Ken Burns on his filmmaking influences and first love of history

Ken Burns on his filmmaking influences and first love of history

How he uses feature-filmmaking techniques on still photos

Everybody has to start somewhere. In Firstieswe talk to some of our favorite pop-culture figures about the many first steps along the way to their current careers.

Since he began his career in the early ’80s with his Oscar-nominated documentary Brooklyn Bridge, Ken Burns has been one of the most prolific and critically acclaimed documentarians in U.S. history. That’s fitting, as the man’s great subject is the scope of the nation’s backstory, the ways that events both major and minor draw us together as Americans—or perhaps push us apart. Though best known for his PBS miniseries, like The Civil War, Baseball, and The War, Burns has also made a number of smaller films and projects, including The Address, a short feature about students with learning disabilities working to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Burns sat down with The A.V. Club at January’s Television Critics Association press tour to talk about the notable firsts in his career, including how he uses techniques from feature filmmaking to liven up still photographs, how he came to American history as his subject matter, and how one of his first contributions came from a legendary political boss.

The first time he truly understood the importance of the Gettysburg Address
Ken Burns: You know, when I was working on The Civil War series in the late ’80s, I remember having, of course, heard it and recited it in school, but I did not have a sense of the depth of it. We were editing the scene that it actually appears in at the last moment of the fifth episode, and we’d already detailed the scene, told the story, ended the scene and then went on, and I was holding off the actual recitation of it by our voice of Lincoln, Sam Waterston, until the last moment. It was in hearing that in combination with the music that the words really, for the first time in my life, sunk in, and I understood how important they were. That it was, essentially, Lincoln doubling down on the Declaration Of Independence. Sort of Declaration 2.0, the operating system we still use. Because the Declaration had that enormous flaw where we said, “All men are created equal,” but the guy who wrote it, Jefferson, owned slaves, as did a good number of his countrymen.

AVC: Is there a particular passage or part of the address that you still find very moving or eloquent?

KB: It’s almost every second of it. It is 272 words and 10 sentences, and there is a concision and a poetry to them that they’re all interrelated to one another. It does begin to climax at “These dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” But from the very, very beginning, nobody said “Four score and seven years,” back then. He was trying to arrest the attention of his audience by a new way of saying 87 years. Sort of, “Isn’t this a short time that we’ve been around?” I think everybody took notice when he said, “Four score and seven years ago.” Ears perked up. And so from that moment on.

He uses the word “here” so many times just to ground you in this moment. Here, at this place, that we here highly resolve that the dead who died here shall not have died in vain. It’s almost like he’s hammering in the tentpole stakes that are just keeping us at this present moment and yet he made something that’s so enduring that it just goes down the corridors of history. When 9/11 happened, the first anniversary of 9/11, we recited the Gettysburg Address. There were no formal speeches by politicians and few things were read and a sad list of the dead, but also the Gettysburg Address. As if, as we say in this film, the words were medicine.

AVC: You mentioned earlier the Gettysburg Address, probably the most important speech in American history in a lot of ways. Are there some ones you can think of that are, as you’d say, runners up?

KB: Oh, certainly. Lincoln’s responsible for a number of great ones. If you went back to the beginning of American history, you would have to say that Washington’s Farewell Address is pretty great. You have not only Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, you have his First Inaugural, in which he is appealing to “the better angels of our nature.” You have his address to Congress in 1862 in which he talks about the United States being the last, best hope of Earth, and “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.” His Second Inaugural, “Malice towards none, charity for all.” In the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt did a New [Nationalism] speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, and Franklin Roosevelt had several speeches. Obviously, his inaugural [speech] in which he talks about, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” but also his second accepting of the nomination, “Rendezvous with destiny,” many other speeches that he gave. We think of John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” from his inauguration. There are speeches of Reagan, of Bush; Obama’s given several.

I think American history is replete with runners up. I think we have to say that, and that’s because we’re a country in which words matter. They really do matter. And I’ve forgotten Dr. King in ’63 on the Mall—arguably the second greatest speech, the “I have a dream” speech, after Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.


