TCA: The unstoppable Ken Burns and ‘The Address’ on PBS

Filmmaker Ken Burns and PBS chief programming officer Beth Hoppe speak during a panel discussion at the Television Critics Assn. media tour at Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena.
(Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images)

At 60, Ken Burns is just getting started.

“I feel more creatively alive right now than I’ve ever felt in my entire life, and I think I’ve got the best job in the world,” the prolific historical documentarian said Monday evening at the Television Critics Assn. media tour in Pasadena.

Burns said he has always worked according to a 10-year plan. The current cycle, which will lead him to the year 2020, includes six upcoming projects and a soon-to-be-released documentary called “The Address.”

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Others include films on cancer, the Roosevelts, Jackie Robinson, country music, the Vietnam War and Ernest Hemingway.

During a panel promoting “The Address,” Burns answered questions alone for just over an hour, more than twice the time panels usually get -- and it was mostly riveting.


At times patriotic, at times agitated, always whip-smart and filled with obscure insights into his subject matter, Burns takes a scientific delight in his craft.

In “The Address,” however, he’s using the present to access history, instead of the other way around.

The film tells the story of a group of boys with learning disabilities who attend the Greenwood School in Putney, Vt. The school has a tradition of asking its students to memorize the Gettysburg Address.

“It’s a minefield of terrors and anxieties for those boys,” Burns said, describing the project as a cinema verite piece.

But once the kids learn the two-minute speech that Abraham Lincoln delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa. on Nov. 19, 1863, it changes their lives forever, he said.

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“The power of these words are medicine,” Burns said. “That American spirit is there -- under a ton of words and images of uncivil discourse. But it doesn’t take too much time to pierce the surface of that and get to what we really yearn for.”

He then asked every person in to the room to memorize the famous speech themselves. It’s a task that thousands of people have already undertaken for Burns after he issued the challenge as part of a 150th anniversary tribute to the celebrated piece of “political poetry.”

Responses included videos from every living president, as well as a host of scientific, historical and pop cultural luminaries, including Bill O’Reilly, Steven Spielberg, Rachel Maddow and Bill Gates.

“This is a story about an amazing school, and these boys, who you will fall in love with,” Burns said. “But it’s also about our connection with our past. And we don’t memorize stuff anymore, and we should.”

Burns memorizes everything, however: Lines from many Lincoln speeches, and quotes from Chicago newspapers issued in response to those speeches, along more immediate details such as what a subject looked like when he or she told a particular story.

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It’s these looks that Burns returns to when editing together his patchwork quilt of interviews, photographs and studiously gathered bits of cinematic memorabilia.

At the end of the panel, Burns showed a reel of snippets from a few of his current projects.

“Since ‘Jazz,’ I’ve been aching to come back to music,” he said of the country music documentary. “Right now the working title of this is, ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You.’”

Also of note: The Vietnam War project will likely be 10 hours long and is based on more than 100 interviews with those associated with that brutal conflict.

“If I were given 1,000 years, I would not run out of topics in American history,” Burns said.


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