Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1953, Ken Burns is a Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker whose career spans over 30 years. His first film, "Brooklyn Bridge," was nominated for an Academy Award in 1981. He was the director, producer, co-writer, chief cinematographer, music director, and executive producer of the groundbreaking documentary "The Civil War," the highest-rated series in the history of American public television. His other major films include "Baseball," "The West," "Jazz," and "The War." His most recent film, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," premiered on PBS in 2009.
Question: What drew you to history and filmmaking?
Ken Burns: Well first and foremost I’m a filmmaker. I don’t know whether I’ve ever formally trained in history. I mean the last time I took a course in American history was eleventh grade when they hold a gun to your head make you take it. I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker for almost as long as I can remember. My mother died of cancer when I was 11. There wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t aware that she was dying. After she died my father who had a very strict curfew for me and my younger brother would forgive it if there was a movie late at night on TV, even on a school night that might go to 2 a.m. and I remember watching my father cry a couple of years after my mother died. He hadn’t cried at her funeral and I realized how much power there was in this world of filmmaking and I became convinced that I was going to be the next John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks. Those are old American movie directors and I went to college assuming that that would be the case, but all of my teachers at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts in the fall of 1971 were social documentary, still photographers who reminded me, I think quite correctly, that there is much more drama in what is and what was than anything the human imagination makes up, and it’s only later that I realized that what I wanted to do was about American history, but it’s completely- un-completely, untrained and untutored.
Question: Which filmmakers were among your early role models?
Ken Burns: Well I… You know I remember being obviously very impressed with the **** cinéma vérité movement. There was so much energy in it and that would be John Marshall and Frederick Wiseman I guess would be the chief purveyors, Ricky Leacock. The ancient tradition of documentary goes back to Flaherty and one always absorbs his thing. I particularly like a British director named John Grierson whose Night Mail is one of my favorite films, a kind of more composed and formalistic documentary for the BBC. Perry Miller Adato made a film in the ‘70s about Gertrude Stein called When This You See, Remember Me that used actors to read on camera the words of the people, the characters in this biography of Gertrude Stein, and I was really fascinated and in some way my pioneering use of first-person voices to compliment a third-person narrator was born in the inspiration I found in her very completely different work, but nonetheless very seminal and influential to me, but you know Orson Welles, the French New Wave, Antonioni. I think particularly my two favorite directors or three favorite directors, if I had to do that, would be Kurosawa, Bonneuil, and Buster Keaton, and not necessarily in that order.
Question: How did you overcome the early obstacles in your career?
Ken Burns: Well I think filmmaking is obstacles. In fact, every film is a set of millions, literally, no exaggeration, millions of problems, but I use the word problems not so much pejoratively as if it’s just resistances, friction that you have to overcome. I’m 56 right now. I’ve been making films for over 30 years. I don’t look 56. You can imagine what I looked like when I started off and the first film I wanted to do was to tell the story of the Brooklyn Bridge, so people would slam the door and say, “This child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. No.” And for many years I kept two thick binders, three-ring binders of literally hundreds of rejections, so I guess the biggest sort of outer resistance was just finding the money to be able to produce these films that I wanted to produce, convincing people that even making a film on a bridge was a worthy subject, that it was going to be hard to keep it at an hour when they couldn’t understand why a film on a bridge shouldn’t be a short that was five or six minutes in length.
Inwardly I think it was trying to find a form. I mean a style that adheres to someone has to be an authentic process and style is the authentic application of technique and in my world that meant trying to refine dozens and dozens of techniques to make the past come alive and in my case I guess for the purposes of simplicity and brevity here I deal with eight elements. Four are oral and four are visual. The visuals are pretty obvious, the live cinematography, the interviews that we do, the newsreel footage and the still photographs in which I was most keenly interested in because of my training in still photography as well in which I wanted to go into and old photograph, not just hold it at arm’s length as had been the want of my colleagues, but to live in it, to listen to it, what sounds were making to take that old desire to be a feature filmmaker and see each still photograph as a master shot that had a wide, a medium, a close up, the possibility to tilt, to pan, to reveal and to make the photograph come alive. Orally we had a third person narrator, the voice of God, that’s sort of the traditional way that you communicated in documentary, but also I added first-person voices read off-camera by actors reading diaries, journals, letters, newspaper accounts of the period, and then a complicated sound effects track, as complicated as a feature film, that would hopefully help to will to life the still photographs and the archival footage we had, and a complex music track that was recorded not after the editing, but before, so the music became as organic as an element as anything else, and that’s what I needed inwardly, creatively to figure out how to perfect or how to understand what the… how the various elements would coexist before I could really call myself a filmmaker.
Question: What advice would you give filmmakers starting out today?
Ken Burns: You know the advice that I give is… always sounds so platitudinous because it isn’t specific to the medium of film. It’s totally specific to life. I’m in a medium in which people are attracted to it because they think it’s glamorous and only a small fraction of it is. It’s mostly a lot of hard work, so I think the most important thing that I would say would be two things. One, you have to be true to yourself. That is to say that you have to know who you are, whether you have something to say or not and it is no shame to honestly say, “You know what?” “I don’t think I have something to say.” “This isn’t for me.” “Maybe I will help in this business in a subservient role, but I am not going to be that director or producer or writer that I thought I was.” There is no shame in that, so knowing yourself is the first critical thing, to be able to walk away. You should do… Emerson wrote a beautiful essay called “On Self-Reliance” and in it he said, “You should do what only inly rejoices.” I-n-l-y. I think he was making up a word. Inly rejoices and I’ve always thought that that was true and I would wish that for every one, so despite how we are often, you know, attracted to fields that we think is going to be our discipline or we’re forced into by parents or by other circumstance you have to do what inly rejoices and you have to listen to that voice. And the second this is you have to persevere, particularly in documentary film. If you wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a feature film I could tell you the steps to take to do that, but every working documentary filmmaker I know has gotten there through their own unique path. There is no career path. That’s the good news and the terrifying bad news. There is no career path and you’re alone and you just sort of have to bring something to it and what I think it is among many other qualities is a kind of perseverance. It’s keeping and collecting those hundreds of hundreds of rejections for your first film as a reminder that you know you may not have… you may not be the most talented person. You may not have the best ideas, but you’re going to see this through and I’m sure there are lots of great filmmakers or people that would have been great filmmakers had they been able to follow through that had ideas much more interesting than mine, but didn’t and therefore aren’t filmmakers and we don’t know what they are because they didn’t have that ability to persevere against the inevitable problems, the inevitable friction that attends any effort to create something new.
Question: Did you attempt any new techniques in “The National Parks”?
Ken Burns: You know, I’m not sure that this need to be new is in fact anything that’s relevant. Some people, some artists their breakthrough is newness. I suppose when I began the coalescing of all of these elements was new, but the point is to be authentic and so I’m not sure we’ve ever thought that we should go and do something new for the sake of being new. That’s actually ridiculous and part of a kind of decadence of a society of an art that always wants to be different thinking that difference was anything better. It’s not necessarily better. The National Parks was essentially the modulation of all the elements that go into our film, but it would unique in so far as the main character would be the live cinematography, the old magnificent parks that we’ve set aside in conjunction with a set of 50 or 60 historical figures who like a Russian novel existed in the foreground in front of that spectacular backdrop and it was our great challenge to figure out how to organize the stories of the 50 or 50 odd people that we introduce you to, knit their narratives together into something that made a coherent narrative all the while having this drama play out in front of I would argue, some of the most beautiful places on earth.
Question: How much footage do you gather for a long film, and how much gets cut?
