By Annie Reuter
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – For filmmaker Benjamin Wagner, Mister Rogers really was his neighbor.
While in Nantucket on his 30th birthday, Benjamin Wagner’s mother told him someone special lived next door.
“I was on the back porch alone and he comes up and says, ‘Is the birthday boy here?’” Wagner recalls of his first encounter with “America’s Favorite Neighbor.”
His mother rented the cottage next door from Fred Rogers’ summer home. The next day, Mister Rogers gave Wagner a tour of his home and asked about his parents’ divorce.
“He was so disarming and authentic and genuine and I was so moved,” Wagner said.
Rogers played “Happy Birthday” and “It’s a Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood” on piano before he asked Wagner what he did for a living. Then a producer for MTV News, Wagner thought Rogers would lecture him, but he didn’t.
“MTV gave me a place to engage with and communicate with my idols. If Bono and Bruce Springsteen were a little messed up but hugely successful, then it made me feel like its OK if I am,” Wagner said. “So I told him all that and he said, ‘You know Benjamin, I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.’”
A profound statement, Rogers’ words stuck. The following summer, Wagner told him this and he replied, “Spread the message.”
Thus began his film-making journey.
Nearly seven years in the making, the Wagner brothers traveled to find and interview those closest to Rogers and find answers to the phrase “deep and simple.”
The film began with a quote from the man himself: “There’s something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
Throughout Mister Rogers & Me, friend and author of “Deep & Simple,” Bo Lozoff shared concepts of a deeper life (“Human life is very deep and our modern lifestyle is not”) while Dr. Susan Linn talked of the dangers of media over-exposure.
Viewers came to learn that Mister Rogers did his homework and was the same man in real life that they saw on the television screen.
“He was an ordained minister [and] he worked with very high level and notable child psychology experts to make sure the show was really well done,” Wagner said. “He believed that the space between the audience and the camera was sacred and that he had a responsibility to his audience.”
Additional insight was provided by the late “Meet the Press” host, Tim Russert, “Arthur” author Marc Brown and “Nick News” host Linda Ellerbee, among others. After the film, a Q&A was conducted where it was announced that Mister Rogers & Me will be released via PBS DVD & Digital in March 2012.
Wagner says his goal is to spread the message far and wide.
“The movie really looks at media but it’s also looking at culture and values and choices we make about materialism, reflection, and quiet time. Ask questions, dig a little deeper, spend more time reflecting on the world and what you can do to be a better person,” Wagner said. “Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex. Consider that sentence if nothing else. What does that mean? What can I do with that?”
Annie Reuter is a freelance writer and the founder of YouSingIWrite.com.