Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

April 20, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

Ken Burns

  |   Video
  • Acknowledged as one of the greatest documentarians of all time, Ken Burns joins HORIZON host Ted Simons and talks about his thought processes and motivation as a filmmaker.
Guests:
  • Ken Burns - Filmmaker


View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Hello, and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. For more than 30 years, Ken Burns has been making historical documentaries that present a living history of our country. From his first film, "Brooklyn Bridge," to “The Civil War,” to “Baseball,” to “Jazz,” his films have touched our lives. Tonight you'll get to hear about Ken Burns’s thought process when making a film in an interview I did with him recently at the Tempe Center for the Arts. He was there to promote his latest film, "The National Parks: America’s Best Idea." And Ken Burns, welcome to “Horizon.”

Ken Burns:
Thank you for having me.

Ted Simons:
Let's talk about your background and why you do what you do. Why are you a filmmaker and not a researcher, a historian, a writer?

Ken Burns:
I've been interested in film from the earliest moments. My mom died when I was 11 and my dad had a very strict curfew. But if there was a movie on late at night, even on a school night, he would let me stay up. It was the first time I ever saw my dad cry, at a movie. I realized very early on the power of movies. I thought I'd be a feature filmmaker, a Hollywood director, but I ended up being taught in college by a lot of documentary still photographers that reminded me, I think quite correctly, that there's a lot more drama in what is and what was, than in anything of the human imagination. So 35-plus years later I still find myself doing documentaries, still doing American history and feeling like I have the best job in the country.

Ted Simons:
When you talk about films, and being in love with films as a young person, and watching your father being affected--which films?

Ken Burns:
It was a whole variety. John Ford westerns, some French new wave films. Alfred Hitchcock. All of them. He took me to see everything, I got a great education. -- Charlie Chaplin. Buster Keaton, I loved, and not just because it's funny stuff. These are world-class directors and that love of what we call Hollywood product expanded into foreign films. I got a good education from him and then I continued on my own in high school and college and it's interesting that I'm making for 35 years social documentaries about American history. But what I've tried to bring is not a sense they're homework or castor oil, someone telling you what you should know. But sharing with a process of discovery. The fact the word history is mostly made up of the word story. I think in some ways it’s no different than what a feature filmmaker does, and I'm interested in telling good stories. These just happen to be fact based, not fiction based.

Ted Simons:
A lot of writers, filmmakers, when they were younger had family members who were natural storytellers. Was there anyone in your family who could spin a good yarn?

Ken Burns:
No, I think I'm more self-taught. I always feel like I’m a student. I'm always trying to figure out how to tell a story differently. I do think the other part of history is waking the dead. You really make people in the past come alive, and when you've had a distinctly powerful life-changing tragedy, the death of a parent at an impressionable age, it's not too surprising why you would get into history. I can try to make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong wake up in all of the films we've done. And there’s got to be a real personal reason, somebody else you want to wake up.

Ted Simons:
When did you know that you weren't just a pretty good filmmaker, a kid dabbling with film, but you were actually very good? There's usually a moment people realize I'm good at this and I can keep doing this.

Ken Burns:
Well, there were a couple of moments. When I decided -- I was living in New York and I decided that -- I had just decided to become a documentary filmmaker, and what's worse, that I was going to concentrate in American history. And I realized I had taken some vow of anonymity and poverty. And I moved out of New York to the tiny little village in New Hampshire, where I've lived for the last thirty years so I could live on nothing, which I what I assumed the rest of my life would be like. And I was working on my first film for public television, on the history of the Brooklyn bridge. And that got nominated for an Oscar. When I got called that day, I was trying to keep my wood stoves going so I could be warm and got word that the very first film I really applied myself to had been nominated for an Oscar. That was a sense of you could exhale, but it wasn't until “The Civil War” came out in 1990, and it was the highest rated program still in the history of public programming. People started recognizing me on the street. I remember, my then three-year-old daughter holding my hand in New York City and saw somebody that recognized me and squeezed my hand, and said, look daddy, they want Ken Burns. I thought what a great warning, that that was me to me, daddy to her, and there was another person, Ken Burns. And I thought, the films have had some effect. And that's good.

