Ken Burns Reveals Details of His Never-Made Film About Martin Luther King Jr., Says Family Wanted Control
The filmmaker says his upcoming projects include a two-part biography of Jackie Robinson, a history of Vietnam and a documentary on Ernest Hemingway.
Complications involving Martin Luther King Jr.'s family — which ensnared the makers of 2014's Selma — also led filmmaker Ken Burns to walk away from a projected documentary about the civil rights icon.
"All through the '90s, I would say, 'I really want to do something on Martin Luther King,' " he said in a March 18 interview. "I think I am programmed to do it because every film I do somehow impacts with race, which is our great subject in America. It's why the Civil War happened. It's everything. But I knew that the family had a hard time letting go of him. And then, completely out of the blue, in the early 2000s, I got a letter from the King family, saying, 'We think you are the best person in the world to do the biography of our husband-father.' I flew down to Atlanta, and within a few hours, I realized, 'No, they can't let go.' "
Burns, whose films for PBS include The Civil War and The Roosevelts, said he met with King's widow, Coretta, and "all the living kids." He added, "This is a father and a husband they could not control in life. And now in death they are [trying to control him]. I didn't want to sit before you and begin to make apologies for the film, because it wasn't what he wanted. So I just kindly backed away. I'd still like to do it."
The filmmaker said his preoccupation with issues of race (including his documentary Central Park Five, about those falsely found guilty of raping the woman known as the Central Park Jogger) has not been without controversy. "I get a lot of hate mail, a lot of racist hate mail about how I'm a 'n—er-loving this,' and more recently it's become more insidious. [People say] 'What are you talking about? We have a black president; we're done with all this. We're post racial.' Ha. I mean, all you have to do is just [consider] the litany of what's happened in the last few years, from Trayvon Martin [on]."
The filmmaker spoke to students at Loyola Marymount University's School of Film & TV, where he was a guest in the ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters, which this season also includes Sean Penn, Clint Eastwood, Gale Anne Hurd, Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke and Quincy Jones.
He also revealed how the loss of his mother when he was 11 years old shaped his future work and made him want to "wake the dead."
"On April 28, 1965, my mother at 42 years old died after a 10-year battle with cancer," he said. "We tend to mark these events as traumatic, and in actuality the trauma comes from watching as a little child that process over the previous 10 years. So every moment of my consciousness was informed with the sense that something was terribly wrong with the most important person in [my] life. And it culminated on April 28 when she passed away."
He continued: "I wasn't with her when she actually died but very close. She had declined very rapidly. However young I might have been, however helpful it might have been — because my younger brother and I were so intimately involved in the course of her treatment and the science of what she had — I feel robbed to this day of not having had the possibility to say goodbye. I hadn't experienced it. And in some way, it is like the amputated limb that you still feel and itch long after it's gone."
Among upcoming projects, he said, he is working on a two-part biography of Jackie Robinson; a history of Vietnam; a documentary on Ernest Hemingway; and a film about the Bard Prison Initiative, "going in and looking at prisoners who are in for really violent crimes, who are learning about Camus, who speak Mandarin, who are in one of the few places in the United States where there is really college- and graduate-level teaching going on, and they can out-debate West Point."
A full transcript starts on the next page.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Hi, everyone, I'm Stephen Galloway and welcome to The Hollywood Masters, filmed on the campus of Loyola Marymount University. Our guest today is probably the most famous and influential living maker of documentary films. He's, as it were, the modern historian who shapes our view of the past for this generation and future generations. I was thinking when I was watching some of his films again that he has defined the Civil War in our minds, in my mind. He's about to do the same for Vietnam. He's done it for jazz. He's done it for the Brooklyn Bridge. His range of subjects crosses American history and more recently he's also ventured into some more topical things like the case of the Central Park Jogger who was attacked and left almost for dead, which became a huge trial and we're going to talk about that later. I'm really delighted to welcome to LMU, Ken Burns. [APPLAUSE]
KEN BURNS: Thank you, Stephen.
GALLOWAY: Thank you. 1965, you're 11 years old, you're living in Ann Arbor with your parents. And the single most important event in your life happens. What was it?
BURNS: On April 28th, 1965, my mother at 42 years old died after a 10 year battle with cancer. It was if you think about it we tend to mark these events as a traumatic event and in actuality the trauma comes from watching as a little child that process over the previous 10 years. So every moment of my consciousness was informed with at first the unformed sense that something was terribly wrong and then the understanding that something most definitely was wrong and wrong with the most important person in your life. And it culminated that thing culminated or at least had one climax on April 28th when she passed away. But it's…
GALLOWAY: Were you with her then?
BURNS: I wasn't with her when she actually died, but very close. Had been in the hospital the day before. She had declined very rapidly. And in fact that's also part of it is missing that. However young I might have been, however helpful it might have been, because my younger brother and I were so intimately involved in the course of her treatment and the science of what she had, I feel robbed to this day of not having had the possibility to say goodbye. I hadn't experienced it. And in some way it is like that, very much like the amputated limb that you still feel and itch long after it's gone.
GALLOWAY: How were you intimately involved with that?
BURNS: Well I think my parents had made a decision. I don't know how right it was. But they had decided to be quite honest with us about what was going on. And so that meant we assumed the burden of knowledge perhaps at a time when we shouldn't have. So we knew the extent of it. I was told in the second grade when I was seven that she was going to die within six months. And so…
GALLOWAY: That's a pretty extraordinary thing to say to kids.
BURNS: And she pulled me aside afterwards and said that she was going to live till I got to junior high school, which seemed like impossibly far away. And so that was relieving that she was telling me that. And she missed it by a couple of months. But it was… it's still too much information. But it is this it's the important event for so many reasons, because I wouldn't be sitting with you today, Stephen, without this horrible event happening. And if you look back, I think so many of us are defined less by the good times than by the adversity, by the tragedies, by the places in which life has thrown the inevitable vicissitudes that will visit everyone into their lives and force them into new postures, into new relationships they hadn't expected.
GALLOWAY: What kind of man was your father?
BURNS: My father was very, very complicated. Cultural anthropologist, very troubled, very sort of beset by his own demons that were only magnified and compounded by my mother's illness. And, you know, I, dime store psychology permits us retroactively to say bi-polar or something like that. I don't know what it was, but he certainly wasn't up to the task of managing what was the impending doom and also managing afterwards. So though he didn't die until 2001 and I was very close to him most of that remaining years, there was a sense that we were orphaned at the time of her death.
GALLOWAY: How did each one shape you?
BURNS: Well, you know, my very, very first memory in life my father gave me. The first scrippet, that first snippet of film that's, you know, this long is of him building a darkroom in the corner of a tract house that we lived in in a development in Newark, Delaware. And then later on in a much longer clip is that alchemy of standing in the red light, the eerie red light, the mysterious red light and watching a photograph, my father was an amateur still photographer in addition to an anthropologist. And watching a photograph come to life. So he gave me this love of photography. He gave me a love of seeing. He gave me a sense, he was an anthropologist. He gave me a sense of a curiosity, a kind of sociological curiosity about what goes on. My mother was a formidable woman of great strength and courage and bravery. And she… her forbearance, I met people who were in hospital rooms, shared hospital rooms with her and they were knew they were going to be cured and getting out and they were, you know, beset with their own problems and she was always sort of optimistic and I can remember as a little boy walking up a flight of stairs with her and she'd pull out a little flask of whiskey. And take it just to get a, her breath back. Because the breast cancer metastasized into various things including her lungs. And at the end had very little lung power. So a little bit of whiskey sort of brought her breath back.
GALLOWAY: It's extraordinary. You lived with your mother's illness. You lived with a sense of mortality. You also moved around a lot. Lived in France, Delaware, New York I guess, Michigan. How did that instability affect you in the long run?
BURNS: You know, to me, I moved once. In memory. And that was from Newark, Delaware to Ann Arbor, Michigan. So I feel in some ways grounded. That was difficult and traumatic, but I felt we were going to a place, my father had had two job offers. One coincidentally was Amherst, Massachusetts where I would eventually end up in college and the other was Ann Arbor, Michigan. And we chose Ann Arbor, Michigan because it had a hospital. And Amherst didn't. And so that was the thing. So I thought I was going to someplace that would be helpful for my mother. So I, you know, I was leaving friends behind, a whole 'nother life, but I found a wonderful place. I mean, Ann Arbor in the 1960's was about a great a place as you would ever wanna be. There are many people from the Northern part of this state that like to think it all started in Berkeley, but it actually the first teach-in happened in Ann Arbor. And was very much born in the anthropology department and…
GALLOWAY: I was fascinated to read that you were very aware of the Civil Rights Movement that was happening.
GALLOWAY: But more than that that you were troubled by it and what you read. And had nightmares about it. That indicates a kid who's got a lot of issues. [LAUGH]
BURNS: Well, you know, I, no, I mean, you have a lot of issues when your mom is dying and you stay up late and you can't sleep and I remember endlessly, you know, waiting downstairs even though my grandmother was begging me to go to bed, looking out the window, watching every car that was turning up at the wondering whether my dad or mom are coming back from the hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, the hospital in Philadelphia, the hospital in New York. And so, you know, my consciousness was really directed outward, away from the normal stuff and distractions of kids. And so it's not unusual that if you think about it that the news of the day in the early '60s was about Civil Rights. And when you see dogs and fire hoses in Selma and you begin to apprehend is the only way I can say, not comprehend, but apprehend the sense that there is a cancer killing your country. Race. And there is this cancer killing yourself. And there's a transposition that takes place. And I could remember sort of lying awake at night agonized at first over the outer circumstances. But then obviously it migrated into what was really bothering me. And I think we do that as human beings. We put, we move a lot of the traumas away. Anxiety is a really good thing. We don't like it, but in fact anxiety's usually the distracting thing that keeps you from actually dealing with the thing that actually is fearful, that actually causes pain.
GALLOWAY: You were given a Super 8 camera when you were 17. How did that change your life?
BURNS: Well it actually what happened is that after my mother died, my father had this incredibly difficult curfew for my younger brother and me. And yet he would forgive it at the drop of a hat [LAUGH] if there was a movie on TV.
GALLOWAY: What was the curfew?
BURNS: You know, I don't remember, but it was just, it was, whatever it was, it was patently unfair as most, you know, 11 and 12 year old boys feel about their parents.
GALLOWAY: As most parents are. Yeah. [LAUGH]
BURNS: And yet, you know, if there was a movie on TV or the Ann Arbor Cinema Guild was showing something or the campus theater, the first theater built after World War II that showed mostly French and revival stuff, the New Wave, you know, Buster Keaton, whatever it was. And I'd had this sleepover with a friend and he had said to me, and I knew he meant it pejoratively, he said, you know, your dad didn't cry at your mom's funeral. And I noticed that too, but I hadn't either and we were all sort of shell shocked. But I could tell that that was a bad thing. And I remember keeping that not as a shame, but just as something you noted. And then one night my Father had told me we're going to stay up and because of it was a school night because of the commercials it was going to go to like 2:00 AM, 1:30 AM or 2:00 AM in the morning, which is ridiculous for an 11, 12 year old by then child to be watching TV on a school night. But it was Sir Carol Reed's Odd Man Out with James Mason about the Troubles in Ireland. And my Father cried. And he really cried. And I got it. I instantly got it. And I, at that moment, I said, I wanna be a filmmaker. Now at that part, at that moment, being a filmmaker meant being John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks or Carol Reed or something like that. But I feel really fortunate that here I'm, you know, I'm nearly 62 and I'm, I've known since I was 12 years old, for 50 years in my bones what I wanted to do. And so, you know…
GALLOWAY: Did you then ask him to get you a camera?
BURNS: No, he wanted to do it for me. He wanted to get me that. And I just sort of didn't really know what to do with it. At once I was sort of planning these absurd kind of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler detective things and these weird space stuff and also shooting kind of documentaries about pollution, whatever that meant. And never really did anything, never really finished anything.
GALLOWAY: Who did you admire then as you were starting to discover film? Who did you…?
BURNS: Oh who I just said, Alfred Hitchcock and…
GALLOWAY: Was there one film in particular?
BURNS: Well one of the films my Father stayed up and two films really besides that Odd Man Out that really got me because it got him. And I understood the emotional harbor, the emotional safe harbor that film art provides for us. It really is as Tolstoy said, the transfer of emotion from one person to another. And if that's the case, then could we not also, my father could find a place where he could feel free to express what was going on. But two of the films that I remember is we watched Rio Bravo by Howard Hawks, which is just an amazingly complex Western and it's just so great. And Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock, which is, you know, no kid my age should have been watching Vertigo [LAUGH] but it was, it just…
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GALLOWAY: It's interesting that you say, you've said this other times, that you look on film as an emotional safe harbor.
GALLOWAY: Because you could equally say that film is there to provoke and shock. And if you look at say, you know, the early Bunuel films or surrealism, it was anything but a safe harbor. So it says something about you that that's the point of view you take.
BURNS: Yeah, well it's not so much, I agree with all of that. And I think what I love about it is its ability to do all those things. I think in relationship to my the interpersonal dynamic of our small and diminishing family, the fact that it provided for my father this emotional safe harbor at that time was duly noted. It did not mean that it didn't shock. I mean, I remember going and sitting alone and watching Dr. Zhivago and I didn't know the history, I didn't know anything, but I remember the music and I remember the beauty of Julie Christie and I remember the passions of it and I actually dragged my father back and he saw that I had gotten it, but hadn't known a thing. And so the second time he like whispered, it was almost like the United Nations and I was hearing consecutive translation. Well they're White Russians and they're Red Russians and this what happens is in a period of Kerensky and there's the, you know, and so I took Russian history. I mean, last history course I ever took was Russian history, because I became so fascinated in that. And then he took me back…
GALLOWAY: And yet America's become your subject.
BURNS: And that's my subject. I mean, that's the other thing. Last time I took an…
BURNS: I'm provincial, I'm parochial. I'm, I, that's what happened, so I, when I went off to college, I ran into, you know, some people and I found myself becoming a documentary filmmaker and then becoming interested in American history. And I'd always been good at it. But I didn't think that that's what I would do. But it would be, at that point if I already knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, this would be like going ah, you're doing oil landscapes or oh, you're doing oil still lifes. That's what you're going to do. And so to me the same laws of storytelling apply to Steven Spielberg as they do to me. I swear to God, they are the exact same laws. The Aristotelian poetics are exactly the same. And so and he and I have actually talked about this. And so it doesn't really matter…
GALLOWAY: What did he say about it?
BURNS: The same thing. I mean, that the laws of storytelling are the same. He can make stuff up, I can't. But they're still the same stories. How a story is played out, what the development of characters are, and the conflict, the protagonist and antagonist, the climax, the denouement. All those things are part of the how we tell a story. And so the fact that I chose documentary is just a product of the circumstance, the air that I was breathing, the water I was drinking, the influences that I had.
GALLOWAY: Why were you talking to Spielberg?
BURNS: Well, you know, we bump into each other at various times.
GALLOWAY: 'Cause you were at one point going about doing a feature film as opposed to documentary.
BURNS: Yeah, a few times I've flirted with that, but that's not the reason why. It's just we, you know, we're both interested in history. We're both interested in the Civil War history. And he made the entire crew of Lincoln watch my documentary like three times [LAUGH] and so I had to apologize first to Daniel Day-Lewis. He goes no, he really did. You know, and then to Doris and she'd seen it a few times and down the line. I felt like…
GALLOWAY: So you go to Hampshire College.
GALLOWAY: Did you study film there?
BURNS: Yeah. I mean, I went, I sort of lied my way in. It was this new, experimental school and I had hair down to my waist. I looked like a girl and I was [LAUGH] a hippie from Ann Arbor, Michigan. I told them I wanted to be an anthropologist. And they thought whew, somebody with a real solid thing. Yeah, we can do that. And then I, all I wanted to be was a filmmaker. And then I ran into Jerome Liebling who with his colleague Elaine Mayes were social documentary still photographers for whom filmmaking was a kind of, you know, an avocation. Not a hobby. They were doing it, but it was an adjunct of the seeing they were doing with still photographs. And it awakened all that earlier stuff. And reminded me quite correctly that there is as much drama in what is and what was as anything the human imagination can dream up. And so fiction versus now, or history. And I just found my molecules rearing.
GALLOWAY: There is drama, but it's kept at a remove. You know, you're, they are…
BURNS: Do you think the people in the Twin Towers thought that the drama was at a remove on 9/11?
GALLOWAY: I think when you're dealing with archival material, you can control it in a different way than say from dealing with actors.
BURNS: But how do I bring those still photographs alive? Not just kinesthetically through an exploring an energetic camera eye, but also sort of transcending the third person narrator, the voice of God, with a chorus of voices and who are they? The Hollywood actors, you know. So I've directed Tom Hanks five times in a movie, Julie Harris 12, you know. So there's…
GALLOWAY: When you are directing, how do you direct them for a documentary?
BURNS: Well with everybody it's just trying to get within what I think that voice sounds like. So since it isn't theater, so there's not projection. And it's not movies, which have their own sorts of stuff. There's a kind of interior quality to it. And for all of them, I just sort of try to center them as politely as possible. And when it's Meryl Streep, I just say, whatever you'd like to do. [LAUGH] No, no, no, I actually found myself directing her. And I said, she goes, is that okay? And I go, yeah, but could you do it this? She goes sure. And I'm going, oh my God, I'm directing Meryl Streep. What the…? [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: We're going to listen to her voice later on by the way in one of the clips. You come to a real turning point. You come out of Hampshire College. You're offered a job at a television station. And instead you decide to move to Walpole, New Hampshire.
GALLOWAY: Where you're going to live on $2,500s a year, which even back then wasn't a lot.
BURNS: It was terrible.
GALLOWAY: What was going through your mind?
