Ken Burns, unquestionably, rates in the top echelon of modern documentary filmmakers. He is best known for his PBS specials on the U.S. Civil War, baseball and jazz. His 1990 miniseries for public television, The Civil War, was a pop culture sensation in America when it aired in 1990. In January 2007, he signed a lifetime contract with the Public Broadcasting Service, essentially committing that he will work exclusively with PBS for the remainder of his career.
Lynn Novick began her collaboration with Burns in 1989 when she served as associate producer for The Civil War miniseries and then spent five years as co-producer with Burns of a nine-part, 18-hour series on Baseball, the most-watched series in the history of public television for which she one an Emmy Award.
Prohibition, the latest collaboration of Burns and Novick had a screening last month at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale. We had the privilege and pleasure of meeting with them both for an exclusive interview on their visit to Lighthouse Point, during a WBPT Channel 2 fundraising luncheon at Cap’s Place in June.
Q: What do you think triggered the passion you have for the documentary genre as the young Ken Burns, growing up during the 50s?
Burns: My father was an anthropologist and amateur still photographer. The first visual memory I have is my father building a dark room and watch those photos come to life and became drawn to photographic history. So, I’ve always known from an early age that I always wanted to become a filmmaker.
Novick: It was seeing films in the early 80s. I remember being blown away by a film Robert Oppenheimer was showing, and understanding the potential for a film to tell a story seemed astonishing to me.
Q: Decisions in choosing subject matter for an upcoming documentary must be based on many things. What, in order of priority, would those things be?
Burns: We like to say the subject chooses us. First and foremost is to tell a good story. We’re not out there to score political points. We are drawn to subjects in American history that reveal ourselves to ourselves through actions in the past. When a combination of many factors come together, we suddenly say, “Yes I’ve got to do that!” We feel an obligation only to the story.
Novick: People don’t believe us when we say we pick subjects we’re not experts in. Not knowing the whole story is part of the fun of it. The film doesn’t need a preordained rhythm. We bring excitement to it because we are at the same time discovering it.
Q: What particular documentary has risen to a level of popularity you never expected, or dreamed of?
Burns: We’ve made films that have been celebrated and nominated for Academy Awards, but nothing compared to the autumn of 1990 when The Civil War series first aired.
Q: Were there moments after finishing a production that you felt a different approach may have improved the final product?
Burns: No. What public television allows us to do is to spend the time necessary to tell a good story. There’s many junctures in the course of that production we’re able to change course. We’re working with great writers, great cinema tographers and great editors, and being advised by the foremost experts in the field.
Q: Obviously, in your own productions there are many people involved. In such collaborative efforts, there had to be a “decider.” Was that always you?
Burns: In the end, yes. But, more recently, I’ve worked on several projects with Lynn and there are no borders.
Novick: It’s incredible to work with someone who knows what he wants. Oftentimes there are creative people who have the impulse, but they can’t ‘land the plane.’ Ken knows. If someone disagrees, he will actually listen and consider.
Q: When collaborating with partners such as WETA Productions in Washington, were there stricter parameters that had to be abided by when it came to approving the final cut, or did you have free reign?
Burns: We’ve had complete creative control from the very beginning. We work with WETA because they’ve been the most b enign and complimentary of partners. They don’t tell us how to make films, and we don’t tell them how to run a T.V. station.
Q: Were there any productions that were started, but
Burns: We are happy to say that we have completed everything we’ve formerly started. I say formerly started because once Lynn and I were really interested in making a film on the life of Martin Luther King. It became too difficult to work with the family when they became too controlling. We are poised and ready to do the project only if we have creative independence.
Q: On January 31, 2001, USA Today a caption read, “Ken Burns, the Brand: A Marketing Boomlet; Sales of videos of Ken Burn’s Documentaries, Companion Books and CDs Have Earned Over $600 Million in Retail Revenue.” Did this financial success give you greater latitude in making choices for succeeding productions?
Burns: No. It just goes to prove that the press doesn’t know what they’re talking about. We’d like to see but a fraction of that 600 million. We work on a moderate PBS budget for non-profit productions. When Civil War makes money, it’s the distributors, publishers and retailers that make the money. And we are obligated to pay back some of the government grants we get. The National Endowment for the Humanities gave us $1,349,500 to produce the Civil War series, and we repaid that in full!
Q: You have a redbrick replica of Thomas Jefferson’s garden house at your home in New Hampshire. In a field, you have saplings grown from apple trees that graced Jefferson’s Monticello estate, and a monument to Jefferson sitting on the crest of a hill. How did your passion for this man evolve in such a way?
