Ken Burns Tells the Story of America's First Family

Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Closing in on thirty documentaries since 1981's Brooklyn Bridge, the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns is as prolific as he is consistent; you can tell a Burns film just by one look, or by listening to the narration, commentators, or score for a moment. His films define how we come to know the topics they cover, and the Burns formula for telling an American story is one you know will always work; it is one that will keep most viewers glued to their television sets for multiple evenings.

The Roosevelts, which makes its PBS debut on Sunday, is his latest and longest since 2007's The War. Chronicling the lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor, the 14 hours of film — in true Burns fashion — probes deep into the lives of the three Americans who Burns says touched more American lives than any other American family before or since, and establishes itself — again, in true Burns fashion — as the quintessential documentary on the subjects. 

With upcoming projects including documentaries on the life of Jackie Robinson (which Burns stresses is about his entire life, not just baseball), the history of country music, a sprawling series on the war in Vietnam, and another on Ernest Hemingway, coupled with his never-ending fundraising for the projects (he compares himself to a politician during our conversation, always putting on a coat and tie to go and try and get more money for another one of his projects), just the sheer amount of work and hustle that goes into each of these films is astounding. It makes the fact that he has been able to sustain the quality and uniqueness of his particular aesthetic all these years all the more impressive.

I re-watched The Civil War, Mark Twain, and Unforgivable Blackness all in a row a few months back. I realized that although the films all came out at different times, when you watch your films in a chronological order of when the subjects lived or took place, your films flow together and take on this narrative and work really well together. It got me to wondering how you pick your topics and is there a rhyme or reason as to when they're released? 
These are more emotional choices. I'm interested in how my country works, I'm interested in how it ticks, and I think each one of the subjects I've chosen have been a way into that. I don't know if you ever answer the question "Who are we?" definitively, but I think you can deepen it, and you begin to understand or have an appreciation of that complexity. It's a much more difficult thing to pursue, but that's what I've been interested in. I think the issue of freedom — whether it's personal or collective — the issue of race, the issue of women, immigration, of leadership, of hard times, innovation, and all of the guiding threads that come through, you begin to realize after you've done so many films how much they are unintentionally interconnected. This is my 29th film, and I've bumped into the Roosevelts on many occasions. I've passed through the 1920s many times, and yet every time I've passed through the 1920s, it's been different, whether it was Baseball, Jazz, The Dust Bowl, National Parks, or The Roosevelts. I begin to see not only the overlap, but just what the extraordinary difference is from the different perspectives when you chose a project. 

For this film, why the entire Roosevelt family? Why not one single Roosevelt? 
I think the key is the word "Family." They are all from the same family. They were all born with the last name.  Why is it then, that we have spent so much time isolating them from one another? Obviously Franklin and Eleanor are paired for their marriage and his presidency; but why is T.R. always divorced from the discussion? There's no Franklin and Eleanor without T.R. He's central to who they are and who they become. We wanted to tell an extraordinarily complicated family drama, in which we were exalting people, but also unafraid to show their weaknesses. They're all wounded people, and they had to overcome extraordinary adversity in childhood or later life to become who they became. All of these things: the good, the bad, and the difficult, are all instructive and ought to be in play. Because like in all human life, it's accurate.       (Burns; Courtesy of Rahoul Ghose/PBS) 
If you just make something superficial, you
do a disservice to your subject. As we say in the opening moments of the film, they've touched more lives than any other family in American family. 

I read that you worked in a record store once, and the music is such an important component to your films. How much involvement do you have with that part of the films? 
Total. I'm not trained in music, I can't read music, but I know what I like. The simple answer to your question is that we do something different. We record the music in advance of editing. So music, which is one of the most powerful forces on earth, why would you wait until the end of production to add it on, as if it's icing, to amplify emotions you hope are there? Why not have it be an equal partner with the process to making the film? 

I watched an episode of the show Community recently, and they based the plot entirely off of The Civil War. I've seen your style mimicked in films and other television shows. When you were starting out, did you ever think for a second that you would have the sort of impact on popular culture you've had through documentary film? 
[Laughs.] Of course not. I remember, 35 years ago, having shot, but not having the money to finish, my first film for public television on the Brooklyn Bridge, and being in New York, and saying, "Yikes, I gotta get a real job. But if I get a real job, I'll put the footage up on top of the refrigerator, and I'll wake up and I'm 45-years-old, and I won't have done it." So I moved, 35-years-ago, to this tiny village in New Hampshire, to live on nothing and finish the film. I had no idea the style would enter into the lexicon, that Steve Jobs would do the "Ken Burns Effect" on all Apple computers. Today's a school day in America, and for a film that was first broadcast in 1990, The Civil War is going to be shown, or some part of it, 2,500 times today. 

When you do the films that span a few nights like this latest one, how long do you typically take to work on those? 
Between five to ten years. National Parks was ten years, Civil War was five and a half years, Baseball was four years, Jazz was more than five, this one was about six or seven. And it's not something that I'm just working on everyday, there is a team that's there, but i'm coming in for all the critical and important junctures. The important thing is that we need that time to incubate. This is a financial necessity, that makes me have to have to do more than one film at once. We're not trying to squeeze out a product in some kind of record time. These things need to decant, ferment, and age. We never stop researching and we never stop writing. We interview you before we have a script, and we then say "Where does the best of what you say fit in." And the last day of editing, if we learn something new, we put it in. It ain't too late!