BURNS: So here's what had happened, I had already decided that I wanted to make a film on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. And its life, it's almost a century of life afterwards as a symbol of strength and ingenuity and promise. And I had raised some grant monies and I had shot a lot of it in the spring of '79 and I realized my rent was growing up in my fifth floor walkup in Chelsea. It was going to go from 275 a month to 325 and I couldn't afford that. And I was looking at that footage and I thought, and I'd been offered this job, which was like 800 a week and I was like, that was like more money than I'd ever thought ever. And I just said, but I'll put that up on the bookshelf front.
GALLOWAY: What was the job?
BURNS: It was at WNET, the PBS station.
GALLOWAY: Doing what?
BURNS: Being a producer in house. But being their boy. And I didn't wanna do that.
GALLOWAY: Being their boy sounds like a pretty good job to me. [LAUGH]
BURNS: No, I didn't want to be anybody's boy. I wanted to be self, I'd already decided. Hampshire had inculcated this self-initiated, you know, perhaps naïve sense that you could do it yourself. But I still have yet to be a, be bossed by anybody. But I, the more important thing, Stephen, was that I saw that footage there, the work print from all the rolls we'd shot and I realized it was going to go on top of the refrigerator on the shelf. And I'd get that job and then all of a sudden, I'd be 50 and it would still be there. And I just said, no. So I moved to a place where I had friends who lived in the area of this little town. And it's only got a few hundred people in its center village. I'm still there and I'm living in the same house I moved into.
GALLOWAY: How old were you when you moved?
BURNS: I was, it was '79 and I had just turned 26.
GALLOWAY: It's an amazingly brave…
BURNS: Yeah, and it was funny…
GALLOWAY: Or foolish thing to do, you know.
BURNS: It was all of those…
GALLOWAY: I mean, would you tell people here to do that, to make that decision?
BURNS: Well I think, you know, since we're not interested in career trajectories, none of us. We might think we are, but we're none of us should be. Robert Penn Warren told me careerism is death. Death like that is how he said it.
GALLOWAY: Okay, well along the hoping to be dead pretty quickly. So the [LAUGH]
BURNS: I just felt that this was a thing…
GALLOWAY: I mean, a lot of people are interested in career trajectories.
GALLOWAY: Not everybody is an artist. So what would be your advice to these guys? Give it up?
GALLOWAY: Move to Walpole?
BURNS: No, no, no, I think that what I've found in documentary and I said this earlier that, you know, if you wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer or a movie, a Hollywood director, I could tell you what you should do. The career path.
GALLOWAY: And the movie director path is what?
BURNS: Well I think, you know, it's a variety of, you know, variation on the graduate school and, you know, whether it's Tisch or it's here in town or whatever. And then apprenticing yourself and doing that sort of stuff. But the fundamental thing about documentary is that there's no career path. And that every documentary filmmaker that I know that's been working and that will work probably for their lives on that have arrived at it at completely unique paths. And so you first have to make a decision for yourself that that's the path you want to do. And that requires a lot of internal means testing. And then you have to actually persevere, which in my case meant moving to Walpole, New Hampshire. And not putting that up on the shelf, but actually opening those cans every morning and trying to figure out how you edited a historical film. How you made old photographs come alive. How you added first person voices to a third person narration. How you added complex sound effects to help build those photographs alive. How you recorded music before the editing, not after the editing so that the music was as organic a statement. And how you understood fundamentally how stories are told. I mean, 'cause that's not just a given. And how you wrestle particularly carve out of the random chaos of events either past or present a way of editing them, of curating them that is faithful to those events, but superimposes some dramatic structure. Which is what a Hollywood script doesn't have to worry about, 'cause you can make all that stuff up.
GALLOWAY: We'll talk of that. But I want to show everybody a clip from this film, Brooklyn Bridge. One of the things that's amazing to me is how early you defined some of the traits that have been characteristic of BURNS ever since. This is a clip about how the Brooklyn Bridge was built. And I've watched it many times 'cause each time you watch it, you, it's kind of hard to follow and I was, when we were talking about it with the crew, we were saying, are people going to understand this? So really pay attention, it's three minutes long. This is about the Brooklyn Bridge.
BURNS: Did you get it? [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: I mean, I'm, you know, technologically a complete moron, so I think having seen it a few times, I understand. How did you get to the point of deciding, this is how I'm going to make this film? You'd read a book about the Brooklyn Bridge. I think you were given it, you told when you had pneumonia.
BURNS: Right. [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: Kind of an interesting way to discover [LAUGH] something.
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BURNS: My best friend was a book salesman and I had been bedridden for weeks. And he came into my apartment, which was also the office of our nascent Florentine Films and just threw this book down and said, I think you'd like this. And I was sort of insulted like it was a book, a history book from the 19th Century. And I gobbled it in one sitting and just thought wow, this is a great story. David McCullough, the great historian.
GALLOWAY: Yeah. So you have to make it into a film. What were the decisions you had to deal with in terms of how to bring that film to life?
BURNS: I knew exactly what I wanted to do from the very beginning.
BURNS: Well I first of all love the fact that the story of it was filled with voices. Not just the third person narration, but first person voices and so I wanted to exploit that. And I'd seen another film done by a woman named Perry Miller Adato called When This You See, Remember Me about Gertrude Stein. And that she had had actors reading things and then they'd cut away from the actors to still photographs. And I suddenly went oh wait a second, what if you could just tell a story entirely with still photographs? And have the actors not be seen, but just hear them off camera. So they would contribute and sort of complement a third person narration. And then why don't you not just do what everyone does is hold on a photograph at arm's length? But to explore it the way a feature filmmaker would that thing I wanted to be, a master shot that had in it a long shot, a medium shot, a close, a tilt, a pan, a reveal in sorts of details. And then all of a sudden, you were, you were looking through a camera at a photograph and you were not only looking at it and trying to parse it for the different photographs of its, the different moments, shots of its scene, but you were listening to the photograph. You know, where those, were there seagulls in that, you know, in the East River there? Could you hear the hammering? You heard that. The greatest compliment I've ever, ever had was at the premiere of this film at the Brooklyn Museum. This woman in a crowd smaller than this, little aisle, I brought the screen and the 16 millimeter projector and they provided the A/V cart and I ran the speaker plugged in which was the case to the projector down to the front of the room. And I spooled up and ran the film. And afterwards I answered questions. And this one old lady raised her hand and she said, where did you get the newsreels of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge? [LAUGH] And I said, Ma'am, it was built between 1869 and 1883. The motion picture hadn't been invented. Perhaps you're thinking of the footage that Thomas Edison took on the paper print collection at the Library of Congress when he mounted a camera in 1900 on the train that went over the Brooklyn Bridge then. She goes, no, no, no, I'm talking about when they brought the stone up in those scows and the workmen were building the towers. And I said to her, excuse me, but those are all still photographs. And she defiantly looked at me and she said, no, they're not. [LAUGH] And I just thought shut up, you're ahead. [LAUGH] You know. And that was great. She really thought that the photographs…
GALLOWAY: How much trial and error went into this?
BURNS: A lot. I mean, every film is trial and error. You know, it's all practice. It's all distillation. You know, there's a 40 to one shooting ratio on just about everything we do. So, you know, you're, it's not a feature film. You collect a lot of photographs. You shoot whatever you can find at archives all over the country. And now with the Internet, all over the world. And you figure out moves and you do things and you're meanwhile you're working on a script and you've done interviews and you've selected what you think are the best of the interviews. And then you just try to marry it all together.
GALLOWAY: So what was your first step? You get the book. And where was the first place you went? Who was the first person you spoke to?
BURNS: I went to the Brooklyn Museum because I had read in the back of David McCullough's book that many of the original drawings by Washington Roebling and his father, John, who was very dramatically killed in the first months of the construction were there at the Brooklyn Museum. There had been an exhibition there. And she, I went to a curator there. And she told me that in fact that exhibition was over, that they'd been returned to the City of New York, to the Department of Records. And so I went there. And, you know, and then one contact led to another and Jerry Liebling's a good friend had been an American studies master at Yale, had written a book about the Brooklyn Bridge. Sort of the academic version of McCullough's book. And so we went to him and we just started asking where the photographs were. And each time we went to an archive, we'd ask other things. And then it became time to figure out who would read those. And, you know…
GALLOWAY: What was the best thing you found? Or the most surprising?
BURNS: I think it's the, you know, the story is is that in the early '70s, some workmen were told by a supervisor to throw away all of the paper that was in one of the storage rooms in the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. And one of the workmen to his credit opened it up and saw those drawings, which you just saw, by Washington Roebling. And said I don't think so. And called the Brooklyn Museum. And so it became this wonderful rescue thing. The Whitney mounted an exhibition and the Brooklyn Museum did and the drawings were saved. So to me touching and handling those were really, you know, white gloves, putting them on an easel with magnets, you know. And filming those with a prime lens on a camera. I mean, that's me shooting it. We didn't even have… there's no programs. I couldn't afford to do the complex zooms that I, that an animation stand would have at that time. We probably have five or six zooms in the whole historical section of the film, which is the first 25 minutes.
GALLOWAY: Is there anything about that film you would like to change?
BURNS: You know, it's so funny when you say that. It's you look at an old photo album of yourself, your life, you know, certainly you wish that picture of you naked on the bearskin rug [LAUGH] wasn't in there.
GALLOWAY: But that's the one I'm proud of.
