ENTERTAINMENT
09/25/2018 06:33 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2018

Ken Burns Isn’t Mad

The “far, far left,” “far, far right” and “third- and fourth-rate academics” are all wrong about America’s most famous documentary filmmaker. Just ask him.
Ken Burns’ “The Mayo Clinic” debuts on PBS on Sept. 25.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen / HuffPost Photos: Getty
Ken Burns’ “The Mayo Clinic” debuts on PBS on Sept. 25.

It’s not that Ken Burns has thin skin. Maybe he did, early on, but he insists he’s different now. It’s that he has no patience for the people who pick apart his documentaries without having ever watched them. He’s talking about the eggheads, the “third- and fourth-rate academics,” the journalist sitting across from him in a French-American bistro in Manhattan, whom he accuses — falsely, I can report, since that journalist is me — of having prepared by Googling “controversy.”

Nor does he have patience for the notion that his films try too hard to be all things to all Americans — a criticism for which he has a decidedly un-PBS rejoinder: “Fuck. That.” He continues, “So that’s a criticism of Steven Spielberg and Mark Twain and anybody else who says, ‘I’m an American, and I’ve got a big story to tell.’ The criticism comes from the far, far left and the far, far right, which I am thrilled to have.”

Burns and I met to discuss his latest film, about the Mayo Clinic, which premieres Tuesday evening on PBS. During our lunch, he was by turns eager and defensive, equal parts flack and showman. He spends a significant amount of his time fundraising these days, and it’s not hard to see how he gets people to pull out their checkbooks. No one sells the work of Ken Burns quite like Ken Burns.

“While our film isn’t about the health care debate,” he said with almost boyish excitement. “What we have in front of us is something that really works.”

Ask Burns about his filmmaking process, and he springs to life with an unbridled sense of that old-time American optimism that runs through his work. He recited lines from his multiepisode epics by heart and recalled names, dates and quotes with such speed and eagerness that it was hard to finish a question, let alone second-guess him.

In the 37 years since he released “Brooklyn Bridge,” for which he earned a 1982 Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature, he has rarely, if ever, seemed to take a moment to breathe. The list of his in-depth series goes on and on ― “The Civil War,” “The Vietnam War,” “Baseball,” “Prohibition,” “The National Parks,” “Jazz” and so forth. He hasn’t been home since April 21, he said, and he has his film schedule planned out through 2030, which will take him into his late 70s.

“I’m 65, and I’m busier now than I’ve ever been because there’s a kind of urgency,” he said. “I am not going to be able to tell every story I want to tell, and I’m trying to do as many as I can.”

Over the course of two conversations, we touched on topics such as whether he believes in interviewing Steve Bannon, why he makes films that wake the dead, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and John Kelly referring to his film “The Civil War,” the “Duck Dynasty” crowd, why he couldn’t make a film about Hitler and, of course, President Donald Trump. The interview below has been edited and condensed. 

***** 

When you’re starting on one of these big movies, what’s the first step?

First of all, it’s having to say yes to it. It’s like falling in love, and you have to watch those signals so that there’s a big wholehearted yes that isn’t coming from your head but your heart. Once you’ve said yes, then it’s about reading. It’s about talking. It’s also, for me, about fundraising. But it’s mainly, well, you said big movies, so I presume you meant the ones that are multiepisode

However you want to define it.

So you start thinking about where the goalposts are. Is it seven episodes? How long are the episodes? You create a bucket for each imaginary episode. You start talking to experts, and then you also do something: You start filming. Because we’re never going to stop researching and we’re never going to stop writing. That is unlike most productions, who have a set research period, then a set writing period. We’ll shoot unconcerned with whether those archives have a place in the script, and we’ll work on a script unconcerned with whether there are pictures, which means a lot of horse trading takes place in editing. But that’s good. It means we can add something at the very end. We can rewrite up until the very last moment, and we’re fluid enough to be able to say, “Yikes, maybe we can think of a new way to illustrate this.” Every time you see a talking head on our film, it’s a lucky accident. And stuff that was opening the film, you think, “Wow they must have scripted that.” Actually, the Vietnam film opens with something that was in another place for a long, long time. We have a process that leaves us open to revision. When filmmakers have a good scene, they don’t want to touch it. But we have a neon sign in the editing room that says, “It’s complicated.” Because as you know, when you write, complication, undertone, contradiction are an essential part of what is, and if you can’t build in a system that respects that, then all you’re doing is a superficial thing, and then you become susceptible to propaganda — that is to say, having a political message. And that’s a great and honorable tradition of documentary. But I want to reach everybody, and I want to piss off the people ―

One of the criticisms of you has been that you try to reach for that national audience.

Fuck. That. So that’s a criticism of Steven Spielberg and Mark Twain and anybody else who says, “I’m an American, and I’ve got a big story to tell.” The criticism comes from the far, far, left and the far, far right, which I am thrilled to have. It’s the ideologues who are imprisoned in their own silos of argument, not fact, and argument says, “Oh, we should have taken our pitcher out. If we had taken our pitcher out in the sixth inning instead of the seventh, we would have won that game.” To which I can only go, “Maybe, but that’s not what happened. You took your pitcher out in the seventh inning, and you lost that game.”

How much do you still use experts in your movies? Because I’ve known you’ve had a contentious relationship with the academic community ―¹

I disagree completely.

Oh, do you?

Oh, yeah. Third- and fourth-rate academics labored 30 years to write a book on “X” topic, and some Beatle-haired guy comes in, and they’ve sold 1,500 copies over 10 years, and I get 50 million people ― of course they’re not going to like us. But every film employs the best scholars in the field. In the case of “Vietnam,” we had about two dozen scholars. So it’s a red herring.

It’s a minority to you?

It’s a complete red herring. In fact, I had one situation where I was on a panel [for] “Jazz” at Harvard University with a whole bunch of people and some guy made a speech about how [takes on scholarly voice] “Yeah, Ken, we like your films, and your thing on swing was really lovely, but did you know that those musicians began to chafe wearing the same uniforms and playing the same charts every single night, and they began to go up to Harlem in the evening and begin to practice and invent bebop?” And I said, “Yes, that was Episode 6 and 7, and you didn’t watch them, so why are you on this panel?” And so, you just go, “You can’t fight a media culture, which Googles ‘controversy’” — which you’ve done — “and repeated tropes that you have” ―

I read everything!

No, I know. I know you did. But I’m just saying, that’s what you look for. Nor can you do it with people who feel no compunction about reviewing a book they haven’t read or talking about a film they haven’t seen, and 90 percent of the criticisms that I see from academics and otherwise, you go, “Oh, wow, they didn’t see the film, and they just presuppose what it was.” So you just go, “Fine.” Meanwhile, 40 million people watched “The Civil War,” and 45 million people watched “Baseball,” and 50, 52 million people just watched “Vietnam.” I’ll take that any day, and they’re people not just in what I would call my wheelhouse. It’s not big audiences just on the Upper West Side. It’s people in Oklahoma and Alaska and West Virginia and Arkansas. That makes me really happy, and when the fireman stops me yesterday, as he did, he goes, “Hey, you’re the guy who did ‘The Civil War,’” along with the cab driver who is from Pakistan, along with someone who just stops me in the street who is sort of like me ― middle-aged ― then you realize that we’re all self-selecting for our narrow [bandwidth]. I don’t agree with that. Good stories are good stories are good stories. So people go, “Country music? Really?” And I go, “Yeah. Got a problem with that?”

So “Country Music” [Burns’ upcoming series] — when did you start to realize that was a potential project?

About 2010, 2011. A friend of mine in Texas said, “Have you ever thought about country music?” When he said that, I went boom, and I went to my producing partner and writer, Dayton Duncan, and he went boom. Country music does not have the sophistication of jazz musically ― songwriter Harlan Howard said it was three chords and the truth ― but what it has is simple musical forms. So that you can hear the words, and the words are about everything that we experience — the joy of birth, the sadness of death, all the things in between, falling in love, falling out of love, redemption, depression. And we all joke about it. “Oh, pickup trucks and dogs and six-packs of beer.” That is, like, .001 percent of country music’s songs. Plus, it’s another way to deal with the 20th century. It’s about race. The banjo is an African instrument. The banjo is an African instrument. The first episode is called “The Rub,” which is the friction between black and white in the American South, which obviously, we know causes negative things, like the Civil War, slavery, going backwards. But it also has a huge creative [effect]. So jazz music, the blues, country, rock, R&B ― all of this comes out of the tension in the South between white and black, and not a negative tension. It’s a creative one. If you took the Mount Rushmore of country music ― arguably A.P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and, let me think of one another, Bill Monroe — every single one of those four men had an African-American mentor who came in when their chops were [down] here, and took them to [up] here.

Right.

And why they are in Mount Rushmore has as much to do with Arnold Shultz or Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne that came in and changed the whole molecular structure of these sort of seminal country music geniuses.

It seems like one of the things that you’re trying to do with a lot of your movies is kind of take the neighborly feel that a lot of Americans have with one another, and you’re trying to expand that to America overall.

That’s an interesting way to configure it. I wouldn’t quite accept “neighborly.”

OK.

Because I think it is then susceptible to sentimentality. I will accept Abraham Lincoln’s idea about the better angels of our nature. The late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said there’s too much pluribus and not enough unum. I’m into unum, and I’m into the better angels. So I’m looking for that thing that we share in common. And if that’s neighborliness, I’m totally into that. But let’s remember that the opposite of that sometimes happens. We’re so polarized that among a liberal elite or New York City urban thing, we excoriate the “Duck Dynasty” crowd. But that [Cajun] Navy’s been saving black and brown people in Houston in that hurricane and in the Carolinas, and so where does that come from? That doesn’t fit into “They’re bad. We’re good.”

But isn’t the thing, though, that a lot of America’s story is that dichotomy between two peoples?

Yes, always, that’s what we want to do. Sometimes within the same person, you know? That guy who would give up his life saving that little black girl is a racist.

Uh-huh.

Those things can exist, right? Faced with the loss of a little girl, he might sacrifice his life or do something to save her. I want to know what that dynamic is. 

Are there any topics that you feel like you shy away from?

None.

None?

None, none. That’s why I’m always surprised that ― a knee-jerk criticism is that I tell the mythology of America, and I’m thinking, “What film is that?”

Probably a lot of the critics haven’t gotten through every Ken Burns film.

I mean, how many have you seen?

I’ve seen “Civil War” a bunch of times. “The Vietnam War,” “Jazz,” “Baseball” and a number of other ones.

“Mayo Clinic.”

I’ve seen “The Mayo Clinic,” yes. I’ve seen a lot of the films.

Oh, good.

And I was an American history, 19th century, major in college.

Oh, good. So, yeah, it’s crazy. People say, “There’s mythology.” It’s because you don’t do what’s academically fashionable. You know, historiography has gone through a lot of fashions since the Second World War, when just the sheer number of dead people and the dropping of the atomic bomb suggested that narrative was not the way to do it, and anybody could understand how you could say that.

You always say that then and then and then is the best form of storytelling.

That’s the way they even write their papers. I don’t want to make anyone wrong. I just want to say that the academy, particularly in English and in history, went through fashions. First it was Freudian. Then it was sort of Marxist economic determinism. There was deconstruction. There was semiotics. There was symbolism. There was postmodernism. There’s queer studies. There’s Afrocentrism. There’s all of that. But I think what we’ve been trying to say is that a strong narrative ― that isn’t just top down but bottom up, as we’ve always done ― permits you to embrace all of those different fashions without being taken over. So in “The Civil War,” if you were to means test some of the knee-jerk reaction, among some of the tertiary and beyond academia, it’s that we actually told a story about a Confederate general ― that’s bad, right? Or we told too many stories about African-Americans or women ― that’s bad, right? So if you’re a professor of the Lost Cause, [you say,] “Hey, it’s only about these ideals of chivalry and nobility.” It’s not. It’s about fucking slavery. And if you don’t tell the story of women, if you don’t tell the story of African-Americans, then you missed the whole point. But you also have Americans who actually were on the other side. More Americans died during the Civil War than in all our other wars combined. I need to know who those people are. I need to know what’s going through the mind of Jefferson Davis as much as I need to know ― not as much, but almost as much as I need to know — what’s going through Abraham Lincoln’s mind.