Ted Simons:
From the Brooklyn Bridge to the Civil War to your most recent national parks series and specials; how do you decide on a topic? Are you sitting in a coffee shop somewhere? Do you read something, think something? The big topics are more obvious, but there are more arcane topics. Where do they come from?

Ken Burns:
The flip thing would be to say they chose me. I feel like I'm an American possession, like Guam or Samoa. I'm really curious about my country and how it works. Good and bad. And I want to tell those stories about its past. And so the big institutional films -- the Civil War, baseball, jazz -- they may have an obviousness to then. But ehen an idea changes from something you think about to something you have to do, that's what you're asking about, and those moments come really intensely personally, like picking a friend. You've got a lot of acquaintances, but some of them are actually friends. It has to do with chemistry and timing and a whole bunch of things, but you say wholeheartedly, yes, to something. And then the national parks, it's been 10 years of my life that we've been working on. I've done other things, but we've been working on them for 10 years. And all of the films, people ask me, my god, I'm a reporter, I take one day to do a story. How can you possibly -- never, it only gets better and better.

Ted Simons:
Let me ask you about that. Especially with the Civil War and baseball and World War II, these are massive topics. How do you focus on getting that story told when there are so many stories?

Ken Burns:
You ever be driving down a highway and you see people coming in the opposite direction and you know that they're looking out their windshield and they've got lives and brains and histories that are as important to them as yours is to you? And you suddenly realize there's all of that stuff going on. I can't possibly tell the entire story of the second World War. How can I do that? Not only would it have to last five or six or seven years, but it would have to be in a million different places. So all we do as human beings is impose some order on chaos. In the case of World War II, we just picked four geographically distributed American towns and accept that we could see a version of the war that would be complete enough through their eyes of the surviving combat veterans and some of their relatives and that's what we did. And the response has been unbelievable. That handful of five or six veterans -- the 45 you get to know, five or six really told what it was like to be in combat and now tens of thousands of veterans, at the end of their lives are now talking to their families, the Library of Congress, sharing locally and many local PBS oral history sites, what happened to them when they were 18 or 19 years old. The time when most of us have had a time of inattention and narcissistic self involvement and they just happened to save the world. That's one of the best stories I've ever come across. The question is, do you want someone to read you the Manhattan telephone book or do you want to hear stories about people who live in New York City?

Ted Simons:
That being said, once the World War II series is over, once baseball was finished, obviously there were things that you wanted to put in and had no room for. Did you ever go back and -- look back and go, it could have been better?

Ken Burns:
You always could be better. I never wanted to change a film. That was it, it's like a painting. You look at a family photo album, and there you are with the paisley shirt and the bell bottoms; you don't rip up the photograph. You go, yes, that is who I was. Each film is who I was. I don't have any regrets. I work on public television, they don't tell me what to do. There aren't sponsors who get upset with the subject matter. The cutting room floor is not filled with bad things. It's filled with good things that just didn't fit. I love the fact that I made an 18 and a half hour film on baseball and people come up to me and start lecturing me on what I left out. That's great. It means they watched A, the whole thing and B, they weren't bored. And that's my job as a director. I'm a lot of things. Train master, traffic cop, but a lot of it is saying that's a great scene but it has to go. It destabilizes the larger and those are tough decisions and sleepless nights but once you're done, it's like a kid you've raised and you send them to college and sure, they could have become a brain surgeon but they're a great doctor. Sure they could have become a civil engineer, but they're a great mom. That's all you're looking for. Each film has a chance to exist on its own right.

Ted Simons:
Back to topic choice. Does your familiarity factor into it, or do you sometimes look at something in which you're not familiar with but you want to learn more about?

Ken Burns:
It's always the latter. I had to concede in baseball, I loved it, I followed it every second of my life, and yet, I learned -- and I thought, finally I'm doing something about something I know. Within three weeks of the four-year project, I realized I knew nothing and every other project, I just dove in because I think it goes back to our original conversation, I don't want to tell you what I already know. I'd rather share with you my process of discovery. And that's -- there's a big difference. One is a lecture, you know, one is saying, there'll be a test next Thursday. The other says -- whoa! There's an enthusiasm. Did you realize the little town of Winchester, Virginia, changed hands 72 times during the Civil War? And America, we think of that stuff happening in Europe and other places, but in America, a town changed hands one side to the other 72 times.

