Ken Burns has been making documentary films for more than 30 years. Since the Academy Award-nominated BROOKLYN BRIDGE in 1981, he has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made.
Burns was the director, producer, co-writer, chief cinematographer, music director and executive producer of the landmark television series THE CIVIL WAR. This film was the highest-rated series in the history of American public television, prior to BASEBALL, and attracted an audience of 40 million during its premiere in September 1990.
The New York Times called it a masterpiece and said that Burns “takes his place as the most accomplished documentary filmmaker of his generation.” Tom Shales of The Washington Post wrote, “This is not just good television, nor even just great television. This is heroic television.”
The columnist George Will said, “If better use has ever been made of television, I have not seen it and do not expect to see better until Ken Burns turns his prodigious talents to his next project.” The series has been honored with more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, a Producer of the Year Award from the Producers Guild, a People’s Choice Award, a Peabody Award, a duPont-Columbia Award, a D.W. Griffiths Award and the $50,000 Lincoln Prize, among dozens of others.
Some of Burns’s other films include THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE (2013), THE DUST BOWL (2012), PROHIBITION (2011), THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009), THE WAR (2007), co-directed with Lynn Novick, JAZZ (2001), LEWIS AND CLARK: THE JOURNEY OF THE CORPS OF DISCOVERY (1997), and BASEBALL (1994).
Burns was born in Brooklyn, New York on July, 29 1953, and graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1975. Here, he talks about his latest film, THE ADDRESS, a current-day documentary chronicling the herculean effort by students at a school for boys with severe learning disabilities to memorize the Gettysburg Address in order to recite it at an assembly of parents, friends and teachers.
Kam Williams: Hi Ken, thanks for another interview. Like last time, I’ll be mixing in question from readers with my own.
Ken Burns: Fine, fire away, Kam.
KW: What was the source of inspiration for The Address?
KB: I live in Walpole, New Hampshire and, for the past 35 years, made all the films there. And across the Connecticut River, which divides New Hampshire from Vermont, is the tiny town of Putney. Over a decade ago, the Greenwood School, which is located there, invited me to be a judge in their annual contest judging the recitation of the Gettysburg Address. I just wept at the fortitude and inspiration that these boys and their struggles represent.
KW: The movie made me cry.
KB: It made me cry, too, just the other day when we had the premiere in Brattleboro which is the quote-unquote “Big City” nearby, with a population of maybe 8,000 people. I kept saying, “Somebody else should be making this movie. This is cinema verite, not the kind of thing that I do.” But I came back each year as my schedule permitted, and the more I came back, the more I felt that I just had to put my money where my mouth is and just do it. So, we embedded for abut three months, and it was a life-changing experience to watch these kids undergo their own life-changing experience. And then we had the idea to share it and say, “Hey, everybody can memorize the Gettysburg Address.” If you go to www.LearnTheAddress.org, you’ll find all the living presidents reciting it, as well as a lot of other figures in government, in the media and in Hollywood. And thousands of citizens and school kids from all over have memorized it... Alabama… Utah… Hawaii… from all around. It’s really wonderful!
That’s what the tears are for, from seeing the faculty lovingly teach and take care of these kids while the boys also assist each other. Each child has his own limitation, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to help each other. Seeing them overcome them makes our day-to-day problems seem kind of puny. Then, of course, this is all set against the context and backdrop of arguably the greatest speech every given in the English language, one that was doubling-down on the Declaration of Independence, the 2.0 version of it. And we haven’t had a new version since. It’s the one we still operate on today. Lincoln needed to write the 2.0 version, because Jefferson’s 1.0 had that inherent contradiction of tolerating slavery while proclaiming that all men are created equal. Jefferson himself was a slave owner. I think what the Gettysburg Address does is yank us into the future, however painful the moment might be, while commemorating the dead in the greatest battle on American soil.
KW: Your film has certainly inspired me to memorize it.
KB: I want you to. I’d love you to add your recitation to the website. You’ll feel so great. It’ll be very moving. A lot of people have broken down during their first attempt to record it because of the sheer emotion and power of the words. Just today, I was asked to recite it on camera by a reporter, and I was moved to tears not by my accomplishment but by my trying to invest those words with some meaning.
KW: Environmental activist Grace Sinden asks: What is it about the Gettysburg Address that makes it stand out to you as one of nation's most powerful and memorable speeches?
KB: There are no proper nouns… It’s really short… It’s presidential poetry… Lincoln uses the word “here” many, many times. He moves it around in an attempt to rivet you to the place to make you appreciate what it is. And yet, with “Four score and seven years ago” he’s acknowledging the past, meaning the Declaration of Independence. He’s telling you where we are, “We’re engaged in a great Civil War,” but he’s also pushing us forward, saying we could have a new birth of freedom, and we did, just as we did at the first anniversary of 9/11 when among the very few speeches delivered was the Gettysburg Address, as if the words were medicine, which is precisely what they were.
KW: Grace also asks: Do you think that the children who had to memorize the Gettysburg Address really understood the underlying issue of slavery and the necessity of the Civil War to keep our nation together?