The first time he took a real interest in history
KB: I never wasn’t interested in history, so there’s not that moment that I felt it. But I was really unaware of that. I knew history. I was curious about stories. I played Civil War; I played World War II. I knew the presidents. But it wasn’t anything that I thought of as something I was going to do. I was going to be an anthropologist like my dad, I was going to be a writer, and then I was going to be a filmmaker. By the time I was 12, I wanted to be a filmmaker.  I thought that would be a feature filmmaker, and it was only in college, at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, that I had a chance to see the possibility of documentaries and the first film I worked on was history, and then it’s been history ever since.

I’m not trained in history. The last time I took a history course was in college—but that was Russian history, and all of my films are on American history. So it’s been a part of my life in many, many years after my professional life began and I was well known, I had a conversation with a friend that I knew from middle school, from junior high school, and he remembered in history class thinking that I knew what I wanted to do. I was so stunned, because I didn’t think about that. At that time, I wanted to be a filmmaker and a writer. The idea that he saw, that I wanted to be interested in history, is something. I’m still a filmmaker and a writer. I just happen to use history to tell the stories that I’m doing, as both a filmmaker and a writer.

AVC: When you were in that history class as a kid, were their figures or particular periods that you were really interested in?

KB: I was interested in American history and knowing it front to back. I’ve always felt, all my life, just this sort of special connection to my country. Even in Vietnam time—in the era where my head, my family, where I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, everyone was opposed to the war—I still also wished the best for my country. I didn’t want it to lose. I remember feeling within me an okay tension about that. That many people were so critical of the United States that they lost perspective. I was critical and didn’t believe the war was just, but it didn’t at any point shake my faith that my country wasn’t, as Lincoln said, the last, best hope of Earth.

AVC: How do you think someone maintains the tension of loving where you live but also being deeply critical of it?

KB: Well, I think that is what love is. I think that blind faith is dangerous and leads to the worst kind of sunshine patriotism and the opposite. I think my films have exalted the United States. I think the reason they’re so popular is that they speak to people who identify as Red Stater or Blue Stater, young or old, but they’re all complicated, and life is complicated. People understand that. Families are complicated; people are complicated. If you’re willing to tell these stories, then it isn’t really a question of whether you love it or leave it, it’s a question of “What happened?”

I’m making a big series on Vietnam right now, and it’s really clear that people know almost nothing about what transpired. We have ideas; we have a kind of superficial conventional wisdom that we spend most of our lives in almost all the subjects that we talk about, breezing through without any real experience. I mean, 99 percent of the conversations that I have about health care, it’s really clear that both sides don’t know what they’re talking about. They just don’t know enough about it. The same is true with Vietnam, so I’m trying to educate myself to find out what really happened. One of the ways we do it is to avoid the celebrity commentators and instead go to the people who were there. The marines and the soldiers and the pilots and the nurses and the doctors and the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese and the draft dodgers and the protesters and the Gold Star Mothers and the diplomats and the reporters, and try to average out some kind of perspective that is critical, but at the same time, the purpose is to illuminate, not to discriminate. 


The first time he realized he wanted to be a filmmaker
KB: My mother died of cancer when I was 11, and there was never a moment when I was growing up that I wasn’t aware that there was something desperately wrong in my family or that, finally, as I got older, 3, 4, 5, that she was dying. My father never cried; during her disease, when she died, at the funeral, and I noted that. A friend commented on it, and I felt embarrassed by it, but he used to let me stay up late and watch movies on TV and I watched him cry at a movie, Sir Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, with James Mason, about the troubles in Ireland. I instantaneously understood that movies were this very powerful place where emotions could be expressed, and that one could express one’s emotion in the context. I instantaneously wanted to be a filmmaker at that moment. I can remember just watching my dad cry, and I went, wow, the movies gave him a kind of protection to permit him, for the first time in the midst of all of this horrible family tragedy, that he could find the safety of expression in a movie.

I’ve looked for that complex emotionalism. It’s not sentimentality or nostalgia. It’s just very complex emotions. I’ve tried to, in my own films, not so much go out to replicate it, but seek those things that remind us of these powerful currents that run through our lives, and sometimes they’re unexamined. It’s like when everyone says, “How are you?” you always say, “Fine.” And as often as not, you’re not. 


