Fall 2006, Volume 23.1
Capturing the American Experience: A Conversation with Ken Burns
Mikel Vause (Ph.D., Bowling Green University) is Professor of English at Weber State University where he is co-director and founder of the National Undergraduate Literature Conference. His essays, poems, and stories have appeared in numerous publications including American Nature Writer, Popular Culture Review, The John Muir News Letter, and The Himalayan Journal. He is author of a collection of essays On Mountains and Mountaineers and editor of The Peregrine Reader, Wilderness Tapestry and two volumes of essays by women climbers, Rock and Roses vol. I and II. He has recently published his first collection of poems I Knew it Would Come to This and is currently writing a biography of British mountaineer Chris Bonington.
An avid mountaineer, Mikel is a member of the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club (Britain). He is a frequent guest speaker at national and international conferences such as The Mountain Literature Festival (England) and the World Wilderness Congress (Norway and India).
Ken Burns is widely considered America’s foremost documentary filmmaker. His insight into the American experience is remarkable and deep. His films capture our attention and our self-examination. His films have been nominated for two Academy Awards, and six have been nominated for Emmy Awards. The Civil War, Baseball, and Unforgivable Blackness each was awarded an Emmy.
I stood next to the baggage carousel in the Salt Lake City Airport awaiting Ken’s arrival. He was coming to Ogden, Utah, as the keynote speaker for the annual Fall Author Event sponsored by the Ogden School Foundation. I was instrumental in arranging his visit and looked forward to the few days we would spend together. Ken came to Ogden on the highest recommendation of Shelby Foote (prominently featured in Ken’s masterwork The Civil War), the great southern novelist and one of our former Fall Authors.
Whenever I go to pick up a visitor, I never carry a sign with the visitor’s name in bold letters—I pride myself on being able to pick them out of the crowd. I knew Ken Burns was about my age, early fifties, and wore his hair in a 1964 Beatles style. From his photos, I knew he had aged more gracefully than I. What I wasn’t prepared for was the enthusiasm and energy with which he greeted me. He was dressed in jeans and a sport coat and looked ready and eager to get started. You always wonder how someone as successful and recognized as Ken Burns will be. He would certainly have a right to feel self-important, and there is no question he has earned a great deal of professional respect, but when I approached him he broke into a friendly smile and our time together had officially begun—time I will always regard as a highlight.
This interview took place during a flight on a private jet, courtesy of John E. and Suzanne Lindquist, from Ogden to Wichita, Kansas. By the time we landed it seemed like we’d known each other forever.
Read an essay by Ken Burns published in this issue of Weber Studies.
Ken, what fueled your earliest interest in history?
I remember always being interested in non-fiction as opposed to fiction. When my parents bought books, they bought novels for my little brother. They bought encyclopedias and biographies for me. I think more than anything else it’s my own family history. Being aware of the mortality of my mother, who was sick, and also feeling that in some way by understanding history perhaps you could abolish its merciless outcome.
How does that tie into film? What caused you to develop your interest in film?
Well, my dad had a really strict curfew for me, but he relaxed it whenever there was a movie playing at the local cinema or at the University of Michigan where they had a great cinema program. I would be allowed to stay up late, and I was particularly surprised that on a school night I would sometimes be able to stay up to watch a movie on TV—sometimes until two in the morning. Perhaps it would be an old Howard Hawks film. I remember watching Rio Bravo with my dad. John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ricky Nelson, and Walter Brennan. It was another world. It was exciting to enter into that world. All of my early interests in being a writer or an anthropologist like my dad were sort of set aside with this idea that I could enter into a world that was so special. I also saw my dad cry at a movie, and that really affected me. I’d never seen my dad cry. So, I set my sights on being a Hollywood film director. All through high school that’s what I wanted to be. An Alfred Hitchcock or a John Ford or a Howard Hawks. John Ford particularly, because he seemed to sing the epic verses of America. There were always dogs and dances and music in his films. I guess that ultimately I’ve tried to do that. It was famously said of John Ford that when faced with the fact or the legend—print the legend. Well, I’ve just chosen to print the fact.
I know it’s hard to ask a filmmaker what their favorite film is, but if someone forced you into giving an opinion about your favorite film of all time, what would that be?
I have, of course, a pantheon of twenty-five films from all over the world, but I think that if you held a gun to my head and said I had to tell you right now what my favorite film is I would have to say Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece The Seventh Samurai, which in its original length is a three hour plus film that, to me, goes by in a nano-second to me. It is about a small Japanese village that is perpetually raided by robbers. The villagers hire these down-on-their-luck Samurai to come and defend the village. It is just one of the most humane and loving films I’ve ever seen, and at the same time it’s got some of the greatest battle sequences of any film ever made. It is my hands-down favorite.
It’s interesting that you would pick a film that is that long because many of the films that you’ve made are notoriously long. Where did you find the courage to do a project as vast and daunting as The Civil War?
Well, it was funny because before that film I had made a series of films that were much shorter, an hour or an hour and half. They were films about the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Huey Long, the Congress, and the painter Thomas Hart Benton. Then I started work on the Civil War, and I knew it deserved much more time. I worked on it for several years. We were in the editing room, and things seemed to be going along pretty well—that it was about thirteen or fourteen hours long. I suddenly got panicked and went to some friends in public television who had stuck their neck out for me. I said, "Look, it’s not going to cost two-and-a-half times as much. It’s just going to cost ten percent more because this is a labor-intensive thing, but this film can’t be five one-hour segments." They looked at it, and the one fellow just said, "No, it can’t," and he went to bat for me. It was terrifying. I’d been turned down by one of my most loyal source of funding in an initial round because they thought that there was no way that anybody’s interest could be sustained for five hours using still photographs. Here I was pushing twelve. Eventually, it ended up being eleven and a half hours. I was petrified nobody would watch it, and that I would never make another film.
Obviously The Civil War was a great success. It was probably the most watched PBS film ever. To what do you attribute that success? What made people want to sit for that long to watch that much film on one subject?
I think it’s a combination of factors. Luck plays into it. It was just a period of time in American life when we were more interested in the emotional undertow of the war than in the strictly military accounting. I was interested in that emotional archeology that I’m involved in. A second thing is, I think, the Civil War itself. Ignore it, as we do, disguise it and distort it and all the things that we do to it, but it is still a traumatic event in the childhood of our nation. If you see your country’s life, the arc of it, in the same sympathetic way as you see the life of another human being, then it’s clear that this was a traumatic moment. I think people respond to that. People are drawn to the stories that speak to exactly where they came from, whether you came over on the Mayflower or just hijacked a boat from Cuba to get here. You own the Civil War, but more importantly the Civil War owns you. So any combination of an emotional retelling of it together with its deep latent importance… I think that’s why people responded.
Besides the Civil War, you’ve made long documentaries on baseball and jazz. In fact you call those your trilogy because, I think, you said that the Civil War, jazz and baseball are the three things that are uniquely American. How did you arrive at your filming technique? I notice that in contemporary films, for instance, a lot of the sound tracks are loud and harsh. The music is loud and harsh, and to me it is distracting, but in your films you’ve selected music that is soft and sometimes almost lulls you into it. What techniques did you use that led you to do the sort of films that you do and to pick that kind of music.
When I wanted to be a Hollywood filmmaker, I went to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. All my teachers were social documentary still photographers who reminded me there is much more drama in what is and what was than anything the human imagination could think of. So all of a sudden, I find myself in a world of documentary. Plus, I am being trained by people who have the utmost faith in the power of the individual image to convey complex information without undue manipulation. All of a sudden I have a relationship to still photography that isn’t just a MTV generation way—which is physiologically received. I want to get in there more subtly—more long-lasting. All real meaning in this world accrues in duration. The relationships that you and I are the proudest of—the work we’re proudest of—always benefits from our sustained attention. So I just went into those photographs, and I listened and I looked and I thought and I played around inside them. So, instead of just shooting one shot of a photograph, I would also go in and do a medium shot, a close shot, a pan, a reveal. I would listen to the photograph and wonder what accompanying sound effects should be used.
Now, your specific question about music is important because, for most films, music is about scoring. That is, mathematically adding a soundtrack at the end of the process. You finish editing; you block the picture, and somebody comes in to amplify emotions that you hope are already there. But in this case I began thinking that music ought to be as integral a component as the old photographs, as the sound effects, as the first person voices that would complement the third person narration. So I would identify tunes from the period, get musicians to play them, and then, before editing, I would have this set of musical options. In that way we would allow the music to determine the pace and rhythm and emotional tenor of the film. The music could help describe our editing philosophy. So we would find ourselves lengthening a sentence or shortening a phrase to fit a musical passage—not the other way around, hiring a composer who would invent something that arbitrarily had to reach the end of a phrase or the end of some action. All of this, I think, contributes to a sense of music integral with the still photographs, the sound effects—organic components.
You’ve had tremendous success with your films. Public acceptance has been amazing. But, there have been some negative criticisms by historians. How do you respond to some of those?
I think it’s a little bit of apples and oranges. The academic community sometimes asks me to essentially apply their standards to my art form. I’m in a popular, public medium. I’m therefore liberated from the tyranny of some of the academic fashions. I’ve been making films as we have gone through Marxist, semiotics and deconstruction and gender and queer studies—all sorts of things. I’ve been able to include perspectives that may or may not include those, and I think that this kind of liberation is sometimes threatening to the academy. The most important thing to understand is that I don’t make a film without engaging the best people in the academy. In the making of all of my films, I begin with a board of advisors who are the Who’s Who of the best scholars in that particular subject. They are top of the line, and they advise me. Quite often if you investigate the source of the criticism, it’s others at a much lower level who I think are just jealous that somebody is in their territory and having an amount of success. Specific criticisms I think are legitimate. In a Civil War film you cannot do everything the way perhaps a multi-volume book could do. You’re going to have to give shortshrift to something. So if somebody feels that the radical Republican Congress of the Civil War era deserved better attention for the role of this or the role of that, that’s a perfectly legitimate criticism. I cannot include every battle and every general in every aspect of the film. I can’t cover every World Series or every great baseball player. Nor can I touch every jazz player. So what we do is we make decisions to tell several stories and tell them well, rather than try to tell all stories and have the narrative drive of the Manhattan phonebook. This can sometimes get you in trouble with people who think you ought to have a more encyclopedic take on it.
That seems to be a problem in all of academia. People always have their opinions, attitudes, and there are egos involved. That said, out of all the films you’ve made, what do you feel the best about?
Well, I’m the father of two daughters and about to be the father of another child, and I’d like to say that I love them the same. I’ve had the great good fortune in my professional life to be able to say that I’ve put the best into every film I’ve made. I have the luxurious position of not being able to offer you any excuses: "Oh, the studio took it away. They cut the ending. They didn’t give me the budget I wanted. They didn’t let me use this writer. They made me use this star." That hasn’t been the case. So, if you don’t like one of my films, it’s all my fault. That’s important. So, I love each one equally. I am proud of the films that have been nominated for an Oscar, like The Brooklyn Bridge and The Statue of Liberty. I’m equally proud of the films that have done well in terms of viewership like The Civil War, Baseball and Lewis and Clark. All are important to me, but none more important than the film on the Shakers that I made—a celibate religious sect. Jazz was probably the hardest because it was so complicated. It covered so much time and took an element, music, which is usually background, and had it be background, middle ground, foreground, and in some cases where we dissected pieces of music, a kind of hyper-ground. It made the editing of that series similar to playing three dimensional chess. You can appreciate a certain degree of difficulty in that film. If I were going to go before St. Peter, I would take with me a scene from my Mark Twain film that showed Twain’s developing sensitivity to the question of race when he assumed that the fun-loving and jovial black servant that he had, who he called Aunt Rachael, hadn’t seen any trouble in her life. In fact, as the story is related, she had seen a lot of trouble—having had her husband and children sold out from under her to slavery and later having had her son come back and rescue her from slavery. It was an amazing revelation for Twain, and I think the way we put it together is something I’d like to share with people—and St. Peter.
Emerson had a poetic theory called the "meter-making argument." He argues that the best poetry is that which remains as it falls from the poet’s pen. However, he also recognized that didn’t happen very often. Only a couple of his poems did that. It didn’t lessen the theory any, but he talked about the idea of the editing process as well—trying to make it better after the fact. With hindsight what it is, are there any films you would do differently if you could do them over again?
I wouldn’t change a second of them because, to me, they are part of a journey of artistic experimentation or the applying of one’s skill to the elements of one’s craft. So each film represents a true snapshot of who I was when I made it. To go back and adjust a film would be to what purpose, to present what, a smoother product? I don’t know what it would do for me. I like to look to the next thing. When Duke Ellington was asked what his most important composition was, he said, "The one I’m working on." So my favorite film, to answer the question a few questions back, is the one I’m working on. That’s the one that’s getting the attention. Just as with a family album, you can look back to when you had more hair, or when you had fewer pounds on you, but you don’t take that picture and rip it up. You go, "Yep, that’s who I was." I may look at a film and realize that stylistically I’ve improved or come a different way, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Sometimes the energy of those perhaps cruder early works has something that’s really vibrant. My film on the Brooklyn Bridge, the first film that I had on public television, has still, to this day, a kind of energy, a rawness of experimentation with all the techniques I’ve described. But, still, there is something there. It has some juice to it that I wouldn’t mess with.
It’s been said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Over the years your filmmaking style has been copied almost to the point of plagiarism. Do you see that as a compliment?
I don’t see that as a compliment or as an assault or anything like plagiarism. There’s no copyright on style. Every production is a set of problems. Sometimes a million sets of problems. How you solve them is how you solve them. What do you need to do to complete the questions of this production? What is it going to be called? What is the first shot? What is the last shot? What kind of music? Who will I film? What of their interview will I use? All of these myriads of questions need answers. When you solve these problems, you employ a series of techniques. If those techniques begin to work over a series of films, then it’s called your style. Now, people can borrow anything they want. I’m standing on the shoulder of giants—the people who have influenced me. So, I’ve just put together something that for me works pretty well. I’m happy to be laboring in a vineyard where at least the tools that I have seem to be working. Now, everybody says there’s a Ken Burns style, but I see each one of my films as radically different from the next. Sure, there are still photographs; sure, there are first person voices; sure, there are interviews and live cinematography, but they all have some very different components. This, to me, makes them all unique and singular in the application of techniques and styles. If you step back from the wall, they are going to begin to look a lot alike. Just like looking at a wall of Cézanne’s paintings, you’re going to be able to say, "Wow, that’s all Cézanne." But, when you get in close, each painting is wrestling with certain specific problems. I hope each one of my films reflect the problems I’m wrestling with at that particular moment.
You mentioned others, other shoulders you have stood upon—giants. Who are some of the great documentary filmmakers who you most respect, and are there some coming up today that you recognize?
Oh, absolutely. I think that I even draw a lot of energy from artists who are stylistically opposite of me, like Errol Morris. His recent film on spelling bees called Spellbound I found just marvelous. Early on I really respected the work of Robert Flaherty, and I really respected the work of a woman named Perry Miller Adato who produced a number of films in the early ‘70s, including one on Gertrude Stein, which, to me, suggested the use of first person voices that I did. Another Film Board of Canada film called "The City of Gold," about the gold rush in the Yukon, used still photographs. A light bulb went off in me—not that I would use it exactly that way but I would begin to use still photographs in the way I’ve begun to use them. It is not that you copy, but sometimes, somebody will say something that sparks something creative in you, and you go off and start working it, trying to figure how to do something better.
I’m sure you run into a great many people who want to be filmmakers or wonder about the future of documentary films. What kind of advice do you have for that next generation of filmmakers?
I’m afraid that my advice is rather parochial and perhaps clichéd or filled with platitudes. Filmmaking is very attractive to people, and there’s an apparent glamour to it. I would personally disabuse people of that. It’s very, very hard work. I remind people that it’s hard work. The hardest working people I know are filmmakers, in terms of how many hours they put in a day and how many days they work a week and how many weeks they work a year. I also think that because it is so attractive to us culturally, a lot of people get into it the way one is drawn to certain fashions where this shoe or that dress will be obsolete next season. So I remind would-be filmakers that the most important thing they need is self-knowledge. To know who you are. To have the courage to say, "I don’t have anything to say. I really don’t want to be a filmmaker." But you’ve made the decision to be a filmmaker, then the final thing is you have to persevere—your way is not made easy. Particularly in documentary, nobody is going to say, "Okay, you go to this school, you graduate; you go to this graduate school, you graduate; you get this job here, then it’s alright." You find your own path; you forge your own trajectory. That’s hugely liberating and hugely terrifying.
Much of what you say about making these films and your involvement and the way you choose subjects is almost magical. I’ve heard you tell a story about the final editing process on the The Civil War where you are discussing Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theater. Tell us about that?
Well, we’d already locked the picture. We were already done with the editing. In the old days of analog editing you could only work with a track that would have your narration, a track that would have the music, and maybe one track of rudimentary sound effects. You’ve got a finite length for every episode, for every scene, the entire film. So, what you are going to do then is begin what is called the "sound editing" in which you open up all those tracks. You might have, in the case of a battle scene for example, fifty or so tracks. It’s a hugely time consuming process to sound edit. Then, when that’s done, you go to final mix where you hire a mixer, a re-recording mixer, who will take all of those tracks, play them simultaneously, and mix their relative levels, values, and equalizations. It’s a hugely expensive process. Fifteen years ago in 1989 when I was mixing the The Civil War it cost $800 or $1000 dollars an hour. We had to work for more than 20 days, ten hour days. We were poor impoverished filmmakers, so you can imagine the anxiety of how much is going through that meter as you’re working. We were down to the last reel of film, and that included Lincoln’s assassination. We’d laid down all the tracks before: the narration, the music and the first person voices. We’d had even recorded, a year before, the Arena Stage Theater in Washington performing Our American Cousin, the play that was being performed at Ford’s Theater when Lincoln was shot. It’s filled with these tinny voices, footfalls, door slams, laughter and applause. We learned that Booth fired his fateful shot when he heard laughter after the delivery of a particulary humorous line. The audience cracked up, and Booth fired in that space. We laid down everything. It was perfect. But we hadn’t laid down the sound of the gunshot. So we backed up and started heading for that sound of the gunshot, and all of a sudden, all of us in unison, myself, the associate producer, the mixer, all turned around and were suddenly beset with the anxiety and pain of what we were witnessing. I yelled, "Stop." The mixer hit the button, and the sound just slowed down and came to a stop just before the sound of the gunshot. We just sat there with tears streaming down our faces, looking at each other with the money running through the meter. But for those few minutes we didn’t care, and for those few minutes we saved Abraham Lincoln. Finally, I just nodded to the mixer; he backed up the thing again, and we laid down the shot, finished the film and went home for Christmas—but I’ve never forgotten. I don’t think any of us in that room have ever forgotten those few minutes—that moment—when we kept Abraham Lincoln alive. I guess if I had to say what was my most favorite moment in all of my filmmaking—or the most memorable, not favorite, the most memorable moment—I’d have to say that it was saving Lincoln for that one moment in the mixing room while sound editing The Civil War.
