'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Ken Burns ('Country Music')

Ken Burns - Getty - H 2020
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"COVID has immediately taken its place alongside the three great crises in American history, making it the fourth," says Ken Burns, the legendary documentary filmmaker, as we remotely record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. Best known for the PBS event docuseries The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2000), The War (2007), The Vietnam War (2017) and, most recently, Country Music (2019), Burns, a Peabody Award and Lincoln Prize winner who has five competitive Emmys and a Lifetime Achievement Award Emmy on his mantelpiece, continues, "The other three are the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II. This is a big existential moment. We are living through history. We don't know how it's going to be, how long it's going to last, how virulent it will be, whether there will be any effective treatment, whether there will be an effective vaccine, how often we'll have to do this — there are a huge number of unknowns."

For Burns, 66, living through an "unprecedented" crisis — especially one presided over by Donald Trump, whom he regards as "the greatest threat in the history of our republic" — has been distressing, but not all bad. A single father divorced from his first wife and separated from his second, he is quarantining at his home in Walpole, New Hampshire, with his two youngest daughters (he had a pair with each wife), who normally attend boarding school, and has enjoyed getting to spend time with them. He has also spent a lot of time out in nature; had his poetry published for the first time, in The Atlantic; and chipped away at the eight films he has in one stage or another of development. One, about Leonardo Da Vinci (it will be his first without a connection to America), he is co-directing with Sarah Burns, one of his older daughters, and her husband, David McMahon (who heard Burns speak at his University of Michigan commencement, followed him to Walpole for an internship and wound up marrying his daughter).

However, Burns, whose Beatles-like haircut makes him instantly recognizable wherever he goes, laments that because of the pandemic, he cannot to some places he would like to, such as the Telluride Film Festival, which takes place in Colorado's Rocky Mountains each Labor Day weekend. "I've gone for 30 straight years, 31 overall," he says. "I premiered Huey Long [his 1985 doc] there, and then The Civil War, and I've never not gone [since]. It's incredibly painful not to go there, but I don't want to turn Telluride into Manhattan when it was a hot spot."

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.

Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.

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Burns was born in Brooklyn and raised between Newark, Del., and Ann Arbor, Mich., moving wherever his father, a professor of anthropology, needed to go for work. His mother, meanwhile, was diagnosed with cancer when he was a toddler, and battled with it until her death when he was 11, meaning her morbidity was "hanging over everything" throughout his childhood. A year after she died, Burns and his father were watching Carol Reed's film Odd Man Out (1947), which moved his father to tears. Burns says, "I remember going, 'This [a filmmaker] is what I want to be.'"

He eventually enrolled at Hampshire College, where professors Jerome Liebling and Elaine Mayes encouraged his passion for photography and filmmaking, and where he began to shift his focus to documentaries, which combined both. His senior thesis film offers the first manifestation in Burns' work of his method of panning a camera across static photographs in order to make them feel more alive — something that years later Steve Jobs coined "the Ken Burns effect" and began offering in Apple software.

Burns graduated in 1975 and a year later established Florentine Films, a production company, with two fellow Hampshire alums, Roger Sherman and Buddy Squires. They based themselves not in LA or New York, but in Walpole, where costs were lower and distractions were fewer. The first and third films Burns directed from there, The Brooklyn Bridge (1981) and The Statue of Liberty (1985), were both Oscar-nominated for the best documentary feature. But he was already gravitating toward a different form of telling stories: the docuseries.

Over five nights in September 1990, when Burns was just 37, The Civil War, on which he had toiled for five-and-a-half years (longer than the war itself), and which spanned nine episodes and 11 hours, aired on PBS. 14 million people tuned in to the first episode, and nearly 40 million tuned in overall, the largest numbers for a public television series ever. The network, the docuseries and Burns' life and career were never the same thereafter.

Burns' subsequent work can be grouped in a number of ways. He sees The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz as one trilogy, and The Civil War, The War and The Vietnam War as another. A third grouping could encompass music, considering that Burns followed his divisive Jazz series 20 years later with another series about a genre of music he knew little about before embarking on a film about it, Country Music.

Interestingly, the thread connecting all of his films, Burns observes, is — timely enough — race. Many think about country music as the domain of southern whites, but Burns shows that neither music nor much else can be "siloed" so simplistically. Indeed, most of the figures on country music's Mount Rushmore had black mentors; Ray Charles, when given the chance to do anything he wanted, made a country and western record; and, as Burns notes in reference to Lil Nas X's recent smash hit 'Old Town Road,' "The biggest country single ever — of all time — is by a black, gay rapper," adding, "That is a mic-drop moment."

Five random topics:

-On the theoretical possibility of leaving PBS for Netflix: "I love PBS... I want to release everything on PBS. I believe in what it stands for. PBS is the Public Broadcasting Service — not System, Service — and I hitched my wagon to that star long ago. I'm very proud that they would have me, and I count it as one of the great blessings of my life that I'm part of that family."

-On reality TV: "I hate it because it's not reality... You don't eat bugs or propose to anyone else in front of millions of people. All of this is 'nonfiction television' of varying degrees of drek."

-On his reported criticism of ESPN's Michael Jordan docuseries The Last Dance on the basis that Jordan is both the subject and an EP of the docuseries: "It was really taken out of context... I was asked by a reporter about whether I could do that [sort of a series], and I'm not permitted by PBS. I can't have a producer of my film be a subject of my film — it just doesn't happen... I talked to the filmmaker because when it [Burns' comments] got out, it just multiplied like kudzu. I just said, 'Look, I hadn't seen your film. I still haven't seen your film. I don't have any time to see films. But I'm sure it's good and I'm so sorry.' Because apparently he was a big admirer of mine. I said, 'Look, I've got no rules. PBS has rules, and I stick by them, with regard to funders and with regard to production teams, and so I couldn't have done that.' What I told him was, 'That's not the way we roll.'"

-On his pick for the greatest living documentary filmmaker not named Ken Burns: "Geez, that's so hard! The thing that came to mind is my dear friend Werner Herzog. He's so different than me. He once described it on a panel — he said, 'I'm after an ecstatic truth, my friend Ken is after an emotional truth.' And there's a truth to what he said. I love what he does. I love his attitude about it. I love his commitment, his passion, his bravery."

-On who will win the presidential election in November: Joe Biden.