Ten Question with Ken L. Burns

On a cold Wednesday afternoon, FM sat down in Harvard’s Center for the Environment with internationally renowned documentary filmmaker Ken L. Burns, who was visiting Harvard to promote his new film, “The Dust Bowl,” a historical account of the ecological disasters of the 1930s.

On a cold Wednesday afternoon, FM sat down in Harvard’s Center for the Environment with internationally renowned documentary filmmaker Ken L. Burns, who was visiting Harvard to promote his new film, “The Dust Bowl,” a historical account of the ecological disasters of the 1930s. As he entered, Burns stepped into his natural role and readjusted the placement of FM’s camera.

1. Fifteen Minutes: How did you become interested in making documentaries?

Ken L. Burns: My mother had cancer and died when I was 11 years old. There wasn’t a moment when she wasn’t ill. After she died, my father had a strict curfew but permitted me to stay up late at night to watch old movies, and I remember seeing my dad cry for the first time. The first time. Not through all the other tragedies. I watched him cry and I realized of course he’s crying for something much more important. I realized the power of film instantly and wanted at age 12 to be a filmmaker. But I wanted to be a feature filmmaker. I wanted to be Alfred Hitchcock. Then I went to Hampshire College in the fall of 1971, and all of my teachers were social documentary still photographers who reminded me, quite correctly, that there was much more drama in what is and what was than anything the human imagination can dream of. Now William Shakespeare would have an argument with that, but I accepted it and found myself wanting to make documentary films. And I’ve been making historical documentaries about the United States ever since.

2. FM: Has all of your work been focused on the United States?

KLB: I’m not trained in history. The last time I took a course in American History was when I was in eleventh grade, when they kind of make you take it. But I’ve always loved history, and I’ve always loved what was going on with it. And so it was one of those harmonic convergences where here I was, wanting to be a documentary filmmaker. But I also wanted to tell American stories.

3. FM: What was your first film?

KLB: So I starved and took some day jobs, but the first thing I did for public television was a history of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge called “Brooklyn Bridge.” And it was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Feature Documentary, so I thought, ‘Well, I guess this is the thing I’m doing.’ And I moved from New York City into rural New Hampshire, where I still live to this day, thinking, “I’ve chosen to become a documentary filmmaker in American History for PBS—I’ve just taken a vow of anonymity and poverty. I need to move someplace I can live for nothing.” So I moved up to rural New Hampshire, into the house I’m still living in, and that was the second best decision I ever made. The best decision I ever made was to stay there.

4. FM: Do you commute a lot from New Hampshire to get to—?

KLB: [Interrupting] To get to the world? I come to Boston and I use that as the way out to fly places. I also do public speaking—I speak about American History. I speak about what I know. I speak about the Civil War. I speak about baseball. I speak about jazz. I speak about the Second World War. I speak about the National Parks. I speak about Frank Lloyd Wright, all subjects of films that I’ve made, and I speak more generally about the power of history or what I think could be the power of history, and sort of rail against a national amnesia that most people have. In part, we have this national amnesia because it’s in our character to always be looking forward and burning our past behind us like rocket fuel. That’s a bad thing. We have it because our teachers were taught how to be teachers, not about any specific subject. Everybody’s kind of abdicated, and what we end up with is generations of kids that don’t know a basic canon of knowledge. What you want is to end the teaching of teachers and the style of teaching in favor of people who know something and love something and care about something deeply.

5. FM: When I was in eighth grade, we had a joke that Ken Burns was our history teacher. [He laughs.] We spent a lot of time watching your documentaries. How do you feel about that?

KLB: I feel great about that. I meet teachers all the time that say, “If I hadn’t had your films, I don’t know what I would’ve done.” This stuff lasts. And today is a school day in America, so “The Civil War” is probably shown 2,000 times today. It makes you feel good because it’s a film that’s 22 years old, and if you know that there are 2,000 classes that are showing it, that means there may be one kid in one of those classes—or maybe just one kid today—who’s transformed and she decides she wants to be a History major or she decides she wants to go into that. That’s terrific.

6. FM: What interests you most while you are making a documentary?

KLB: I want to tell a good story, and I want to get better as a filmmaker. I just want to learn good things and tell those things. I never want to make films about things I already know about so I could tell you about what you should know. The last time I checked, that’s called homework. I want to share with you a process of discovery.

7. FM: Do you think that the art of storytelling is a gift, something you can improve upon, or both?

KLB: I don’t know the gift part. My father’s a cultural anthropologist; my mother was an incredibly strong and heroic person. Are they in me? Yes. Has that been part of what my DNA is? Yes. Have I made it on my own? Yes. Have I sort of forged my own path and found a way distinct from anybody else I know? Yes. So I don’t know what is already nature, what’s nurture, what just is luck, what’s been the extraordinary association with many talented people who work with me. So it’s hard to really tell.

8. FM: Do you see yourself improving from film to film?

KLB: At some places I can kind of see that, but the improvement is also self-improvement. You know, like a painter, you’re just working things out. Each film is a set of problems and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It may be millions of problems. But you’re setting off, and there’s friction created by those problems. There’s resistance. You’re just figuring out how to get it done. So you’re not paying too much attention to getting better. What you’re doing is trying to make the film better and if you do that, then you’ll inevitably get better. And I’ve just finished a film called “The Central Park Five” that’s going to be released theatrically. I produced it, directed it, and wrote it with my daughter and my son-in-law, David McMahon the filmmaker. And it’s very interesting to look at that film as a collaboration with your own daughter and your son-in-law, and to see it as a different kind of film that’s been energized by some stylistic techniques that we’ve just tried out. And I feel that it’s better in a different way, but that doesn’t mean that the other stuff’s bad. It has no narration, which doesn’t mean I’m getting rid of narration. It just means that this is a way to explore, and that’s it. If you tread water, you’re done. Life’s a fast-moving current, and we’re swimming upstream.

9. FM: What kind of criticisms do you get?

KLB: When a film like “The Civil War” comes out, the criticism you get is exactly the criticism you want. It’s from the far, far extremes. You know, the people who think slavery was a good thing. They hate my film. I’m really happy. There are sometimes accusations about sentimentality, and I really reject that because sentimentality and nostalgia are bad things. But too often human beings retreat to the safety of a rational world where one and one always equals two. But if we examine our own lives and our own hearts, we’re always interested in more than that. We want that equation of one and one equaling three, that impossible calculus. We want it in our sex. We want it in our relationships. We want it in our family, in our art, in our literature, in our faith, in our reason, in our science. And we look for that. And those higher emotions that our founders talked about exist outside the realm of both the rational world and outside the realm of the simple and cheap and easy sentimentality and nostalgia. And I’m afraid people have looked at the fact that the films that I make are an emotional archaeology and aren’t about the mere collection of dry dates, facts, and events, but a different kind of emotional archaeology.

10. FM: So do you go about looking for topics where you can find that one plus one equals three?

KLB: It’s hard to say. You never actually go out saying “Okay today one plus one equal three, that’s what I’m looking for.” That’s something just to leave out of your mind. You know, if you think about sex, it won’t happen. But you know that if sparks are given off in a complicated narrative—if you do this particular job well—something is given off that gives the possibility that one and one equals three. What if you said that you wanted the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts? That is the question of the ages. It’s what compels science. It’s what compels art. It’s what compels our lives. It’s what drives us to faith, or drives us away from faith. What is the difference between the whole and the sum of the parts? Stories are in fact the way we gain immortality, the way in which we distract ourselves from this stultifying fact that no one will be able to change, which is that none of us are getting out of this alive. If you tell good stories and they last, then you really have achieved a certain kind of immortality in that. But it is the act of storytelling that is the process.