BURNS: The paisley shirts with the wide lapels [LAUGH] from the '70s. But you don't tear it out. It's true. So I think maybe in this film there was a tendency to kind of over dramatically fade to black and then fade up for a new scene. I've learned more how to either run through the stop sign that end of a scene quite often means or to figure out how to make a transition not necessarily without fading out so it doesn't feel so segmented. It's not just things, beads strung on a necklace. And yet, you know, this film really holds up. You know, it does. I, it's a film that I come back to watch. And I'm most curious about it, because it's sort of like being at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It's like on the surface of the Colorado River. It's exposing some pre-Cambrian, Vishnu Schist that's as old as I am.
GALLOWAY: Wow. How did it change your career?
BURNS: [LAUGH] Yeah.
GALLOWAY: The career that is like death that…
BURNS: Well I was just going to say you used that bad word.
BURNS: My professional life you mean? [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: Is there a difference?
BURNS: Yes, I believe so. Because Robert Penn Warren told me there was. [LAUGHS] And I believed everything he said.
GALLOWAY: Is he one of your heroes?
BURNS: Yeah, very much so.
GALLOWAY: Who are your other heroes?
BURNS: Jerry Liebling. And I had a great opportunity to know Shelby Foote. I like Abraham Lincoln, I got a lot of heroes that are not people I've ever met. Like Louis Armstrong is I think one of the greatest human beings that's ever walked the Earth. Anyway, I can go into any of those. But…
GALLOWAY: How did this shift your professional life?
BURNS: So I came home one day. I was at that point alone. And I had an answering machine. I don't know why I did. It, I heated my house entirely by wood. And I walked in and the wood stove had gone out. And I cursed, which meant I'd had already taken off my coat and I had to go back out. And then I saw that there were 25 messages on this answering machine that at best ever had one. [LAUGH] You know? So I, the first one was a hang up, the second one was a hang up. The third one was the A.P. in Concord, New Hampshire, please call us. The next was a hang up. The third was a friend of mine in Los Angeles. He said, hey Ken, would you give me a call when you have a chance? And then the next one was the A.P. in Boston. Then The Boston Globe. And then it just kept going. And I finally deducted when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences called that Brooklyn Bridge had been nominated as a Best Feature Documentary. And I jumped up and down. And then looked and the fire was still out. [LAUGH] So I walked outside in my shirt sleeves and I got a whole big thing of wood and I am just dancing. I don't think Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton had done a more exuberant expression of joy and happiness than I did. And of course misjudged and hit an icy patch and fell and fell back. [LAUGH] Twisted into a snow bank which was really fortunate. And I remember lying there in the snow bank, holding onto the wood still. My, the back of my shirt had pulled up and the small of my back was melting the snow, which was trickling down my pants. [LAUGH] And I said, no other nominee is having this experience. [LAUGH] And that this must be a very valuable thing. You know? You know, I'm doing this thing on country music right now, big history of country music and they have this expression, which is don't get above your raisin. Like don't, you know, I had gotten a little bit above my raisin and this was a way of sort of being sort of reminded that in my little town, every Emmy and Oscar nomination plus 50 cents gets you a cup of coffee. [LAUGH] And that's it. So it was…
GALLOWAY: How did you choose the films that you make after that? 'Cause you continued to do very historical films.
BURNS: Yeah, I didn't think so. Even then if you said…
GALLOWAY: Statue of Liberty, Huey Long.
BURNS: If you'd said to me and I'm going to interview you, you know, in 35 years and you're going to still be making historical films, I'd say you were crazy. But I found the fact that I had loved this film I'd done at Hampshire that had a historical thing. And then I gravitated instantly when we were just trying to survive to the Brooklyn Bridge film. And then I didn't know what I was going to do. And I saw Shaker Village in Western Massachusetts. And I sort of slammed on the brakes and by the time I had finished walking around with my then wife, I just said, we have to do this. And so we started working on that. And then while I was working on that, two other projects came on, Huey Long and The Statue of Liberty. And then it's not that I have not, I've consciously chosen every project that I've done. Very much consciously, but each one has been an American history.
GALLOWAY: What did you turn down?
BURNS: I've turned down 100 things. I've turned down every time anyone else has come to me to make a film. Because I've wanted to make it myself. They've been self initiated. Sometimes somebody within my small circle has said, what about this idea? And you read and you go yes. But it's I've never been hired by anybody to make a film.
GALLOWAY: Has there been any subject you thought, you really thought about making this and thought, no, I'm not going to?
BURNS: Well I had an interesting thing like somebody would ask me that all through the '90s and all through the '90s, I would say, you know, I really want to do something on Martin Luther King. I think I am programmed to do it because every film I do somehow impacts with race, which is our great in America, our great subject, our great sub theme besides, you know, the nature of freedom both personal and collective. And it's there. And you don't go looking for it, but it's just there. It's why the Civil War happened. It's, you know, everything. So, but I knew that the family had a hard time letting go of him. And I said, but I don't think I could do it 'cause the family wouldn't, and then completely out of the blue in the early 2000s, I got a letter from the King family saying, we think you are the best person in the world to do the biography of our husband-father. And I said, you are right. I want to do that. Flew down to Atlanta and within a few hours I realized no, they can't let go. And so I just…
GALLOWAY: Who did you meet with?
BURNS: All the kids and all the living kids and Coretta. And I just said, you know, this is someone, a father and a husband they could not control in life. And now in death they are. And I didn't want to sit before you and sort of begin to make apologies for the film because it wasn't what he wanted. So I just kindly backed away. I'd still like to do it. He still passes through a lot of the films that we make. He is still arguably one of the top five most important people in American history. And yet, you need to do it when you know your hands are unfettered in terms of access, in terms of being able to tell the story. And I've always been interested in a very complicated history, that nobody has to be perfect and nobody has to be bad. The sort of necessity that we have now in the media culture to swing from one pendulum to the other, to take delight in people's troubles or to exult you. Some people die now and we spend days celebrating them.
GALLOWAY: Well but you do to some degree glorify Lincoln in The Civil War and you were criticized for that.
BURNS: He's the greatest… Yeah, but that was ridiculous because first of all, we [LAUGH] glorified him as he deserves to be glorified. He is the greatest president we've ever had. But our film is incredibly critical that he wanted to colonize, and we say this in the film, wanted to colonize African Americans to South America or back to Africa as late as April of '61 when the guns were opening up. That he was tardy on emancipation. That he didn't act strong enough on that. And even in the last episode, in the moments after his death, Frederick Douglass, we quote him as saying, you know, he may have been tardy, he may have been this, he may have been that. So we were never afraid of tarnishing him.
GALLOWAY: Barbara Fields who's a pretty well known historian refused to read the Emancipation Declaration for the film. Didn't she?
BURNS: No. She's in the film. Many, many times. In fact, next to Shelby Foote, she's in it more than anyone else.
GALLOWAY: Are you sure she didn't refuse to…?
BURNS: Yeah. Yeah, no, no, she's…
GALLOWAY: Are you really sure?
BURNS: Yeah, totally yeah. [LAUGH] Yeah, we wouldn't have her read it, because it was read by the voice of Abraham Lincoln. He wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.
GALLOWAY: But she's in the film and yet she still criticized it.
BURNS: I think that the academic community has a hard time dealing with history that's expressed in other forms. It's changed and they become a lot more tolerant. But for a long time, there was a great resistance. And there are many people who very legitimately say that, you know, the Civil War is not just about presidential actions, it's about a very active, the radical Republicans in Congress. There's transformations and social things that are going on. All of which we touched on in the film, but didn't completely invest in. But that's the problem of the academy. Popular history has to sort of speak to people the way people want to be told. Stories want to be told. And so since the Second World War, which was the greatest cataclysm in human history, narrative fell out of fashion in the academy and we replaced it initially with a Freudian analysis, very understandable. We replaced that with a kind of Marxist or economic determinist. And that in turn has given way to many fashions in the academy of deconstruction of semiotics, of symbolism, of post modernism, of queer studies, of all sorts of things. You know, in which you think the academy, the bastion of expansive truth actually finds itself in various niches, in various places in the country subscribing to rather narrow blinders of historical interpretation. And guess what we all find out? A narrative approach can take in all of that. And so you can hear…
GALLOWAY: Well let's talk about that. But let's take a look at the narrative approach. [LAUGH] This is just an extraordinary scene, which you'll recognize when you see it.
BURNS: Okay, I'll…
GALLOWAY: And I heard that you kept this…
BURNS: This is like This Is Your Life. [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: Yes, I have your mother.
BURNS: Oh please.
GALLOWAY: I heard that you kept this man's letter with you while you were making this film. So let's take a look at a clip from The Civil War. For those of you who haven't seen it, you must, okay?
BURNS: I did carry that around in my wallet until it disintegrated sometime about two or three years ago. I carried it around every day.
BURNS: And for the first 10 or 15 years after The Civil War came out, I would be asked 50, 100 times a year to read it. Not knowing that, you know, or this asked so I would read it.
GALLOWAY: And you knew all the words of that sequence.
