Through the Lens of History: Our Q&A with Filmmaker Ken Burns

For our fall issue of Preservation magazine, I had a chance to talk with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, the visionary mind behind films like Prohibition and the Civil War series. Space was limited in the pages of Preservation, but Burns had so many great things to say, we’ve included a fuller version of our conversation about historic places, preservation, and his dream time travel destination here.

Your work has taken you to some of the most important historic places in our country, what’s the first historic place that you remember making an impact on you? Have historic places always been powerful to you?

Every film I’ve done has brought me to a place that has had extraordinary historical resonance. My first film for public television was on the Brooklyn Bridge which is one of the most important bridges in the history of the world and one of the most beautiful because of the combination of certain gothic stone and this new material called steel. It’s hugely important. It’s still a gorgeous bridge, it’s still the only one with an elevated promenade so that people walking across have the primary view. It’s not about the traffic, it’s about the people’s experience walking up and over to the city, because the towers were the tallest man-made things in North America when the bridge opened so it’s just an amazing thing.

The second film was on the Shakers and there are still remnants of Shaker villages around, particularly in New Hampshire, near where I am in Canterbury, and in Massachusetts in Hancock, and also out in Pleasant Hill in Kentucky that are just among the most important remnants of a 19th century American experiment. It didn’t ultimately succeed, but didn’t fail either, and left us with glorious authentic, American architecture and furniture.

And that’s just the first two films.

Monticello is one of the most amazing places on earth for a film we made in the late 1990s on Thomas Jefferson. All of the National Parks, the physical landscape of the United States you can’t ignore. Along with all the Louis and Clark trails, trying to get back to what it  must have been like to travel across a wild continent that’s now been tamed by barbed wire and roads.

What do you think it is about places that make them so important to understanding our history?

You know, we live in a world in which everything is sort of disposable. We talk on our little devices and everything’s abbreviated and we Tweet and it’s not really English, it’s not really a complete thought. But whatever we do we leave some sort of residue of who we are, good and bad, our intentions and hopes, our fears and dreams, and I think these historical places, even the natural ones, represent us. They radiate with what we find beautiful and in the case of beautiful places we save, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the places that we feel are historically important remind us who we think we are and who we might become going forward.

So to me, we tend to think of history and time as linear, but it’s really not. I can give you a good example which is memory. If you remember something, it’s not in the past, you’re remembering it now.  I do lots of interviews for my business and people start talking about World War II and horrible stuff that they saw. We’re making a film on Vietnam and we’re talking to people whose memories are 40 or 50 years old and they are present. And I think these historic places are our anchors and our connections to the energy of the past, that’s not in any way homework, it’s not memorization, it’s where you get to feel the ghosts and echoes of an almost inexpressively wise past.

That paradoxically points you confidently toward the future, because if you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t possibly know where you are or where you’re going. That’s the essence of their value.

How would you rate how well we’re preserving our heritage and our history in these places?

We’re still a relatively young country and for way too long we just felt that everything that we had done before was disposable. And I think we’ve woken up after the Second World War and begun to understand that we really did need to save. The National Parks were started in 1864 in the midst of the Civil War so we’ve understood the importance of historic sites but only in the last generation or so have we really begun to understand the way in which these seemingly distant events connect us inextricably to our present.

Human nature never changes and particularly in tough times, whatever they may be tough economically or some other way, these places become help. It’s no wonder that attendance at the national parks has skyrocketed over the last few years. We made a film about it, we think we helped open the door, but it’s also that people reaffirm at these places, small historic houses to the Grand Canyon, who we are, what we want to be. And that’s really important.

And you know when you’re standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, you’re walking into the Lincoln Memorial, you’re getting a tour of Monticello, they’re not asking you “are you red state or blue state?” They’re not asking you “are you rich, are you poor?” “Are you black, are you white?” “Are you gay, are you straight?” “Are you male, are you female?” Even whether you’re an American or not, they’re just saying “Welcome to something that we,” and that means not just them, but all of us, “consider valuable.”

Is there one of these topics or events that you feel has shaped our story more so than others?

I feel like I’m copping out saying my films are like my children and I can’t choose among them. But I can tell you that the most important event in American history is the Civil War. No doubt about it. Our founding is of course critical, the Second World War is the greatest cataclysm in the history of the world, but the most important event in American history is the Civil War and so those battlefields, and the residue of that conflict, wherever it may be, in Richmond, Va., or Montgomery, Ala., or Washington, D.C., or Gettysburg, or Antietam, or Shiloh, all of these places have huge significance for me.

You cannot help but join a kind of swiftly flowing river, in which you are just the tiniest of tributaries, that has at its heart who we are, good, bad and otherwise. Here we are declaring to the world that all men are created equal, and the guy who wrote that owned more than 100 human beings and symbolically set in motion events that would cause a huge war that would kill two percent of our population over the fact that, four score and five years later, four million Americans were still owned by other Americans. This is at the crux of who we are.

Your various films have focused on events, and people, and places. Is there a difference when you’re using those different lenses? What different layers do those add?

That’s a really good question. I think I ask the same question in every film whether it is about a place, or an individual, or individuals, and that’s “Who are we?” What can this subject tell us about who we are? And when you probe that question, sort of obvious as it is, perhaps clichéd as it is, if you pursue it authentically, you also begin to realize, it’s also, who am I? And that’s a really important thing.

That the pursuit of history, engagement with these places, with those events, with those people is a mirror and eventually when you consider Abraham Lincoln asking us to try to evoke the better angels of our nature, he’s talking to you, as much as he’s talking to the Southerners who were listening to his first inaugural on a cold and blustery March day in 1861. It’s us. And will I be a better angel? Can I be a better angel? What does it mean to be a better angel? Why did he say that just before the worst convulsion in American history? I mean that’s what I love about it.

