please know that your work was carefully considered by our team, and we viewed far more worthy films than we had room for in the program. I sincerely hope that this decision does not discourage you in any way. We wish you the best of luck with your film, and we look forward to having the opportunity to view your work in the future.


John Cooper
Director, Sundance Film Festival

Yes, I am disappointed. But no, I am not surprised.

My father points out that only two percent of films were accepted. My wife points out that getting the film done and submitted is an accomplishment in and of itself. And I'll point out that we never really thought we had a chance anyway; Sundance favors hard-hitting issue docs (not to mention fully-realized ones; ours is a work-in-progress).

What's next? The SXSW Film Festival deadline is December 11. The Tribeca Film Festival deadline is January 11. The Nantucket Film Festival deadline is February 1.

Chris and I will spend a few more days in the edit tightening the segments, clarifying the stories, and scoring with contributions from Casey Shea, Jonathan Hollingsworth, The Poem Adept (Davy Rothbart's brother's band) and me (I've remixed a bunch of "The Invention of Everything Else" tracks for the purpose).

We will make "Mister Rogers & Me" an essential documentary for festival director's programs.

Stay tuned...

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's Official: "Mister Rogers & Me" Is An Actual Movie!

Hope the headline didn't throw you.

No, we haven't heard back from the Sundance Film Festival. And remember, the odds are 1 in 25 (or some 4%) that our documentary will be accepted. (Less likely still, I think, given the festival's slogan this year: "The New Rebels.)"

Still, we're one step closer to being a legitimate movie: "Mister Rogers & Me" has an IMDB page!

And check it out; it's got a summary!

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.

I mean, yes, of course I wrote it, but still. I'm excited.

Because today we may just be a few words and text links, but someday soon, there's gonna' be a poster, and some clips, and eventually even some premiere pics...

Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Thank You "Mister Rogers & Me" Supporters

A little over three months ago, we launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdsource "Mister Rogers & Me" finishing funds.

One month ago, we submitted a rough edit of our 79-minute documentary to the Sundance Film Festival.

Two days ago, Mister Rogers' Tribute To Children statue was unveiled in Pittsburgh to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

And yesterday afternoon, Pittsbugh's WQED christening studio A -- home of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" throughout its original run (1969-2001) -- as the new Fred Rogers Studio, then threw its doors wide for special tours of the Neighborhood set.

Thanks to the following neighbors for supporting our film, and helping keep MIster Rogers "deep and simple" legacy alive.

Kecia Barnhill
Tricia Martin
Jon Hurwitz
Linda Shortman
Robert Perreault
Aimee Schulman
Bryan Thomas
Tim Spence
Matt Keeley
Karen Rando
Justin Tormey
Anne Ferola
Mike Levine
Torrie LM
Steven Cherry
Elizabeth Harper
Jennifer Macellaro
Mike & Beth Petricoin
D. Scott Miller
Erica Laden
Ronald Lieber
Brian Ives
Sara Butterworth
Alex Brough
Holly Yarbrough
Brian Hart
Blaine Bell
Joe Andosca
LauraBelle Brown
Casey & Langhorne Shea
Kristine Qualls
Lucy Cogswell
Heather Stansfield
Greg Kaplan
Carissa Potenza
Greg & Reva Merchant
Brian Turner
Josh Renaud
Kris Jensen-Van Heste
Nichole Miller
Katia Maguire
Phoebe & Charles Basso
Helen Kralich
Joe Voss
Peggy Kauh
Nicole Zelinski
Ted and Kathy Curtin
Chris & Megan Abad
Ken M. Wilson
Michael Horgan
Lisa Yao
Sue Gefroh
Leah Browning
Christie Strong
Sarah A.
Robin Turner Oswald
Sebhat Browne
Kay Marcel
Kirin Kalia
June O'Toole
Bill Attinger
Vickie Perkins
Sarah Armstrong
Michael Lake
Daniela Muhling
Ann Kwolek O'Neill
Brian Paris
Kyle Bavender
Ryan Kroft
Mike Pence
Mikel Derby
Robert Johnsen
Theo Syslack
James Izurieta
Franya Barnett
Pete Clark
David Beach
Elyse Rubin
Gene Mahon
Allison O'Keefe
Maegan Gudridge
Glenn Platt
Lesley Neadel
Tara Taylor
Andrea Olson
Lisa Giangreco
Megan Nebel
Jarrod Bates
Loell Revell Shepardson
Jennifer Roberts
Rachel Fox
Curtis Raye
Sarah Ezolt
Jacob Byard
Russ Johnson
Joe Hale
Catherine Lajoie
Lauren Melton
Mary Strolle
Susan Deichsel
Gary L. Springer
Mary Ellen Fahey Upton
Robert Watson
Maureen McCarley
Romey Craig Fluck
Sandy Mayers-Green
Sue Wen
Carrie Mercer
Eric Thompson
Liz Hillger
Matthew Lloyd Buck
Rachel Eash-Scott
Elisabeth English
Virginia Virkus
Meyer Malka
Amy Hollingsworth
Amy Sanders
Wendy Boyd
Kristen O'Connell
Tom Loftus
Sarah Revitte
Samantha Rader
Robb Boland
Amber Derek
Regina Gelfovision
Paul Stelter
Paula J. Kelly
Pembry & Pedro
Kimberly Cain
Michael Highland
David Mazzucchelli
Sara Steetle
Heidi Dittmar
Mar Ricketts
Andrew Crowley
Annette Laing
Gordon McAlpin
Dianna Garland
James Elmore
Peter Couvares
Stephanie Coronesi
Dennis Kulm
Sarah Ferguson
Jennifer & Eric Rohr
Neera Garg
Jesse Nicely
Kim Balkcum
Brian Linder
Ralph Aversa
Amanda Walker
Melissa & Derrick Russell
Otis Cornelius
Stephanie Simmons
Joel Schroeder
Communist Prime
Mary Warren
Leonard Lin
Ramla Gabriel
Mark Genszler
Sara White
Melissa Ecker
Gail & Richard Keller
Lauren Scott
Meredith Keller
Ricci Rukavina
Fred Benenson

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mister Rogers, Father Dave & Me

A few weeks ago, my pal Brian Ives appeared on Sirius Radio's Catholic Channel to discuss U2 and faith, a subject he knows I hold near and dear.

Afterwards, he told me he'd mentioned our little documentary to the show's producers, with whom he later connected me via email. Friday night after work, then, found me thirty-six stories above Sixth Avenue, alone in Sirius' massive, space-aged lobby. My interview on Father Dave's Busted Halo Show was scheduled for 8:20. Sure enough, Executive Producer Robyn Gould appeared before me with a huge, rock 'n roll smile just seconds prior. And just an instant after shaking hands with Father Dave and producers Brett and Brian, I was on air.

Now, you may be wondering, why the Catholic Channel when I'm lapsed, and Mister Rogers when he was Presbyterian? And why now, when the film's not even done?

I look at it this way. It's not about the film, it's about the assignment. Mister Rogers told me to spread the [deep and simple] message," so I'm going to seize on any opportunity to do so; it's only going to broaden that message's reach.

Moreover, specific tenants of Christianity never really seemed to be the point. True, Mister Rogers was an ordained minister who treated the space between himself and his audience as sacred, but his values (articulated so well by Bo Lozoff) were core to the world's religions: take time to reflect, be wary of materialism.

So there I was, rambling about my day job (came to learn that Father Dave used to work for my supervisor), my music (specifically, how Mister Rogers gave me the courage to be myself), and the film. Father Dave was quick and hip and funny, and connected it all with a through line of "cool," identifying and inquiring about my "PBS mind in an MTV world." I was self-deprecating (perhaps too much so), characterizing myself as "the least cool guy in most rooms" (which may actually be true. And while the conversation stayed mostly philosophical, Father Dave gently brought it home in the end.

He played a clip from Mister Rogers' last episode in which he says,

I'm just so proud of those of you who've grown up with us, and I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead. But I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were younger: I love you just the way you are. And what's more, I'm so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you'll do everything you can to keep them safe, and express their feelings in ways that will bring heeling in many different neighborhoods.

Afterwards, Father Dave said, "And that's it, right? God loves us just the way we are, whether we're cool or uncool." And as he wrapped up the interview, he asked when the film was going to reach theaters.

I rambled a bit and finally said, "Sometime next year," then added -- knocking on wood as an afterthought -- "God willing."

To which Father Dave replied, "Looks by what you've accomplished thus far, God is willing."

I spilled out onto the chilly city with a smile, and strode west. The streets were streaked with rain, reflecting the neon lights as if everything were run through with brightly-lit, high voltage. I dialed up Coldplay's "Life In Technicolor" on my iPod, and walked on absolutely gobsmacked that everything is in its right place.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On The Commercialization Of Childhood

Our primary objective in visiting Dr. Susan Linn's Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood offices in Boston was to add factual heft to our film.

Of course, Dr. Linn was a perfect candidate for the gig, as she's written two key texts on the subject of children and media, "Consuming Kids," and "The Case For Make Believe."

In the few days since we've been home, I've immersed myself in her work, and others (like The Kaiser Family Foundation's 114-page opus, "Generation M: Media In The Lives Of 8-18 Year-olds).

What's challenging about tackling the subject of marketing to children is breaking away from our own memories as adults. We remember ads for Connect Four or Burger King, so think, "What's the harm?" The harm is in the massive increase of marketer's expenditure and screen exposure, and the erosion of creative time as a result. Have a look:

32% of two to seven-year olds, and 26% of children under two have a television in their bedroom. (Source: Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood)

In 1983, advertisers spent $100M on marketing to children. In 2008, advertisers spent $17B. (Juliet Schor, "Born to Buy")

The average 18-year-old has witnessed 200,000 acts of televised violence. That's nearly three-a-day. (Source: National Institute On Media & The Family)

The average 18-year-old has seen over 700,000 advertisements. That's more than 100-a-day. (American Psychological Association)

The average 10-year-old can name 400 brands. (Source: Progressive Policy Institute)

Children between 4 and 12-years-old spend $30B a year on junk food, candy, toys and games, an increase of 400 percent in twenty years. (Source: Progressive Policy Institute)

Children and teenagers influence up to $500B in family spending annualy, a 1000% increase since 1960. (Source: Progressive Policy Institute)

The average child spends six and a half hours using electronic media, including three hours of television. (Source: Kaiser Foundation)

98% of televised food ads seen by children are for products high in sugar, fat or sodium. (Source: CCFC)

Obesity rates among children 6-11 have quadrupled since 1980. (Source: CCFC)

85% of Americans believe that children's television should be commercial-free. (Source: The Center For The New American Dream)

87% of Americans say that "current consumer culture makes it harder to instill positive values in children." (Source: The Center For The New American Dream)

In the end, "Mister Rogers & Me" doesn't endeavor to be preachy, but instead to give pause, and allow for reflection. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Mister Rogers, Susan Linn & Me

As I say in "Mister Rogers & Me" voice over, "We learned pretty quickly that there are no coincidences in Mister Rogers' neighborhood."

A few weeks ago, Slamdance co-founder Paul Rachman gave Chris and I some great feedback on our film, not the least of which being that it needed more facts about the effect of media on children.

In my research, I discovered many valuable facts and figures at the Campaign For A Commercial Free Childhood website. CCFC is a national, non-profit organization devoted to limiting the impact of commercial culture on children. So I emailed CCF's co-founder, Dr. Susan Linn.

Shortly thereafter, Save Mister Rogers' Neighborhood founder, Brian Linder, told me, "Dude, she wrote the book the impact of media on television!" Sure enough, Dr. Linn's "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood" is full of alarming data, like that American advertisers spent $17B marketing to children last year up from $100M in 1983.

A few weeks later, when I asked Brian if he had any suggestions as to what I might ask Dr. Linn, he said, "Well, obviously ask about Audrey Duck's guest appearances on The Neighborhood." Um, obviously.

Ends up that Dr. Linn is a ventriloquist who, along with her puppet, Audrey Duck, appeared on "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" numerous times, then went on to get her PhD in psychology and co-found CCFC. And so, in seeking fact to inform our very personal, emotionally-grounded film with hard facts, we found the perfect person: an expert who knew and worked with Mister Rogers, and carries his legacy with her every day!

Chris and I spent a few hours with Dr. Linn at her office in the Judge Baker Children's Center in Brookline Thursday. Not surprisingly, Dr. Linn is a thoughtful, warm, remarkably intelligent and hugely-engaged person. We talked about how she became involved with The Neighborhood, her time in there, what she learned from Mister Rogers, the gravity of the situation, and the stakes of inaction.

We'd initially planned to place Dr. Linn's expertise interstitially throughout the film. But it was apparent to Chris and me as we post-mortemed the shoot that her deep connection to Mister Rogers and passionate, informed engagement with the issue warrant a full, stand-alone segment.

I haven't transcribed the interview yet (we only got home eighteen hours ago, eight of which I was sleeping, and eight of which I've been working), but my favorite part -- and what is sure to make the final edit for the film -- is her simple explanation that with the proliferation of screens and targeting of children, we are raising a generation of children overweight, overly-sexualized, and overly-violent consumers incapable of relishing the silence required to create art, music or poetry.

And then what?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Mister Rogers, Morrissey & Me

I dashed through Times Square to Chris' edit suite just after sunset.

He's made a bunch of headway in just a few days, covering Amy Hollingsworth, Tim Madigan and Marc Brown's segments with b-roll and photos, all of which add whole new levels of depth and nuance. We watched the segments back, and discussed materials we've yet to acquire.

Our pal Mark Mutschler showed up around nine o'clock (not long before the garlic, tomato and sausage pizza). He's a seasoned Executive Producer himself, and is one of very few people to have screened the film. His fresh perspective was valuable.

We talked a while about what worked for him, and what didn't, and what went on too long, and what needed more explanation. All three of us agreed that we'd done a better job weaving Mister Rogers himself into the film (which sounds obvious, but remember that we didn't interview him and don't have a ton of actual "Neighborhood" footage), but that the "Me" in the titled (as in, yunno, me) needed help.

Not that we need to see or hear more from me (we've been really sensitive to being sure that I'm far secondary), but I need to do a better job sewing the segments together. Example. You've heard me tell the story about how Mister Rogers asked about my father within, like, twenty minutes of meeting him.

"I don't hear much about him," he said, gingerly inquiring about my parent's divorce. Which is what he did so well. He found that spot that needed nurturing or healing, and gave you a safe place to be nurtured or healed. Tim Madigan felt it (and talks about it). So did Mark Brown. And so did I. So I need a way to demonstrate those sorts of threads more effectively. (In other words, more voice over.)

Mark had another interesting insight, essentially boiling the film down to a Morrissey lyric:

It's so easy to laugh
It's so easy to hate
It takes strength to be gentle and kind

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In Consideration Of "Mister Rogers & Me"

Listen, there's not gonna' be a ton of news here, just a fair dose of enthusiasm.

We hit the Sundance Film Festival deadline! We're "In Consideration!!!"

But it gets better. Closer inspection of the submission FAQ indicates that, in fact, we can submit a revision! What does that mean? That means that we can spend the next two weeks dialing in our edit and even, if we're lucky, add in our Susan Linn interview.

And here's the beautiful thing about it all: serendipity. See, when we started fundraising a few weeks ago, we thought we'd missed the Sundance deadline. Ends up (as you've since gathered), we still had a shot at the late deadline. What's more, we'll have an unprecedented two straight weeks of fresh edits under our belt.

Now, to be fair, Sundance is a long, long, long shot. In 2008, 1,573 documentaries were submitted. Forty-one were selected. It's the gold standard for film festivals.

Still, for a guy who purchased a DVD player way back in 2000 just so I could learn from film's director's commentaries, and first attended Sundance 2006 with the specific intention of learning all I could from the place, well, it's exciting enough to be "In Consideration."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Editing "Mister Rogers & Me" (Again)

It's just before eleven o'clock on a Tuesday night.

Chris and I have been editing for a little over two hours, and we're just barely seventeen minutes into the film. Which I suppose isn't so bad, but we have about fifty-eight to go.

This is dry, confusing, thankless work. It's like a three dimensional puzzle; every time we move a section or a soundbite to solve one problem, we create another. Luckily, Christofer is good at this, and knows the footage as well (and in some cases better; he shot it) as me.

Challenging as it is (especially under deadline), it's kind of exciting when it connects. Example.

I jumped out of my chair when I realized that Paul (Rachman, who basically thinned our 2:15:00 version to 75:00) had -- by omission and juxtaposition -- helped us connect Columbine to Mister Rogers. See, Bo Lozoff was with Mister Rogers on the very afternoon that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and a teacher and injured 21 others before turning their guns on themselves. Bo asks (basically), Would they have done such a thing if they'd been able to find just an iota of beauty -- a song, a bird, a sunset -- in their everyday lives. And then we meet Amy Hollingsworth who talks about how Mister Rogers was bullied as a kid, and told by parents to act like it didn't bother him. But it did! So he spoke up... in over 900 episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

We're watching NPR's Susan Stamberg right now. She says, "We arm ourselves through life to get through the difficulties, but in [Mister Rogers'] presence, you'd put all that aside. If he heard where your biggest toe stub in life had been, he'd zero in on that."

That soundbite had been cut, but it gets at the essence of Mister Rogers, and the reason we're here tonight, eight years later, trying to make sense of our brief but meaningful relationship. He knew exactly what was hurt in me the most (my parent's divorce) and within just a few minutes of meeting, made me feel comfortable enough to speak of it. So that's back in.

"We need him with each passing day more and more," she says.


I could sure use his help now.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mister Rogers, Sundance & Us

Chris and I have a long way to go, still, here's a first: I just submitted our Sundance Film Festival application!

Now, to be clear, the Sundance team is going to receive an edit that is just a few shots further along than the re-cut our friend, "American Hardcore" director and Slamdance co-founder Paul Rachman, delivered to us a few weeks ago (which, to Paul's credit, is miles beyond where Chris and I'd gotten it), but there's no harm in trying.

So the paperwork is done, and we'll send the DVD at the last available moment: 9pm Thursday night.

Meanwhile (as you may know), we met our $10,000 Kickstarter fundraising goal! 176 backers pledged their support. Thank you! We're SO moved and SO grateful and will do everything we can to put those resources to their best use.

Of course, the fact is, we could spend $100,000 on additional shoots, music, graphics, licensing and post work no sweat. I expect it to get us a truly festival-worthy edit by the end of the year. (What we're submitting to Sundance is a really, really rough cut; some sections lack any coverage at all, but a) the deadline is looming and b) we've described it as a "work in progress" which we expect to complete by November.)

Still, the film's never felt more real, our progress never more tangible. Cooler still are the dozens of emails and comments I've received in the last few weeks. In my darkest moments, when it feels like the Capitalist Juggernaut is going to roll over everything that lacks a logo, those emails keep me putting one foot in front of the other.

So thank you! Please keep those cards and letters coming. And please keep spreading the message.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Mister Rogers, The Saturday Light Brigade & Me

My Blackberry otherwise soothing "Notifier ChiGong" alarm rattled me from brief, dreamless sleep exactly fifty-nine minutes ago.

It took a minute to get my bearings: 'You're in Vermont,' I thought. 'Time for your Saturday Light Brigade interview.'
I tiptoed around the bedroom, quietly putting on a few layers of clothes; with a dozen friends sleeping in bedrooms on every floor, I'd have to do the interview outside where the current temperature is 46°. I pulled on a cap and gloves, slipped my headphones into my ears, dialed the radio station's number, and stepped out into the crisp, morning air.

"Hello," I said, half asking. "This is Benjamin Wagner calling for my 'Mister Rogers & Me' interview."

"Oh, Benjamin!" the woman at the other end of the line said. "I was just about to call you. Good morning! May I put you on hold? We're just finishing a puzzle segment, then Larry will take a call, then he'll speak with you. Ok?"

"Ok!" I said, endeavoring to make sense through my gravelly, three hours of sleep voice.

She put me on hold where I was able to listen to the show. The host, Larry Berger, was reading a brain teaser over acoustic bluegrass music in a cadence and tone not unlike Mister Rogers himself.

"Imagine that you're in a room with only two exits. One is blocked by a thousand magnifying glasses that focus the sunlight to a super-hot ray of sunshine that will burn you alive. The other is guarded by a fire-breathing dragon that will also burn you alive. What do you do?"

He paused a second, then said, "We have Benjamin on the line. Benjamin, what would you do?"

"Oh my," I said, startled, confused and scrambling to make sense of the riddle. "G'morning, Larry! Well, I suppose I would try to make friends with the fire-breathing dragon and ask him to make an exception and let me pass."

Larry too was startled.

"I'm sorry, this is Benjamin Wagner on the phone, kids. I thought you were a listener calling in with the answer. Hello, Benjamin."

"Hello, Larry!"

"Well, Benjamin, the answer is, leave at night."

As I struggled to make sense of the riddle, Larry explained to his audience that, just as they were Mister Rogers' neighbors there in Pittsburgh and on Public Television, I was his neighbor in Nantucket. I stood looking out over the backyard, the woods, and mountains beyond just a few beats behind it all on account of the odd juxtaposition of geography and technology. Here I am in the mountains of Vermont with a radio show in my Blackberry headset speaking with a host in the basement of the Pittsburgh Children's Museum broadcasting to three states about a television icon I met in another state and time altogether.

Our conversation was brief. My explanations were simple, if a little studied from years of describing how I met Mister Rogers, how we set about making the film and fundraising to finish it. I refrained our thesis three times: Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.

And then it was over.

Afterwards, I sat on the back steps and listened to the show's next segment ("The Saturday Light Brigade is brought to you by the Pittsburgh Children's Theater production of 'Aladin & The Magic Lamp'), before quietly disconnecting.

I'm sitting in the back room overlooking the valley now. The leaves seem to be turning from pale green to a thousand shades of yellow, red, orange and brown before my very eyes. The clouds drift slowly to the east. And time marches on, just a tiny bit more meaningfully than a few minutes before.

I still think the dragon would have helped me out. As Mister Rogers used to say, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers.'"

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mister Rogers, You & Me

Less than fifteen minutes ago, I Tweeted the following:

"Three three days and $385 left to hit our $10,000 "Mister Rogers & Me" fundraising goal... Please help!"

Two minutes and two backers later, we hit our goal!

Wow, what a day!

This afternoon, "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood " author and Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood co-founder Susan Linn agreed to appear in our film, adding authoritative ballast to our emotionally-grounded documentary.

And now this.

Plus, I realized a few days ago that we could still hit the Sundance Film Festival deadline; it's not until next Friday!

So, as I Tweeted just a few minutes ago, "Dear Internets: You believe! Deep and simple really is far more essential than shallow and complex! Thank you!!!"

Really, thank you.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Mister Rogers, Pop Candy & Me

Wow, what a week.

In December, I travelled to Washington, D.C., to cover President Obama's Inauguration for MTV News. I was managing the operation, for the most part, but broke ranks one afternoon to interview one of my artistic heroes, Shepard Fairey.

USA Today's Pop Candy Blog linked to the resulting article. So I sent its editor, Whitney Matheson, a thank you email. We talked about our mutual love of R.E.M., and agreed to grab beers sometime, then got sucked up into the cycle of our respective lives.

Fast forward to two week ago. I sent Whitney an email about our "Mister Rogers & Me" fundraising efforts over at I had a hunch she'd get it based on a) my experience with her appreciation of Mister Rogers in general and b) her support of my buddy Brian Linder's Save MIster Rogers' Neighborhood campaign.

When I didn't hear from her, though, I figured she was either busy, not interested or both. Then I got an email from her. "This is so great," she said of the film. "I just wrote about it. Good luck, and please keep me posted!

Wow! I clicked on over to her blog to read her piece, "How Many Lives Were Changed By Mister Rogers?" and got goosebumps. Sure, I figured it would be good for our fundraising efforts, but moreover, it made our super-indie little film feel real! Suddenly, I thought, more people would know about the film and -- if even just one second -- consider its thesis: "Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex." So I sent her another thank you note.

Sure enough, Whitney's post led to Sadie's over at Jezebel ("Deep & Simple"), and Larry's's over at The Fire Wiew ("Mister Rogers & Me"), and even Gene Mahon's Nantucket Newsletter. In the last 72 hours, 3500 people have watched the "Mister Rogers' & Me" trailer -- almost as many as had seen it in the two years prior!

And in the last three weeks, we've raised nearly eight thousand dollars. Of course, we have to hit our $10,000 goal by September 19th to collect anything at all, but I think we'll be fine. Just as I suspected all along, there are plenty of like-minded, deep and simple people out there. It's pretty darned exciting.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

"Mister Rogers & Me" On Saturday Light Brigade

Just shy of two years ago, Chris and visited The Pittsburgh Children's Museum. In two weeks, we'll return.

Kind of.

Our "Mister Rogers & Me" fundraiser has, not surprisingly (but gratefully) increased our little film's visibility.

As a result, I received a delightful, surprising email a few weeks ago.

I'm the associate producer for a syndicated public radio show, The Saturday Light Brigade. We produce out of Pittsburgh, and my boss (the show's host, Larry Berger) knew Mister Rogers. He would like to arrange an interview with you about the movie, "Mister Rogers and Me."

The Saturday Light Brigade, it ends up, is a pretty big deal "acoustic music and family fun" radio show. In fact, I remember listening as Chris and I drove through Pittsburgh. It's been on the air over thirty years, making it one of the longest-running public radio programs in the United States. And it airs from The Pittsburgh Children's Museum.

I'm scheduled to call in on Saturday, September 18 at 8:20 a.m., just shy of twelve hours prior to our "Mister Rogers & Me" fundraiser expires.

I'm thrilled, excited, hopeful, and honored. And I remain amazed at the serendipity of this journey's unfolding. And I'm about seventeen days away from nervous.

Monday, August 31, 2009

(Some Of) Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Saved

A tiny bit of sunshine snuck into my otherwise shadowy office this afternoon when my pal, Save Mister Rogers' Neighborhood founder Brian Linder sent me a quick email: "Good news for children in the virtual neighborhood!"

Last year, PBS curtailed its daily delivery of the show. Last month, they limited distribution to 26 "favorite episodes."

Today, the network formally announced Mister Rogers' foray into cyberspace.

A new neighborhood awaits preschoolers and fans of all ages at with the redesigned Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Web site, full of new activities, video clips and memorabilia. In addition, 26 favorite episodes will be part of the national PBS KIDS Saturday morning broadcast lineup beginning September 12 (check local listings) and will be available to stream online later this fall at for fans to enjoy whenever they want.

"Fred Rogers paved the way for children’s media more than 40 years ago, and we are proud to continue to work with Family Communications to ensure his legacy evolves alongside new developments in media and technology," said Sara DeWitt, Senior Director, PBS KIDS Interactive. " continues to increase in traffic, with an average of 9 million unique visitors a month. It’s clear that kids love our games, and that parents and educators view our content online as a trusted and fun learning experience."

"At Family Communications, we continue to hear from adults about what MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD has meant in their lives,” said Kevin Morrison, Chief Operating Officer, Family Communications, Inc. “The core values of the series — kindness, civility, reassurance and inspiration — have helped many strive towards being the best they can be. We are excited to continue to infuse Fred Rogers’ values in new platforms with new generations of children."

Only 960 or so episodes to go!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Please Help "Mister Rogers & Me"

I first met "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" creator Fred Rogers at his summer home in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in September 2001. My mother rented the cottage next door, so Mister Rogers really was my neighbor.

My brother and I have been working on our documentary, "Mister Rogers & Me" every since.

Eight years, 4600 miles, and nearly $30,000 later, we're in the home stretch. But we need your help to make it across the finish line. We're endeavoring to raise at least $10,000 in the next 30 days to polish our rough edit into a film festival-worthy version.

What's left to do, you ask? The film currently runs 75-minutes. The structure is nearly complete, but still has gaps. Like a puzzle; we have most of the pieces, but they're not all in place. So we still have to a) secure a few more pieces of footage b) create some graphics to represent data (ex: rise in children's advertising spending) and c) place all of the rights-managed footage, b-roll, and photographs to fill in all of those holes. There's more v.o. and music to record and license, and we even plan to shoot a few more interviews.

After three years of after-hours, weekend and spare-time production, we've finally booked two weeks of steady post-production at a professional facility. By the end of the month, we expect to have an edit worthy of submission to Tribecca, Nantucket, and Aspen Film Festivals. Your contribution will fund all of the above.

You, Dear Reader, recall the back story:

On the afternoon of our first meeting, Mister Rogers 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. 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, though, that it dawned on me how to do so. 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 "Meet The Press" host Tim Russert; "All Things Considered" anchor Susan Stamberg; "This American Life" contributor Davy Rothbart; "Arthur" creator Marc Brown; "Nick News" host Linda Ellerbee; mystic, author and activist, Bo Lozoff; authors Amy Hollingsworth and Tim Madigan; photographer Beverly Hall.

Three weeks ago, PBS announced that "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" airings will be reduced from daily to once a week. Now more than ever, Fred's deep and simple message must be spread.

Please help us tell the story of "Mister Rogers & Me" by contributing to our fundraiser today. There are some terrific incentives like film credits, signed Nantucket photo prints, custom songs, and an exclusive screening for your friends and family. The best incentive, though, will be knowing that you helped this most well-intended and genuine project make its way to the screen.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mister Rogers & Wagner Bros LLC: It's Official

It's been well over a year since our lawyer (also our cousin), Bill, established Wagner Bros. LLC as an official, federally-sanctioned business. Heck, we have out own EIN (Employer Identification Number)!

Still, it took that long (plus some recent, business-oriented motivation) to make it truly official. On Saturday, I opened a Wagner Bros LLC checking account at Chase Manhattan Bank.

No single event has prompted more comments on my Facebook feed, which I consider a good thing.

I opened the account (finally) as Chris and I owe our annual LLC fee to the State of Delaware. Also, we owe a few bucks to a terrific documentary editor to-be-named-later.

Of course, "Mister Rogers & Me" has never been about making money. In fact, Chris and I have happily sunken thousands of dollars into the film over the course of the last four years. We view the project as vital, and now more than ever as PBS diminished "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" airings. So next week, we're going to announce some very big news.

Because we're going to finish this thing yet; I owe it to Mister Rogers.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Mister Rogers Foiled Again

The news in "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" has turned from bad to worse.

Last year, PBS told member stations that the program would not be included in daily syndication, but available for a la cart airings. Last week, PBS told member stations that "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" will only be available to air once weekly beginning in the fall.

"PBS is operating under very tight budget constraints and it already has a full program lineup to support Monday through Friday," said Kevin Morrison, chief operating officer for Rogers' Oakland-based Family Communications Inc. "If it was offering ‘Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' on a daily basis it would only be as an option to the existing full lineup of programs, and that option is an expensive option for them and the financial situation prevents them from making that an option."

Morrison said PBS remains supportive of the "Neighborhood," launching a revamped Web site for the show this week at the PBS Kids site.

"It's a demonstration of [PBS'] continuing commitment to keep 'Mister Rogers' on the Web," Morrison said this week. "They put a lot of time and effort into keeping that fresh and alive and it certainly looks good."

While the built out website is promising, it seems inevitable, then, that Mister Rogers will soon disappear from the broadcast landscape altogether. In this DVD and on-demand era, surely FCI has a plan in place to enable children of all ages to grow and learn under Fred's thoughtful tutelage.

Either way, Fred's disappearance from television leads me to believe that our little documentary is needed now more than ever. Luckily, we're making very slow but truly steady progress.

Stay tuned...

Monday, June 15, 2009

'Mister Rogers & Me' Update

Wondering where "Mister Rogers & Me" has gone in the last three four months?

Alas, my brief experiment with editing the film myself fizzled quickly. Christofer has since completed a paper cut of the film (that is, editing the video tape to match my script) which clocks in well over two hours. Currently, a friend and noted documentary editor (who asked not to be identified until we see his edit) is retooling the film to a more manageable length (goal: eighty minutes), and cinematic narrative structure. More on the in the next few weeks.

Menawhile, Iowa Public Television pal Wayne Bruns sent me the following tale of Michael Kinsell a young, apparently-admiring San Diego-based fan of Mister Rogers who endeavored to put on some sort of show touting himself as Fred's heir apparent.

PBS is accusing a San Diego teenager of “falsely claiming association” with the network and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He [was] selling tickets for a May 31 gala event where, according to a news release by his publicist, he [would] present himself as successor to the late Fred Rogers.

Michael Kinsell, who told Current he is 18, said he has produced six episodes of a new show, Michael’s Enchanted Neighborhood.

Kinsell described the benefit event, to be held at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, as a tribute to Rogers that will raise funds for “children’s public television” and, he hopes, for his own new show.

He said he invited members of Rogers’ family to receive a Children’s Hero Award in Rogers’ honor and said he will give $10,000 in mid-June to Family Communications Inc., Rogers’ production company in Pittsburgh.

In a complaint this month to the California Attorney General’s office obtained by Current, PBS says that Kinsell, with event publicity falsely associating himself with PBS and Rogers, could divert funds to his nonprofit from the network and Rogers’ company.

As I wrote to Wayne, the story (odd, right?) reminded me of author Tim Madigan's Barnes & Noble reading of "I'm Proud Of You." A young man was sobbing and speaking out in an almost-Tourette's manner through Tim's entire reading. He tried to address the young man kindly and patiently, but it still feltawkward and distracting.

"I worry that these sorts of oddities besmirch Fred," I wrote to Wayne. "And Chris and my well-intentioned little effort. But then I remember how well Fred handled every situation so naturally and know it'll turn out fine."

It will.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Mister Rogers' Newest Neighbors

Mister Rogers has inspired all kinds of wonderful people to do all kinds of wonderful thing.

You already know Brian Linder, whose "Save Mister Rogers" campaign gained national media attention and over six thousand members on Facebook. Brian and I continue to exchange emails, and plot bigger things for our collective affection for Mister Rogers and his values.

In the coming weeks and months, I'll endeavor to introduce you to a few other Neighborhood friends you may not have met, but who've reached through the Internets to say hello.

Tim Lybarger's "Neighborhood Archive" is an ever-growing, DIY resource for other Mister Rogers fans.