BURNS: And then I suddenly didn't need to take it out and by that time it was falling apart. You know, it's very… The academy's complaints seem to me like flies buzzing around, because the ultimate… stuff of the universe is love. And that's what this is about. And it's really complex love. It's love of government for crying out loud. We don't have that. Love of cause. Love of family. Love of wife. Love of children. Love of lover. All within the same letter and there's not a man who does not wish he could write that to the woman he loves and not a woman who wishes her man could express his love in that way. It's the best love letter I've ever come across.
GALLOWAY: Well to respond, I think it's just the most extraordinary piece of filmmaking. I've watched it many times. You know, the control of tone. That sort of sense of nostalgia and regret that infuses many of your films. The use of the image. The speed at which the camera moves. The development from the beginning to the end. The restraint with which you present the shock at the end. That's the good stuff. The attacks on the academy, aren't they somewhat, you know, a tiny bit simplistic? I mean, there are great academics and not great academics.
BURNS: Well that's…
GALLOWAY: There are people who have, who agree with you, who disagree with you.
BURNS: Yeah, no, of course. And in fact…
GALLOWAY: After the "love" sentence, I mean, honestly yes, love is there, but so is hate and so is war and you've…
BURNS: And it's all there in the film.
GALLOWAY: It is. So when you talk about it, it actually seems sort of a reductio ad absurdum of the complexity of the film, frankly.
BURNS: Yeah. Of course. But I think the fact that you chose this.
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BURNS: You didn't choose the scene on the reality of slavery. Or the utter carnage in which human bodies actually fell apart they were hit by so many bullets. Say at Cold Harbor when 6000 Union men fell in 20 minutes. Or not the Emancipation Proclamation and the declaration by an Illinois Northern regiment that it would lie down until moss grew on their back rather than fight for the liberation of the nigger. A Northern regiment. You chose the one about love. And so that's…
GALLOWAY: Well you didn't ask me why I chose it.
GALLOWAY: So for…
BURNS: I think it's…
GALLOWAY: Pragmatic reasons, number one.
GALLOWAY: I want the clips to be no more than about three minutes. [LAUGHS]
BURNS: Well I can give you a three-minute on all of those.
GALLOWAY: Number two, it is, by the way, the whole thing is brilliantly done. This is extraordinary, you know. And it illustrates also both what I love about your work and what I'm a bit torn about, which is this sense of nostalgia is something that bothers me.
BURNS: Well yeah, I know and I want to take issue with that.
BURNS: 'Cause I feel that…
GALLOWAY: I hope you will, because I'm a bit torn. And I think why do they call about this?
BURNS: Yeah, I think it's ridiculous. Nostalgia and sentimentality are the enemies of good anything. But if you retreat only into the safety of a rational world where one and one always equals two, you're lost as well.
BURNS: And that what we look for are higher emotions. That transcend. When we want the whole to be greater than the sum of the part, what we mean is that the sum of the parts are this and the whole is that. And we're looking for that and our founders…
GALLOWAY: I'm with you And my counterpoint would be..
BURNS: Wait, let me just finish this idea…
GALLOWAY: If you retreat to the lower emotions…
BURNS: Of course, of course, our films are filled with that and I think that the… that criticism of nostalgia and sentimentality is the refuge of people who actually do not submit to narrative and actually watch them. I mean, I'm working on a thing about the history of the war in Vietnam. And the President of the United States when he heard this said to me, boy, Ken, that will be your most controversial film. And I said, yes, sir, but only among those who don't watch it. [LAUGH] And he cracked up. He cracked up and he said, remember that. And I said, oh believe me, I will. Because that's the way we are right now. And many people form opinions without actually having seen it or understood the dynamics of the working parts. So what I was trying to interrupt you about was the fact that our founders of our country thought that by people being free they would liberate the populace to be able to experience what they called the higher emotions. That is to say if sentimentality and nostalgia exists on some base lower level, sort of covered safely by a rational world in which one plus one always equals two, there was another world in which all of us participate in our friendships, in our art, in our faith perhaps, in our reason, in our science, in which one and one equals three. And that's what we look for, that improbable calculus. And that is neither sentimental or nostalgic. And that's what I will plead guilty to.
GALLOWAY: Are you religious?
BURNS: I have faith. I have a spiritual life which I think we all have. But I don't practice a religion.
GALLOWAY: Politically support the Democratic Party, liberal?
BURNS: I guess you would say that. But I make an effort in my films not to in any way…
GALLOWAY: Would you tackle any, would you make a film about Obama?
BURNS: Sure, certainly. I expect to.
GALLOWAY: Oh, but when? [LAUGH]
BURNS: I need 15, 20 years to clear the, which you, what happens is, you know, Philip Graham who used to own The Washington Post before he blew his brains out is famous for having said that journalism is the first rough draft of history. And like Santayana's cuckoo phrase that we're condemned to repeat what we don't remember, it just sounds good and then we believe.
GALLOWAY: I agree completely yeah.
BURNS: It's just ridiculous.
GALLOWAY: It's one of those, I remember doing an exam when I was a teenager where some, you had to debate the phrase a half-truth is like a half-brick, it throws further. [LAUGH] And those, right?
GALLOWAY: And those great lines [LAUGH] like that.
BURNS: Yeah, I know.
GALLOWAY: But they're you can debate them for years.
BURNS: But, you know, when you go back to Graham's thing about the first rough draft, you go wow, that's great. But no one turns in a rough draft. And what that means is you need the triangulation and the perspective that comes from the passage of time. And the ability to fix a moment more precisely, which is what triangulation is. By having different points of view. And that journalism lacks that. I've had literally a thousand…
GALLOWAY: But history's always changing points of view.
BURNS: Thank you, that's really important.
BURNS: And it's not just the our present perspective on it, it's the fact that we think our future is completely open and the past is fixed. And it's not.
BURNS: The past is very malleable.
GALLOWAY: Yes. You made a film about Thomas Jefferson.
GALLOWAY: What was your stance on Sally Hemings?
GALLOWAY: You all know who Sally Hemings is? Was?
GALLOWAY: She was the slave, the Jefferson family argued for many years that she never had…
BURNS: And continue to argue.
GALLOWAY: You know, he did not have sexual relations with that woman.
GALLOWAY: But he did and we now know that. At the time you made the film you didn't know that. What was your point of view?
BURNS: So here's what it is. We live in a late 20th, now early 21st Century tabloid mentality that is more preoccupied with the did he or didn't he than with the other reality of it. So in our film, absent the soon to come DNA evidence that more or less conclusively, 99.999 I think it's three digits percent accuracy.
GALLOWAY: That's pretty conclusive.
BURNS: That's pretty conclusive that Sally Hemings' descendants are related to Thomas Jefferson. We had a colloquy in which we had a descendant of Sally Hemings saying he did and we had Joe Ellis, the great historian of the Colonial period saying given who kind of man Jefferson was and his sort of reticence and probity, he didn't. And then John Hope Franklin, the great scholar, said, it doesn't matter. He owned her. He could have done anything with her. He could have killed her and there was not a law in the country that protected her. And that is the more important dynamic. And so we saved ourselves from having to rewrite our film because he owned her. And you'd say well Thomas Jefferson wouldn't, Thomas Jefferson's nephew killed a house slave because she broke a teacup that belonged to his mother and he was upset by that. This is the reality of slavery, which we have told in every film which is hardly sentimental and hardly nostalgic. And that is an important thing to understand. He owned her and that power equation trumps all this. But having said that, let me also extend the complexity of history, the beauty of it. Sally Hemings' mother, Martha, she was the product of Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law, his wife union with his house slave, Martha. When he died, the father-in-law died, Thomas Jefferson inherited all of the slaves. Including this woman and her young daughter Sally, who would make her the half sister of Thomas Jefferson's wife. And Thomas Jefferson's wife died early and prematurely. So walking around in his house was a young teenage girl, let us emphasize a teenage girl, who looked a lot like his dead wife. And that's in the film too. And there's no excuse in this. It's a power move.
GALLOWAY: Would you go back and change that film?
BURNS: Not at all, I don't need to. I think John Hope Franklin does it. It's just like the paisley shirt too. Even if [LAUGH] you know what I mean?
GALLOWAY: I do agree and I think…
BURNS: I changed only one film, which is the Central Park Five. The ending because we had a positive…
GALLOWAY: Well about that, very glad you brought us to [LAUGH] a clip from the Central Park Five.
BURNS: Is that really the next clip?
GALLOWAY: It is really the next clip.
BURNS: Geez Louise [LAUGH] this is, this and we had no…
GALLOWAY: God, you made me feel good.
BURNS: You're great.
