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Ken Burns: Telling tall tales

Tacked up on Ken Burns' office door is a quote from famous theater director Tyrone Guthrie, which reads: 'We are looking for ideas large enough to be afraid of again.' Burns calls it 'a wonderfully convoluted sentence,' but it's this concept that Burns and his team embody. Those at Walpole, New Hampshire-based prodco Florentine Films are known for tackling mammoth topics in series such as Jazz, Baseball and The Civil War. 'We just grab a whole subject with gusto, and perhaps naivety, and find a way to tell the story,' says Burns, who has been making films for more than 30 years.
November 1, 2006

Tacked up on Ken Burns’ office door is a quote from famous theater director Tyrone Guthrie, which reads: ‘We are looking for ideas large enough to be afraid of again.’ Burns calls it ‘a wonderfully convoluted sentence,’ but it’s this concept that Burns and his team embody. Those at Walpole, New Hampshire-based prodco Florentine Films are known for tackling mammoth topics in series such as Jazz, Baseball and The Civil War. ‘We just grab a whole subject with gusto, and perhaps naivety, and find a way to tell the story,’ says Burns, who has been making films for more than 30 years.

When it comes to script writing and gathering archival materials for these mega-projects, Burns employs untraditional methods. ‘What we try to do is sort of ass backwards from what a lot of my colleagues do,’ he admits. ‘We go out with the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing; we pursue the visual angle unconcerned with whether we’re following the dictates of some template that a script represents. Inevitably, we’ll be writing new things to fit images we have, and going back out to find new images to fit scenes that have been written.’

To help make the most of the script, Burns often uses first-person voices to complement a third-person narrator. While he notes there are very few first-person voices in his current project – a 14-hour, seven-part series for pbs called The War – several of the ones used are recognizable. Take, for example, actors Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hanks, the latter of which reads the voice of a Minnesota newspaper editor. Still, Burns swears he’s not intent on netting big names to use as narrators. (He did, after all, give a 13-year-old girl from Walpole a massive role.) ‘Quite often, there is an intersection between the most talented in our country and celebrities,’ he says, ‘but we never look for celebrities. In fact, you’ve seen the films that have been derailed by people trying to identify them and not listening to them.’

The characters followed in The War, which is set to air next September, stray as far from celebrity as you can get. In the works for almost seven years (from the point at which Burns says ‘this thing happens inside of me where I have to do [a topic]‘), the series shows the American experience in the Second World War. But rather than focusing on the top down, ‘living in the White House with Franklin Roosevelt, or in Churchill’s underground war rooms, or in the chancellery with Adolf Hitler,’ Burns says it follows 40 ‘so-called ordinary people,’ the majority of whom are from four us towns, from Connecticut to California.

The story begins, explains Burns, with the intimate tale of a 16-year-old boy in Alabama who has been rejected by his girlfriend. He joins the army and goes to the Philippines, thinking he’ll be safe there. One of many people followed from the first episode of the film to the last, this boy fights bitterly in hand-to-hand combat, his army eventually surrendering to the Japanese. He survives the infamous Bataan Death March, then a series of horrific Japanese prison camps in the Philippines, and later on mainland Japan. ‘He comes close to dying time and time again until he finally survives the war,’ says Burns.

After an early screening of The War, Burns and his team were approached by an audience member who asked – despite watching the man, now elderly, on camera – ‘Did he make it?’ He’d been so caught up in the story, he’d missed the obvious.

If anything, Burns felt vindicated by that question. ‘What we were trying to do [with The War] is create a sense of urgency, that paradoxically, by focusing on the particular, the grand scale is revealed. And, by coming to terms with the grand scale, we are then more intimately drawn into the lives of the particular people we follow,’ says Burns. ‘It’s like a Russian novel.’

Another Burns project currently deep in the editing process also focuses on individuals to illustrate the bigger picture. It’s a six-part, 12-hour series for PBS, America’s Best Idea: Our National Parks (w/t), that will tell the history of the parks and the people behind their inception, such as Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir. As with The War, roughly 40 individuals will be featured. Burns says they are mainly historical figures, ‘but we’re trying to tell their story and wrestle this complicated narrative to the ground.’

The series won’t broadcast until 2009, but even without screening any rough cuts, it’s safe to assume it will include the panning and zooming technique for which Burns has become legendary. It’s actually an effect now available to Apple’s iMovie users that the company called, appropriately, ‘The Ken Burns Effect.’ The director is flattered by this nod, and gave Apple CEO Steve Jobs permission to use his name. ‘It’s a funny cultural thing that reflects both people’s admiration for, but also impatience with, my zooming and panning through photographs,’ says Burns, ‘and the latter is as important and true as the former.’

His fascination with photography likely stems from his childhood – in fact, his first memories involve watching images form magically in the trays of liquid in his father’s darkroom. In addition to being an amateur photographer, his father was a cultural anthropologist, and Burns used to tag along with him to evening lectures to see films on subjects like Kalahari bushmen and American Indians. His fascination with American Indians bled into Burns’ own bedroom, which was decorated with American Indian artifacts, maps and photographs.

Back in his Walpole office, now decorated with the Tyrone Guthrie quote, Burns reflects on sharing responsibility with his colleagues at Florentine. ‘As I’ve gotten older and worked again and again with the same collaborators, it’s been important for me to delegate as much as I feel comfortable with, so people do go out and do interviews and visit film archives, and I’m not there. In the early days – the first 15 or 20 years of the company – that never happened. I don’t feel any less like the father of a project, but it also gives other extremely talented people a sense of ownership, and that’s really good. The first time you work with somebody, then of course you do everything, but once you’ve worked with somebody for 10 or 15 or 20 years, then you’re greedy if you keep hanging onto all of these things.’

He’s careful, though, in describing his commitment to producing and directing. ‘I’ve avoided the use of the word careerism [to describe my working life] because I think that means there are a set of guideposts that you advance to, as if you were a junior bank manager and you could see all of those posts stretched out before you,’ says Burns. ‘I’m very pleased to say that my life and my work are sort of interchangeable… my family is involved in just about all of the stuff we do.’ Furthers Burns, ‘I do work all the time, but I never see it as part of some predetermined arch that should get me to some next level of money or position or title. We’ve lived in the same tiny New England village for nearly 30 years, worked in many cases – as much as possible – with the same people during that time, and have just tried to practice our work, our life.’ This exchangeability of work and life is second nature for someone like Burns – someone willing to devote several years to a single project to make sure it’s just right.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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