Ken Burns: The public's filmmaker

Patt Morrison Asks

Ken Burns is a matchmaker with a camera. He has introduced Americans to themselves, to their history, with documentaries such as "The Civil War." He also used the "pan and scan" camera technique to make still images of the long-dead seem alive on the television screen.

Burns has given us -- given us back -- the Brooklyn Bridge, jazz, baseball, Lewis and Clark and World War II, and elegantly illustrated biographies of Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson. His laurels include Oscar nominations, several Emmys and the introductory video to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's call-to-action speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

He told me that he wants his films to be a form of "emotional archaeology"; sometimes, what he digs up is personal. His new six-part PBS series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," which begins Sept. 27, precipitated a buried boyhood memory. He hadn't remembered, until he actually picked up a camera to begin shooting in Yosemite National Park, that when he was about 6 years old his father bundled him out of bed early one morning and drove him to the Shenandoah National Park for his first weekend in one of the nation's public preserves.

Why does he train his camera on the subjects he does? And oh, yes, that hair ... .

There's a quote from William Faulkner: "The past isn't dead; it isn't even past." You must believe that too.

Absolutely. History is not "was" but "is." You think of the past as fixed, changing only as new information arises, but it's actually malleable as our own perspectives and inclinations and emotions change.

As we've seen with Lincoln -- how he becomes a different Lincoln for every generation.

A different Lincoln! In some generations and some quarters, he's tardy on emancipation, he's a failure to the radical Republicans, he's gay, he's depressed, he's all these different things. Lincoln hasn't changed. It's just that we are now interpreting [him] a different way. Which means that history is as much about now, and also about the hope for where we evolve, as it is anything else.

Your work speaks of a great affection for this country.How do you define patriotism?

Nobody has said the word "affection" to me. [Some think] I've painted [a] Pollyanna-ish picture of America. I haven't. I have great love and affection for my country, which I think is one of the essential attributes of patriotism. The other is that you look at the past with an unvarnished eye. You don't give that Madison Avenue, sanitized version. I try to tell stories that haven't been told. So in [my] Brooklyn Bridge film, affectionate though it may be, it also reveals the corruption of New York City politics and the wire fraud perpetrated at the time of the bridge, the nervous breakdown suffered by its designer, the promotion of a Victorian housewife to essentially chief engineer -- that's all part of it too.

What's the significance of the national parks to the country?

When the Depression took place, the first stimulus dollars in American history were spent, and the first beneficiaries, the shovel-ready things, were the national parks. It's paradoxical that parks got more money in the Depression than they had [before], and attendance grew, because there was a sense that the national parks were democracy applied to the landscape.

We [all] own the most spectacular beachfront property, the most beautiful mountain ranges and waterfalls and geothermal features, the grandest canyon on Earth. We need to visit our property now and then, make sure it's OK and it's got proper maintenance, and include it in our will for posterity.

How did you come to tell stories visually?

My very first memory, at 2 1/2 , 3 years old, was of [my father] building this darkroom in the corner of our basement in Newark, Del., and then watching this amazing alchemy as a picture comes into existence. So I think the heart of my work has been rooted in this huge respect for the ability of a single image to convey complex information. And, at the same time, because life is so complicated, we negotiate that complication by superimposing structure, story, metaphor.

What you've called "manipulated truth."

All truth is manipulated, because the universe is chaotic. What we divine from it is the superimposition of some kind of order, whether it's religion, superstition, story and art, literature, science -- all of them are an attempt to keep the wolf from the door. And that wolf is the panic of chaos.

Somebody said that good writing is about editing, about being able to kill your darlings. So what was the hardest darling you had to kill?

One of those cliches is the cutting room floor: What's on the floor is good stuff. [For "Mark Twain"] we had done this beautiful scene of Hannibal, Mo., waking up as the steamboat came, and this flurry of activity, and then going back to sleep as the steamboat takes off. It was wonderful, but every time I took it out, [the film] flew. Dayton [Duncan, Burns' collaborator] would come with bags under his eyes, sleepless, and he would say, "Do you think we could put it back in?" And we'd put it back in and the same thing would happen. It was a little darling, a perfect scene, that we had to kill in order to serve scenes, some of which were nowhere near as good but contributed to a larger whole. It's hard.

General Motors said that, with regret, it will no longer fund your work. What does that say about how documentaries, public broadcasting, can go on in this economy?

We started this second multiyear deal with General Motors in 1999, and we knew at that point that [it] would be the last one. This is just General Motors acknowledging, "We've got to eliminate whatever perception of fluff as we try to get our shop in order." If we [in public broadcasting] are smart, we will make this case: Out of the cacophony of all the stuff on the radio and all the stuff on television, we in this underfunded life manage to produce the best children's shows, the best science, the best nature, the best performance, the best art, the best public affairs and the best history.

Do you ever have this Jerry Bruckheimer fantasy that you want to make a movie with a $50-million budget and just blow stuff up?

[Laughs]. You know, I wanted to be a feature filmmaker when I realized how powerful movies were. My mom died when I was 11, and my dad had a strict curfew, but he let me watch movies late at night, and I saw him cry for the first time. He didn't cry at my mom's funeral; he cried at "Never on Sunday," the Jules Dassin film that had been a favorite of my mom's. I realized there was power in movies, and I wanted to be the next Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks. And then I got introduced to social documentary -- still photographers who reminded me there is much more drama in what is, and what was, than anything in the human imagination.

Your mother died when you were quite young. Her ashes were unclaimed and went to a pauper's grave for a time, until you recovered them. How do you think that's influenced you?

Our family was devastated, and my dad had a really hard time picking up the pieces of his life. [Handling her remains] just slipped by the wayside. But a crisis later on in my life precipitated needing to think about [such] things. It was a way of keeping her alive, if you think about it. And I mentioned this to a friend of mine who said, "What do you think you do for a living? You wake the dead. You make Abraham Lincoln and Louis Armstrong and Jackie Robinson come alive. Who do you think you're really trying to wake up?"

Why are Americans generally so ahistorical, compared with other countries?

A lot of it has to do with our relative youth. We haven't really gotten out of our adolescence, and what characterizes adolescence is the sense of going forward, burning everything behind us like rocket fuel. Part of what happens when you go through a massive world war and then a 9/11 and a Great Depression and perhaps now another depression is that you sober up. I think what you're seeing is Americans increasingly aware of the fact, in fits and starts, of how important it is to have a past.

There are so many references to you in pop culture, like "The Simpsons" episode --

[Interrupting] I told James Brooks I am so pissed off that he didn't use my voice. I would have been happy to be humiliated in person. Homer Simpson's desperate to find the clicker to change me off the TV set, but he has been reminded by Flanders that prayer does it -- and he prays to God and God reveals the clicker, and Homer's able to switch to the Monkey Olympics. My cred among young people and my daughters went through the roof.

So -- what's with the hair?

I just have hair that grows. When I can't see anymore, I go and get it cut back, and then I go until I have to do it again. I have hair that has never seen a comb since I was in the fifth grade. I got a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Emmys this past fall, and Tom Brokaw introduced me and said, "He's been himself, and he's kept the same hair," and I thought, "This is the perfect opportunity to say, 'Tom, it's a wig.' " I didn't think of it until afterward -- I already had a one-liner, which was, "Thank you, I have a brief, nine-part response." This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of the conversations is online at

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