Ken Burns: You know, I live in New Hampshire. We make maple syrup. It’s takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, boil, boil, boil, evaporate, evaporate, evaporate. That’s pretty much what documentary filmmaking is for me. It’s about 40 to 1 shooting ratio to footage shot to footage used. It varies in different films on something like “The National Parks.” It’s going to probably be a lot more because you’re spending a lot of time with live cinematography, but for every archival photograph you see we’ve looked at 150 and shot a hundred and you know had that possibility of putting in you know 40 times that much, 50 times that much in any other thing and the cutting room floor as I suggested before is not filled with bad scenes. It’s just scenes that didn’t fit. You remember the movie Amadeus, a wonderful scene where there arrogant Franz Joseph says to Mozart, “Too many notes.” You know there is a truth to that. You just have to figure out what is going and if I showed you scenes taken out of the film you’d think, “What an idiot. He’s lost it. Why would he leave this out?” But it had a destabilizing affect and what you serve is a larger whole.
Question: How did the “Ken Burns Effect” originate?
Ken Burns: Well as I described before I was interested in sort of willing these still photographs alive, to explore them with an energetic camera eye, to not hold them at arm’s length, to bring them alive, to not only look at them and take them apart dynamically and put them back together in good storytelling fashion, but to listen to them and add complex sound effects, to add period music and first person voices that would give you the sense as William Faulkner said… once said that history is not was, but is, that for maybe a fraction of a second you might feel that you are not so much participating, but you could feel what it was like to be there even with a still photograph and all of those complex things and thousands of other things that I haven’t told you about are what now gets reduced to a shorthand called the Ken Burns Effect.
Essentially Steve Jobs called me up six or seven years ago, I guess it was now, and asked me to come out to Cupertino, California. He and some classically nerdy technicians had been working on this thing called… which, their working title was the Ken Burns Effect that allowed people who downloaded photographs to pan, or I mean zoom or pan on them, and they had perfected it and this was November and every Apple computer from then on would have that as its basic software starting that January, and they wanted to keep the name and I said I didn’t do commercial endorsements, but we worked it out where they give me equipment, which I give to nonprofits and I allowed them to use the name. And so all of the sudden it sort of seeps in the consciousness, and the Ken Burns Effect, for anyone who has an Apple computer, is part of the lexicon, and it’s one of those classic examples where the technological tail is wagging the dog of a much more complex thing. But the spirit, Steve’s spirit was exactly right, that we don’t want to have a relationship to images that is just at arm’s length, that we want somehow to penetrate the proscenium as we would say in theater to get beyond the artificiality, the plasticity of imagery into some moment that might have something that we could learn in which one and one would equal three, that if you put this image next to this image the combination of the two would be greater than the two images themselves. That’s the metaphor as I’m suggesting all during this conversation for life, for art, for what we’re here for. It’s what a scientist will tell you they’re after.
Question: What are the most compelling human stories in your new film?
Ken Burns: Well I think we’ve been surprised, certainly, in a lot of the work that we’ve done, but particularly so in “The National Parks” by the amazing diversity of the story. This is not just a top-down history. I mean most people think American history is just a series of presidential administrations punctured by wars and that gives you a fairly, you know, I suppose superficial handle on things, but it’s much more complicated than that, and the bottom-up view that we’ve always tried to adopt delivers you much more complexity and undertow. It allows you to penetrate more fully into the number one subtheme of American life, race born as we were under the idea that all men are created equal, but the guy who wrote that sentence owned a hundred other people and never saw the contradiction, never saw the hypocrisy, and more important never saw fit in his lifetime to free any of those people, and set in motion an American narrative that in almost every way is constantly bumping up against this question of race.
