Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mister Rogers, Midnight & Me

It's well after midnight, and for the second night running, Christofer and I are still editing.

I spent an hour in the v.o. booth tonight re-tracking the final scene. It was frustrating and difficult; I've now read the end (or some version of it) four times.

Tonight, in response to notes from numerous filmmaker friends who've screened our rough cut, we added more of a personal conclusion to the film. That is, many suggested that previous edits left my personal story unfinished. I scripted and read a few lines connecting my first meeting with Mister Rogers in 2001 to today.

Reading v.o. is challenging. I obviously have no experience with it. Even the slightest variation in tone and tempo has a bearing on how the story is perceived. It took me an hour to read six paragraphs. (Suffice to say, my frustration led to a few words Mister Rogers likely rarely uttered.)

We've taken numerous other notes as well (and ignored plenty too). As a result, the film is tighter, more-focussed, and even a few minutes shorter. Our current edit clocks in about 82:00.

Meanwhile, Chris has been up-rezing the film. That is, the raw tape was loaded in SD (or "standard definition"). Now that we've locked picture (or nearly so), Chris is re-digitizing only the bits of raw tape we used in the film in HD ("hi-definition"). It looks beautiful, but is a huge file that -- because Chris has edited on numerous laptops over the course of nearly five years -- likes to crash.

We've notified nearly everone who's on the film about its forthcoming Nantucket Film Festival premiere. Today I heard from Susan Stamberg, Marc Brown and Bo Lozoff. Everyone's thrilled, and we hope some will join us for the premiere.

I still can't believe we're going to premiere this thing, especially amidst such luminous company. Of course, I'm not sure I'll even make the premiere (though I booked a flight just in case); Abbi and I are planning a far-more ambitious and auspicious premiere.

It's as if Mister Rogers knew it all, all along.

Friday, April 30, 2010

"Mister Rogers & Me" To Premiere Alongside Tom Hanks, Ben Stiller, Bill Murray, More

The official Nantucket Film Festival lineup was released today, and it's stellar.

"Mister Rogers & Me" will premiere alongside a small but impressive list of films, including Tom Hank's "Toy Story 3," Bill Murray's "Get Low," and Patricia Clarkson's "Cairo Time."

Frankly, I can hardly believe it. But there it is in The Hollywood Reporter.

I knew the lineup was coming; I've been sending synopsise, clips, bios and photos for weeks. Word of the official release from my colleague, MTV Movies Managing Editor Josh Horowitz. I was fresh off an overnight train from New York to Sheldon, South Carolina, which I boarded fresh off a red eye from Los Angeles to New York. I clicked tentatively, as if the call from the festival organizers a few weeks ago was some sort of dream.

There it was in black and white alongside films by Spike Jonze ("The Birth of Big Air") and Davis Guggenheim ("Waiting For Superman"), and actors like Kevin Kline ("The Extra Man"), Katie Holmes ("The Romantics") and Anne Meara ("Another Harvest Moon"). Ben Stiller will once again bring his All-Star Comedy Roundtable, and the festival will honor Barry Levinson's "Diner."

Oh, and Christofer and my little film. I emailed him right away, my heart racing.

The NFF lineup is truly, truly impressive. It's amazing that we're a part of it. Amazing! Chokes me up. Congratulations, dude.

In the program, the color photograph of Mister Rogers and me in his modest, well-loved living room is wedged between the documentary "Last Train Home" and John Lennon biopic "Nowhere Boy." The documentary company alone is staggering: "The Birth of Big Air," "Bill Cunningham New York," "Freedom Riders," "His & Hers," "Smash His Camera," "The Tilman Story," "Waiting For Superman" and "Last Train Home."

I stepped outside into the sun-dappled South Carolina afternoon, and went for a long run. The sky was bright blue and streaked with wispy clouds. The Pocotaligo River was strewn with diamond-shaped reflections. Egrets and eagles soared above me. Alligators scattered in my wake. I alternated between fantasizing about meeting Tom Hanks, imaging a neighbor-filled premiere party, and missing out on the whole thing on account of my new son or daughters imminent arrival.

I met Mister Rogers nearly nine years ago on the cusp of my "Crash Site" CD release. The album was full of songs inspired by my parent's divorce. I wrestled with it affects daily. And then, on that fateful day in September, Mister Rogers said to me, "Tell me about your parent's divorce," gently making manageable the unmentionable.

Through the passing of time, and the making of the film, I came to reckon with that wreckage. I met my wife. And now we're expecting out first child just a few days before making good on his challenge to "spread the message" that "deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex." That's the real story: how Mister Rogers helped me heal, become more-whole, get married, and bring a child into the world. And the tools he gave me to do it all. What a miracle.