The first time he had access to a filmmaking equipment
KB: My dad gave me a Super 8 camera because I was so insistent on being a filmmaker when I was a teenager and I remember making movies with my friends or trying to make movies with my friends that were stupid science fiction or a Raymond Chandler-like detective or exposé documentaries about pollution, none of them ever finished, none of them ever completed. Then when I got into college, it was funny, all through high school, I voluminously bought film books on criticism and history and read everything and digested and wrote something on every film, and in January of ’72, six months into college, I started to work on a film. I’ve never bought a film book since. It has nothing to do with what I do. It was all about light, it was all about structure, it was all about pacing and rhythm and honesty and listening. I still can tell you the films of [Eric] Rohmer and [Jean-Luc] Godard and [François] Truffaut and Howard Hawks and all that, but it doesn’t bear much on what I do for a living, which is try to wake the dead and make the past come alive.

AVC: What were some films that were particularly influential in your view of how to make films, both feature and documentary?

KB: You know, most of them are feature films. In fact, what I tried to bring to documentary is, first, within the still photographs, infamously now known as the Ken Burns effect, just an attempt to wake up that photograph, using the still photograph the way a feature filmmaker would a master shot. That is to say, it would contain a long, a medium, a close, a tilt, a pan, a reveal, isolate details. But more than that, I thought the same laws of storytelling apply to documentary. They didn’t need to be didactic, informational things that were like homework. It’s not homework. You can tell a good story. And the same laws apply to me as they apply to Steven Spielberg, so to me it was looking at Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It was looking at Odd Man Out by Sir Carol Reed. It was seeing Buster Keaton’s The General. Lots of John Ford. Lots of the French New Wave really made a big impression. It hit at a time where my dad just trusted me and dragged me along, and I looked at a lot of Truffaut and Godard and had my molecules rearranged by that. 


The first time he made a film
AVC: Was your first film Brooklyn Bridge?

KB: I had done some other things. The first one that I would really sign my name to was my final thesis, if you will, at Hampshire College, which was a film for Old Sturbridge Village, about work in the late 18th and early 19th century, between 1790 and 1840. Old Sturbridge Village is a living history museum, and I was making a film for their visitors’ center. That’s my own film, but the first one on public television was Brooklyn Bridge, and that’s where I was beginning to put into practice how you would take still photographs and use an energetic and exploring camera eye, coupled with period music and complicated sound effects, as well as, not just a third-person narration, but first-person voices reading off-camera diaries and journals and letters that would give you a sense of the past, always with the attempt to bring that past moment alive.

AVC: At this point in your career, what sort of advice do you wish you could give to that version of yourself about making these films?

KB: You know, you can’t. I know what you’re saying and it’s an interesting question, but it’s all about process, and I knew that already. I maybe know it a little bit more. I’ve got a lot more experience under my belt. I know how to open up things. There’s a fire in the Brooklyn Bridge that lasts about 30 seconds in our film. I could make that fire 25 minutes now. But that’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing. It’s just what I know how to do. But I think it’s something I learned from my mentor, who was a social-documentary still-photographer named Jerome Liebling, is that it’s all about process. He used to say, “Go, see, do, be,” and it was sort of this imperative to just get out in the world, to look, really, and then do it. Make the picture, make the film, relate. And be meant that you had some relationship to the environment that you were in, and those were sort of watch words that I had then, and now, they seem to work. It’s just invested with much more meaning.

AVC: Was there a particular moment in the production of those first few films when you really felt like you were on to something or you were closing in on what you wanted to do?

KB: There’s some pretty special moments when you make a film, at least for me. One is when you’re shooting and you take a photograph of an old archive and you find and make a new frame and you go, “Wow, that’s really great.” You see something within something. Or you’ve gotten up at dawn and you’re taking a picture, the light is striking the Brooklyn Bridge just so, and you happen to be there and have been patient, and the light changes, and it’s magnificent. You get it.

But to me, things happen in the editing room, because no amount of great archives or wonderful interviews or famous first-person voices or live cinematography mean anything unless you know how to put it together. Sometimes, putting together stuff is subtracting. It’s getting rid of stuff. The lessons I learned about storytelling in the editing room are the ones where you just go, wow. And I’ve had great teachers there. David McCullough was hugely influential in how to write concisely, but also, I carried that forward into a kind of ability that I have in the editing room to be somebody who’s never seen the material before, even though I’ve shot it and know what’s coming. I can sometimes just free myself, and I can see it and know what the film needs. Films suffer from the fact that sometimes, the filmmaker doesn’t realize that somebody who’s curious, but ignorant, of this subject is watching. Assumptions are made, and I don’t do that. I just trust that I can get somebody’s attention and then hold it, and the way you do that is being able to see it new, again and again and again.