The Civil War, the most important event in our history, wouldn’t have happened had slavery not existed in a country that was proclaiming to the world this new idea of individual liberty. So that is there and diversity, naturally occurring diversity is an important part of the films that we make and in this one to understand that the Buffalo Soldiers, the celebrated African-American cavalrymen of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were the first park defenders in California’s Sierra Mountains at Yosemite and General Grant, what was then called General Grant National Park and Sequoia National Park and what an amazing phenomenon that in the first decade of the twentieth century, a decade by the way when more African- Americans were lynched than in any other time in our history that African-Americans might be telling other Americans what to do in a national park was interesting and that compliments the top down of the more top down story of John Muir, the Scottish-born naturalist beaten by his father until he memorized the entire New Testament and three quarters of the Old Testament, could find a new faith in nature that was utterly American, utterly transcendental, therefore in wild nature that he could dispose of the dogmatic devotion that the European tradition worshipping cathedrals and representatives of God meant and could free himself and his countrymen, his adopted countrymen and women by sharing a new faith in the mountains, and he is the most important prophet of not just the national parks, but the idea behind the national parks and that’s why we made the film. This is not a travelogue or a nature film per se. This is the history of individuals and ideas, and we say it’s America’s best idea knowing full well it’s provocative and challenging, but once you’ve started a country on the idea of individual liberty you’d be hard pressed to find a better idea than setting aside for the first time in human history land not for kings or noblemen or the rich, but for everybody and for all times. We invented it. It’s an utterly American idea and could have only happened where people are struggling to figure out how to govern themselves however flawed that original conception might have been.
Question: What do you hope “The National Parks” will contribute to the conservation movement?
Ken Burns: I finished a film on the Civil War in 1990, and a couple of years later I was back at Gettysburg, which is a National Park site, walking across the lawn of the visitor’s center with the superintendent, and he stooped down at one point and picked up a popsicle wrapper and waved it in my face and said, “It’s all your fault.” And what he meant was that his attendance had gone up 100, 200, 300% after my film on the Civil War and had stayed there, so I guess what I want is for every superintendent of every national park unit, and there are 392, to be mad at me because they’ve got people coming and they don’t know what to do with them and that’s already happened. All of the things I want have already taken place. We had a huge… tens of millions of viewers on public television. People are rearranging their plans to go to the national parks and that in and of itself without having a specific political agenda will change the agenda of the United States with regard to parks.
The parks have undergone years of neglect. The previous administration allowed upwards of eight or nine billion dollars worth or maintenance, deferred maintenance to take place and we now have to go back and figure out where that money comes from and how to bring the parks back up to snuff and how to think about wild places for the twenty-first century and that’s a challenge which I think the parks reminded people that they were invested in, that you know you say you’re working on the national parks and it’s like uh-huh. It doesn’t sound so cool and everybody just assumes they’ve already been there. They haven’t, and therefore that threatens them. They assume the National Park Services have always been there to take care of them. They haven’t. They don’t show up until 50 years into the existence of the National Parks and therefore they’re threatened. And they assume they’ll always be there, and if people believe that, then they’re most definitely threatened because once you lose a place it’s lost forever. Once you’ve saved it the saving is like liberty itself, and it requires a kind of eternal vigilance, and I think that what we did was help re-instill some of our fellow citizens with that sense of the vigilance required, and in that case it’s already a success and we’ve gotten what we’ve wanted.
Question: Are your films patriotic?
Ken Burns: Well I don’t know what your definition of patriotism is, and mine is so complicated that it would take up some time. I do think that it is a form of patriotic expression. We have now come to use patriotism in the most superficial and politically isolating way. We use it to tar people whose opinions we don’t agree with or use it as a weapon to tell people why their opinions render them unpatriotic. That’s not what I’m interested in. I think that for some reason or another, this combination of an interest in film and an interest in American history has also formed in me a kind of deep and abiding love, not without criticism. Every one of my films because it deals with race is implicitly critical of the United States and the path that it quite often takes, but at the same time it understands something larger. I’m interested in listening to the voices of a true, honest, complicated past that is unafraid of controversy and tragedy, but equally drawn to those stories and moments that suggest an abiding faith in the human spirit and particularly the unique role this remarkable but also sometimes dysfunctional republic seems to play in the positive progress of mankind. That’s my creed and I think that is a higher form of patriotism.