Chris and I have been working on "locking picture" (that is, finalizing our edit) for weeks. We have just a few more narrow windows to tweak the film further. A few filmmaker friends have screened it, and shared their notes. Everyone is feeling it, and most had suggestions that will only make the story deeper and simpler. The best note so far? "I cried!"

Whatever happens with the premiere, I am blessed. I am grateful. I feel dozens of guardian angels hovering over me, helping lift this project off the ground and into flight. Who knows what will happen next. All I know is that we've almost done it! We've almost made good on our pledge to Mister Rogers. And it feels amazing.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mister Rogers, HD & Me

I don't honestly remember when Chris and I shot our first footage, but for years now, I've been stashing "Mister Rogers & Me" master tapes away in a tattered, brown box in the back of my closet.

Wednesday morning, I dragged it out, and spread the tapes across the dining room table: seventy six HDDV tapes. 4, 560 minutes of deep and simple. Three whole days. (To say nothing of the footage we licensed).

I bound the tapes in rubber bands, stacked them carefully in my messenger bag, and set off towards Times Square. I dropped the bag with Christofer, who -- just a few hours later -- had re-digitized the tapes, up-res'd the files, and sent me a link. "The HD file is up. It's a big file!"

Big, yeah. But beautiful. Have a look.

Next up? The rest of the 85-minute film.

It's gonna be a big file, yeah. But it's going to be beautiful.

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Mister Rogers & Me" To World Premiere At Nantucket Film Festival

It's official.

Our documentary, "Mister Rogers & Me," will world premiere at the Nantucket Film Festival June 17-20.

Of course, the film was born on Nantucket in September, 2001, when -- during a chance encounter with my actual summer neighbor (my mother rented a tiny cottage on on the island's West End just next door to Mister Rogers "Crooked House") -- America's Favorite Neighbor asked me about my job at MTV.

"I feel so strongly," he said, "That deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex."

The following summer, I told Mister Rogers how frequently I'd considered what he said.

"Spread the message, Benjamin. Spread the message."

Eight years later, with stops in Durham, NC; Fredericksburg, VA; Washington, DC; Boston, MA; Pittsburgh and Latrobe, PA (plus hours upon hours in our New York City edit, one marriage, two births and a third expected within days of the films' premiere), my brother and my documentary is returning to Nantucket.

The film features interviews with Mister Rogers' friends, neighbors and collaborators: Tim Russert ("Meet The Press"), Susan Stamberg (NPR), and Linda Ellerbee (Nick News), Marc Brown ("Arthur"), Davy Rothbart (Found Magazine), Dr. Susan Linn (Campaign for a Commerical Free Childhood), Amy Hollingsworth ("The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers"), Tim Madigan ("I'm Proud of You"), Bo Lozoff ("Deep & Simple") and Beverly Hall ("My Nantucket").

The call came Friday afternoon. I was at work.

"Tell me where you are with your film," Artistic Director Mystelle Brabée asked.

My pulse raced. My heart throbbed in my ears. I turned towards the window, put my feet up on the radiator, and endeavored to remain calm.

"Well, last night we moved an entire segment from the last third to the first," I stammered. "Yunno, to increase stakes. But that's about the last, big change we can make; we don't have the time or money to do anything drastic, just voice over, music, trimming... stuff like that."

"Are you interested in a few notes?" she asked.

"Absolutely," I said, "Four people have seen this thing. I'm more than happy to hear your thoughts."

We talked a few minutes more. The entire time I wondered, 'Are we in!?!'

Finally, Mystelle said, "Let's move forward with this."

Inhale. Hold...

"Daniela will send you a confirmation letter..."


I called Christofer a few seconds later.

"We're in!" I said before thanking him for following me all over the Northeast and working into the wee hours night after night after night.

And then I called Abbi. My wife is due on June 9, just eight days prior to the start of the festival.

"I find it hard to believe this is just a coincidence," I told her. "A film festival on Father's Day Weekend with a film by a brand-new father about the grandfather he wished he'd had..."

Walking home, my excitement began to turn to anxiety. What about that last piece of footage? What about the music? What about the web site? The premiere party? Will the baby be born in time? Where will we stay? How will we get there? Who will come? Will we finish it in time? What about the end? Will anyone like it?

I looked up beyond the buildings to the stars, and heard Mister Rogers clear as a bell.

"You're doing fine, Benjamin. You're doing fine."

Sunday, April 04, 2010

One Stamp & One Step At A Time

It wasn't until standing at the counter of the U.S. Postal Service last week that it dawned on me just how large the "Mister Rogers & Me" neighborhood has become.

