Mister Rogers, Lady Gaga & Me – In Conversation with Benjamin Wagner

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Which pop cultural icon would you guess that a Senior Executive at Music Video Television (MTV) has made a film about? The Jonas Brothers, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry or Jay-Z? How about Mister Rogers? Yes, that Mister Rogers! “Why?” Well, that was my initial reaction when I heard about Mister Rogers & Me that premiered at the 15th Annual Nantucket Film Festival. I found it intriguing that anyone would find Mister Rogers fascinating enough to dedicate several years of their lives to promote his legacy. “I want my Mister Rogers!”(?) Well, after much deliberation, I decided to attend The Wagner Brothers’ presentation at “Morning Coffee with…” and, later, see their documentary.

It turned out that the experience of watching Mister Rogers & Me was as challenging and exhilarating as when I heard the full orchestra performance of John Cage’s highly meditative 1952 three movement composition 4’33” (four-three-three), for the first time. Just as I did not quite know what to expect from Cage’s masterpiece, I wasn’t really sure how this incomparable combination would manifest itself on film. For starters, the documentary compelled me to slow down my rhythm to a point of near meditation while I was on such a high dose dashing from film to film and from one filmmakers’ panel to the next…

So, I decided to approach Benjamin Wagner and talk to him about his, and his brother Christofer’s, experiences of creating Mister Rogers & Me.

Homa Taj – How on earth did an MTV Executive come up with the idea of making a documentary about a songwriting Presbyterian Minister with his own (albeit, hugely successful) television show – Mister Rogers?

BW – Well, I guess I didn’t so much come up with it as it came to me, and became an imperative. My mom has spent a few weeks in Nantucket every summer for fifteen years or so. Somewhere around 2001, she called and said, “You’ll never believe who I met!?! Mister Rogers!” I visited the island shortly thereafter, and she invited him over for my birthday. We visited The Crooke House the next afternoon. We talked about a bunch of things, like music, my parents’ divorce and my job at MTV. As I say in the film, I grew up on MTV, was the editor of the high school newspaper and a journalism major in college, and am to this day a performing singer/songwriter. So working for MTV News is a great fit. But I’ve always been ambivalent about it, and about pop culture in general. So I half expected to be lectured for working at a network not exactly known for its, in the words of Mister Rogers, “I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.” The next year I told him that I thought about that phrase every day to which he replied, “Spread the message, Benjamin.” I’ve been doing so every since, first as a post on my website, then an essay in a collection called “2 Do Before I Die,” and now as a film (plus thousands of conversations in-between!).

HT – Mister Rogers & Me begins on your 30th birthday (in 2001) when you met the legendary TV personality… and, it ends with the anticipation of the arrival of your daughter, Maggie Burton Wagner (b. June 13, 2010). So, in many ways, the film is a meditation on your own life – your past and future histories…

BW – Yeah, absolutely. I respond to first-person storytelling – memoir, biography, etc – more than third-person or fiction. And I certainly feel like I’m better at it. Anyway, other than those initial meetings and conversations, Christofer and I weren’t completely sure where the story would go. We just knew we had some sort of road trip or hero’s quest on our hands, and that it would unfold as it should. And it did! As an example, I didn’t know that Susan Stamberg had hosted a special with Mister Rogers about divorce. I just knew they’d worked together in some capacity. Ends up their special aired the year my parents divorced, and addressed something that affected me deeply: how sad and scary it was to fly alone back-and-forth between them. Similarly, I didn’t know who Bo Lozoff was until Mister Rogers mentioned him in September, 2001. Bo presided over my wedding in October, 2007. The film took nearly nine years from the time I met Mister Rogers until now so the stories are very much intertwined.

HT – Nantucket’s idyllic aesthetics serve as the geographical and environmental anchor for a narrative which celebrates the moral principals of a fairly conservative figure in contemporary American consciousness. Were you ever ambivalent that the film would be perceived as too sweet by your colleagues (not that it should matter at all)?

BW – I’ve never felt particularly cool, so yeah, it dawned on me prior to ever starting at MTV that I’d be considered uncool, or corny or whatever. Not surprisingly, meeting Mister Rogers and observing how genuine, authentic and real he was, and considering his oft-stated phrase, “I like you just the way you are,” helped me get over any ambivalence pretty quickly. And in the end, my colleagues have been very supportive. Mister Rogers transcends that sort of stuff.

HT – Between Mister Rogers’ Crooked House & other nature-bound references – such as Bo Lozzof’s story of watching a snake shed its skin – the film has an organic feel to it. How do these symbols embody Mister Rogers’ and your own sensibilities?

BW – We spent an entire day on Bo Lozoff’s ashram and were so overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of his work and his teachings that, frankly, we didn’t even know we had the amazing scene until we saw it again weeks later in the edit. But it was the perfect metaphor for the start of the film, right? Another amazing shot is of a white butterfly fluttering across Madaket Millie’s Bridge; double metaphor! Likewise, shots of Madaket Bay, lone seagulls and footprints all helped communicate pacing, and passages. I always hoped the film would mark or measure some sort of transformation. It does, and many of the visuals support that.

HT – You are an accomplished musician whose work has a (somewhat) wholesome and folksy sound… Mr. Rogers’ principals were quite (seemingly) simple and commonsensical. So, some viewers may walk awaking thinking that there is discrepancy between your work (at MTV) and the messages that you are independently promoting. However, I think that both your film and MTV promote the complex and evolving senses and sensibilities of Americana – its past, present and future…

BW – Well, that discrepancy – that binary – is what, I think, makes the film compelling. On the surface, it seems pretty simple: PBS is good. MTV is bad. It’s a good hook. But of course life is far less black and white. I am surrounded by substantive, thoughtful colleagues most of whom endeavor to make the world a better place. As it ends up, as Bo Lozoff says, “Human life is very deep, and our dominant, modern lifestyle is not.” That’s what we set out to explore, that tension.

HT – During your presentation at NFF 15, someone asked how was it that you refrained from examining other (perhaps more controversial) aspects of Fred Rogers’ life. Your portrayal of him in the documentary is almost reverential…

BW – If the film feels reverential it’s because I have enormous reverence for Mister Rogers; he was the real deal. So that’s a good thing, and a terrific compliment! And I figure that, between the Internet and YouTube and our culture of snark and cynicism, there are plenty of places and ways to tear down our icons. I didn’t want to waste a second on rumors or silliness.

HT – Mister Rogers & you both studied music. Did that help you to connect with him at a deeper level than if you hadn’t shared that passion and discipline?

BW- Definitely. We played songs for each other the day we met, and I sent him my CDs as they were released. In fact, the day we met, I played him a song called “Summer’s Gone” which I love, and am really proud of, but is laced with sadness. I think he picked up on that sadness, and that it provided him insight into me that led him to ask about my parent’s divorce. Time and again, the folks we interviewed said that Mister Rogers was particularly adept at listening closely, identifying what was broken in us, and helping us heal. For both Mister Rogers and me, I think, music provided both shorthand for that communication, and a process for healing what was hurt.

HT – The rhythm of the film is consciously and defiantly measured…somewhat like your own music which sounds inconspicuously organic (can we say that about music… you know: the man, his lyrics and guitar with minimal production?). Can you talk about your choice to adapt this (slow) rhythm…?

BW – We absolutely set out to make the film concertedly slow. It opens in New York City with quick cuts, lots of motion and noise, and then moves to Nantucket where it slows down and the sounds become natural: waves, wind, birds. And while I love uptempo rock, my music definitely tends towards acoustic, the midtempo, and minimally-produced. In fact, I credit Mister Rogers (along with Jeff Wilco’s Tweedy) with giving me the courage to perform to my strengths as a musician. When I first moved to New York, I tried on all kinds of rock costumes: leather pants, fingernail polish, gold lame. But jeans and a t-shirt, earnest, contemplative and melancholy, come naturally. Just as “I like you just the way you are” helped me own the fact that I’m not cool (or more importantly that it’s superfluous whether anyone thinks I am or not) that same set of values – feelings are ok, that which is mentionable is manageable, etc – gave me the confidence to wear my heart on my sleeve as a musician. So there’s a chicken/egg component to it. My music (which you hear in the film) developed with the film.

HT – Musically and philosophically speaking…the film has a very Zen quality to it. Somewhat like your Breathe In from the 2008 album The Invention of Everything Else

BW – Impressive observation, Homa! “Breathe In” was very much written in a post-Mister Rogers mindset. That is, I was set free from concerns about commercialism, trends, and any other expectations by the time I’d written it – thanks in no small part to Mister Rogers (and in no small part to growing up in general). In fact, “Breathe In” was going to be the credit music until I heard my pal Casey Shea’s gorgeous “Love Is Here To Stay” which had something of a “Hey Jude” rally cry to it. Casey’s track makes the end of “Mister Rogers & Me” feel like a movement, or the beginning of one, not the end of something else. It makes you want to be a part of it.

HT – I like that ‘Hey Jude’ rally cry idea… however, so far, I have been introducing Mister Rogers and Me to friends who have not seen the film as “a meditation.” I think that may be because we have come to regard film as, primarily, an entertaining medium… whereas a project like this carries with it a different set of purposes…

BW – Yeah, the narrative is more nuanced or less-defined than most documentaries. My favorite blog posts wind a bunch of observations together and draw connections between them, but don’t spell a thesis out, per se. While Christofer and I were working on the film, I often referred to it as a blog post or a “tone poem” (as pretentious as that sounds). I wanted it to offer something up, but not drive it home or underline it with a big, fat magic marker. It’s supposed to be slow and quiet and subtle, a set of ideas to consider, more water color than comic book. Something like that.

HT – As a matter of fact, you have been blogging the process of creating the film since you began working on it. This is pretty unusual especially according to Hollywood standards where projects are kept under wraps until they are near completion…

BW – Well, I’ve been blogging for ten years. And, Hollywood obviously has it all wrong [laughs]. At work and with my music and now this film, I think there’s a lot of evidence that if an audience is engaged and included in the creative process, they’re bound to be invested in the outcome. Anyway, Mister Rogers challenged me to spread the message. So I figure that every blog post, every photo, every Facebook status update, YouTube video and Tweet is a chance to reach someone new. Even if they don’t see the movie, they’ll chew on its themes for a few seconds.

HN – The film, again, in the spirit of its subject promotes a deep appreciation for the aesthetics of the mundane: as you mentioned earlier, “I like you just the way you are” was Mr. Rogers’ most sited idea. There is no pressure to excel beyond our present state…

BW – That’s interesting, because my constant state is to pressure myself to excel [laughs]. But I’m not sure Mister Rogers was suggesting that entropy was ok. Bear in mind that the full phrase (which his grandfather used to tell him as a child) is, “I like you just the way you are for just you being you.” So, to me, it’s not about excusing entropy in inactivity or “the mundane,” but in suggesting the we are all fundamentally good and valuable. That’s the baseline.

HT – Mister Rogers was ordained a Minister after graduating from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary when he was 35 years old (in 1963). So, naturally, his philosophy is so deeply spiritual … to a point of religiosity…

BW – Absolutely. Mister Rogers was a Presbyterian minister whose congregation was his television audience. He was a serious scholar of religion, and children’s psychology.

HT – I always think of very good artists as Shamans… you go through pain – not that this is a prerequisite for creation – and then you try to find a cure for that pain. Hence, the curative nature of the arts…

BW – Agreed (though considering myself a shaman might be as pretentious as using the phrase “tone poem”).

HN – The film talks about how Mister Rogers was bullied as a child and how it took him so many years to overcome the experience of those painful years. He had said that when he played the piano, “I used to cry through my fingers.” [Benjamin, you don’t have to answer this part of the question if you think that it is too private!] Did you feel bullied by faith of your parents’ divorce? Were you looking for your own medicine when playing music…or, when making this documentary?

BW – I didn’t feel bullied by my parent’s divorce, but I definitely felt haunted by it. Music and writing have always provided me with means for understanding and managing painful stuff like that. Likewise, I didn’t set out to make the documentary as any sort of healing, but it certainly provided plenty.

HT – Of course, the search for a cure can be for social and not just personal dilemmas. It is something that you [also] discuss in the film… the manic and materialistic state of our culture needs to be balanced by… contemplation, meditation, etc…

BW – Absolutely. As Mister Rogers used to say, “That which is most personal is most universal.” I’m quickly overwhelmed trying to find uber-solutions like legislation or protests. Change begins with the individual, and then spreads.

HT – Tim Russert, the late Host of MSNCB’s Meet the Press, said that he was the guardian of a National Treasure and in that spirit The Wagner Brothers are in charge of Mister Rogers’ legacy. That’s quite a burden that Tim Russert put on your shoulders… or, should I say that you have claimed upon yourselves…

BW – Oh no, Mister Rogers’ legacy is firmly in the hands of his company, Family Communications. They’re doing terrific work with the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and in bringing new programs and projects to television and the web. Mister Rogers used to say, “Look for the helpers.” We’re merely helpers. We just happened to feel strongly enough about helping that we made something kind of big: a documentary. In the end, though, Mister Rogers’ legacy is on all of us. We all have to help.

HT – More and more we realize that exercising such simple ideas as were expressed by someone like Mister Rogers is almost decadent…pure luxury… what are your thoughts on this?

BW – I get your premise, but I disagree. I think the rest of it – the triple-whipped iced mochaccinos, the two-thousand channel universe (with nothing on), the mile-long cereal aisle, Blooming Onion ™ and McDLT ™ – that’s all luxury. “Deep and simple” is core, basic, elemental stuff.

HT – 2011 marks the 30th Anniversary of MTV. How do you think the Lady Gaga Generation (would) relate to Mr. Rogers’ moral codes and aesthetics?

BW – I guess I believe that Mister Rogers’ morals are timeless. Young people (and old alike) just need to be exposed to them in a meaningful, concerted, consistent way. And right now, it seems like most of dominant culture is marshalled against efforts to that end. Ergo building an army of helpers.

HT – What next?

BW – Well, I’m filling out the submission form for PBS’ P.O.V. series as we speak. By the end of the week, we’ll have submitted the film to a dozen domestic film festivals like Hamptons, Hot Springs, Heartland and Chicago. Best case scenario is that we cobble together a broadcast premiere concurrent to a DVD release that is promoted via some sort of grass roots tour, like a concert, film screening and community dialogue all rolled into one. We’ll see. All I know is that, nine years in, we’ve only just begun.

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Mister Rogers & Me: A Deep and Simple Documentary Filmconcludes with the voice of Benjamin Wagner echoing parts of the famous acceptance speech of a Lifetime Achievement Awards that Mister Rogers delivered during the 24th Annual Daytime Emmys, in 1997:

“All of us have special ones who loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. 10 seconds, I’ll watch the time…”

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*All photos courtesy Benjamin Wagner

 

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