Question: Do you consciously make films on subjects that appeal to “buffs”?
Ken Burns: The quirky appeal they might or might not appeal to others or so-called buffs, as your question says, doesn’t interest me at all. I’m interested in that complicated past. I’m interested in telling stories. The fact that my interest might intersect with others who are drawn to the Civil War is I guess, good, but that’s not what I need to focus on. All I’m trying to do is tell a good story and telling a good story is an incredibly difficult and hard undertaking that requires the talents of a lot of amazing people that I had the good fortune to work with to do that.
I’m not sure that your question is entirely correct. Buffs don’t sort of attend to these films. It is true that there are Civil War buffs and they find in my film and other books and other films that have been made a kind of reenergizing of their interests, but the films themselves exist quite above whatever superficial sentimental nostalgic relationship that so often buffs have. I’m disinterested in sentimentality and nostalgia and in fact it’s not only the enemy of good storytelling it’s the enemy of good history. I’d rather though not retire to a kind of rational world in which one and one equals two all the time. That’s the safety of the empirical world, the rational world. All of us want deep down in some unexpressed way for one and one to equal three and it’s that calculus that an artist pursues. It’s that calculus that drives you. That improbable mathematical possibility that one and one could equal three is part of what we do. We say all the time that we wish the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts, but we don’t really examine the difference between the sum of the parts and the whole and that difference is what makes art, art, which makes literature work, what makes us love, which compels the most important aspects of our lives and that has nothing to do with buffs.
Question: What do you see as the central themes of your work?
Ken Burns: I was interviewing for a film biography of Mark Twain more than ten years ago the novelist Russell Banks, and we were talking about Huckleberry Finn, which I believe and he believed was Mark Twain’s most important novel, and he said, you know, it’s our Iliad and our Odyssey, which really struck me. And he said though most of us share the same European tradition that produced the Iliad and the Odyssey, we Americans were grappling with two new themes that our European ancestors weren’t and so we required a new Iliad, a new Odyssey to help us grapple with these, and Twain alone among writers and philosophers and politicians of the nineteenth century knew and understood and was willing to deal with and entwine these two themes. One was race and the other was space, not outer space, but the physical geography of the United States. I don’t go looking for race in my films. It’s just there. You can’t scratch the surface of the most important event in American history, the Civil War without coming up of course against the question of race. You can’t deal with the story of baseball, another great subject, without understanding that its finest moment is when Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the grandson of a slave, made his way to first base at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947. It’s about race. That so much of the biographies that we’ve done on Thomas Jefferson, on Mark Twain, on Elizabeth K. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, on Lewis and Clark, on Jack Johnson inevitably I don’t know a film with a possible exception of Frank Lloyd Wright that didn’t engage race in some way or another, not because we went looking for it, but because we had committed as we were to dealing with not a superficial portrayal of a certain event in American history it had found us and so race is always there.
The space is a different thing. The physicality of the United States works on us in ways where we’re so unaware. First of all we have this magnificent continent, particularly the western part of the United States, which has been a draw to people from all over, but we’re also because we’re a democratic society or a society trying to be democratic experience the freedom of movement at all class levels. Traditionally movement was of armies or of the very rich in Europe and in other situations that a family in a futile situation could stay for hundreds and hundreds of years in the same spot, but in American even the lowliest worker could travel and did and the national parks become part of the verifying of that co ownership of the idea of America as well as the physicalness of America, so we’re always bumping into a question of race. We’re always bumping into this question of the physicality, the space of the United States and it was nice to have someone as brilliant as Russell Banks, a great, great novelist in his own right, deliver it to us in such an easy understandable thing, but he was essentially describing what has engaged my energies for 35-plus years.
Question: How does making a film affect your appreciation of its subject?
Ken Burns: That’s a great question. You know most documentaries, at least when I were growing up, were sort of like castor oil, they were good for you, but hardly good tasting. They were just telling you what you should know. They were the expression of an already arrived at end, not a process of discovery. I don’t pick subjects because I know about them. I pick subjects because I want to know about them. So my films are not me telling you what you should know, but saying, “Hey, guess what I learned?” There is a huge big difference. There is a subtle ingredient of enthusiasm that is a part of that, an excitement of the new story, that which is not known. Harry Truman said the only thing that is really new is the history you don’t know and for me each of the subjects is something I want to delve into. It’s like the mysteriousness of diving into the deep end and not knowing precisely how deep it is and then coming back to report that and that’s what we’ve tried to do with each film and rather than be this sort of dull didactic expression of a set of facts and dates and events you should know about it is rather an emotional archeology that is the glue I hope that cements all of those dry dates and facts and events together into something higher in which the whole is indeed greater than the sum of the parts and it’s that again, calculus that I am so interested in. So every project is a learning curve. Every project is about that excitement of something new that the little town of Winchester, Virginia changed hands 72 times during the Civil War. We don’t think of America as a place where armies would capture and recapture. That’s Europe, but that happened in Winchester, Virginia that the state of Missouri sent I think it was 37 regiments to the Battle of Vicksburg, 21 for the north and 16 for the south to show you how the country was torn on the biased. That Jack Johnson, who many people think is just this big brute of a man that needed the liberal helpers to get him through his life, has three patents with the United States Patent Office because of the tools that he designed to adjust the fast cars that he liked to drive, that he was a great writer. I mean everything comes with a blizzard, a flurry of new things that you learn and that’s the great excitement. That’s what you do it. That’s why you get up in the morning.
Question: Do you ever imagine your life as a Ken Burns film?
Ken Burns: You know, people ask me that all the time. I don’t think my life is worth it. I’m a medium. That is to say I… You know if this was the nineteenth century, I’d be the guy holding the séance. That’s in essence what I’m doing. I’m going back into the past and I’m trying to interpret all of this random stuff into something that may make sense for me and I hope other people because we share some things in common. I trust. I hope. But my own life doesn’t seem that important. There are people who always want to make it so, just as the life of painters seem interesting to us or architects or other artists. I don’t feel so, that way. I mean in fact, the most important thing to me in my life is not my filmmaking anyway. It’s I have three daughters who range in age from 27 right now to 4 years-old and I’m much more concerned with that coproduction of being a father than I am with the films and that’s something entirely different and obviously private.
Question: Are the anecdotes in your films just good stories, or is history itself offbeat and ironic?
Ken Burns: I actually think it’s probably in the service of good storytelling. There is a phrase that we use often when we’re writing and when we’re editing about give and take away that too often what we’ve used in our view of history or maybe another way of saying it is too often our view of history is a sanitized Madison Avenue view of things in which we’ve reduced complex human events, which was all human events into something that’s simplistic. We superimpose something that’s so easy to figure out, but it’s much more interesting to understand the undertow. It’s much more interesting to understand the darker sides of the character, the negative sides, the vices as well as the virtues and what that then does is attune your ear in storytelling to the power of contradiction, to the power or irony as you suggest and that is often a driving engine of good storytelling. It isn’t just always action, but it’s often who comes to that action and their complexity and I’ve always been drawn to that since the very, very first film and I think that’s an element of good storytelling. You know when somebody say how was your day, dear, you don’t say I backed the car slowly down the driveway missing the garbage cans at the curb, pulled into the street, drove up to the stop sign, put the blinker right and turned into traffic. You don’t say that unless you get hit by a car the second you turned into traffic. That’s storytelling.
Question: How do you respond to criticisms that you take dramatic license with history?
Ken Burns: Well you know there is no response to that. People will always do something different if left to do it. They haven’t done it. A critic hasn’t done it. There is not a statue to a critic anywhere on earth, which proves a little bit about how easy it is to criticize. The more important thing is that the universe is chaos, chaos, random chaos. There is a disinterested god, but it is chaos. Nobody is directing our misfortune or our good fortune, which belies why baseball players look up to heaven when they hit a home run. I don’t know why they don’t do that when they hit into a double play. They don’t, but they somehow think someone is watching over them when good things happen. The universe is chaos and what we human beings do to keep from going crazy because none of us get out of this alive is to superimpose narrative, complicated narrative over that. That’s storytelling, but it’s all subjective. Everything is subjective. What I will collect for a film on jazz is different than what the jazz critic thinks a film on jazz should contain. I also have to actually do it, physically make the film, not abstractly think about it, so I know for example that there is not a single viewer that will ever watch a film about jazz that’s an encyclopedia or a dictionary or the telephone book. You have to actually decide which stories you’re going to tell, which stories are signal and emblematic and tell those and only those knowing full well that there is a huge negative space of creation. It’s like this sculpture who is delivered to her studio a big block of stone and she chips away at it and on the floor is the ruble, the negative space of creation which she is more than anyone else aware of, so we don’t leave anything out. It’s just stuff has to be left out in order to tell a good story. You cannot put everything in, so then that makes you susceptible to people who think where is the guy that should be in or I wouldn’t take this or sometimes mistakes the complex emotional archeology for nostalgia and sentimentality, which it’s not. Sometimes people find the principle emotion of those higher emotions is love and love is very embarrassing and complicated word for a lot of people. They decide early on whether they deal with it or can deal with it. It’s usually reserved for the person they’re married to and their children and that’s about it, but love is actually the ingredient of the universe. It’s the quantity that makes things work and so if you deal with love as I do as the ultimate theme underlying all stories it’s a form of communication, but also of love. That can make some people pretty nervous and so I can dismissed all the time as being sentimental and nostalgic, which I’m not, but you understand why because it is so frightening to be talking about love.
Question: Is American history cyclical or progressive?
Ken Burns: American history is neither cyclical or progressive. There is an attempt in our desperate need to superimpose some order into the random chaos of things to see things as cyclical or to see things as getting better, but in fact, human nature is the only given here. It’s always the same and it’s got some very, very complicated things. The fact that we detect patterns is only because human nature is so much the same. We’re like tendencies. That means there is no hope that wars will disappear until human beings disappear. That’s what we’ll do. We hope it won’t be true, but it’s part of the nature and it’s going to take some real evolutionary progress before that isn’t the case. That people will fall in love, that they will be sexually attracted to other people inconveniently as well as conveniently, that will always be true. That people will… some people will always crave a kind of power over other people. That other people will accept power imposed on them by others is also true. So we can recognize cycles in American history. We can see progressive movement, but at the same time what it is, is just a series of events into which it becomes the artist of the historian’s or the combinations of both attempt to find some sort of narrative form on that either through a life or through a series of lives, through an event like a war, the Civil War or second world war to try to find something meaningful. I mean that’s all it is.
I think it was Tolstoy who said that art is the transfer of emotion, I would say love, from one person to the other. So let’s just say emotion—it does get half your audience terrified about the word love—that if it’s the transfer of emotion from one person to another what is that about? It’s almost a kind of courage. It’s almost as saying look Cezanne painted Mount Sainte-Victoire, the mountain outside of his small town’s bedroom window and he painted it over and over again as if to say here, here, let us find some steady place that we can know and to see its luminosity, to see it in different seasons, to understand it. It was the thing he returned to again and again and I sort of feel like I’ve made the same film over and over again. Each one asks the deceptively simple question who are we? Who are those strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans? What does an investigation of the past tell us about not only where we’ve been, that’s history most people think, but where we are and where we’re going because in point of fact history… The past is gone. We’re never going to get it back and those who want to get it back, the buffs, are nostalgic and sentimental. That doesn’t work, but history is the set of questions we in the present ask of the past and so it is informed very much subtly or not so subtly by what we fear, what we love, what we wish for, what we’re anxious about and therefore history paradoxically is very much about now and very much about the future. You can’t have a future unless you know where you’ve been. You can’t even have a present unless you know the sequence of movements that brought us to this present.