It took Abbi and my imminent move from Hell's Kitchen to the Upper East Side to finally get all of those Kickstarter envelopes out the door. And it took me three trips to the Radio City Postal Station to get it right. But there I was, finally, placing each of the fiftysomething hand-packed,written and seeled envelopes on the scale one at a time, reading all the labels and ticking off cities like a FedEx commercial: Asheville, NC; Jupiter, FL; Littleton, CO; Little Elm, TX; Seattle, WA; Berkeley, CA... the list goes on and on.

I love the idea of all of those photos and cds and thank you notes making their way to the edges of this great country, and I love the idea that -- as Fred showed me -- "There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person."

That small collection of addresses is nothing, of course. Mister Rogers' legacy lives in the hearts of thousands upon thousands of friends of neighbors. I hope we can activate just 1% of them to spread his message to 1% of their friends and neighbors. That's how a legacy grows, one story at a time.

Work continues on our story, of course. Here are a few random updates:

We're still making tweaks to the film, including one, major segment move, additional voice overs, and ...

We've commissioned local pianist Chris LoPresto to add some incidental music.

We're working with our friends at Conure Studios to relaunch this site (as you can see in the associated image).

Finally we're doing everything in our power to premiere at the Nantucket Film Festival in June, including (but not limited to) crossing our fingers and toes (which makes it tough to type and walk). Meanwhile, the film remains in consideration for Seattle and Toronto, and we'll be submitting to SilverDocs, Kansas, Hot Springs, Heartland, Hamptons, Santa Fe, Chicago and more in the coming weeks.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

What About Mister Rogers & You?

Last week, Chris and my email accounts both lit up like Christmas trees when our friends and neighbors all sent us this recent New York Times report, "Mister Rogers Still Looms Large In Pittsburgh." The article begins:

Nationally, it may seem that in the seven years since Fred Rogers's death, the legacy of America’s favorite neighbor has waned.

True as the author's thesis may be, it made me a bit sad. Despite his increased absence on public television stations, Mister Rogers still looms large in the hearts and minds of many all over the world, from media to academia to grass-roots organizations like Brian Linder and his Save 'Mister Rogers Neighborhood'.

Today would have been Fred Rogers' 82d birthday. In his hometown of Latrobe, PA, the Fred Rogers Center is hosting a conference of academics to discuss his legacy, and its path forward.

I'm in Pawley's Island, SC, with my dad. Ironically, the last time I was here was the day after Mister Rogers passed away in 2003. Last night, I jogged by the hotel parking lot in which I was interviewed by The Nantucket Inquirer-Mirror.

This year, we celebrate his legacy with our ongoing "Mister Rogers & Me," efforts. Just yesterday, we launched "Mister Rogers & Me" on Facebook.

Before leaving Friday morning, Chris and I raced to get this brand-new, never-before-seen clip from the film uploaded. It's from the first third of the film, when we visit Mister Rogers' sweater in The Smithsonian, then stand out front and asked people about Mister Rogers and them.

Mister Rogers said, "There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person." He certainly left a lot with me. What did Mister Rogers leave with you?

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Mister Rogers, The Supertease & Me

Thankfully, indie film isn't baseball; Chris and I swung at our third strike last night when the following slipped into my inbox.

Thank you for allowing us to consider your film for this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. We were grateful to receive so many outstanding shorts and features and enjoyed the chance to see your film.

We regret to inform you that we are unable to include Mister Rogers & Me in this year’s program. We hope though that you keep us in mind for your next project.

I didn't expect that we'd get into the Top Five (Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, Tribeca and SXSW), but I did fantasize about it. So it's obviously disappointing. Extra disappointing after a week of editing 'til two o'clock in the morning. And disconcerting given a week's-worth of anxiety that -- after everything -- maybe our film's not tough enough, not focussed enough, not, well, documentary enough.

Lemme' explain.

When Chis and I set out to start shooting "Mister Rogers & Me" way back on the summer of 2006, we didn't know what we'd find, or how it would end. Our objective was simply to hit the road, ask as many people as possible what they thought Mister Rogers meant when he told me, "Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex," and see where we ended up.

Just about four years later, the documentary is nearly done (or at least as done as time and resources allow), which is kind of a miracle. I'll be the first to admit that -- from Virginia to North Carolina to Cambridge to Boston -- the story rambles a bit. It's not "Food, Inc." or "Fog Of War." Our enemy -- a shallow, substanceless life-- is faceless and pervasive. The stakes are significant; they're everything. All week long, though, as we've dropped in new voice over, soundtrack, and titles, and shaved, rearranged, and nudged scenes frame-by-frame, we've wondered: do we make our points clearly enough?

Thursday night around one o'clock in the morning, I said to Chris, "You know we need? A supertease."

"Supertease" is a television word for the first few minutes of a show that hook the viewer. Typically bombastic, fast-paced and high-stakes, the supertease is the set-up, the hype-machine, the sugar-rush.

