Documenting Mr. Rogers
Telling the story of the kindest storyteller
By Terri Akman

Last year’s hit documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” chronicled the life of Fred Rogers and his long-running, acclaimed PBS children’s television series “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” Rogers is well known (and well loved) for tackling society’s most serious issues through the lens of encouraging children to express their feelings. In fact, he is famously remembered for advising children to “look for the helpers” in times of duress.

The documentary shows how Rogers interpreted major world events for his young viewers, including Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War and 9/11. He tackled tricky personal issues as well, such as divorce and race relations. 

Moorestown native Emma Baiada, 26, served as associate producer for the film, which received rave reviews from critics and audiences, and grossed $22 million, making it the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all time. It is now airing on HBO.

Now living in L.A., Baiada has also worked on several Netflix documentaries, including “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” and “Ugly Delicious.” In addition, she and her life partner Nicolas Snyder produce films under Hierophant films, their own start-up company.

Did you watch Mr. Rogers when you were young?

Emma: I did watch it, but I don’t have concrete memories of episodes. I was very familiar with the show. I knew the characters from the neighborhood of make-believe, and I knew the songs and skits, but they are early memories I can’t quite put my finger on. So it was really fun to dive back into that and learn more about the theory and ideals of what he was doing. Fred thought it was important to be honest but gentle with kids when talking about scary events. He wanted to show children that it’s safe for them to express their feelings and ask questions from trusted adults. 

What all did you do on the film?

Emma: I did a lot of research, pulling footage or photos of Fred Rogers, and also the world at large, like the Vietnam War or various other TV shows to provide context to what we were doing and the time we were doing it in.

What was it like researching the way Mr. Rogers tackled the more difficult topics?

Emma: That was interesting, because the days I went deep into archive searches for events I wasn’t alive for were harrowing and upsetting. I was also looking at archive footage of children who were affected – by Vietnam or when Kennedy was assassinated – and that was heartbreaking. I looked at raw footage of 9/11, an event I was alive for, but I was young, and that was shocking and sad to dive into. So it was interesting to then see Mr. Rogers’ spin on it and see how he was trying to talk about these things, to provide a safe place for kids to get their feelings out about what they might be scared of because of these events.

Did you meet anyone from the original series?

Emma: I did. I got to meet Mr. McFeely, the delivery man with Speedy Delivery Service, and Francois Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons. I also met Fred’s wife Joanne and his son.

Also, I met Tom Junod, the journalist who wrote a long Esquire piece on Fred, who we interviewed for the film. I went to the Sundance Film Festival when it premiered, and I got to walk the little red carpet – it wasn’t your typical Hollywood red carpet – and go to the Q&As and screenings. That was pretty cool. I went to the Pittsburgh screening of the film for Fred’s family and friends and cast members shortly before the film’s wide release. But I’m not super interested in fame or the glitz of it. 

Do you think Mr. Rogers would be well received today?

Emma: I’m not sure. It’s hard to know if he started out today if he would resonate. But he is having a revival at the moment – they are making a film about him starring Tom Hanks and there have been tons of references to him in the media. So there definitely is this hunger and appetite for what he’s putting out there. There is some timeless quality to his work.

What are you working on now?

Emma: I’m working on a four-episode documentary series for Showtime about a desert town outside Death Valley called Trona. It was an industrial town that was booming in the early 1900s and then automation took over and the economy started to take a nose dive. We’ve been filming in that town for the last year and a half, capturing what it’s like in this corner of California and reflecting the larger American themes of what’s going on in the post-industrial society. It’s through an observational lens. We’re in people’s homes, filming church ceremonies, their classes and football games.

What drew you to that?

Emma: My partner Nicolas and I were driving through Death Valley on a road trip two years ago and, on our way back, we came to Trona just by chance. It was sunset and looked so strange and beautiful at the same time. We took some photos but kept on going. We were thinking about it over the next few months and decided to go back with cameras and talk to people to see what was going on. We continued to go back and decided we would do the film. It’s been a long process but very rewarding. We’ve gotten very close with people we would have never known otherwise. We’re hoping to get some grant funding so we can finish it, and then we would submit it to festivals and ideally get some distribution.

What attracts you to documentary work?

Emma: It springs from a sense of curiosity and trying to show dignity in all human beings. Even though our experiences might be really disparate, there’s something so similar at the core of what we all desire. I’m super curious about the way other people live and what they feel and how that, in some way, relates to ultimately how I live and how I feel. I think there is some shared human bond, and we’re all trying to get through life together. Documentaries are a way to learn more about situations you wouldn’t otherwise get to learn about.

April 2019
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