3:37pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
TCA Winter Press Tour Day 11 Quotes: Ken Burns Brings Trent Reznor to PBS
The centerpiece of the first of two PBS days at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour was a long-gestating project that won't even be out before our summer press tour.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War won't premiere until September, but it's been between six and 10 years in the making, depending on whose math you use. Burns, who probably holds a place on the Mount Rushmore of TCA panel participants, will be back again in the summer after critics have seen actual episodes of the docuseries, but he and Novick and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross had no trouble filling 50 minutes laying the groundwork for future conversations about the 10-part, 18-hour project.
Sunday's PBS panels also included Masterpiece's upcoming Prime Suspect prequel, a filmed version of the acclaimed play King Charles III, debate about normalizing versus depicting of white nationalism on Frontline and more.
The day's highlights:
*** Burns doesn't talk in soundbites. He talks in carefully considered essays or monologues, so his answers are really unsuitable for a Quotes of the Day column.
"It will be controversial, but only among those who don’t watch it," Burns said of The Vietnam War, which has been locked for 14 months and then was unlocked for an extensive period of fact-checking.
"We have footnotes to our script that are longer than our script," he added.
Burns noted that they interviewed 100 people for the film, that 80 of them appear in the documentary and more than half are Americans.
"[T]hey represent every walk of life, from deserters and draft dodgers and protesters to folks who, I assume, believe we should still be there fighting the commies. And they co-exist," he promised. "And at the same time, we represent a South Vietnamese and a North Vietnamese view, and none of them are uniform. Nobody is just them. They represent as almost as wide a diversity of opinions as we do. And we’ve put our arms around that. So we actually believe that this film has the opportunity to permit Americans to find, as we do all the time in public broadcasting, a place to come together and to begin to have courageous conversations about what happened. So rather than anticipate anything negative there will be that we actually anticipate an extraordinarily rewarding conversation."
*** Novick says the idea to get Reznor and Ross to score The Vietnam War came after watching The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo when they were earlier in production.
"When the credits rolled, I gulped and I immediately called Ken and [producer] Sarah [Botstein], and we immediately started talking about, 'Well, we probably can’t get Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. We’ll just have to find someone who can do something kind of like that.' And then we said to ourselves, 'Well, wait a minute. Maybe we could at least ask,'" Novick recalled. "And I think the reason for us, why we felt we could not make our film without these extraordinarily talented artists, is we were going to be dealing with a very difficult subject, more complicated and challenging than anything we’ve ever done, in terms of a narrative, in terms of the complexities of the human condition, in terms of the range of experiences and emotions we were going to be unpacking, and that we wanted to find a way to not just amplify what we wanted to say, but find music that could help us understand our own story. And that is what they did. And I don’t think that there was anyone else we could have turned to, honestly."
*** It's a glorious thing to see Reznor sitting next to Burns discussing how flattered and star-struck he and Ross were to be asked to score PBS' The Vietnam War.
I asked Reznor what 1991 Trent Reznor would say if you went back in a time machine and told him what 2017 Trent Reznor is up to.
"My life has gone a way I hadn’t expected," he said. "Everything at that time, in your 20s, everything felt pretty you know what 20-year-olds think. If life only went a little bit further, and you were carefree. Kind of immediate needs were being addressed. My career started with, 'I hope to be able to do what I felt I needed to do, and if people like it, great.' But I was going to do some variation of this, whether privately, in my own room, or I’m grateful to have the opportunity to have these kind of abilities. But it was never any great trajectory. I mean, I am not going to be on The Voice next season, I don’t think."
Does Reznor view his career as a series of zags where fans and critics expect him to zig, or does it all feel like a creatively straight line to him?