The first time he tried to sell a film
KB: [Gestures to self.] I’m 60 years old. I’m a grandfather, soon to be a grandfather twice over in a couple months. You can imagine that at 22 years old, I did not look like I was 22 years old. I looked like I was 12. And what was the film I was trying to make? A film on the Brooklyn Bridge. I guess I was 24 when I started on that. So people would say, “This child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge,” and of course selling the Brooklyn Bridge is one of those great schemes. [Laughs.] So I’ve had a lot of doors slammed, phones hung up on, and polite, but very blunt, letters saying no all the time, basically based on, “Who do you think you are, trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge?” Those were the memories.

In fact, for many, many years, 10 or 15 years, I kept on my desk two big three-ring binders, the kind that are four or five inches wide, each one of them filled with rejections for just the Brooklyn Bridge film, and I just kept going at it. And this was before computers. I was typing 10 or 12 letters a day, original letters with Correcto-Type and sending it out to prospective foundations and corporations and people who I thought might underwrite the film. Getting turned down 500-to-1, but I stuck with it, and I think, probably, I was perseverant back then, and that may be the advice the older me would go back and give—but I had it. I stuck with it.

AVC: How did you find that one? How did you find the people that were willing to give you a little money?

KB: [Laughs.] It just happened. The first $2,500 came from a friend of the parents of one of my co-workers, and then I wrote for a grant from the National Endowment For The Humanities or the New York State Humanities Council, and I got a Challenge Grant, and we raised money from this person. The first money that was actually handed to me was by Meade Esposito, who was the political boss of Brooklyn, Kings County. And I had to go up to the second-floor office on Montague Street, and his idea was, if somebody’s going to make a film about the Brooklyn Bridge, his borough, he had to have his money in it, so he hands me a check for a thousand bucks, you know. Little did I know it was one of the classic machine politicians ever, but he didn’t influence the content. It wasn’t in a brown bag. It wasn’t cash. But it had that sort of mysterious feeling. I can still remember coming down from this brownstone in Montague Street then he later went to jail. Died in jail, I think.


The first time working within the massive miniseries format
KB: I’ve still grounded myself with smaller films still, but they’re now two-part, four hours. The Address is an hour and a half, which makes this an outlier to the extreme. But I was working the first five or six films I made, all chosen randomly and haphazardly, all had as a central determining factor the Civil War. And so I just had to get into it and initially thought it would be, like, five one-hours. And even then i had great anxiety, as did many of the funders who turned me down, that, though I had been successful making an hour of still photographs come alive, you couldn’t do it for five hours. Well, The Civil War turned out to be 11 and a half hours and it sure stopped 40 million people cold, and they watched the whole thing, and it was very successful.

And it wasn’t that I was abandoning the smaller things, I kept going with that, but it just felt more and more challenging. I wanted to bite off more than I could chew and learn how to chew. So Baseball, which everyone thought was going to be this sorbet course between other projects, turned into the biggest film I’ve ever made, the longest film I’ve ever made, and a history of the United States since the Civil War. It wasn’t just about games won and lost, careers rising and falling, but about race and about immigration and about exclusion of women and about popular culture and advertising and how cities are born and decay and are reborn, about labor and management tensions, everything is replicated in Baseball. You gravitate to that.

But in the midst of Civil WarBaseballJazz, the World War II film, the National Parks film—The West, I should say—in the mid-’90s, and now this upcoming Roosevelts, there’ve been a lot more biographies of Lewis and Clark and Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, a humorous look at the first cross-country automobile trip and the boxer Jack Johnson and an update of Baseball and Prohibition and Dust Bowl and things that are smaller scope. Central Park Five last year, about the five black and Hispanic boys that were falsely accused of this infamous Central Park jogger rape and didn’t do it, served out time in jail, and still are seeking justice from the city. So there’s enough mix and match.

AVC: It seems like Civil War and Baseball really took your profile to a new level. What was the big thing that changed for you after those films aired?

KB: It was just Civil War—all of a sudden I couldn’t walk down a street without somebody coming up to talk to me about it in a really good way. Joe [his publicist] and I just had lunch, and somebody came up twice, the same person, that just needed to have a conversation because they enjoyed the work, and they felt a kind of kinship with me as a result of spending so much time with what I’d done. That has not changed. And there’s really been no downside to it. I suppose now archives, which were so happy to see somebody, anybody, show up at their door, now are used to filmmakers coming to their door and want to charge more, and it makes the budgets more complicated. But that’s hardly a negative thing, if people are using the archives.

AVC: Is Civil War still the film people most want to talk to you about?

KB: It’s clearly the most famous, but it’s really nice that I know somebody that thinks every one of the films I’ve made is my best. Somebody thinks The Shakers, the history of the Shakers, is the best; or Empire Of The Air, about the early days of radio, a lot of people just think that’s, “I love The Civil War but that was the best,” and that makes me feel really, really happy. It’s the big ones, the war films—the World War II film and Baseball—because baseball has so much emotional baggage for so many Americans and it’s about continuity and family, as it is about anything. I meet people at least every week that say, “Oh, it’s January, I’m rewatching the Baseball film.” There are probably people who’ve watched it more times than I have because they love baseball so much. I just got a really nice text message the other day from Bob Costas, who’s in the film and had been caught up in a lot of the complaints at the time the film was done. You do something that’s 18 and a half hours and the complaints were what we left out. For me, I’m like, phew, but then there are lots of arguments. It’s been replayed on the MLB Network recently and he just said, “I watched the whole thing and I wanted to tell you how great it was and how honored I was to be a part of it when we were both so young.” It was a really nice thing to say.


His first time making a film with his daughter
AVC: Central Park Five, was that your first time working with your daughter?

KB: Well, officially, yes. I can remember when she was in diapers crawling underneath the editing machine, so she’s watched and she’s been at the TCA a gazillion times as a little girl handing out brochures on the chairs, but yeah, she had not intended to be in it. She wrote the book on the Central Park Five, and as she was writing it, both her husband and I—and many other people who had the privilege of seeing it—realized this was a great, great film. So we worked together, and now, she and her husband and I are making a film on Jackie Robinson.

AVC: You had mentioned your own father getting you interested in movies. What’s it like to pass that interest on to your own children?

KB: Ralph Waldo Emerson—who’s like one of the great Americans in my book—he wrote this essay, which I’m sure you were forced to read in high school or college, called, “On Self-Reliance,” and in it he coins this term, you have to do whatever “inly” rejoices. Clearly he made up a word. “Inly rejoices.” But it’s a perfect word. And so I always felt my children particularly, should not be burdened with any expectations of their old man. That they should do whatever inly rejoices. However, it really makes me inly rejoice to know that [Laughs.] I get a chance to work with my oldest daughter who is one of the most magnificent examples of a human being on the planet and keeps me on my toes and runs rings around me. She’s terrific, as is my son-in-law, who’s a filmmaker in his own right, really great in his own right.

AVC: You have your films planned out so far in advance. If you could somehow plan your career or your life to the point where, before you retired or before you passed away, you could have one last film, do you have a subject in mind you think would be perfect?

KB: You know, it’s interesting that you phrase it that way. Mine is more open-ended. I always thought if I were given 1,000 years to live, I would never run out of topics in American history. So we tend to work in 10-year plans. The last 10-year plan ended with the broadcast of The National Parks in 2009, so we’re going on a kind of 2009-2019 or 2020, and we know all those things, and we’re planned out to that time. Now, we’re almost halfway through the decade and are beginning to say, “What’s next?” And we have, literally, a hundred ideas written down. We’ll convince those into two or three tentpoles, big series, and two or three smaller things that we’ll do in the ’20s, God willing. But I’m also trying to set in motion, permitting my daughter and other colleagues that I’ve worked with for years, to start their own stuff and use me as a backstop or as an executive producer and set some other threads going. And that’s exciting to me. So it’s not so much that there’s one thing burning to be done; there are thousands of things burning to be done. There is not enough time. But we’ll do what we can do.

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