"I continued to hold a dear appreciation for Mister Rogers, the values he taught, and the legacy he has left," he explains. "I have a fairly respectable collection of Mister Rogers memorabilia, have recorded episodes from television broadcasts (I'm only missing five or six from 1980 and beyond), and I enjoy a hot cup of coffee every morning from my Mister Rogers' Neighborhood coffee mug."

I asked Tim if he had met Mister Rogers. He replied thusly:

Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of me and Mister Rogers to pass along. The closest I ever came to that was a letter to him at the time of the completion of my undergraduate degree thanking him for his positive contribution to my life. In reply, I received a very humbling letter from him thanking me for my contact and wishing me the best as I enter the world of education. One of my most prized possessions to say the least.

Responding to Tim's letter -- one of hundreds that week, no doubt -- is the essence of Mister Rogers. All of those small gestures aggregate into something larger: a legacy.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Mister Rogers, Avid & Me

Well, that didn't take long. Or did it?

Two weeks ago, my brother handed off a hard drive loaded with "Mister Rogers & Me" footage, and taught me Avid Editing 101.

After a fifteen-day period that included ten of travel (and one marathon), I sat down in front of the computer to get started.

You'll recall that I first met Mister Rogers in September, 2001. Principle photography for our little, DIY documentary began in June, 2006. We've been steadily chipping away ever since, including weekend shoots in Washington, DC, Durham, NC, Fredericksburgh, VA, Pittsburgh, PA, and Nantucket, MA.

We've interviewed Tim Russert, Susan Stamberg, Bo Lozoff, Amy Hollingsworth, Tim Madigan, Marc Brown, and Linda Ellerbee.

Last summer, we applied to Independent Film Week, but didn't make the cut. Chris found out he was going to be a father for the third time. I found out I was going to run MTV News.

So here we are, eight years later. I spent most of last night poking around Avid. It's like the most-complicated, 3D puzzle you can imagine. Worse, with my level of competence, it's like assembling that puzzle with my nose. At this rate, it'll be another eight years before anyone sees this sweet, little story..

So I just sent two emails: one to Save Mister Rogers founder Brian Linder, and Nerdcore Rising director Negin Farsad. Because I'm inches away from a) launching a fundraiser and b) hiring a professional to finishing this thing.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Mister Rogers & Me" And, Um, Me!

As predicted, "Mister Rogers & Me" is now in my hands.

First, it was Christofer and me.

Then, we were hoping "Golden Days" director/editor, Chris Suchorsky, was going to bring "Mister Rogers & Me" home.

It fell apart right around Thanksgiving.

Since then, I've installed Avid software onto my (actually, Abbi's) laptop. And tonight Chris came over for Avid 101.

Given my schedule in the coming weeks (inauguration this weekend, Miami Marathon next weekend, Grammys and Oscars in February), the odds of hitting the Nantucket Film Festival deadline (March) is a way, ways, WAY long shot.

If I could learn ProTools and self-produce "The Invention of Everything Else," though, well...

Well, we'll see.

And by the way: In the photo of Chris and me at my living room table here, you'l lnotice a photo o fMister Rogers just over my head. You might say he's looking out for me or something.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Mrs. Rogers Calls For Secretary Of The Arts

Mrs. Rogers doesn't email me too often, When she does, I take notice.

The first time was in response to my inquiries about making "Mister Rogers & Me."

The second was a few summers ago in response to my inquiries as to whether she'd be in Nantucket over Labor Day.

The third was yesterday morning.

The email was a simple, forwarded email (the kind one gets from one's parents with all of the recipient's email addresses visible, and all of the forwarding information in the body) that read thusly:

If you are interested to join us, it takes only a few moments to add your signature to this petition to the President-Elect.

Hope springs eternal!


* * *

What did Marni Nixon, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Jan Opalach, Marin Alsop, John Corigliano, David Amram, Branford Marsalis, James Moody, Harolyn Blackwell, Phil Woods, Tracey Moore, Jane Alexander and 10,000+ others sign?

The SECRETARY OF THE ARTS PETITION inspired by Quincy Jones.

This petition is the fastest way to demonstrate to Obama and Congress that the Arts in America matter, and they need to be supported during this financial crisis!

Apparently, Quincy suggested the new gig (beats "Arts Czar") on a November 15 interview on WNYC's "Soundcheck."

"My passion in life now, and one of the first conversations I'll have with President Obama," Jones said, "Is to beg for a Secretary of the Arts."

The Rogers passion is certainly the arts. In addition to being a television icon, Fred was a songwriter and pianist. Joanne is an accomplished concert pianist as well.

And it stands to reason, right? We have secretaries of agriculture, defense, labor, veteran's affairs. Heck, we have people looking after the "Office of National Drug Control Policy" and "Homeland Security." As a nation who's primary export is increasingly creative, intellectual property (Hollywood, Broadway, Silicon Valley), why not address the arts holistically?

The petition currently has 27664 signees. 27665 with my signature.

Hope does spring eternal. It must.