Burns: One of the films I’m most proud of is of Thomas Jefferson, in which we say, almost categorically, that he’s the man of the last millennium. His articulation of human freedom is distillation of a hundred years of enlightenment, thinking into one sentence that begins,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident.” It really qualifies him for that position. But if you go on with the rest of the sentence, it shows the glaring contradictions in his life when he said that, “All men are created equal.” As he wrote that, he owned more than a hundred human beings. I did, however build an exact replica of his garden pavilion as a reminder that Jefferson was in pursuit of life-long learning in the marketplace of ideas. And the symbolism of Monticello has great appeal. And I’m honored to eat the apples that in some ways are related to Mister Jefferson.
Q: You have said, “If you lift up the rug of history and sweep out the dirt, you don’t in any way diminish the beauty of that tapestry.” And you go on to say, “out of confusion and evil comes a great deal of good.” Would that same theory apply, let’s say, considering the fact that America continues to be involved in an unending string of unwinnable wars and thousands of unnecessary deaths?
Burns: Absolutely! If you continually promote a sanitized Madison Avenue version of American history, you do the Americans who receive it an utter disservice. Secondly, we’re drawn, inextricably, into wars because, while they obviously represent the worst of human behavior, they very paradoxically quite often represent the very best in acts of courage, bravery and fellowship—of fraternity of love, even. So, wars become hugely important objects of learning. Not just those high points, but in the way human life is squandered. We hope by illuminating the Civil War and Second World war, and now, as we are working on the Vietnam War, we have a chance to remind people that before you commit young treasure into battle, that you at least be aware of the consequences. And more often than not, we find ways to sugarcoat the consequences.
Q: Were you a jazz buff, or fan before research began on Jazz?
Burns: I can’t really say that. My father played a lot of jazz recordings and I was subjected to it growing up, but as I became a filmmaker. Having to have a sound track for periods in American life, the 20s through the 50s, the music that worked was jazz. Writer Gerald Early said that when they study American civilization 2000 years from now, Americans will be known for three things: The Constitution, Baseball and Jazz music. I can tell you that now I listen to nothing but jazz music!
Q: You have referred to your miniseries on The Civil War as “hitting the jackpot.” It appears there have been a number of jackpots since. What would be your top three choices?
Burns: I think what we’re talking about is the extraordinary satisfaction of reaching a lot of people. And The Civil War reached almost 40 million and still remains the highest rated program in PBS history. Our Baseball film reached 45 million, our War film, 38 million, and our National Parks, 34 million. After our Civil War series, attendance at Gettysburg and Antietam went up almost 300 percent. And National Park attendance went up 10 million people. I call that “hitting the jackpot!”
Q: How did your collaboration with Lynn Novick come about?
Burns: Near the end of The Civil War production, an associate abruptly quit and a friend suggested I hire Lynn, who was about to be married. When beginning work after her honeymoon, she did in 4 to 5 weeks that would have taken the previous producer 8 or 9 months. At that point, I asked her to be co-producer on the Baseball series—and the rest is history.
Q: After 30 plus films, what do you feel was your most creative, gratifying and/or satisfying accomplishment?
Burns: There’s no favorite film. How can you say you have a favorite child? It’s just the love of process. It’s the fact that there’s nothing sad about ending a film, because there’s a new one screaming and yelling to be fed and to be figured… and that’s what we love more
than anything else.
Novick: I don’t think I remember Ken ever looking back and say, Wow! I’ve made a lot of really great films!” It’s always looking forward to what we are doing now.
Q: It is reported that only 30 per cent of 13 year-olds read every day and half of Americans between 18 and 24 never read books for pleasure. It is also reported that the United States has fallen to “average” in international education rankings. Do you believe that documentaries may possibly be just the educational tool that could motivate and inspire students enough to change that ranking?
Burns: We are dismayed by those rankings. But we know our films have changed it. We spend a considerable amount of time figuring out how to work with teachers and curriculum designers to find the best way to introduce these subjects into schools. But we’re only two people. It’s got to be parents reading to their kids, looking over their shoulder to make sure their homework is done. It’s teachers actually teaching subjects. It’s administrators and communities. It’s the American Government whose policy is realizing that our most priceless resource is our children and that education is the determining factor in the success or failure of our country.
Burns: We firmly believe that we have not flinched in any way in taking on something. It may be easy to take a contemporary subject and be controversial. But it’s a little harder to take a controversial historical subject and deal with it and all its ramifications—and to speak
to as many Americans as possible. That’s risk!
Q: With the many outlets the Internet offers for young, creative talent, what words of advice would you give to those desiring to work in films?
Burns: All meaning accrues in duration.
Novick: Before you decide, figure out the best way to accomplish it.
—Story by Jon Frangipane Photos by Debra Todd