In the early 1970s, a Hampshire College student named Ken Burns decided against a Hollywood film career. He wanted to be a time traveler, visiting yesteryear America, meeting its legendary heroes and celebrating his discoveries in documentaries.
“I’m asking ‘Who are we?’ Who am I?’ ” Burns said. “It’s an obvious question for any artist. For me, it’s intensely personal and psychological.”
There was a second reason for Burns’ decision: control of his productions, something Hollywood wouldn’t permit. “I’m in the enviable position of telling you that if my films are bad, it’s entirely my fault,” he said.
Burns chose this route, though it could have meant a future of poverty and anonymity. But something unexpected happened along the way: America fell in love with Burns’ artistic recountings of history.
Burns, who’d taken his last formal American history class in 11th grade, turned such subjects as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the Shakers into cinematic opera through his masterful reworking of the documentary form.
However, it wasn’t until the 1990 airing of his 11-hour PBS series, “The Civil War"--the most-watched show on public television, and the first documentary to gross more than $100 million--that his destiny changed.
Burns, 47, was far from an overnight success. After graduating, he took any cinematography work offered him. He struggled for day wages, while shooting for the BBC and Italian television. And though his first documentaries were roundly praised, they brought him little income.
Undeterred, he kept plugging. In the mid-1980s, he selected the Civil War as the subject of his next documentary subject.
“People had told him not to do it [“The Civil War”], that it was foolish,” said Gary Edgerton, a professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., who’s writing an analysis of Burns’ works for St. Martin’s Press tentatively titled “Ken Burns’ America.” “They said it was far too monumental a subject for one person to handle.”
“Word was, he was eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sleeping on the floor,” said Rozanne Weissman, who was with Corp. for Public Broadcasting when Burns approached the organization for funding. Its committee members turned him down, Weissman said.
“They were saying, ‘Who is ever going to watch a series that is so long about the Civil War, where you’re only showing still photos and panning a camera?’ ”
Burns persisted, with an almost evangelistic resolve. He continued searching for funds, working 15-hour days, and, though money was scarce, turning down offers to direct commercials that might have earned him up to $10,000 per day.
He took 5 1/2 years to finish “The Civil War,” a time span longer than the war itself. He sifted through 16,000 old photographs, shot 150 hours of film, edited the material down to 11 hours, and added period music and off-camera narration.
Burns abhors dramatic reenactments. He said they didn’t do the dead justice. Instead, he used cinematography to convey action and emotion. He’d film a now-peaceful battlefield site at the precise time of day when a skirmish occurred, pan the acreage, zoom in for close-ups, and let his camera gallop and lurch over terrain. He’d then cut to photographic stills of the bloody aftermath. This way, he let the dead tell their own tales.
“Various filmmakers had used these techniques before, but he put them together in a form distinctly his own,” Edgerton said.
Burns learned much of his documentary methodology at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., under the tutelage of two teachers, renowned photographer Jerome Liebling and Elaine Mayes. Liebling, whose jarringly beautiful black-and-white photographs express social realism themes, taught Burns and his peers to subtly allow their subjects to state their own meaning and eloquence. Mayes amplified this skill.
“I taught how to see, how to pay attention to things in the world, how to look with a camera,” Mayes said. “He was encouraged by us to be inventive, not to work from a pre-planned script but to [innovate] as he went along.”
Burns was an apt pupil. His approach to documentaries can only be described as “organic.” He visits his subjects as a wide-eyed initiate, believing that his lack of prior knowledge is an asset; he’ll learn along with his audiences. Bucking documentary traditions, he first selects musical pieces before scripting and shooting the projects.
“I might take 50 different tunes I liked, go into the studio and play each tune 20 or 30 different ways, until I found what I wanted,” he said. “Then I’d begin writing and editing to the music, conforming scenes to the music’s emotional power.”
As he proceeds, he lets his scripts and narratives evolve with his discoveries.
“We ask questions without any idea where we’re going in the script,” Burns said, conceding that his approach is more time-consuming and expensive than the more traditionally prescriptive method of documentary-making. “At the darkest moments of editing, we have to trust.”