Ted Simons:
And you tell these stories by way of what's been referred to as the Ken Burns effect. The still photograph, moving along, moving in, moving out, panning--did that come to you naturally or is it something that you thought we can only show this photograph so many ways, let's try this?

Ken Burns:
Both. If you want to be a feature filmmaker and you decide not to, then you treat each opportunity as a wide master shot, a medium shot, a close-up, an extreme close-up, a tilt, a pan, a reveal. That's what feature filmmakers have, why hold the still photograph at arm's length as if it's a poor shadow of reality? Why not treat it as reality? It's not just how you move through the photographs. It's what you hear. Are the crowds cheering? The bats cracking? The ice in the glass on the bar tinkling? And make that come alive. But have a chorus of voices reading journals and diaries as things that extend to the past, the life they once had and add period music and suddenly, you've got not the dry excavation of dates and events that will be tested next Thursday, but an emotional archeology that has meaning well after the events have passed.

Ted Simons:
Do you know in the process of a film, early, middle, late, do you know it's clicking? Or is it the kind of thing that once it’s done you get everything together and then see what clicks and what doesn’t?

Ken Burns:
That's a really good question. We start off embracing a subject, as wide as we can. We want to try and include everything. Of course, you can't, so it's kind of like the block of stone being delivered to the sculptor's studio. You hammer away and what's on that floor is nothing that can make part two or the sequel. It's the truth. You have to honor the negative spaces. The stuff that's not there anymore. But what happens is you work as an act of faith. You go along and respond and you've got the story. And these are very much my films and the films of my close associates -- and somebody else, you would do it entirely differently because you're you. And as we go along the way, we meet up against hundreds, if not millions of problems. I mean that in a good way. Stuff to overcome. Choices to execute. And something comes together and sometimes you're in the editing room and that scene is dead. You come into the editing room and, man, he's lost it. But then we pull something out and you add something or you rewrite something or discover that the talking head you had in episode two, maybe that goes here in episode six and you put it in and all of a sudden, you see life taking shape. In terms of a story life, an artistic life.

Ted Simons:
I think what I'm hearing is something I hear from novelists as well. They start with an idea where they're going. But you don't necessarily know -- and the characters will decide for you and the story will take you in places you don't expect. Do you find yourself -- you know, maybe a photograph that you didn't think was a big deal all of a sudden jump to life? And the great photograph you’ve got to get in there is not working?

Ken Burns:
Absolutely. If you're a reporter, the editor always tells you, you kill the little darlings. That sentence you think is perfect has gotta go. So you become suspicious of that stuff. You start off, you know where you want to get to. You sort of know how -- not how it's going to look like, but what you want to accomplish with it and then you don't know the route and you meet people along the way. People say, Shelby Foote, what a great choice with that for the Civil War. And he was the first interview we did. But we thought he'd be in the film with 40 other people and he's in with six or seven and in 10 times more than the next closest person and we had no idea that it would be like that. Or that in the course of doing baseball, Buck O'Neil, an old Negro League player, would sort of emerge as the conscience of the film. Or that Winton Marsalis would be so central in his ability to communicate jazz to an audience that thinks it’s too complicated-- he says, no, like Louis Armstrong, there's good music and bad, and good music you tap your feet to and let me show you how to enjoy this stuff and you don't need to take a post-graduate course. It goes on and on. Each project, somebody or some bodies emerge, and that’s just the people you interview. There are the photographs that emerge that are central to it, there’s the live cinematography. There’s the newsreel footage. There's the sound track, a musical theme. You didn't know that this tune would have a power and force that would require you to repeat it in places to make it central.

Ted Simons:
As far as -- we were talking about the artistic element of the documentary process. There's a financial aspect as well. General Motors has been so supportive of you. Talk about the difficulty, especially in these economic times, of doing what you're doing and others are doing, just raising money.