Geoffrey Ward [a frequent Burns collaborator and a “Civil War” writer] said that with hindsight, he wishes you guys had painted a harsher and more accurate portrait of Robert E. Lee. Do you feel that way at all?²

Well, I think what’s happened is there has been new revisionism that suggests that we should take any Confederate general in a less than human dimension. And while I understand that these were enemies of the United States, I also think that good storytelling requires you to sort of see into characters. I agree with Geoff that we could have been perhaps much more critical of Robert E. Lee, but at the same time, I think it’s also good to be able to bring people along into the mind of a guy who led this, for a time, very successful army and who, though he disapproved of secession and slavery, as we say in our introductory line about him, he went on to defend them both. Those kinds of contradictions, that kind of undertone is interesting to pursue, and I think we did.

You’ve said before that you didn’t consider “The Civil War” a political film. I wondered what you meant by that.³

I just don’t make a political film. Making political films is essentially reducing everything to a binary yes or no, good or bad thing. I can tell you the Civil War had an enemy, and that was slavery, and I’m unapologetic about that. You know, it happened. The cause of the war was slavery, and slavery was the great evil in the history of the United States, along with some other things that aren’t so good.

Was it frustrating for you when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders used your movie as the justification for this interpretation that ―⁴

It was her secondarily. It was [White House chief of staff] John Kelly who did initially, and what they’re referring to is a legitimate comment that Shelby Foote made [in “The Civil War”] about compromise. But what Shelby wasn’t talking about and what we would never talk about is the idea that you could compromise about slavery. Within five minutes of that comment by Shelby Foote, Abraham Lincoln’s quote is that you can’t be half free and half slave. You’ve got to be one thing or the other, he says, otherwise the country is going to be destroyed. And what I tweeted was that you cannot compromise on slavery, and slavery’s the war. So no, I’m not frustrated. People misuse history all the time, and it isn’t just the right. The left does it as well and makes villains of people or overexaggerates their villainy. Complexity and undertone, the idea that the greatest of heroes has distinct flaws and weaknesses and the idea that every cartoon villain has dimension and positive features is something the wings can’t tolerate. It has to be all one thing and the other.

I’ve seen you talk about this a lot, about ―

I have to talk about it.

— about the complexity of heroism and how if someone is flawed about a person ―

I remember my film on Huey Long, which was my third or fourth film, depending on what you’re counting, played at the New York Film Festival in 1985, and this woman came up to me, and they said, “Oh, my goodness, what a great film. Would you do a film on Adolf Hitler?” It was a Jewish woman from the Upper West Side with her husband, and I said, “You don’t want me to do a biography of Hitler. I would have to make him human.” And first of all, he’s not an American, so I don’t do him. [Laughs.]

One thing you like to talk about is the great genius of America, as you call it, correct?

I think that something happened when we were created, which meant that we had essentially put into motion a century of Enlightenment thinking and actually practically said, “Let’s try to figure out how you could apply this to a real-world context.” We’re still testing it. And while we fail all the time ― and I have not hesitated to show the ways in which we’ve failed ― we’ve also done it better than just about anybody else, if not everybody else, over the long term. So when Lincoln said in his address to Congress [in 1862] that we were the last best hope of earth, I buy into that. But that, to me, is as much a responsibility [as anything]. If we are that good, stop talking about it and start acting like it. Make sure people are judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character. Make sure that there is not the income disparity that we have between us. 

There have been lots of tough times in American history. You’ve never questioned ―

No, I remain more or less optimistic. I do not kid myself that right now is one of the greatest existential threats to the United States, second only to the Civil War and the Depression.

Could you understand why some segments of the country might have difficulty seeing the great genius of America?

Oh, I can understand why every segment of the country could understand that. I’m talking about potentiality and at times expression. But this is not some Pollyanna-ish view. We go through periods of the United States when many of our values suffer from neglect or outright assault. So yes, of course, no one is trying to attempt that kind of Pollyanna-ish view. 

When you made your comments at the Stanford commencement address [about Trump in 2016], those were so pointed at that time. It must have been May or something, did you ―

It was June 16, 2016.⁵ He was just the presumptive nominee. Emphasis on the word presumptive.

Were you going “100 percent, I’m going to do this”? Or was that something that you thought about because you knew it would be ―

It was agonizing for me to make that decision. I thought I had to. It had nothing to do with the fact that I have remained politically neutral in my public figure outside of New Hampshire.⁶ I just felt like this was too great an existential threat, and unfortunately, everything I’ve said has come true and then some. Everything I’ve said. But it was not without several months of anxiety about whether I should do that. And I just felt the stakes were too high for me to sort of pussyfoot around.