We shipped our Nantucket Film Festival submission about an hour before the deadline Friday night. I dashed from Chris office to mine to grab a postcard of Beverly Hall's iconic photo of Mister Rogers and Nantucket legend, Madaket Mille, to slip in the envelope. On the back I wrote:

Dear Neighbors,

Our film, "Mister Rogers & Me," was born of this island, nurtured by this picture, and made possible by countless walks on the beach there. Please help it find its way home.

Tribeca emailed last night. Chris called today. I told him the news. A few seconds after his brief, two-word response, he said, "I've been thinking. Mister Rogers wouldn't supertease. We shouldn't either. Our movie's a journey. People will take it. And it will take us wherever its supposed to, even if that means we make our second documentary about driving this one from coast to coast."

And so we soldier on, one step and one frame at a time. The SilverDocs Film Festival deadline is this Friday. I can't tell you what we'll accomplish between now and then: maybe some better music beds to cover the interstitial quotes, maybe some new v.o. that better establishes the stakes. Not sure; time is tough to come by. But I can promise you, though, that there will be no supertease.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Mister Rogers, Tuning & Me

I emailed our Family Communications contact yesterday for one, last piece of footage.

"I appreciate that it may seem as if we've been 'almost finished' with 'Mister Rogers & Me' for months now," I wrote. "In fact we've been making numerous revisions as we submit to numerous festivals, fine-tuning seemingly non-stop."

Right now, we're fine tuning the Tim Russert segment. We just eliminated a sound bite about how his first "Meet The Press" question ever was to Bob Dole, and how he took his dad's advice to "Keep it simple" -- half of the "deep and simple" equation we posit as our thesis. We also re-arranged the components of the segment to move through it more quickly, but with more nuance.

By the time we were done, we'd shaved just shy of a minute, but crafted a clearer, sharper, more-interesting segment.

I just said to Chris, "I still can't believe Tim granted us this interview." Just as I still can't believe I've been emailing with his widow, Maureen Orth, for the last few weeks. She's been so helpful, basically sharing every photo she could find from their family's time on Nantucket. So cool. One photo shows Tim, Maureen and Luke racing across Madaket Bay in a speed boat, all wind-blown and smiling ear-to-ear. Its emblematic of the kind of access friends of Mister Rogers have provided Chris and me.

All of these little changes are in service of Friday's Nantucket Film Festival deadline. Of course, I've always hoped to screen there; it's where the film was born. By the end of the week, we'll be waiting to hear from Tribeca, Nantucket, Toronto, Boston, Seattle and HotDocs. Hopefully, it'll find a home...

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Mister Rogers, Mother Theresa & Me

As is often the case, my lack of posts here is little indication of our ongoing efforts to bring "Mister Rogers & Me" to the big screen. Here's the latest.

Two weeks ago, SXSW Film Festival Program Director Jarod Neece sent a nice, personal email thanking us for our submission, but gently suggesting that the film "just missed" being accepted to premiere there. Submissions are still pending at Tribeca, Seattle, HotDocs and Boston Film Festivals.

Last week, I secured initial rights to a handful of crucial Tim Russert "Meet The Press" images courtesy of a very nice photo archivist at NBC. My fingers are crossed that NBC's video archivist will help us afford the show open (not surprisingly, NBC News footage is not inexpensive to licence).

My fingers are also crossed that Mr. Russert's widow, journalist Maureen Orth (whose essay in The Nantucket Mirror-Inquirer first tipped me off to The Russert's friendship with The Rogers) will find and share some of the great family photos Tim describes to us. We've exchanged a few emails, and should find out in the coming days.

Our next deadline is March 1, at which time we will submit a revised edit to Toronto and Nantucket Film Festivals.

To that end, I'm compiling all of my voice over revisions into a new, final v.o. script as we speak (Susan Stamberg's segment is playing right now). I'm re-recording the whole thing in a bona fide recording studio (not my closet!) this week.

Chris will later drop those new voice overs into the film, while making dwindling a number of small tweaks form my notes, stuff like "17:52 – Remove 'It's anti-life.'"

Meantime, Chris' colleague Aaron Kent is working on a Wagner Bros. LLC logo. He presented us with six options a few weeks ago. I'm partial to numbers 1 and 3, I think. The tree imagery is based on one of our favorite photos, one taken of the two of us at about 6 and 3-years-old climbing a red maple (my grandfather's favorite) in our pajamas. We're unlikely to have the budget to animate the tree's growth (as I suggested), but may audio audio of giggling boys (courtesy, of course, of Chris' sons Ethan and Edward who are currently the same ages).

I'm almost done with the final v.o. script now. I'm considering working a Mother Theresa quote back into the film in an effort to end on an up note, one that suggests progress doesn't have to be immediate or massive, but can be slow and steady -- like making this film.

"We cannot do great things," she says. "We can only do small things with great love.”