Ken Burns:
You spend a lot of time doing that and it's always been tough and it gets much tougher in these times. General Motors has been supporting us since 1987. We knew in 1999 when we did a ten year deal with them that it would end in 2009. And I guess now as we're in the middle of this financial crisis and they're receiving public funds and it's easier to say we're not going to do that. I've replaced them with other things and there's something more important than my difficult time raising money. It's just that in difficult times we need to come together as a people. One of the few places this takes place is in public television. The “S” in PBS doesn't stand for system. It stands for service. That’s what we do. We have to come together as a people and one of the places we can do this is in our public television. Where on a shoestring budget, the process of raising money is tough, we still make the best public affairs, the science, performance, art, the best children and I'm told the best history programming on the dial. That's a pretty good track record and we might need to fall back on resources. A lot of television is about distraction. We can't be distracted as a people. We need to come together and figure out how to get through this. The other interesting thing is the national parks. They got the first stimulus dollars from F.D.R.'s New Deal but they are a place where Americans could feel proud. We set aside land not for kings or noblemen or the rich. But for everyone. This is democracy applied to the landscape. And people flocked to the parks and met each other and said, you know what? We'll get through this.

Ted Simons:
I want to talk more about the national parks in a second, because I know that's your current project. But back to the idea of coming together as people. You referred to this a couple of times, history and looking back at things seems to work for you. A character, like President Obama, which changed so much of the landscape, by being who he is and what he's accomplished. Have you thought about doing something more current, maybe a shorter documentary or something -- or does it have to be a rearview mirror?

Ken Burns:
I prefer the rearview mirror, but let me just agree with you. Barack Obama represents the beginning of our third act as a country. I had the honor of speaking at Gettysburg on the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. And I said our first act began when Thomas Jefferson said all men were created equal. But he meant all white men, with property, free of debt. And he never saw the hypocrisy. Our second act began on November 19th, 1863 when Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg to give his famous address. We really do mean it, all men are created equal. Surviving the civil war is a new breath of freedom. And nothing happened. And two generations after that, we elected an African as president is a huge breakthrough in America. No matter what your politics. We have the opportunity to let go of all of the themes I've been dealing with, the subtheme of most of my films has been about race or the fact that we haven't lived up to. In baseball, Jackie Robinson. In jazz. And in Unforgivable Blackness, the first African-American heavyweight, Jack Johnson. And in Thomas Jefferson's biography. In World War II, if you're in the battle of the bulge and you can't tell who are the Germans or the Americans. And there are people who are on segregated regimens. They have to use segregated bibles. Suddenly the whole history of America is about -- I'm happy to do something on Barack Obama, but give me 25 years so we can look back on him with the same perspective I extend to other things. But he fits in perfectly with everything I've been talking about with every film.

Ted Simons:
What you're talking about next are the national parks. And I know here in Arizona, we've got a big one right here.

Ken Burns:
Here's what we say to people. We're so distracted. Everybody is twittering and on Facebook, you can't look up from the TV set and you and I and everyone within the sound of my voice owns some of the most spectacular beachfront property on earth. Beautiful mountaintops, Cascading waterfalls and the biggest concentration of geothermal features on the planet and we own together the grand canyon. And all we have to do is visit every once in a while and make sure it's being taken care of and put it in our will for our kids. This idea, setting aside land for everybody, it's the extension of the declaration of independence. A story of ideals. Most of them ordinary folks who fell in love with the place and sacrificed their lives, their fortunes and it's an amazing story and happens to be set against the backdrop of the most spectacular scenery on earth. When you're talking about baseball, who is your favorite player? But it's always -- like music, I like the Rolling Stones or the Eagles. It's always because -- besides Babe Ruth or the Beatles. I've been there so many times and I've floated the river and hiked up and you stand there and shake your head and go, my god, what a privilege to be living in a country that has this. Had the foresight to set it aside. Had we not, we might not have access to it. It might be gigantic mansions and maybe a tiny place where somebody would charge you an arm and leg, but it's ours. It makes me feel good about being an American.

Ted Simons:
Well, thank you for being here in Arizona. It's good to have you here. Continued success, thank you so much for being on “Horizon.” It's been a pleasure having you on the program.

Ken Burns:
Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

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