Do you have thoughts just as a filmmaker about interviewing people like Steve Bannon? You know that’s been an issue in the last month or so.

I think that we’ve gotten afraid of ideas and afraid of opinions. It’s understandable because of the sort of hyperpartisanship of the moment. Everything is either all black or all white, and it’s hard to escape that, regardless of your perspective. You know one of the lessons of Vietnam — and maybe the main fundamental one — is know your enemy. Obviously, you’ve got ones like make sure your cause is right, make sure your objectives are clear, but know your enemy is really, really important, and we never did. We never understood the language. We never understood the culture, and I think it’s super-important to know who everyone is, what they’re thinking. What Bernie Sanders is thinking, what Elizabeth Warren is thinking, what Steve Bannon is thinking, what President Trump is thinking.

With “The Vietnam War,” I read about a debate you had with Gen. Merrill McPeak about the uses of the words “murder” or “killing” to describe My Lai and you eventually ―⁷

It was not an argument with him. It was a general discussion that we had with many of our consultants about how to characterize the murder or killing of civilians. We were trying to do a film in which we were not with our rhetoric trying to inflame any passion on either side. So we found ourselves almost continually erring on the side of more cautious language that would permit us to carry an audience of diverse believers through the narrative that we were trying to tell.

You said once that the Gettysburg Address wouldn’t be covered if it happened today. I think you said this a long time ago.⁸ 

A long time ago. I always thought it would be Brit Hume who would be standing up outside while he [Lincoln] was giving the speech and going, “The president came to Gettysburg to try to distract attention from his disastrous military campaign out West,” meaning the fact that Tennessee was not yet wrapped up, and I still stand by that. Not Brit Hume. That was ad hominem — I don’t know why I thought of him in that moment. But I guess I was riffing off of a kind of perceived cynicism that I’ve seen in the news.

What do you mean by “cynicism”?

Most of the cable stuff is just people sitting and arguing about opinions ― and again, arguing about opinions isn’t necessarily arguing about facts.

I think we agree there.

It’s a cheaper way to do it, but there’s nothing being pushed around the plate that has substantive nutritional value. And so what is bred is a kind of cynicism, like, “We’ve seen this before. How do we have to do this differently? What are our graphics? What’s the theme song for this hurricane?” Right?

Yes, I agree with that, the wall-to-wall coverage is ―

And the idea that you have a variety of things ― you do, but it’s just only ideological. I used to go on Fox [News] all the time. [Now,] if I even wanted to express an opinion, they wouldn’t let me on. I would be too dangerous, [potentially] destabilizing their audience, which wishes to have their news [self-selected].

When did that switch happen, in your memory?

It never is an on-off switch. It’s kind of a rheostat that gradually ratchets up. It becomes endemic ― the gavel-to-gavel stuff and a disaster every moment, every shooting, every whatever. But as politics became combat in 2000 is when you saw a complete ratcheting up, and then the election of an African-American really disturbed a lot of people. Even if you were to analyze health care. Like, Hillary Clinton and [former Bill Clinton senior adviser] Ira Magaziner in the ’90s argued for a single-payer plan, couldn’t get it started and out of frustration when they had to give it up, said to the Republicans, “Well, you decide.” So the Heritage Foundation came up with a plan, which Mitt Romney employed in Massachusetts, which still to this day still has the highest rate of insured people. So Obama, who probably was leaning toward single-payer, said, “I want to bring everybody along on this, so I’m going to pick this plan.” And because he was for it, they were against it. That’s the beginning of the end. If you can’t have intelligence governing infrastructure, you can’t put a man on the moon, you can’t build an interstate highway system, you can’t do anything except play to your base, which is tax cuts for the wealthy and an exaggeration of social issues, which in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s were there, but not front and center [like today].

Well, this is what I mean. Sometimes I find that I’m doubting whether ―

― we can survive?

Sometimes I feel that there are larger existential issues, and I wonder if you always have the same [level of] optimism.

