Ken Burns, 2003
by Dottie Witter
When it comes to documentaries, Ken Burns knows exactly where he is going. "I'm really making the same film over and over again, just pursuing a question about American identity," he said.
"Control" has been an issue, he said. "I found it difficult not to have my hand in absolutely everything. It's really incumbent upon me to give up some things, still maintaining the fact that when it says film by Ken Burns, I mean it just as I did on the first," he said.
Choosing a Topic
Burns insists he never picks his topics. "I like to say that they choose me. I've got a lot of ideas in my head, and believe me, if I were given a thousand years to live, I wouldn't run out of projects in American history that would be exciting and compelling and entertaining and worthwhile."
When he starts a new film, he knows little about his subjects. "The only thing I ever went into thinking I knew something was baseball, and in the first few days I realized how little I actually knew. Jazz was the most remote to me, and in some ways, I guess, the most satisfying."
Political correctness in making documentaries has always been a problem. "The pendulum of historical presentation just swings back and forth all the time," he said. "We've got to figure out a way to find a middle that teaches a real history without becoming all things to all people so that it becomes sanitized."
Burns points to women's history as an example. "For many, many years, women's history was never taught. You didn't exist in American history. You sewed a flag and then you were Eleanor Roosevelt," he said.
Earlier history promoted even more lies, he said. "To this day, 99 percent of people think that reconstruction was a bad period in American history. Reconstruction was our government's first attempt at civil rights. It was the collapse of reconstruction in 1877 that was the tragedy," he said.
"I'm in the enviable position to be able to say if you don't like my films, it's all my fault. I never want to get into a situation where I'm apologizing because I've placed myself in other people's hands. I've been an independent and my films have been shown on public television, but nobody has told me how to change them, what to do, how long they should be," he said.
He equates part of his success to the foolishness of biting off more than he can chew, then learning how to chew it. "If I have one skill, it's being able to say, okay let's take this one second at a time and figure this out and tomorrow will be a little bit better," he said.
Burns doesn't buy into the theory that technology makes a difference in filmmaking. "You can't let technology be the tail that wags the dog. You still have to be a good storyteller in order to be successful," he said.
Once he selects his next topic, the real work begins. "The subject matter takes me to hundreds of archives around the country, or around the world, for that matter," he said.
His films usually take at least two and one-half years to complete. "That doesn't mean I'm not working on other stuff at the same time, because I actually like to have a few things going," he said. "It helps to have the different perspective of another project."
He's excited about a new project on the history of our national parks. "We invented this notion that land can be set aside, not for the privileges of noblemen, but for everybody to enjoy for all time, and the evolution of that idea is a real rip-snorting story, as compelling as anything I've done, with a backdrop, literally, of the most spectacular scenery ever," he said.
The Ken Burns Style
"Style is the set of techniques that a particular artist or craftsman uses to solve the problems of production," Burns explained. "And if they're good, then you can say the style is authentic."
He knows people copy his style, some doing it well and some "don't do it really horribly," but it doesn't worry him. "Nobody can copyright your style," he said.
Burns uses live modern cinematography the way most people use still photography or painting. "I treat my still photographs and paintings as if they're real, and I treat my real shots as if they're still photographs or paintings," he said. "They have a kind of posed, sort of timeless quality, and if you mix all that together, and you are me, then you have the real Ken Burns style."
His style, he said, is a set of things. "I take old photographs and I energetically explore the content of them. I'm not content to hold them at arm's length and just sort of wish that I had footage. I'm willing to trust that that individual image can convey complex information, so I'll treat an old photograph as if it really was moving, and like a feature filmmaker, which I originally wanted to be, to see it as a long shot, as a medium shot, as a close shot, a tilt a pan a zoom in a zoom out and an insert." In fact, he might shoot the same photograph 10 different ways.
Period music, recorded on authentic instruments before he edits his films, permits the music to sometimes dictate the pace and rhythm of the scenes, he said. It's not uncommon for him to have 56 sound tracks for one scene to give the viewer the feeling that he is really there.
"I think that's what style is, just the authentic application of ideas to solve the problems," he said.
How he started
As a student at Hampshire College in the 1970s, with what he described as "good teachers, some equipment, and no money," students started a film company under faculty supervision, working at cost for nonprofit groups. "They just had to understand they were getting student labor. They were just paying for the film, the processing and the travel. And we all cut our teeth on that," he said.
Not wanting to start on the bottom rung after graduation, he decided to start his own film production company, which he named Florentine Films after one of his mentors, Florence. "It's so funny because all of our films are in American history, and here we have this Italian renaissance name, you know?"
But after shooting his first film, he didn't have the money to edit it.
"I knew that if I put those cans of film on top of my refrigerator in New York City and got a real job, I'd still be talking about it 10 years later like the ad man who has the novel he's going to write and never gets around to it," Burns said.
So he moved to New Hampshire. "It permitted me to live inexpensively, and because I thought becoming a documentary filmmaker was taking a vow of anonymity and poverty-and that's basically the vow you take."
He smiled. "I'm a pretty good advertisement for Hampshire College."
He wakes the dead
The death of his mother when he was 11 was the single most important event in his life, he said. When he was about 40, he told a friend that he could never remember the anniversary of her death. "And someone told me that that was just the wishful thinking of that little boy, that I couldn't just deal with it." That troubled him and he told another friend it seemed like he was keeping his mother alive.
"And he said, well, what do you think you do for a living? You wake the dead. You make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong come alive. Who do you really think you're trying to wake up?"
Burns paused. "I don't know if you can subscribe to dime store psychology like that, but it had a kind of a resonance and a meaning for me. I'm interested in the past. I'm not just interested in telling what happened, but sort of trying to create a real moment when history is not was, but is, when the past--for just a moment--might come alive."
Kane Burns on Storytelling
Jazz: A history of American music
Baseball: An illustrated history
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