How the Film Shapes the Filmmaker

Does making a documentary deepen or exhaust Ken Burns’s appreciation of its subject? And does he ever start imagining his life as one of his own films?
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TRANSCRIPT

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.

Recorded November 25, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen