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?
A: I feel so validated. When "The Civil War" was coming out, all the critics at TCA said, "This is terrific, but no one is going to watch it. Steven Bochco has his new show, 'Cop Rock' coming out this fall. It'll be swamped by that. But anyway, no one pays attention anymore. They have MTV attention spans." I said, "Oh, OK." And I went home with a little anxiety. And then it was the highest-rated thing in PBS history. Go ahead to the World War II film that aired in 2007, not to ignore the other films that had done really well. They said, "Now we're in the age of YouTube. Who's going to watch a series on the second World War when there are already a thousand other films?" Well, it's the highest-rated program of the century among documentaries on PBS. So what I think it means are a couple of things. One, I think we’re all starved for meaning. That all real meaning occurs from concentration. That all relationships you care about, the work that's most important to you, it's from your sustained attention. Sure, we all like to watch a kitten with a ball of string or a brother biting his brother’s finger. But we also like other stuff. "Downton Abbey," my wife never watched broadcast. She watched all seasons binging. I think those habits have vindicated me. I'm allowed to do longform now without people harumphing.
Q: But most people talk about binge-watching fiction.
A: I get it, but listen. Documentaries have undergone a rennaisance in the last 40 years. Maybe 50 years ago, they were castor oil. Maybe they were medicine, maybe they were homework. But the same laws that apply to Steven Spielberg apply to me. The same laws of storytelling. That is true. It’s been true since Aristotle wrote "Poetics." We have to obey. When you say, "Honey, how was your day?" You don't say, "I backed slowly down the driveway to avoid the garbage can at the curb." You don't say that unless you get hit by a car. What you do is you edit. You impose storytelling structure on things. Those laws apply to documentary filmmakers, whether it's Errol Morris or Michael Moore or me, just as they apply to Steven Spielberg or Charlie Chaplin or Akira Kurosawa. So once we've gotten over that, it's how are you going to tell the story. And once you've got that, you've got your audience. My high numbers on both broadcast and Netflix bear that out.
Q: You have your projects planned out for the next six years?
A: Yeah, until the end of the decade. And this may be an incredibly stupid thing, we're actually planning what we will be doing in the 2020s as well. But I finished a big major series on Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, I’m executive producting and co-writing a series called "The Emperor of All Maladies," about the history of cancer. I'm going into the editing room on a two-part biography of Jackie Robinson. I'm editing a mammoth series, 10 parts, on the history of Vietnam. We're shooting a history of country music called "I Can’t Stop Loving You." And we've started shooting, just preliminarily, the opening salvos of a two-part biography of Ernest Hemingway. That takes me to 2019.
Q: On any given day is your mind bouncing between five different subjects?
A: Yeah. But most days are focused intently on one. Today, it’s the Gettysburg Address. But I've already worked on three of those others in some way, even if it's as insignificant as returning an e-mail. But they're all done in stages. "Roosevelts" is done and in the can and has been done and in the can for a year. It will take over an entire week of PBS, unprecendted, starting Sept. 14-20 this fall. We're editing on many of the other things, shooting on the later ones. They have a logic and rhythm to them, and I've been doing this for 35-plus years, so it's not like I don't know how to keep a couple of balls in the air. Maybe this is a little bit crazy doing seven at once, but after "The Address" airs, it will be six. And next October it will be five and by the end of 2015 or early 2016 it will be three and it'll be little bit better. And God knows, since I can't say no, there may be another I insist I have to shoehorn in.
Q: When you take on these big documentary projects and you have all this information in your head, years later are you still able to recall intimate details of say, "Brooklyn Bridge?"
A: "It so happens that the work that is likely to be our most durable monument, to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is not a fortress, not a shrine, not a palace, But a bridge." Harpers Weekly, 1883. That is the opening, and I could probably continue, of "Brooklyn Bridge." That is my first child, that's my first baby. What can I tell you? Because it's public televison, I'm not trying to blow smoke, I am able to make the films I want. When I have conversations with movie directors, they're always complaining about how they couldn't do this or they couldn't do that. I couldn't get this person, I couldn't get that music. If you don't like my film, it's all my fault. I have no excuses. So I spend a huge amount of time, I invest psychic as well as professional energy and I make the best film that I can at that time. You may not like it, and that's perfectly your right, but they stay with me, like my children. I have four daughters, and I recognize their voices from afar. I love them. The same with the films. I'm extraordinarily fortunate that I've completed every film I've started. And that none of them have been a clunker. They all have hugely numerous advocates. Awards don't matter as much as people watch them and like them. And I'm very lucky that I know someone who thinks every single one of my films is my bst film. Even the film "Empire of the Air," about the early days of radio, every month I hear somebody say "That's my favorite film." That is really satisfying to me.