Filmmaker Morgan Neville isn't exaggerating when he says that Independence Mall changed his life when he first saw it years ago, as a young man ready to attend the University of Pennsylvania.
"I was a kid from Southern California, and it was all so new to me, and I just fell in love with the place. In fact, I ended up majoring in colonial American history. A big part of that was you could just walk around the city and it's right there, having that much history in front of you just had a huge impact on me."
His fascination with history blended with his interest in film when he returned to Southern California – he started making documentaries, specializing in movies about the history of music (the Oscar-winning backup-singer saga 20 Feet From Stardom), but also films such as Best of Enemies, about the televised William F. Buckley/Gore Vidal debates.
His latest, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, is about Fred "Mister" Rogers – a look at the man's life and career that builds to a portrait of decency, kindness, and love. Rogers was a man known for speaking in an effective and heartfelt way to children, but his biography has spoken powerfully to the adults who have seen it.
"The impulse to make the film was that to me, there is a voice missing in our culture today, and the more I learned about Fred Rogers, the more I began to feel that that voice was his," Neville said. "What you see around you today are people who are just in it for themselves, and Fred was the opposite of that."
Neville notes in the film that Rogers consistently and adamantly refused to license or merchandise his "neighborhood."
"He didn't want anything for himself," he said. "That just struck me as so powerful, I wanted to spend more time with it."
As he watches audiences react, Neville realizes he wasn't alone.
"I've thought a lot about [why the film moves people]. Fred kind of digested his message down to what I call radical kindness, but Fred himself called it grace. And to him, grace was an idea that could be expressed as: Be good to others, even if they don't deserve it." The film probes Rogers' history as a young man prepping for the Presbyterian ministry, when he feels he's called instead to make meaningful television for children. Rogers' legendary show was made with that sense of spiritual purpose, even though it was never overtly religious.
"He often quoted from the Bible, Jesus saying the one thing that evil really can't stand is forgiveness," Neville said. "Fred was always willing to go that extra step in that kind of way, and that's just such a radical notion in this day and age.'
Rogers was famous for going on talk shows with jaded media types and bringing them to the verge of tears. You see it in Neighbor with late-night host Tom Snyder, but he had the same effect on Joan Rivers ("I almost used that clip!" Neville said) and others.
Ordinary folks got the same treatment.
"I just talked to a man in Pittsburgh who met Fred on an elevator, and was compelled to mention that his father had died, and that he'd come across one of those shows Fred did [on the subject of loved ones dying], and it meant a lot. And Fred, rather than just saying thank you, asked the man if he had time to sit and talk. And they did, for 30 minutes. And you hear those stories all the time."