"I think the career choices I’ve made have been based on what I thought was the best thing to do at that time, not thinking long-term trajectory, and have been reactive to what lessons I learned from what I just came out of," he said. "In terms of musical output, something Atticus and I have learned that as a benefit of our creative process is when we’ve managed to work on several disparate projects at the same time, we can keep them all fresh. In the last six months, we finished the planet change documentary [Before the Flood], [Boston Marathon bombing drama Patriots Day] and a Nine Inch Nails record, simultaneously, for the most part. Three relatively grim subject matters, but different variables. But it kept the approach fresh."
*** PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger admitted that she expected a Donald Trump question to be the first she faced at her executive panel.
Instead, the Trump question came second.
"This is the 50th anniversary this year of the Public Broadcasting Act, so I think it’s a particularly important time to reflect back on the contributions that we’ve made over those 50 years, and I believe that we are the best public/private partnership," said Kerger, after admitting that it was "too early to tell" what impact a Trump administration might have. "For about $1.35 a citizen a year, we provide an extraordinary service, and we leverage that with money that we raise from individuals and partnerships that we build with other media organizations and others to provide the service that we do each and every day."
She continued: "And so as we’ve looked at this change, and change always presents a lot of uncertainty, and in this case, more uncertainty, we are spending time talking to as many people as we can, but particularly legislators, both sides of the aisle, the Senate and the House, to make sure that they understand the role that we play in civic discourse in this country, but also the role that we play in helping to reach those with content that we think will make a difference in their lives."
*** Stefanie Martini is stepping into the hugest of shoes in Masterpiece's Prime Suspect: Tennison, playing the young version of Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison, just beginning her career in 1970s London.
"Yeah. Huge amounts of pressure," the actress acknowledged. "But I think it’s exciting to kind of have such an iconic role to kind of start from and have that as a kind of starting place to work from. But I think Jane Tennison in her 20s is very different to Jane Tennison in the last series, because she is young and naive and fresh-faced, so it kind of feels like a completely different character. So as whereas, yes, it is very intimidating having to kind of step into shoes like that, it’s also different and it just is because the script is different and the situations that she’s in are different and the person that she is is different. So luckily, I don’t have to see it as the same thing."
*** Frontline's American Patriot focuses on splinter groups of armed citizens protesting against the federal government's encroachment on their rights. It's a hard topic to even write about and even harder to acknowledge without falling into the trap of "normalizing" groups that think nothing of breaking the law because of the rights they think they're protecting.
"I think one thing about Frontline is we’ve always been reporting on stories from multiple points of view," said executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath. "So we have always been cognizant of, for example, when we’re telling this story, of asking really fair and tough questions in the field as we report on stories like this. So we’re not just giving people a megaphone, but we’re actually in dialogue with them. But Frontline has always been very comfortable with how people from different partisan points of view, and different points of view, actually having a conversation in a film, in a documentary, and in our writing. I think it’s healthy, and I think it’s important for the country. I think that kind of dialogue is what we’re trying to foster here. So it’s not normalizing. It's actually a dialogue and conversation. And paying attention to the polarization of the country is important for all journalists, at this point. It always has been, and it’s as important now, as it always was."
American Patriot is set to premiere April 4.
*** I tried to get Henry Louis Gates Jr. to rise to the bait by mentioning absurd summer comments from Iowa Congressman Steve King regarding the superiority of Western civilization. Instead, the host and producer of Africa's Great Civilization was rather generous.
"The congressman didn’t know it," Gates said of the history of African civilizations depicted on the series. "Even people in Africa don’t know this. My day job, I’m a teacher, and one of the reasons I love making documentaries with PBS is they can be used to change the curriculum, and what my dream is, and our collective dream is, this will be used in high schools and colleges to teach the way African history and African civilization really unfolded and to challenge the myths of Tarzan and Ramar of the Jungle and Sheena that we all still have in our minds. We are all walking around with dark continent mythologies in our head. So we are trying to reinscribe a new narrative and do it accurately and honestly."
Africa's Great Civilizations is set to premiere Feb. 27.
More PBS quotes coming tomorrow. Whee!