KB: Yes, Grace. I think you’ll see this quite clearly in the dynamics in the classroom in the film as it unfolds. Two of the youngest students, Kevin and Geo, have one of the most sophisticated conversations I’ve ever heard by kids that young about secession and slavery. It’s very clear that they’ve used the Address as a tool not only to overcome the difficulties of whatever diagnosis they have… dyslexia… executive function… dysgraphia… ADHD… the whole alphabet soup of stuff, but it’s a way to bind together their entire educational experience… History… English… Remedial Class… I have no doubt in my mind that, all across the board, the Gettysburg Address takes up a lot of space and gives a lot of meaning for a tiny speech. Then I learned that the school had never been to Gettysburg in its 35-year history. So, I built into my budget the renting of a bus and hotel rooms for the entire school, and I gave them a tour of the battlefield for an entire day.
KW: I don’t remember the film mentioning that the school had never visited Gettysburg before?
KB: No, I left that out. I didn’t want to toot my own horn. We took them there as a kind of epilogue.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier asks: Can you share the students’ sentiments when they accomplished the goal of mastering the speech?
KB: There was a wide range of reactions. For some, it was relief. Many of the boys knew the speech cold, but only felt comfortable reciting it in front of a couple people. The notion of saying it in front of an audience of 250 was terrifying In fact, some of them had issues connected to anxiety and what’s called executive function. So, there was often a release, followed by a sense of accomplishment. There was great pride and joy. Sometimes, there was the utmost confidence. One boy read it with such passion that I think all of us in attendance cried because he had imbued it with so much meaning, as I think you and your readers will feel as you take on this task. If you tape it up next to your mirror, where you can see it every morning, you might curse me for a few days until you get it. But then, it’ll be on your hard drive permanently and a source of great benefaction and meaning for the rest of your life. You’ll have both your own unique response to the Address and at the same time it will bind you to everybody else.
KW: Patricia also asks: What is the most important thing you learned from the kids?
KB: As the Greenwood School’s psychologist, Tom Ehrenberg says in the film, “We’re a country that thinks we celebrate individuality, but it really celebrates conformity.” And when we see different, other, we don’t deal with it. We just avert our eyes. And these kids have been bullied and marginalized and worse. They’ve been driven to schools like Greenwood as their last refuge of hope. What I found each boy taught me was the preciousness of each individual life. Each boy taught me how smart they actually were. Each boy taught me that perhaps it is unfair to apply the same general metrics to everybody. When you look at the boys that way, my heart was enlarged. I tell you, Kam, I already had four daughters, but I now feel like I have 50 adopted sons.
KW: Patricia would like to know what Abraham Lincoln means to you.
KB: He’s the greatest president in our history. He was the guardian of our republic at its greatest crisis, our Civil War. Lincoln was there to guide the struggle, to take on the weight of it, to keep the country together, and to do it with such extraordinary charity that his goodness and thoughtfulness about who we were and what our potential was goes hand in hand with that melancholy and sense of moral outrage about slavery’s still existing in a country which had declared that all men are created equal. He had a sort of Old Testament fervor, as though he was throwing lightning bolts. I refer you to his second inaugural where he’ll turn around and then give you a kind of New Testament “sea of enveloping love” which reminds you of the much more important things in life than nations.
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: What are the essential ingredients for the recipe for a great documentary?
KB: I think it’s always a good story, a good story, a good story, first, second and third. The word “history,” which is what I do, is mostly made up of the word “story.” That’s what we’re responding to. We tell stories to each other all day long. That’s what we’re looking for when we say, “Honey, how was your day?” We edit and superimpose. What you’re looking for is the best of a good story that appeals on so many levels, as I think the story of the Greenwood School and these boys does. Yes, it’s about the Gettysburg Address, but it’s also about something that mirrors it in a very profound and human way. And I’m just grateful to be caught up in the whirlwind of the Greenwood School.
KW: Harriet also asks: Is there another series of yours that you'd like to revisit the way you did with Baseball when you did The 10th Inning?
KB: No, I’m very happy to be working on a big series about Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, another big series about the History of the War in Vietnam, and one on Country music, as well as biographies of Ernest Hemingway and Jackie Robinson. Baseball is the only one I want to keep coming back to. I hope there’s an 11th Inning and a 12th Inning down the line, God willing and funding willing.
KW: Jim Cryan says: I really enjoyed Prohibition. Did making that documentary have any effect on your alcohol consumption?
KB: [LOL] I am periodically a teetotaler, Jim, but I definitely drank during the production just to offset the absurdity of the only Amendment to the Constitution that limits human freedom rather than enlarging it.
KW: Documentary filmmaker Kevin Williams asks: Why do the government archives in Europe charge money and a lot of it for archival footage and photographs, whereas our National Archives and Library of Congress do not? It is really disheartening for independent documentarians without big budgets.
KB: I couldn’t agree with you more, Kevin, and all I can say is “God bless the United States of America!” These are the people’s archives, and so the people get free access to them.
KW: Lisa Loving asks: Have you ever dreamed of becoming a futurist?
KB: You know what, Lisa? The best indicator of the future is the past. If you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t know where you are or where you’re going. You’ll find that people who understand history are the best futurists you can imagine.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Ken, and best of luck with The Address and all your other projects.
KB: Thank you, Kam. Take care.