in partnership
Fred Rogers appears in Won't You Be My Neighbor? by Morgan Neville, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute / Photo by Jim Judkis.)

'Don't make him a saint': Mrs. Rogers' one request of new documentary on her husband

Generation after generation of American children learned valuable lessons about feelings and friendship, thanks to one of television's greatest teachers: Mister Rogers.

Now the life and legacy of Fred Rogers is the focus of a new documentary, and we got a chance to chat with its Oscar-winning director.

"You pick projects, no because it's a story you want to tell - because I've come to realize it's a story you need to tell," said director Morgan Neville.

Neville has made a career out of listening to the voices in his head. In 2014 his love of music led him to explore the lives of background singers in the film, "20 Feet from Stardom." The film won the Oscar for Best Documentary and brought Neville widespread acclaim.

But when the applause died down, there was a new voice in his head - one he knew he couldn't ignore.

"I was born in 1967, his show went on in 1968 - I was a Gen. 1 Mister Rogers' Neighborhood fan," he said. "I loved it as a kid, but I never thought I would make a film about him, I didn't even think about him for decades."

But now he couldn't stop thinking about him. He somehow found himself on YouTube late one night watching a speech Rogers had given.

"There was something about it that just made me feel, I want to hear more of that voice," he said. "Like - I don't hear that voice in our culture anymore, I want to spend more time with that voice."

Fred Rogers had died more than a decade before, so to tell his story, Neville would need to get the blessing of the Rogers family.

"When I first met Mrs. Rogers, I said 'Look. I don't want to make a film that's a biography of Fred Rogers as much as I want to make a film of his ideas' - and I knew I was interested in the idea," he said.

He also knew to create the film he wanted, he'd need them to relinquish complete control. They agreed - with one caveat.

Mrs. Rogers told Neville - "Don't make Fred into a saint".

"I thought that was so wise of her," he said.

After pouring over hours of rare archival footage and conducting numerous interviews, a clearer picture of Mister Rogers' emerges in the film "Won't you Be My Neighbor".

"If you take all the elements that make good television - and do the exact opposite, you have Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," said Neville. "Low production values, simple set, an unlikely star - yet it worked because he was saying something really important."

What Neville discovered was breathtakingly powerful life lessons disguised in a land of make believe.

"He was making the TV show for two to six year-olds and what he was trying to do was explain to them how to be people," he said. "So, Fred's idea is - I'm going to be honest with kids, you know bad things are happening and I'm going to help explain it so your fear doesn't grow inside of you."

That was kind of a radical notion at the time. But who was Fred Rogers really? Was he for real?

"Essentially I found out is - he is very much for real," said Neville. "I mean he is, but the difference between Mr. Rogers and Fred Rogers, is that that man Fred Rogers is actually a much more complex, deeper version of the TV character. He was a profound guy who did something that was simple and deep. But, must people just thought it was simple."

Neville says he hopes his film will inspire us all to be better neighbors, to make America kind again.

"I think people have taken kindness for granted for a long time," he said. "And in that way I feel like Fred is the kindness lobby. That's why I wanted to make a film about him, to at least have a discussion about the value of being good to each other, because essentially that's what he was trying to do. Love is at the root of everything.. all learning.. all parenting... all relationships.. love or the lack of it.."

Morgan Neville's documentary "Wont's You Be My Neighbor" opens nationwide this Friday.