Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns is responsible for such genre-defining and genre- defying documentary series as The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, to name a few. As he and collaborator Lynn Novick prepare to debut their new 10-part documentary film series The Vietnam War on September 17 on PBS stations nationwide, we spoke with the tireless documentarian about leadership, productivity, managing gigantic projects and how to achieve immortality through storytelling.
So you just finished this incredible documentary about Vietnam. Are you already thinking of the next three documentaries down the road?
Sorry to say, in a kind of admission of foolishness, I’m thinking usually about 13 or 14 films ahead. I’m now working on six or seven at the same time, which is insane. A lot of that has to do with the economies of scale that these labor-intensive historical projects require. The Vietnam War was more than 10 years in the making.
How do you choose your subjects?
It is not based on any market research; it’s a gut feeling. It’s the chemistry that happens between friends. You’ve got a lot of ideas — 60, 70 film ideas — but then every once in a while, one drops from your head to your heart and you go, “Gotta do that one.” You sort of add that to the queue, and then it just becomes a matter of finding the bandwidth and figuring out who the collaborators are.
Your projects are massive undertakings. How do you keep your focus?
I feel comfortable. A lot of that has to do with [the patronage of] public television, and a lot has to do with my stubbornness. So many people ask me, “Ten years? Don’t you get bored?” But for me, each day it gets better and better. Plus I don’t live in Los Angeles or New York City. I live in a tiny village in New Hampshire, which permits us to do the deep dives, to do the necessary research and keep the sanity in the course of a 10-plus-year project.
Can you give people a picture of the Ken Burns industrial complex? How do these films come together?
The film credits show several hundred people, whom we’re very grateful for. But every one of the films is really handmade. Even the big series you can reduce to about a dozen or so people. That’s why it’s hugely important to get your collaborators right, to get people you trust. To learn how to delegate, to trust them. It’s great because most of my editors, for example, came as interns and worked their way to apprentices, then became assistants and then after 10 or 15 years, full-fledged editors. A lot of it is good generalship. A lot of it is extraordinarily careful time management. But the biggest thing is choosing the right people.
Can you talk about giving criticism — especially when you have such a tightly knit team? Sometimes in a leadership position you have to, for lack of a better term, bust some balls.
Everybody screws up, including me. I have a certain confidence that even in the darkest days, I seem to know what to do next. And I do, and I say that. But that’s not to say that the next day it isn’t terrible. And I’m the first person to admit that. If you create that environment, then there’s not a question of needing to bust any balls. It’s a question of process. We’re all going to try something. We can have disagreements that can be passionate, but they’re not loud and vociferous; they’re not personal and angry. There’s a generous spirit of collaboration. We’ll finish an episode and turn to the interns and ask, “What do you think?” And then we’ll ask the senior editors, “What do you think?” Then the co-producers, “What do you think?” And visitors, “What do you think?” I know I have the right to make the final decision, and I will make that if we’re in doubt. But I would rather reach a consensus before we have to drop that shoe.
Image Credit Tim Llewellyn
Do you have any personal rules for separating your work from your personal life?
I don’t see the blending. I have a lot of colleagues who work all the time, into the night and on the weekends, but we don’t do that. We’re like: “Come in, and if you can do your work and then go home and see your family, go and do that.” There’s a real work ethic, but there’s not set hours. We never end up firing anyone. People just say, “This isn’t right for me,” and we’ll just say under our breath, “Yep, that wasn’t the right fit.” But it takes almost no time for people to realize that. Even among the interns who come from various colleges across the country, who work for minimum wage, it becomes clear who’s going to make it and who’s not going to make it. And that’s OK. A lot of people are drawn to film for its apparent glamour and don’t realize it’s really hard work.
What are some things you think are necessary to get you from initial idea to finished project?
You have to know who you are. There’s a kind of ultimate Socratic thing: Who am I? What am I interested in? What’s my strength? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? Do I have something to say? These are huge, existential questions, but they do have practical day-to-day manifestations. I feel very lucky that at age 12 I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, by 19 I knew I wanted to be a documentarian and by the time I graduated I knew it was history. And once you know what you want, getting it requires perseverance. I’m sure there are a lot of more talented filmmakers than me, with really great ideas, who just haven’t followed through. All the choices we make, it’s got to be, as Emerson said in his essay on self-reliance, “whatever inly rejoices.” A lot of people think they’re supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer as their parents told them to be, and it doesn’t work for them. But if you do what inly rejoices, it’s going to be OK.
As a historian, how have you seen the spirit of entrepreneurship evolve over the years?
I think entrepreneurship is at the heart of who we are in terms of the American promise and the American dream. You have to go back to the fundamentals — for the first time in human history, we decided to trust the people to govern themselves. That releases all kinds of creative energies. I remember interviewing a writer and historian for my baseball series. He said that when Americans are studied 1,000 years from now, we’ll be known for three things: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. And what all three things have in common is that they’re improvisatory. The U.S. Constitution is the shortest constitution on Earth. It’s four pieces of parchment that’s able to provide us with this improvisatory space. And baseball has infinite, chess-like combinations. And of course, the heart of the music that’s recognized as an art form is all about improvisation, not playing the notes on the page. And so entrepreneurship is a manifestation of that.
Last question: How do you start your day?
I have no problem starting my day. Coffee is not in my diet. It’s the other way around. I have to figure out how to turn off the machine at the end of my day. That’s my biggest problem. There are lots of things to do and not enough time to do them. There’s an interesting truth to the human condition, that none of us are getting out of this alive. None of us. So you could reasonably assume that the human race would just curl up in the fetal position and suck our thumbs all day. But we don’t. We create symphonies, we raise children, we build cathedrals, we develop apps, we do all sorts of things that belie that. The thing we do most of all is tell stories to each other. And in the telling of stories, in the making of things, we create a kind of immortality.
For an extended video of Burns’ interview, visit entm.ag/kenburns