For his latest documentary, "The Address," Ken Burns changed up his traditional style of sprawling looks at major historical events in favor of a short, cinema verite look at the lives of young boys at a Vermont school who are challenged to memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address.
The 90-minute film, which airs Tuesday on PBS, follows the lives of the boys of the Greenwood School in Putney, Vt., who are all grappling with learning disadvantages as they attempt to learn and understand President Abraham Lincoln's short but powerful speech.
Q: You changed your signature filmmaking style for "The Address." Were you seeking a change and this opportunity presented itself or the other way around?
A: The other way around. I was invited as a neighbor to go to the school and judge the Gettysburg contest about 10 years ago and just wept when I saw the heroic, inspiring efforts of the kids. And I thought somebody should make a film. That’s cinema verite, and I don’t do that. I made my way back there a few times over the years and finally thought I should just put my money where my mouth is. It's rooted in the context of the Civil War. It's rooted in the old photographs. And yet it's a departure in a way, but I didn't feel like I had to change my style. I just felt like this is what was required for a film like this, to embed with these kids for nearly three months. Come to terms with what they were doing and thinking as they struggled to learn the Gettysburg Address and finally, more terrifyingly, publicly recite it.
Q: Was there any way these kids, who are very savvy with reality TV, surprised you in how they interacted with your crew?
A: The Heisenberg Principle is always present, that the thing observed is altered by the act of observation. But what was surprising to all of us was how quickly they forgot we were there, for the most part. Now, what I did, I had my editor Craig Mellish put in those moments where they look at the camera. Clearly I didn't want to pretend we were complete flies on the wall. But at the same time, I think we earned a kind of trust that made us part of the family and therefore they let down a good deal of whatever artifice they might put up. They permitted things to take place. Complicated, difficult, angry, joyous things they might have been more circumspect about had we not spent so long there.
Q: You used several children from the school, some with speech issues, to do voiceovers in the documentary. What was it like to approach them to do that?
A: All of the kids had some form of reading or speech issues that I used as narrators. For a good deal of the editing, I just had those cards with what I had written on them and you just read them as an audience. Somebody who was watching, they said, "What about those kids who are watching who can't read or are dyslexic and have trouble? Shouldn't you have them spoken?" I said "No, but maybe we should have the boys read them." They struggled, but we brought them into the studio and I guided them in the booth and we took the readings. I wanted to start with the familiar — there's a familiar archive, there's familiar music. But this is a different narrator — this isn't David McCullough reading "The Civil War" narration, this is a kid, and it sounds like he's having trouble with it. So immediately, it fuses the two worlds, two styles.
Q: Some kids chose to memorize speeches other than the Gettysburg Address for their presentation. Is there any other speech worth doing a documentary about? Or is Gettysburg Address singular?
A: That's the genius of this school that 35 years ago it decided to focus on the Gettsyburg Address. It's matured within the school as, rightfully, a central position within the curriculum for the 2 1/2, three months, they're engaged in studying it. It doesn't invade every class but just about. And it's a wonderful, multi-disciplinary thing for these boys. And as you'll see, much more symbolic. It's a talisman they'll carry for the rest of their lives. In fact, alums come back periodically and still have that speech on their hard drives, even 20 years later. It was impressive. You have to be honest, as complicated as that speech is; as sophisticated and taxing as the language is for the boys, it is a manageable two minutes. One could think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech or other speeches that have been given, but nothing else has quite the durability. And my thought is that this is Lincoln doubling down on the Declaration of Independence. When he says "Four score and seven years ago," he's talking about Thomas Jefferson's Declaration. And what's notable about that is that he articulated universal freedom in the second sentence. You know "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal." Yet Thomas Jefferson owned more than 100 human beings and didn't see the contradiction, didn't see the hypocrisy and more importantly, didn't see fit in his lifetime to free any more people. One of them set in motion a republic founded on a hypocrisy that would end up having to fight a civil war four score and five years later and would have as one of its bloody climaxes, the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil at Gettysburg that would then have the president come and essentially offer, in our modern parlance, the Declaration 2.0. A new version of our operating system we're still working with today.
Q: When the speech was first delivered it got poor reviews. At what point did the tide change for the Gettysburg Address?
A: It was mixed from the beginning. That Chicago Times review I quoted in the film begins, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the flat, dish watery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the president of the United States.” Ouch. But that was a Copperhead newspaper. Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours, wrote to the president and said, "I should flatter myself if I should think I came as close to the matter in two hours as you came in two minutes." But it was a lot of the Lincoln biographers, secretary John Nicolay and John Hay. Part of it was the undeniable force of his rehetroic from his first inaugural to the second inaugural, all of these great speeches, but more than ever the Gettysburg Address, for its concision, it's precise poetry, for its lack of proper nouns, for its just incredible presience. We want to live in that country he's describing. We want to have that new birth of freedom. And when he could not make the journey with us, his words pulled us along. So I think it undeniably grew and grew and grew, and it's hard to argue that there's a better speech in American history.
Q: You used "Ashokan Farewell" in this film, which is closely associated with "The Civil War" documentary. Do you consider this to a be postsript to "The Civil War?"
A: No, in fact I fought it. My editor had argued quite intently to put that in and I had asked for other things, but he put that in. I said, "I don't know." We'd have screenings with warm bodies and after it was over, I would cringe and say, "Wasn't that too much? Was that fair? Wasn't that a thumb on the scale?" and he'd say "No, it just brings it back in a poignant way." So no, it's not an attempt to make a postscript. It's sui generis. But obviously it owes to my own familiarity and passion for this time and for this president and for those words.
Q: A lot of your longform documentaries are on Netflix, and binge watching is a TV buzzword. Do you feel your work should be binge watched?