Question: How have technological advances changed your filmmaking?
Ken Burns: In the 35 years that I have been sort of professionally making films the technological change has been enormous. We have resisted it as much as possible. We didn’t move to digital editing for 10 or 15 years after most of my colleagues had done so. We liked the tactile feel of cutting film, of taping it together and I did not begrudgingly move to it. It’s helpful in so many ways, digital editing, but I did so out of concern for the interns, the unpaid interns who came because for a long while during the nineties it was sort of a badge of honor for them to learn how to use rewinds and editing machines, analogue editing machines, but after awhile I realized that asking these interns to do this was like asking someone who wanted to be a racecar driver to first learn how to shoe a horse and it was just too anachronistic and so we sort of came into the twenty-first century. We still shoot on film though. Though it’s been proven to me by George Lucas personally that there is no difference that I could tell we still sort of love the discipline of film, the terror. We’ve been speaking now for almost an hour with a tape that didn’t need to be changed and 60 millimeter you have to change every eleven and a half minutes and it’s very expensive. It’s not reusable. You could decide, probably decide that this is a completely worthless conversation and erase it and start over on the memory card, but you can’t do that in film and that creates a kind of urgency, a kind of terror in a good sense of that word, which we still like. We like to feel you know like we have to sit up straight and be on the edge of our seats to try to get something out of the person we’re interviewing or the person or the scene that we’re shooting or the archive that we’re engaged in. That’s an exciting process. So we’ve both resisted it and reluctantly welcomed new technological change.
You know it’s often said that the digital revolution that puts a TV camera in everyone’s hands makes everyone a filmmaker. It’s bullshit. It’s bullshit. What makes someone a filmmaker is somebody who knows how to tell a story and telling a story… I’ll tell you I’ve been doing this for a long time, almost 40 years that I’ve been trying to tell stories with film and I still feel like a student. I still feel like I’m learning what a good story is or how to tell a story or a new way to approach a story and that means that it requires a kind of lifetime of devotion. It isn’t enough just to be there when something happens. It isn’t enough just to record whatever happens. We have to be storytellers and it’s just logical that only a few of us are going to be able to do that and even do it in sort of flawed ways. I don’t consider myself that great a storyteller. I’m learning. I’m learning. I’m learning.
Question: What’s the best interview question you’ve ever asked for a film?
Ken Burns: The key is listening. A lot of people come with a set of questions and then they can’t get off that set of questions if they hear something new that you could follow a tangent and they might give you something and I think the most poignant time occurs when you’re talking to someone who experienced war because that’s life at paradoxically at its height. When your life is most threatened, when violent death is possible at any second life is vivified, lived at a level we don’t experience even in sex or in love or in anything that our normal life delivers and so war is one of those paradoxical human experiences that delivers us a sense of life lived at its top and so that’s what we’re trying to get out of people that we interview about wars.
And I remember in our film about the Second World War called "The War," I asked a gentleman who was sort of holding me at arm’s length—understandably, because his experience had been so bad—I suddenly said to this person who was no longer 85 or 86 years old, but back to being 19 years old, I just said… I didn’t even ask a question. I just said, “You saw bad things.” And all of the sudden the lip started to quiver and the cheek twitched and he began to tell me not the sort of practiced, defended view of the war, but something much more complicated, something that revealed its horror. He had watched men die. He had killed men. He had seen it firsthand and suddenly it was like passing through some door, some portal into his life and his experience that I feel privileged, but only because I watched the potential emerging of a 19 year-old soldier in France in 1944, in 1945, suddenly willing perhaps for the first time to share some of that horrible, gruesome thing that we need to know about if we’re going to know anything about the human condition.
Recorded November 25, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen