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.