Award-winning documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick of Florentine Films talked partnership, process and their latest doc Hemingway during a keynote session on Friday, January 29 with NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.
Emmy-winner and Oscar-nominated documentarian Ken Burns is no stranger to anyone who works in the factual and unscripted industry. The subject matter for his work runs the gamut from Baseball to The Central Park Five to The Civil War to many points between. He’s been working with his longtime producing and directing partner Lynn Novick (College Behind Bars) since 1989. Their latest collaboration is Hemingway, a three-part, six-hour documentary set for airing in April via PBS examining the work and life of Ernest Hemingway. The film interweaves the biographical story of the celebrated writer and controversial figure with excerpts from his short stories, novels, and non-fiction to shed light on the man behind the image and reputation.
As for how and why the iconic filmmakers came to make a doc series about Hemingway, when an in-depth look at a macho white male may appear to some to be out of step with the current moment, Burns said that the writer was always on his list.
“We knew how seminal he was in the 20th century in terms of American writing. We knew how complex and contradictory he was in the way in which he portrayed himself, as well as those around him, but I don’t think we were really prepared for the kinds of depth that we were going to come across, and at the same time, help show how transcendent art can be,” Burns explained. “There’s a moment when he’s writing The Old Man and the Sea and his fourth wife [Mary Welsh] — who’s suffered as much as any of the wives under his tyrannical, in some cases abusive, [and] in some cases physically abusive circumstances — said, ‘Reading it I forgive you for all the horrible things you’ve done now.’ It’s inexcusable and we don’t forgive him. But there is a reminder that there is something that happens in art that is so spectacular, and Ernest Hemingway for a while seemed to have the keys to the cabinet.”
Deggans pushed the filmmakers further on what motivated them to want to “lift up” such a controversial man and artist.
“He’s a man of his time, and you can’t change the times and you can’t change him,” Novick said. “He’s a very troubled person ultimately, he struggles with mental illness, he struggles with addiction, he struggles with depression. So, this age-old question about the art and the artist, that’s not unique to Hemingway, we can think about a lot of other artists that are struggling with these same questions.”
As for how to balance the multi-faceted sides of such a larger-than-life character within the confines of a limited series, Burns discussed their approach to historical complex characters.
“It’s important in our work and in our own lives personally to tolerate complexity and contradiction,” Burns offered. “We’ve tried to avoid making these very facile, very simple judgments of good and bad that are the lingua franca of our time right now and try to get at a complexity about him, that here is this macho guy who seems to suggest that he should be an artifact of the previous century and a cautionary artifact at that. And yet he wrote about women in such an extraordinary way, he had his own issues with a kind of gender-bending personality that it is impossible to disqualify him as any one thing.
“And so, [we] fall back on something that has always been a hallmark of our work, which is to tolerate that complexity and to understand that the most placid piece of water might have beneath its surface an unspeakably difficult, powerful undertow, and to be able to hold two seemingly opposing things in in your hands and let them be,” he added.
Burns and Novick have worked together since 1989, and it’s a partnership that endures because of their working style.
“Different parts of it we do in different ways depending on the project, frankly, and it’s also a really strong collaboration with Geoff Ward who writes our scripts and Sarah Botstein who produces our films,” Novick explained. “So it’s really the four of us kind of putting our heads together in the best possible way.
“And sometimes we argue, sometimes we really don’t agree but we come to consensus about what is the best way to tell this particular story,” she added. “And I cannot forget our editors who put the pictures together for us and then we respond to that very collaboratively. It is actually a living breathing thing and it has to make sense and flow out over time. It’s as Ken always says –’Trust the process.’ And it’s a process.”
As for what’s on the filmmakers’ upcoming development and production slate, suffice to say plenty. “We’re in the middle of a series about America’s response to the Holocaust, which has to do with our immigration refugee policy, white nationalism, who’s a ‘real American’ — all very relevant questions to our moment right now and always will be relevant,” Novick said. “And then we’re developing a series on the presidency of LBJ also with Sarah [Botstein], and then I am also developing a series on the history of crime and punishment in America with producer, Laurens Grant (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution).”
Burns, who is currently wrapping work on an upcoming PBS project on Muhammad Ali, explained that the duo never stops researching or writing and their method is a “big hunter gathering process” using their live cinematography, interviews and of course, their trademark approach to archival and still footage material. He also talked about the importance of jettisoning preconceptions in documentaries and allowing a story to take the filmmaker in a different direction. If you can, “You’re liberated from the tyranny of your own baggage that you bring to something and that’s a wonderful thing where you go, ‘Oh, I guess it’s not the way I thought.’”
As for documentary filmmakers wanting to work with Burns, he admitted that he does not take pitches from outside companies. “We do our own work,” he said definitively. “I’m working on eight films right now. Four in the editing room if you count Hemingway, and four not [in the edit room], and one is being accelerated. We have so many ideas right now we’re booked out for ourselves, by ourselves, through the end of this decade. If I were given 1,000 years to live, I would not run out of topics in American history.”
Still, Burns and Novick said that even with their credits and successes getting a project made isn’t always a slam dunk. “It’s a high hurdle every time,” she said.
As a parting piece of advice to Summit attendees, Burns reflected, “The real advice is be perseverant.”
Outlining the funding process for their films — an amalgam of funds from PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting corporate sponsor the Bank of America and private donations — Burns maintained: “It’s not in a space of investing where we’re inviting people to influence our content or to corrupt that content merely by association. What we are saying is, ‘This is a good idea, this is a good story to tell and we need your grant.’ We don’t have investors, every one of our projects is a zero-sum game and we get paid a salary. And when we’ve used up that bucket of funds the project had better be over.”