Ken Burns: Historian, Filmmaker, Both?

The documentarian last took a formal history class in 11th grade, “when they hold a gun to your head.” But as a passionate student of film, he soon became drawn by the human dramas of the past.
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TRANSCRIPT

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.

Recorded November 25, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen