The 60-second interview: Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns
CAPITAL: When you’re plotting out a documentary series, do you set any limits for yourself on length? Why or why not?
BURNS: No, there’s a general sense of ballpark, but I can tell you, for example, the Civil War series that I made that came out in 1990 that we worked on for five and a half years began as a five one-hour thing, and suddenly became a nine-episode, eleven-and-a-half-hour series. “Baseball” was going to be a relatively short film that suddenly became a little bit longer film and then it was going to be nine one-hour episodes and it’s 18 and half hours long.…What happens is that too often people have a prescribed research period followed by a prescribed writing period followed by taking this script that is written in stone, and they film and they edit and that’s it. We never stop researching and our script is incredibly valuable, and we want the subject to talk to us. In the case of every film we made, if it needs what it needs, it is that.
CAPITAL: Your lens has been primarily focused on America. Why does American history—which is comparatively short in its span—interest you so much?
BURNS: If I were given a thousand years to live, I wouldn’t run out of subjects in American history, and that’s not going to happen, so there’s a kind of urgency in why we’re working on so many at once. But it’s an incredibly revealing story. This is a country founded under the idea as articulated by Thomas Jefferson that “All men are created equal,” but oops! He owned other beings as he wrote that sentence and set in motion an American narrative that’s constantly confronting issues of race: ‘The Central Park Five,” ”The Roosevelts,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The Civil War” —almost every film that we’ve worked on has some racial dimension…It’s also about women, it’s also about what the meaning of freedom is it’s also about the tension between labor and management, it’s also about immigration. It’s an almost limitless well of extraordinary stories that are often contradictory to what we believe in the sanitized Madison Avenue version that America is supposed to be. I think the place where documentary filmmakers and the Peabody Awards come in is, we want to say the real story is much more important than that sanitized version. And that’s what’s kept me busy for 40 years.
CAPITAL: What do you make of people and programs calling the video production technique of panning and zooming in on still imagery the “Ken Burns effect”?
BURNS: Steve Jobs called me up 12 years ago in December of 2002 and said, ‘We’ve been working on this for years. We’ve now perfected it. Next month…all Mac computers will have this. Our working title is the ‘Ken Burns effect.’” ….He ended up by giving me hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, which I gave away to nonprofits, and that was how I got some deniability. But I also don’t deny that I’ve saved millions of weddings, bar mitzvahs, vacations, and birthday parties with the “Ken Burns effect.” But it is an abbreviated version of really complex attempt on all of our parts to will the seemingly static material of the past, newspaper headlines and particularly still photographs, to life.
CAPITAL: You directed and produced your latest film, “The Central Park Five,” with your daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon. Is it easier or more difficult working projects with family members?
BURNS: Sometimes, it would be Dave and I who had experience in filmmaking saying to Sarah, ‘No.’ But more often than not it was Sarah and Dave saying, “Dad! Come on! This is a different kind of story.” Or Sarah saying, ‘This is what happened.” Because she’s the one who dug deep and had all that stuff, and so you yield. If you’re smart in the editing room, even if you’re the sole director and producer, you’d be a fool if you didn’t listen to the lowliest intern telling you what they thought about something and giving you critical feedback….This is a collective group experience which you’re trying to take really complex material and move it along to the finish line. And that just takes cooperation. It’s like being in a boat together and we’re pulling in the same direction.
CAPITAL: What platform provides the best opportunities for up-and-coming documentarians to get their work screened and find their audience?
BURNS: PBS. It’s still the most ecumenical, the broadest ranged, the finest. It’s one network of all the platforms we’ve been told the Peabodys serve, and we got a third of the awards. That just tells you it’s a house of excellence. Not a “House of Cards.”