You’ve certainly had a magical life. You’ve had some amazing opportunities, and you’ve gotten to know people, both alive and dead, who have influenced the growth of this nation. Just quickly, what are some of your future plans? What are some of the things we can look forward to seeing?
I’ve just finished a film that will be called Unforgivable Blackness: the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Jack Johnson was the first African-American Heavyweight Champion. The person for whom the phrase "The Great White Hope" was invented. The white race was anxious that Jack Johnson had beaten all contenders for the highest title in all of professional sports, and they had decided to find somebody—anybody—a "great white hope" that could beat him. They never could find one, so they went after his personal life. It’s a tragedy, but also a story about freedom in the most essential American way. I’m also just beginning editing a major series on the history of the American Experience in the Second World War in which we’re focusing on four geographically distributed towns: Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Laverne, Minnesota, a small farming community of about 3000, back in the 1940s. I am interested in exploring what happened to the men who went to the European or Pacific Theater, the women who went into the workforce or stayed at home and worried, the African-Americans who went into a still segregated Armed Forces, and the Asians from Sacramento who were interned and later volunteered in regiments that served with the greatest distinction and bravery. It’s a bottom-up portrait of the war, unlike The Civil War which tried to combine the bottom-up with the top-down version. We hope to communicate to a generation of Americans who might be familiar with the specifics of a Saving Private Ryan but have lost the arc of the entire war, so much so that a recent statistic I read from The National Council of History on Education that forty percent of graduating high school seniors thought we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the Second World War. Obviously we have to change something, and we hope the series will do this. I’m also in the middle of shooting a major series on the history of the inspirational ideas and remarkable individuals who helped to create our national parks. The writer, Wallace Stegner, called the national parks "America’s best idea." But we tend to take the whole thing for granted. But the idea of setting aside land was an entirely new American idea born out of our freedom and this remarkable continent. It is fascinating to think of how all of it started—that land could be set aside not for the privileges of kings and noblemen but for everybody for all times. And, of course, there were struggles to get them created—opportunities that took place and continue to take place. This struggle, I think, is one of our great stories, and it needs to be told. This will not be a travel log, a series of pretty pictures, but we hope beautiful images of these parks will be part of the telling of this story.
Clearly filmmakers are political and have been from the onset. You look at the folks that Joseph McCarthy went after, and it’s never been clearer than it has been with filmmakers like Michael Moore. I understand when you started to do this film on Jack Johnson that you enlisted some unusual supporters to try to gain a pardon for Jack Johnson, public figures as diverse as Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy. Tell me just a little bit about how that worked.
As we were editing the film, we became more and more outraged at the injustice perpetrated by our government on Jack Johnson. We decided to seek a posthumous pardon for him. There’s been only one posthumous pardon at a federal level. That was also an African-American, the first black graduate of West Point, a man named Henry O. Flipper. President Clinton pardoned him in 1998. We’re hoping that President Bush will do the same thing to help correct this travesty of justice. We won’t influence Jack Johnson who’s been dead since 1946, but if we say we’re a nation of laws and of justice, then admitting that we’re wrong and correcting our wrongs makes us better—heals us in the best sense of that word. So we set about trying to set up a bipartisan pardon committee, Senator John McCain and Ted Kennedy and Senator Orrin Hatch signed on, so did Jesse Jackson, Jr. Many writers and historians and people in boxing, who more often than not don’t agree about much, unanimously agree that a travesty of justice had taken place. I’m sympathetic to African-American aspirations in America because I think we ought to be able to live up to the full meaning of the promise that all men are created equal. So, I have my own political views, and I express them when people ask me what they are, but I don’t do that in my films. My sympathies may be apparent over the course of a film. But I leave my politics at home. I think if I had to reduce to a single concept what I’ve done in my own work, I would say that I am interested in what is unique to the individual and common among all of us.
Thanks for all you’ve done.