Is that how you go about choosing your subjects?

The glib thing is that they choose me, there’s something not untrue about that and that is to say, I’m just a storyteller. We all are. You are too. And we’re all just trying to figure out what’s a good story and I just sort of suddenly go “Whoa,” and it’s not that I know the story and I want to tell you what I know, it’s that I’m curious to find out what the real story is. Or what my version of the real story is so that I can share it with you. And that’s very animating.

The former is homework, this is what you need to know about Abraham Lincoln. The other is, listen to this sentence! I can’t believe what I just discovered, he starts out with the “mystic chords of memory” and ends “the better angels of our nature,” I could sit there and talk to you for an hour about that one sentence. But that’s the sort of thing that you get drawn into and you think, “Wow, this is pretty interesting.” This subject, these people, this family, this place, this event, and that’s it. That’s what gets me up in the morning and makes me feel that today’s a little bit better than yesterday.

What are you working on right now?

We just released Prohibition this past fall. Huge success. It was funny in a way that it was water cooler conversation like the Civil War series was and here’s why I think it is: You say Prohibition, you think flappers and gangsters. You think sexy and you think dangerous, which is a very compelling story. And it was sexy and it was dangerous, but what was most interesting I think was the stuff that’s so much like today. People who feel like they’ve lost control of their country and want to take it back, that’s why Prohibition happened. It sounds a lot like the Tea Party.

There’s a smear campaign in the presidential election; hmmm, never heard of a smear campaign … There’s demonization of recent immigrants to the United States. There’s single-issue political campaigns that metastasize with horrible, unintended consequences. I mean that’s what we were drawn to and then of course we get the girls in the short skirts, bra-less dresses, and gangsters murdering their enemies.

We’re coming out this year with a film on the history of the Dustbowl, a two-part, four-hour nearly oral history. We’re finishing a film on the Central Park jogger case which sounds different for us but it engages in themes of race. You probably heard of the horrible and brutal rape of this woman in Central Park; well, the five black and Hispanic boys, children, who were convicted and sent to jail, didn’t do it. They got out of jail and they discovered the real rapist. And it’s just a horrible story of injustice.

We are near the end of editing a massive, seven-part, 14-hour history of the Roosevelts: Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor. And related relatives. We’re doing a biography of Jackie Robinson, the first African American person to play professional baseball. We’re doing Vietnam, this is all in chronological order, that’s also a huge series whereas Jackie’s just another two-parter like the Dustbowl. And then we’re researching a big series on the history of country music and a two-part biography of Ernest Hemmingway, which takes us to 2019. I’m the executive producer on a big history of cancer called The Emperor of All Maladies. So yeah, I am very, very busy.

How would you define a preservationist? Do you consider yourself a preservationist?

Yes, very much so. And it can take many, many forms. It can be the preservation of ideas. The preservation of images. The preservation of words. I sort of deal in that arena, but it may also mean the preservation of places, I take advantage of those who work heroically to save battlefields and houses and architecture and things like that. A preservationist is someone who knows you can’t possibly have a future unless you have a past. It’s really that simple.

I know you said you can’t pick favorites with your films, but do you have a favorite historic place?

It’s hard to even pick there. I like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, what I like about it is not just the view but whose hand I’m holding, which takes it from the infinite to the specific. The great beauty of nature, not only reminds you of its beauty, it connects you to it or the people you’re with and there’s something very moving about that. I love Monticello; I never pass up a chance to visit even though the Jefferson film’s been done well more than 15 years. I love to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. I have four daughters, each one of them I have wheeled in their carriages over the Brooklyn Bridge and as they get older then we walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Were your children raised going to these historic places?

Oh absolutely, I just was thinking this morning, how my oldest gal, who’s now got a gal of her own, I can picture her sort of scrambling over the rocks at Little Round Top at Gettysburg. My now seven-year-old, when we were at Glacier National Park taking hikes with me and wondering if we were going to see bears. The school break of my seven-year-old, we’ll be in Washington, D.C. We will go to the Lincoln Memorial, and we can’t go up into the Washington Monument but we can look at it, and we can go to the Air and Space, and we can go to the National Gallery of Art, and visit the Capitol, and maybe get a tour of the White House. That’s the kind of stuff that we want to do.

And why do you think it’s important that the younger generations experience this history as well?

We live in the greatest country on earth; I’m unafraid of saying that. We’ve made lots of mistakes, but ultimately the films celebrate the possibility of the United States, what Lincoln called the” last best hope of earth,” and it is incumbent upon us as parents to not take for granted that our schools will teach civics, that our schools will take that trip to Washington, that our schools will teach the presidents, or the most important events, but we have to do it. I’ve got a seven-year-old who knows all the presidents and this will be a way to show her the glories of Washington. She’s already been to the last inauguration on a very cold January day and I held her up high and showed her what 2 million people looked like. I didn’t think she was going to see that again in her life.

So many of your films have so many colorful stories and anecdotes, you kind of feel like you were there. I’m thinking of Shelby Foote telling stories in the Civil War. Throughout this work has there been a time when you’ve thought, “I really wish I was there”? Is there a particular moment in history that you wish you could have been present for?

I’d obviously have to be there at Ford’s Theatre and stop the assassin. That would be the thing where you’d want to do intervention. But with any of these places what you get excited about is exactly what you’re talking about. Faulker said history is not was, but is. And that’s a really great thing to say, because there are moments, if I do my job well, there are moments in Shelby Foote’s recollection, and people like him always bubble up to the surface in our films because they make you feel like you’re there. At the Gettysburg Address or at the Battle of Shiloh or when Buck O’Neil tells you what it was like to play in the Negro Leagues with Satchel Paige, and you’re there.

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