Dayton Duncan, who describes himself as Burns’ friend, neighbor and co-worker, has written, produced and consulted for several Burns projects. “To me, his greatest attribute is his boundless enthusiasm, which I think is infectious. It’s especially helpful, because our process is a slow one. It’s possible to get worn down by the grind, the constant revisions. But he always brings this energy and enthusiasm to every project that reminds us, in the end, it will be worthwhile.”
Burns’ professional obsession with the past and his quest to resurrect and reexamine it have personal roots, he said. Burns’ mother died of cancer when he was 11. Ten years ago, Burns mentioned to an acquaintance that he still lacked closure on her death.
“And he said, ‘Ken, look what you do for a living--you wake the dead. Who do you think you’re trying to wake up?’ ” Burns recalled. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. I suddenly realized I was keeping my mother alive.”
Though, metaphorically, Burns wakes the dead and allows them to retell their tales, he said they, too, stir him, change him and present him with gifts in the form of insights.
Burns’ headquarters, a 19th century home, office and editing building, is in Walpole, N.H., just 1 1/2 hours from his alma mater. Burns has said that, if his fortunes ever changed, he could continue to live simply in this village. Furnished in early-American style, his office and home are far from lavish. “We put everything on the screen,” Burns said.
Throughout the house are mementos of his “awakenings.” The apple trees outside his second-story office window were planted when Burns was working on a biography of Thomas Jefferson. A bust of Abraham Lincoln (from “The Civil War”) and a framed painting of Jackie Robinson (from “Baseball”) keep Burns company as he works.
Within Burns’ home are architectural drawings of the Brooklyn Bridge, a bag of baseballs and a photograph of collaborator Duncan and Burns in Lewis and Clark-style clothes (“Lewis and Clark”) posing by a fort, Duncan said. Against an antique bookcase leans “a considerable number” of awards and plaques, he added.
“He came here in 1979 to escape the tyranny of New York and L.A., where everything is so expensive, and things have to be done quickly,” Duncan said. “He’s taught me that the greatest gift you can give a project is time. It gives you the opportunity to change your mind, to do things differently.”
While digging up, examining and visually singing America’s stories, Burns discovered a common theme flowing throughout them: race or, as Burns defines it, “the improbable dance that black people and white people have been doing with each other.”
“How can we marginalize the African American experience” when it is so fundamental to our American heritage? he asked. “Frankly, I don’t see how you can be interested in American history, but not race.”
This issue will resonate heavily in Burns’ upcoming series, “Jazz,” which will air on PBS in January. The project has taken him six years to complete.
Jazz, which Burns calls “America’s music,” had its beginnings in the New Orleans African American community and was nurtured by such greats as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Burns started out with little familiarity of the music: He admitted to having only two jazz records in his considerable music collection. Now it’s all he listens to.
Next year, Burns, the divorced father of two girls, may take a sabbatical, but he’s got other projects on the drawing board: a biography of Mark Twain (nearly completed); a series on America’s national parks; and a documentary tentatively titled “Horatio’s Drive,” about the first automobile trip across the country.
Burns remains humble despite his successes. He once said, “Celebrity is like chocolate cake. It’s good tasting but if you eat too much, you get sick.”
A perennial student, he expresses gratitude for the lessons he learns from each of his productions, and for the inspiration he receives from the great men and women of the past. His relationships with them are, in a way, reciprocal.
In Burns’ office, he has placed photographs of Louis Armstrong, whom he calls “the most important person in 20th century music,” near Lincoln’s bust and Jackie Robinson’s portrait. He spoke animatedly about Armstrong, a virtuoso and innovator who turned jazz into a soloist’s art, inspiring legions of musicians and singers after him. Burns offered anecdotes about Armstrong’s generosity, kindness, wisdom and love for people. There was awe in his voice.
“He’s changed me--yes, I’ve been changed,” Burns said. “I can tell you with absolute sincerity that my anxiety about my own mortality has been tempered. You see, I believe that, if I’m good, I might hear Armstrong blow with Gabriel.”