Ken Burns: The Art of the Interview

Question: What’s the best interview question you’ve ever asked for a film?

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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.

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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

The most effective question he ever asked a subject from behind the camera wasn’t a question at all.

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