GALLOWAY: Oh maybe I'm not. [LAUGH]
BURNS: So this is my daughter wrote the book on this story and as she was, I was sort of her editor in the beginning. And as the pages, the very first pages were coming out and I was marking them up, I just realized this is a really great film and in complete keeping with all the other stuff I had done. Even though it seems much more contemporary, it doesn't matter. This stuff has been happening since before Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. And so we did it and at the end, it, you know, these guys went to jail for a crime they didn't commit and served out, as you heard, between seven and 13 years. Kharey, who's developmentally challenged, he's was 16 at the time of the crime. And the rest were 15 and 14. And he went to jail for 13, tried as an adult. And 13 years. And when he got out, the real rapist had a, who's already in jail for another crime and should have been caught that summer and should have been connected to the DNA, had the only crisis of conscience among the people involved in this story. A psychopathic murderer. And admitted that he had done it. And the convictions were vacated. But then the boys sued the city and we said that case remains unresolved. And I'm very pleased to say that we had to go into our negative last year and replace that with the city settled in 2014 for 41 million dollars. It was a huge thing. And Mayer de Blasio, Bloomberg was intractable and would not do it for the many years I appealed to him. But de Blasio did and told me that our film had kept it front and center for him. So it's nice, I said, once, you know, it was really nice to get awards and to make money and to get, you know, you have high ratings, but nothing's better than helping somebody's life. You know, and we did transform…
GALLOWAY: It's so extraordinary when you watch this, that, this, you know, these kids who were sort of lives were ruined because they were accused of brutally raping this woman.
BURNS: Yeah, and they didn't do it.
GALLOWAY: And they're rescued, they're freed because the serial rapist has a crises of conscience.
BURNS: Well he actually they were already served out their full terms and they were already being required to go to sex education, you know, sex offender classes. And they'd been denied a plea deal. They turned down a plea deal and then every time they came up for parole, they were denied parole because they refused to admit what they'd done. And they'd go into these sex offender classes and they'd say, but I didn't do it. And they would get, you know, really upset. And then finally Matias Reyes as Kharey was leaving prison, you know, Kharey Wise was leaving prison had, they'd had an altercation that summer of '89.
GALLOWAY: Kharey is one of the five in the case is…
BURNS: Is the five, the oldest. And they'd had an altercation at Riker's in '89 and now it's 13 years later.
GALLOWAY: Matias is the killer rather, the rapist.
BURNS: Matias Reyes who actually did it, just sort of said, hey man, I'm sorry about what happened back then. Kharey's like whatever. And then as soon as Kharey leaves, he's out now after 13 years, having not done this, then Matias Reyes went to the warden and said, those guys did time for a crime I committed. And then he brought all these details that nobody knew. His DNA matched the unknown DNA. Remember they coerced confessions out of these guys and the confessions were completely, each separate confession was so different from the other and they all left out anyone else being there. Which requires so the cops invented this thing well the boys started it and then Matias Reyes finished it off. Or Matias Reyes started it and the boys finished it off. But it's all…
GALLOWAY: Did this change your view of America in any way?
BURNS: [LAUGH] My view of America has been the same since I started.
BURNS: Since I started work, you know, I mean…
GALLOWAY: Which is?
BURNS: I, which is the same one when my mother was dying. Which is there were African Americans struggling to just be able to vote in Alabama who were having, you know, dogs sicced on them and nightclubs applied to them and fire hoses applied to them. And that story hasn't changed. I get a lot of hate mail. A lot of racist hate mail about how I'm a "nigger loving this" and how this has happened and you're going to, you know, and more recently it's become more insidious that what are you talking about? We have a black president, we're done with all of this. We're post racial. Ha. [LAUGH] I mean, all you have to do is just the litany of what's happened in this year or in the last few years from s Martin. You know, we went to Cannes with this film to the Cannes Film Festival and, you know, it was like May and they said, well could this happen again? And I said, it just did. There's this Black kid named Trayvon Martin who's dead but if he was any different color he'd be alive, you know.
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GALLOWAY: Is there any case like that that you would like to make into a film?
BURNS: No, I don't, I sort of don't go looking at that. I geez, I was, I just wish this was like an anomaly in America. I wish this was like such a unique tale. And I think we've told a really unique and good story here. [LAUGH] But it happens every day. And…
GALLOWAY: Here's an extraordinary thing, especially to me, you know, being a foreigner in America. That, you know, here's the country that has what freedom is absolutely built into the, you know, the idea of America. But that idea if you're growing up in England carries across oceans and continents and reaches you. And yet the most important element of American history I think is slavery.
BURNS: Yeah. Of course.
GALLOWAY: And you think wow, look at these two things coexisting. And I've never been able to reconcile them. It's part of my sort of love-hate with…
BURNS: This has been my life's work is an attempt to reconcile. I mean, it's not to forgive or not to ignore, but to expose and to discuss. But we are founded on a great catechism. We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal. I'm halfway through the sentence, but I have to stop because the guy who wrote it owned more than 100 human beings when he wrote it. That's us. And, you know, every other country and may I also say we have gotten farther in racial progress than any other country.
BURNS: And I won't single out Britain for criticism, but I was in France for the Cannes Film Festival and they said, America is racist. And I said, yeah. And they said, could it happen again? And I said Trayvon Martin. They said, America's so racist. And I go, wait a second. You know [LAUGH] we have an African American President. We are very racist. We have an African American President. When you have a West African French President [LAUGH] you come talk to me because that will never happen. And so you have to take American history…
GALLOWAY: I bet they loved you in France.
BURNS: No, they were shocked like oh, you know. [LAUGH] That's so not, it wasn't polite. And [LAUGH] but this is it. We are a mass of unbelievable contradictions. And that's what makes it so utterly interesting.
GALLOWAY: So when you did this film, what was your process? Here's this stuff going that's alive that's really contemporary. You can't just sort of sit in a library and find archival material. What were the discussions about that you had about how to, and you made this with your daughter and a third person.
BURNS: My son-in-law, her husband.
GALLOWAY: Oh wow. The Burns family.
BURNS: Yeah. And the three of us are then partnering on Jackie Robinson.
GALLOWAY: And then you followed that with… Yes.
GALLOWAY: So what were the conversations?
BURNS: So, you know what, it was, you know, I hate to disappoint. It was exactly the same. It has stylistic differences. The music is different than in other films, but it's befitting the age. There's hip hop and there's other kinds of soundtrack stuff. The footage is more contemporary, but it's we went out and interviewed the peopled that were relevant, historians who can guide us, social psychologists who understand about coerced confessions, obviously the five extraordinary young men, four of whom agreed to be on camera. And Antron is so P.T.S.D. from this just didn't wanna reveal his face. And many other people and the cops refused to talk to us. And the D.A.'s refused to talk to us. So we found as much archival material. We sat in libraries. We did research from the period. And because we were doing this in, you know, 2010 and '11, and this had our story ends in 2002 when the case, when the judge vacates the convictions and it was still enough farther away that it felt like history. And so while it is I admit fully it looks different. It doesn't feel like the Sullivan Ballou letter from The Civil War, it's done in the same process.
GALLOWAY: Which one is your heart in more?
BURNS: Oh it's like asking me which of my four daughters I love the best. I mean, I…
GALLOWAY: Which of your four daughters do you love the best? [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: Off the record.
BURNS: The [LAUGH] yeah. I feel so lucky, Stephen, that I have spent my entire life…
GALLOWAY: I know, I hate the "lucky" parts, it always troubles me.
BURNS: You know, no, I've made the films I've wanted to make.
GALLOWAY: You were working on this…
BURNS: Each film is a director's cut.
GALLOWAY: Okay. You were working on this at the same time as The Roosevelts?
BURNS: Mm-hmm. And three other films.
GALLOWAY: Which is… Oh, what were the other three?
BURNS: The Dust Bowl and Prohibition.
GALLOWAY: Oh how do you keep them separate?
BURNS: Same way I keep my daughters walk in the door and I can tell which voice it is. [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: Well let's look at what to me is actually a very different film. Let's look at a clip, our final clip and if you guys want to get ready for questions, that'd be great. The Roosevelts, which I also thought was just wonderful. So here's The Roosevelts. [LAUGH] Even though I'm giving you a hard time, I admire all this.
BURNS: It's hardly a hard time.
GALLOWAY: Oh wow, we haven't begun.
BURNS: No. You come on, take the gloves off. [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: The man with the beard there, Geoffrey Ward, who co-wrote this with Ken himself had polio, which gives his [INAUDIBLE] an extraordinary [INAUDIBLE]
BURNS: I've been working with Geoff since the early, early '80s. It's the first time I've ever put him on film. In a film because he knew this story cold and he contracted polio as a young man and of course admired the story of Franklin Roosevelt. And everybody kind of, you know, we skip along in the conventional wisdom of, you know, superficial conventional wisdom and we say, oh, he had polio and then he got elected President and the press agreed not to show. And then that's it. But how do you get to be a President once you're stricken with infantile paralysis and you can't walk again? And so what Geoff did is took us through the very painful story of his attempt at figuring out a way to function. And he never regained anything. He lost whatever he lost he lost permanently. But he did rather heroically. And it changed him too. He had been ambitious and trying to hit every step that his more famous fifth cousin Theodore Roosevelt, the former president, had hit. And he had this kind of charm, but a little bit too charming. And this ambition, but a little bit too ambitious. And all of a sudden, at age 39 you get infantile paralysis. And something happened to him. It changed him. The empathy that he developed would make it possible. You know, my great lament is that someone like Franklin Roosevelt couldn't get out of the Iowa primaries, the caucuses today. Because of that infirmity. And yet, you know, he was able to get us through the Depression and the World War II.