To me in this culture war — besides the many, many, many African-Americans who died because they’re living in their homes or driving or standing on a corner or whatever it might be — the casualties have been this woman [Heather Heyer] in Charlottesville. Seven hundred and fifty thousand people died in the Civil War. Us. Not them. Us. So I gotta put it in proportion, right? When people said in ’08, “Oh, this is a depression.” I said, in the Depression in many American cities, the animals in the zoo were shot and the meat distributed to the poor. When that happens, when Philadelphia starts shooting its animals to keep its population alive, then it’s a depression. History gives you benchmarks and comparison points, so if you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t possibly know where you are and, most important, can’t possibly know where you’re going.

You have memories of having trouble sleeping during Selma.

When I was a little boy, yeah.

What about that was keeping you up? 

Remember how you were. You knew a lot and you felt a lot. But I also think it would be what psychologists would call a classic case of transference. My mother was dying of cancer. Race was the cancer that was killing our country. It was very easy to look at the fire hose and the dogs and get anxious about that. It was easier to transfer the anxiety to that than it was to deal with the fact that the woman in the next room, the most important woman I knew, was dying and would soon be dead.

When you say that your mom is in all of your films, what do you mean by that?

I just mean that I wouldn’t be here. Many, many years later, when I was going through a crisis, I told my father-in-law, who was a really great psychologist, that I seemed to be keeping my mother alive because I could never be present on the day she died, April 28. I could see that day coming. I wanted to remember her, but I could always see it receding. I never remembered. He goes, “I bet you blew the candles on your birthday until you were in your 20s wishing she’d come back.” I said, “How’d you know?” He said, “It’s the magical thinking of an 11-year-old. And look what you do for a living.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And he said, “You wake the dead. You make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson come alive. Who do you think you are really trying to wake up?” 

What was the crisis that you were going through at that point?

A divorce, and it brought to the fore a lot of the issues that I thought were about that moment, when they were really about the earlier thing. This is something that took place in ’93 but it was really about stuff that had gone on with her sickness and her death in ’65. So it required me to do a lot of hard work, but the work itself, I mean my professional work, was a godsend, and it kept me going.

I wanted to ask about your father and how he influenced you as a child. I know he was an anthropologist and he had his own issues.⁹

The biggest thing would be my father was an anthropologist. I’m a form of an anthropologist in a very superficial and untrained way. But he was also an amateur still photographer, and one of my first memories of him [is] building a darkroom and then later being in the darkroom in his arms watching this magic of pictures coming out in the dark. I mean, I can’t begin to tell you how imprinting that is. If you think [about] what I do — I help wake the dead by trying to wake up still photographs. And then, he was a classic underachiever. I can’t make a diagnosis on him, but he was not happy. And of course, he had to watch his wife die a slow death over 10 years and then be stuck with that, so I give him a complete pass. He’s still the smartest person I’ve ever met, but he may not have had a clutch. If he was a Maserati, he may not have had a clutch. My brother used that analogy once. So [subsequently], I think my brother and I have both been almost OCD in our work ethics.

You said once that you have a tendency to overreact to criticism of you. It seemed to come from a place of ― you feel you’ve put so much of yourself into the film.¹⁰

No, what I said was, early on, I think I had a thin skin. And my mother used to say to me, “Whatever criticism, there’s always a grain of truth in it.” So exactly the opposite. I actually look at that stuff. But I do find I am impatient with people who criticize something that they haven’t seen. You cannot write something or be on TV and talk about something if you haven’t seen it. And it is easier, particularly in this day of the internet, to Google everything you need to know and then have a kind of false dialectic between the Google hits rather than actually investing ― God help us ― the time to watch “Jazz,” 18 hours, or “Vietnam,” 18 hours, or “The Civil War,” 12, or “Baseball,” 18 1/2. People don’t do that. They’re too busy. [They say], “Oh, I get him. I know what it’s about.”

I think that part of it is that you tackle such enormous topics that are so emotional for a lot of people. The Vietnam War, the Civil War ―

That’s a really good point, Maxwell, because I think people want to sometimes say that the films are nostalgic or sentimental. They are not. Nostalgia and sentimentality are the enemies of good anything. They do have huge emotional content. That is scary for a lot of people. There are people who live in a rational world, really intelligent critics and really intelligent academic people who can’t abide by the unknown. And that’s what I get into. You’re looking for the free electrons that are given off, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable because sometimes it is about pain and loss and redemption and flaws and being wounded, but that’s the truth. The reason why the films are so well received is not so much me and my talent — it is just our collective willingness to get into those things and say, “Yes, Gettysburg happened on July 1, 2 and 3 of 1863, but these things happened there that evoked feelings, as well as facts.” That’s it. And that’s why people left, right and center come and flock [to them].

Do you ever look back on any of your films though and go, “Maybe I should have tweaked this or that”? 

No, they represent the best of me at the time. Now am I a better filmmaker? If I did the film now, would I do it differently? Of course, but you can’t regret that. It’s like a photo album with you with that paisley shirt on from the 1970s, and you can go, “Ah, what was I seeing? Please don’t show that to my new girlfriend or my new friend.” But you don’t tear it out.

You always talk about the U.S. being an “are” before the Civil War and an “is” afterward.

Yeah, that was Shelby Foote’s line, and many other people have said that, and I adopted it, yeah.

Considering that, how do you feel about America today in general?

Let me try to turn a very good question that is essentially negative [into a positive one]. Because I do feel we are becoming more of an “are” than an “is,” but we will never change from “the United States is” back to “the United States are” unless we’ve completely fallen apart, right? Unless we go Yugoslavia. And I don’t think that will happen, ’kay? [Knocks on wood.] Make sure you understand I knocked on wood.

However, I would like to replace that with another idea that I’ve been feeling very passionately about lately, which is that I exist in this seemingly small space ― but for me, infinitely big space ― between the two-letter, plural pronoun “us” ... and its capital letters, “the U.S.” All the work I do is an emotional archeology in there. And out of that [comes] a great deal of optimistic energy without being Pollyanna-ish. I do not want you to be any less anxious about this moment. I think it is an incredibly, as I said, existential moment in these United States. I do believe we will prevail, and we might even be stronger as a result of having determined what we are for and what we are not for.

Footnotes

¹ In the mid-1990s, Burns said that academia had “done a terrific job in the last hundred years of murdering our history.”

² This is not quite right. What Ward actually said last year was that he is “sure” he and the rest of Burns’ team “would have painted a harsher but more accurate portrait of Lee” if they had access to all the research on Robert E. Lee that has come out since the television series premiered.

³ Burns said “The Civil War” was not a “political film” during a conversation with Joan Walsh for The San Francisco Press around the time “Baseball” was released. The comment was made in response to a question about historian Barbara Fields, who participated in “The Civil War” but later criticized it.

⁴ In October 2017, White House chief of staff John Kelly echoed Shelby Foote’s “Civil War” comments during an appearance on Fox News, saying “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” Soon after, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Kelly by making explicit reference to Foote and Burns’ film. “I don’t know that I’m going to get into debating the Civil War, but I do know that many historians, including Shelby Foote and Ken Burns’ famous ‘Civil War’ documentary, agree that a failure to compromise was a cause of the Civil War,” she said.

⁵ According to the school’s website, Ken Burns gave his commencement address on June 12, not June 16. In his comments, he described Trump without naming him as “a person who easily lies, creating an environment where the truth doesn’t seem to matter; who has never demonstrated any interest in anyone or anything but himself and his own enrichment; who insults veterans, threatens a free press, mocks the handicapped, denigrates women, immigrants and all Muslims; a man who took more than a day to remember to disavow a supporter who advocates white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan; an infantile, bullying man who, depending on his mood, is willing to discard old and established alliances, treaties and longstanding relationships.”

⁶ Burns broke from his proclaimed political neutrality in December 2007, when he endorsed Barack Obama for president.

⁷ Gen. Merrill McPeak, a consultant on “The Vietnam War,” told The New Yorker last year that he objected to a subtle script change during the making of the film. Burns’ team replaced the word “murder” with “killing” in a section about the 1968 massacre of South Vietnamese civilians in My Lai. 

 Burns made the Gettysburg comment in an interview published in The American Historical Review in 1995.

⁹ The New Yorker reported last year that Burns’ father was “often enraged” and “likely suffered from bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorders.”

¹⁰ From the interview with The American Historical Review: “The consensus I seek is an emotional consensus that comes from … lifting up the rug of history and sweeping out some of that dirt. So I’m often wounded, hurt, overreact to criticism, because I see them not seeing what the film is about.”

CONVERSATIONS