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Even if you are meant to be the one interviewing Ric and Ken Burns, it will inevitably end up as a back-and-forth between the two brothers. Something Dante wrote reminds them of a passage from Ecclesiastes, and then come Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Eugene O’Neill and the lyrics from a B-side Beatles track, at which point they have traversed about seven centuries and three continents away from the original question, whatever it was.
The referential well runs deep, but it’s never without some self-analysis (“I wish I wasn’t so long-winded,” laments Ric with a kind laugh.) and the culmination to a greater point. In this way, a conversation with the Burns brothers is not unlike their films, equal parts disarmingly rigorous and endlessly approachable.
This week, it just so happens that the Burnses are having back-to-back premieres on PBS, with Ken debuting an expansive three-part docuseries on Ernest Hemingway, which he directed with longtime creative partner Lynn Novick, and Ric screening Oliver Sacks: His Own Life about the famed writer and neurologist.
Though not intended as such, the docs can be viewed as a sort of thematic double-billing. Says Ric, “These are both men of enormous complexity who suffered tremendously in their lives, who created images for themselves, deliberately or otherwise, in relation to which the complexity and the suffering was all beneath the surface.”
Ken notes of the author behind The Old Man and the Sea, “We love getting to know these vulnerable sides. You would assume that you could make a pretty easy, ‘I love him’ or ‘I hate him.’ But, in fact, it’s neither. What you learn I believe is some form of compassion for him, and then by extension for yourself and your own struggles and failures in the midst of those struggles.” He adds: “Compassion is the only thing there is.”
Hemingway and Oliver Sacks are debuting at a time when theaters in major cities are finally opening in earnest. But while the theatrical marketplace has been majority-shuttered for the better part of a year — Oliver Sacks had a sidelined 2020 theatrical release — Ken notes that their brand of filmmaking has been buoyed: “What’s been so unusual is that since the pandemic, PBS has just opened up the flood gates of our work and others and people have been nourished by it.” With Major League Baseball put on hold at the top of the pandemic, PBS began to air Ken and Novick’s nine-part 1994 documentary Baseball. Being stuck at home, pandemic audiences have had ample time for the trademark Burns-ian slow zooms and leisurely pans.
These two films are just the latest in a long line of credits with subjects that have included — but are certainly not limited to — Andy Warhol, the Roosevelt family, country music, Coney Island and the Donner Party. Ken is currently editing his next two documentaries, including one on Muhammad Ali, while Ric is in production on a film about the writer-philosopher Dante.
“It’s like being in college for your whole life. You move from subject to subject, learning an enormous [amount] about it and you try to make it into something that will be as engaging to somebody else, hopefully, as you feel engaged with it,” says Ric of the filmmaking.
Prior to teaming with his brother as a writer-producer on 1990’s The Civil War, college is exactly where the filmmaker thought he was headed: “I was going to be a professor of English.” But the years-long production, which first cemented the elder Burns’ status as a filmmaker and introduced the younger to the medium, was not without its challenges, some of which are unique to work being done between siblings.
“Not every aspect of that series, but many aspects of it, benefited from the willfulness of these two siblings, each absolutely fulfilling the role that was written for them of pathfinding dominator versus rebellious insister,” says Ric, who is the younger by exactly 18 months.
Entertainment is filled with sibling filmmakers (see: the Coens, Russos and Wachowskis), but the Burns brothers now produce their films at a distance, working in parallel, as opposed to tandem. And, while not collaborators, they are constant and open admirers. Ric began his Hemingway viewing casually, sitting on the edge of his bed, and stayed in the same position, engrossed, for the entirety of the series’ nearly six-hour run. Ken exited the Oliver Sacks screening at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival with tears still in his eyes.
In describing how their familial dynamic plays into their working relationship, Ric thinks back to the woods that set beside the Burns childhood home in Newark, Delaware. “We would spend an endless amount of time in the woods. Ken was the pathfinder,” he remembers. “Would I have been a filmmaker, if Ken had been a dentist?”
Hemingway premiered on PBS starting on April 5. Oliver Sacks: His Own Life debuts on April 9.
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