GALLOWAY: And when you see the film, there's such clarity in the development of that and you go oh my gosh, what this man went through. Do you think somebody can really change at the age of 39? Fundamentally?
BURNS: I think he did. You know, Geoff wrote in there, in the mid, early to mid '80s a wonderful biography called A First Class Temperament that covers an early period in his life, including this period. And when I read it, it's one of the best biographies that I've ever read. And you really had a sense that something happened. And I think, you know, there are these life-altering events that people have that it is possible that an old dog can be taught new tricks. And Franklin didn't lose all the things that were less than admirable about him. His deviousness, his sort of opacity. Someone said in the fifth episode that it was impossible to get through his thickly forested exterior. You know, I mean, it was impossible to get into his thickly forested interior. And that's the way he was. And it's the way so many of us are. I mean, we live with people, the people closet to us have an aura, an aspect of inscrutability, even to us. And so biography is itself a priori failure. Because if we can't get as close to the people who are closest to us, how can we possibly imagine someone who lived centuries ago?
GALLOWAY: Yes. And when you're recount a biography, for the sake of clarity, you have to sometimes lose your darlings.
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GALLOWAY: You know, what would you have liked to put in that you didn't or you felt was too complicated, too contradictory?
BURNS: No, that, more of that. It's trying to be, I think for us, the tendency, the resistance here is hagiography. So that these are extraordinarily three amazing human beings. Franklin Roosevelt is, you know, I'm a…
GALLOWAY: Eleanor and Teddy Roosevelt.
BURNS: Yeah, and those are the, this is The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. It's about all three of them and their interrelationship and the world that, the century that they commanded. And they are really, really great people, but they are also deeply flawed people and deeply wounded people. And to calibrate that at the right amount was hugely important for us. And so…
GALLOWAY: I think… Oh sorry.
BURNS: Oh no, I just think that, you know, the little darlings that we threw away were the obvious ones. You know, that just repeated old bromides or tropes that just needed to be exploded in favor of more complex thing. You know, Teddy Roosevelt on San Juan Hill is a hero. You know, the Army was horrified that his regiment suffered the most casualties. He was proud of it. He was disappointed he didn't have a disfiguring wound. He sent his own kids as close to combat as possible and lost his youngest son. I mean, you have to take this great man in the context of his sort of absurdist romantic Sir Walter Scott view of war and its elubrious cleansing effect.
GALLOWAY: Did you like them personally?
BURNS: Yeah. Yeah, I think if, you know, Franklin's the most important. I mean, I'm a Lincoln guy and F.D.R. has risen up. Eleanor is a miracle of the human spirit. I can't believe she survived her childhood to be right on every issue. And if you were going to travel across the country and you had a choice of one of these three, I urge you all to go with Theodore. 'Cause he's just so…
GALLOWAY: It's so interesting because…
BURNS: He's first of all, he's a genius. Second of all, he's just this huge larger than life…
GALLOWAY: A nice surprise there 'cause I thought oh my God, this is George W. Bush, you know. However many years ago. And I thought watching this your heart was with F.D.R. So I'm wrong.
BURNS: No, no, no, my heart is with F.D.R. But he's not George W. Bush, 'cause George W. Bush was in the Alabama, you know, Air National Guard and he was on top of San Juan Hill. He did, he was disappointed…
GALLOWAY: He got the chance to get people killed and, you know…
BURNS: It's a lot easier to do that in the abstract than it is to actually charge up the hill and stand up in the middle of a hail of fire and charge up the hill. Theodore Roosevelt was fearless. George Bush has other aspects to him. Which there's connections. [LAUGH] There's connections between them.
BURNS: But it…
GALLOWAY: It goes back to history repeats itself. To some degree.
BURNS: No, it just rhymes.
GALLOWAY: Right. [LAUGH]
BURNS: No, no, no, there's no cycles of history. You're not condemned to repeat it. What it is it goes back to Ecclesiastes. What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There's nothing new under the sun. Which means human nature doesn't change and it superimposes itself on the random chaos of events and it permits us to perceive patterns. So when you look at the Roosevelts, you go my God, these are all the issues today. What is the role of government? What is the nature of leadership? How is pragmatism and idealism balanced? You know, all of these things that we debate today. I did a film that was about single issue political campaigns that metastasized, demonization of recent immigrants, smear campaigns during election, Presidential election cycles. A whole group of people who wanted to take back their country. And you say, my goodness, Ken, this is you're doing the last election. I go no, that's Prohibition. [LAUGH] Oh no, Prohibition is gangsters and flappers. I said, we got them. It's sexy, it's dangerous, but the more interesting thing is the way in which things don't change. And that you can find in the past a kind of guide to the present problems and greatness too. I mean, you can't gain say either one or the other.
GALLOWAY: I half agree. Walk us through the process of making this. You start out you're going to make a film about the what did you think was the very first thought, let's make F.D.R.? Let's what was the very, very first glimmer of a thought?
BURNS: Well Geoff… So we passed by these two Presidents and to a lesser extent Eleanor who's just wonderful many times in other films. And I'm working primarily my principle collaborator for the last 35 years has been Geoff Ward. And he's a F.D.R. scholar. So I assumed we'd do something on F.D.R. himself. But then he and I were talking and thought let's do them all, because they're so interrelated. They tend to, nobody ever puts them together. James McGregor Burns, no relation, wrote a book called The Three Roosevelts. But mainly people keep them segregated as if T.R.'s Republicanism and F.D.R. and Eleanor's Democratism means they're totally different animals. Well they're not. The Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt made possible the Progressivism of Franklin Roosevelt. They're joined at the hip. They are the continuation of the same narrative. And so we wanted to put them all together and not, as I said earlier, make something that was some sort of puff piece or valentine, but something that was, you know, hugely complicated. And so seven episodes, 14 hours, seven years later, that's what we got.
GALLOWAY: Well what were the thoughts that you rejected in that? I mean, do you think of doing it in three hours? Did you think of not including Eleanor?
BURNS: Well, you know, I don't know if you know about editing. It's a funny process. It's the cutting room floor isn't filled with bad stuff. It's just in the movie Amadeus, Emperor Franz Joseph says too many notes. So it's actually the scenes on the cutting room floor, if I pick them up, you would say, you idiot, why isn't that in there? That's a wonderful thing. And I'd go yeah, but you didn't understand the way it destabilized the first half of episode two, because so there's a wonderful section that we had on the Great White Fleet, which T.R. had sent around the world to…
GALLOWAY: The Great White…?
BURNS: White Fleet. To project American power. We were sort of at that point beginning to pass the British Navy for supremacy. But we were showing to the whole world, it made a round the world trip. It was a wonderful scene with American sailors hanging off the Sphinx and American sailors in Peking and American sailors here and there. And it was wonderful. And if you looked at it, you'd say, where is it? It's on the DVD extras. [LAUGH] You know? 'Cause it didn't work. It just destabilized that episode. It made it, it attenuated something that it began to destabilize something farther along, so we, it's out. So the decisions you make are more ones of sacrifice. They're Sophie's Choices, not oh that's terrible, let's reject that. Our refinement of our process over seven years is weeding out the dumb ideas. And we're checked always, we always hire the best people in the academy. You know, the finest scholars. We estimated at one idle moment in the editing room while we were waiting for the system to reboot that our advisors both on camera and that we brought in to the editing room over many years, not just once, but reviewing proposals and then various drafts of script and then viewing film had 1350 years of post graduate expertise in one or more of the Roosevelts or adjacent presidential administrations. And that's a lot of firepower. And some of them are among the most important people in the academy when it comes to say the New Deal or the Presidency or T.R. And that's that made us happy that and sort of weaned us from, you know, the natural tendencies to sort of make something dramatic where it didn't need to be. It was dramatic enough or to winnow out what would you call the little darlings that didn't work.
GALLOWAY: Just one question before we go to the students' questions. What are we going to see next from you? You've got the Country Music.
BURNS: So no, I'm working a film that's going to be out there that I serve just as executive producer and co-writer on the called The Emperor of All Maladies about the history of cancer. It's on the end of this month. Kind of a departure. But it's produced and directed by a wonderful filmmaker named Barak Goodman. I'm working with my daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon again on a two-part biography of Jackie Robinson. Trying to take off the sort of pigeon shit that's on the statue of Jackie and have a more complicated, real dynamic dimensional human being. And then we have this 10 part 18 hour film on the history of Vietnam. Followed by what I'm shooting right now, I was just shooting yesterday in Los Angeles an interview on the history of country music. And then we've already begun shooting very early in the shooting process on one on Ernest Hemingway. I've sort of produced and executive produced a film on two Unitarian minister and his wife who are one of, or two of four righteous Gentiles who are Americans among the 25 thousand righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem because they helped get refugees, Jewish refugees out on the eve of World War I. And we're working on a film about the Bard Prison Initiative going in and looking at prisoners who are in for really violent crimes, who are learning about Camus, who speak Mandarin, who are one of the few places in the United States where there is really college and graduate level teaching going on. And they can out debate West Point and University of Pennsylvania. And a few others. God and funding willing.
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GALLOWAY: Right. Let's go to the first question please.
Q: Hi, name is Nicholas Sy and I'm a first year film production major here. I'd like to thank you for being here as you've been a great influence on a lot of my work. My question is on how you kind of determine the scope of a lot of your films, since you tackle a lot of large subjects. I know for The War it's about World War II, but you limited it to inhabitants of four American towns. And I know as you had defended earlier several times like it was criticized for the absence of Latinos. So how do you kind of faithfully try to determine the scope of your films with such large topics?
BURNS: You know, it's interesting. Each film sort of suggests as you go along. I remember The Civil War was going to be five one hours and then it wasn't. It's almost 12. The War was an interesting thing because it was the first time I was doing a film in which there were a thousand other brothers, brethren, you know. And it wasn't an attempt to be different for the sake of being different. But what I noticed that they all did is they didn't understand a kind of contemporaneous relationship to it. That is to say that for people who lived through it, the war happened in all the places it was happening at once. That if you picked up the paper there'd be the European theater on the right and the Pacific theater on the left. And most documentaries, even the great ones would just do the Pacific for a couple of episodes and move to, but there was no sense of it happening. So in our fourth episode we went to, you know, we landed at D-Day and then we went back to the reaction to the news of the landing. Then we went on to Saipan where that battle began in the Marianas in the Pacific. Then we went back to the difficulty in breaking out of the hedgerows in Normandy. Then we went back to the continuation of Saipan. Then we broke out of the hedgerows. Then we went home and then we concluded the Battle of Saipan and moved on to the next island in the Marianas. And so within an ep, and then we liberated Paris. I mean, it was sort of an episode that was the way the war was experienced. And the only way we felt we could do that we first thought was to just focus on one town. That we would just see it. But there weren't enough, you know, actuarial tables didn't permit us to have enough living combat veterans from that one town to do it. So we made it four geographically distributed towns. And we weren't looking to represent any people or not represent. To not be the classic bomber crew in a World War II movie. And so ran afoul of the stuff. And we actually corrected it. We made it more inclusive because our attempt throughout our entire life is to be more inclusive. We have been telling for 35 years stories that people don't tell. Not top down, but also bottom up stories. And they have included minorities and race and labor and women and all sorts of things. So it was just a kind of tempest in a teapot, which happens in our media culture.
GALLOWAY: Next please.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Hi, name's Tabatha. I'm a senior film production and history double major and I was wondering how do you choose the voices of your historical documentaries? And sort of a second part to that question is as a filmmaker, how do you put your voice into a project specifically with your most recent film that's coming out, Cancer: The Empire of All Maladies.
BURNS: Emperor of All Maladies. Yeah. The voices are chosen, you know, there are some voices where you just know only one person can read that. And you go to that person. And they, if they say yes, then you feel you rejoice and say yes. Tom Hanks doing the voice of Al Macintosh in the Second World War film, a newspaper editor from tiny Laverne, Minnesota or, you know, Meryl to do Eleanor. And others you'll just bring them in including Tom and others and read a variety of voices and, you know, sometimes they make it into the film and sometimes they don't. Really great people 'cause you read every quote five or six different ways and have 10 different people read it. If it's not a main character that you know is going to, Paul Giamatti did Theodore Roosevelt and Ed Herrmann who just passed away narrated our cancer film and did F.D.R. voice. And he had brain cancer and just barely made it narrating the film. And so, you know, the film was sort of one of the brainchild's of the early film, Emperor of All Maladies, was Laura Ziskin, who founded Stand Up To Cancer, who's a producer in this town and she died of breast cancer at the very beginning of this project. And then we were sort of bracketed then by the death of Ed at the end who I've worked with a lot. He narrated my Frank Lloyd Wright film and is a wonderful voice of Franklin. He's played him on the stage and screen. So it's very random and haphazard and I've even had, you could probably find a film in which there's a voice of so and so read by this great actor in episode two, but in episode seven that same voice is read by somebody else, because I just thought it's a better version of the, better reading of this voice and if you discover this, I'll take you out to dinner. You know what I mean? [LAUGH] And, you know, I was approached by a cancer survivor who is the president of the PBS station that I, my, I put my films through in Washington, D.C., WETA. And she had just survived cancer and read Siddhartha Mukherjee's Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies. And asked me to read it and I read it. And I thought it was a work of literature. And she said, I want you to make a film. I said, Sharon, you know better than anyone how busy I am. And I listed all the films that I just told you and she said, but you have to do it. And I said I know. And so I said, if I'm the executive producer and I find the team and I direct it from behind and be the, not direct it, that's not the right word, but if I just be the sort of creative backstop and contribute to the script and be the executive producer, is that okay? And so it's a way of it's continuing the conversation with my mother. You know, look, I had a crisis when I was about 40. And I went to my father-in-law who's a psychologist and I said, I seem to be keeping my mother alive. I always remember that April 28th approaching and then receding, but I'm never present on it. And he goes oh that's magical thinking of a child. You still, did you blow out your candles, your birthday candles wishing she'd come back when you were a child? I said yeah. How'd you know? He said, look what you do for a living. You wake the dead. You make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong come alive. Who do you think you really wanna wake up? And so that's what I do for a living. And so maybe part, you know, saying yes insanely to yet another project was just a way of honoring the thing that brought me to filmmaking, which was this horrible tragedy. I don't know.
GALLOWAY: Next question.
Q: Hi, Mr. Burns. My name's Tim Vassallo.
Q: I'm a freshman double major in history and film production. I'm actually an aspiring documentary filmmaker. But so I have like two questions, it's like a two part question. First of all, I notice that you've had a great deal of success making documentary pictures that are really more film. And then you also but then you've kind of diverted a lot of your career to making documentaries for television. And I was wondering if you felt that television was more of an appropriate medium for documentary perhaps? Or what your take is on that. And my second part of the question was in terms of history itself, do you think that American students are properly being educated in history? Like or what's your opinion on how we're learning?
BURNS: Let me do the latter first. No, we're [LAUGH] a terrible country at teaching our history. We're still relatively new and in kind of in our adolescence where you think you'll live forever. And history is part of understanding your own mortality. And coming back. We're beginning to do that. And we're beginning to embrace as we used to popular history and that's a good thing. The academy failed utterly and it's not a trickle down equation. And when it became interested in talking to itself, it forgot a history that was serviceable and usable. And I think, you know, it's atrophied. We also live in an all-consuming moment, which is, you know, focused on buying things. If you just wear the right blue jeans and smell this way and have this handbag and wear these shoes and drive this car, everything will be all right. And those inevitable vicissitudes of life that I mentioned earlier will visit every one of us. And having a historical perspective helps you in a lot of ways. And I think people will have woken up to that a little bit. But we've got, we have a much better job to do. You know, the very first film I worked on, on the Brooklyn Bridge, it's very labor intensive, makes many, takes many years and requires grants and you can't just go to your parents and max our your credit card and that sort of stuff. All the urban myths of feature filmmaking. I needed to get grants and most of the grants came from the National Endowment for the Humanities or the local State Humanities Council. And they all required that I give it to public television. Now if you make a film, a documentary film, and it plays in a Cannes and it plays in Sundance and it plays at the New York Film Festival, three of the most distinguished places or more importantly at Telluride, you would have maybe 3000 people see it. If you then as a result got a limited theatrical deal that played in theaters for six or eight weeks, maybe you'd multiply that by 10 or 20. 35 million people saw The Roosevelts. I'm happy to make that bargain. And we also know that the long form television, whether it's documentary or dramatic seems to be the sweet spot of our creative energies these days. If you think about it, Robert Altman made a great film called MASH. And when it was announced a few years later that there was going to be a CBS comedy, half hour comedy series called MASH, people laughed it out. The reviews were scathing. This guy Alan Alda was no Elliot Gould. [LAUGH] MASH is recognized as one of the greatest television programs ever. And when you compare the depth of complexity in our relationship over the I think 11 years of its life to the superficiality it now seems in retrospect of Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould in a very, very fine movie, you begin to understand what the power of television is. And so I've been from the very beginning interested not just in the communion amongst strangers in dark rooms that is the cinematic experience. I love that more than anything. But also the reality that I can't get the funding to do the films I need to do that sometimes take 10 years to make. When the Vietnam film is on, it will be 10 years from the moment I said yes to the moments it broadcast. I can't do that in the documentary, you know, festival, limited theatrical. And nobody's going to watch 18 hours in a theater. So I, it's been a bargain, but it's by no means Faustian. And it's great. And the other thing is is that in documentary too often that audience is self-selecting and you're speaking to the converted. I speak to, I have high ratings in Oklahoma and Arkansas and Alaska and I am as proud of that as the assumption that the, you know, a Pacific Heights and Beacon Hill and the Upper West Side and the West Side of Los Angeles I have high ratings in. I like all of that. And when people say, who are you making for? I say, everybody. And they go, okay, come on, who are you making…? Because most documentaries are go out and end up at a self-selected audience. And I don't want to be a part of that.
GALLOWAY: Good. That is our last question. Thank you for being here.
BURNS: Thank you.
GALLOWAY: Thank you very much.
BURNS: Thank you. [APPLAUSE]