Ken Burns on His New Mayo Clinic Documentary, Healthcare, Marvel Comics, and More

On September 25, PBS will premiere The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science, a new documentary by executive producer Ken Burns about one of the nation’s leading medical centers, founded in 1883 in Rochester, Minnesota. We spoke with Burns—perhaps best known for his documentaries about the Civil War, jazz, and baseball—on the phone last month. Check out our conversation below, and watch the trailer for the new documentary above.

What challenges came with telling the story of an institution like the Mayo Clinic?
What you have to understand is that regardless of the subject—whether it’s an event like the Civil War, or a pastime like baseball, or music like jazz, or an institution like the Mayo Clinic—it’s all biography. It’s all about individual people. In this case, it’s Mother Mary Alfred of the Sisters of St. Francis, who had a vision to start St. Mary’s Hospital [which became part of the Mayo Clinic] and urged W. W. Mayo, a scientist who worshipped Darwin, to support her plan. And it’s also about all the physicians and people they brought in and about the patients. People enter the Mayo Clinic hoping that doctors can help their situation, and many times they do. But it’s not all rosy, and we tried to be faithful to the fact that none of us are getting out of this life alive.

Did the current moment in the nation’s health-care debate influence the documentary?
The film isn’t about health care; we seriously tried to avoid it, and I’m really proud of the way that we stuck to the narrative of the Mayo Clinic. But when we finished the film, I looked at it and I thought, “Oh my goodness, we have the opportunity to change the conversation about health care.” For at least two and a half decades—and you could argue all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt, who was the first president to propose national health insurance—our healthcare debate has been held hostage by politicians who know very, very little about it, and they’re not interested in the fundamental question underlying healthcare: What do we owe each other to take care of one another? That’s the question we pose in the introduction of the film. We don’t try to answer it in the arena of politics, but we do hope that people will ask the kind of questions that the Mayo Clinic has been asking and think about the solutions they’ve arrived at.

This year U.S. News and World Report ranked the Mayo Clinic the best hospital in the country. So what do they do? The short answer is that they’ve followed the dictum of W. W. Mayo from the very beginning to put the patient first. It sounds obvious, but in no other situation is the patient actually first. They’re a non-profit in a healthcare field that increasingly looks toward profits. And non-profit means they can pour money back into education, into research, into patient care, into better outcomes. Second, the physicians and surgeons are on salary. That self-selects a certain kind of person who’s not interested in cashing in but interested in the collaboration; they’re always figuring out ways to engage a colleague in a particularly difficult case rather than go it alone.

I’d say the film is implicitly about the U.S. health-care system, then.
Yes. But that wasn’t our intention. Just like in our most recent film on the Vietnam War, we weren’t trying to talk about the present. But we just know that every time we do a historical documentary, it will always resonate in the present. Ultimately, though, I just wanted people to know how great a place the Mayo Clinic is. The film isn’t a Valentine or a wet kiss. We found issues and problems. Access is always a question in every healthcare situation. Misdiagnoses and mistakes are always a question. Diseases are stubborn and pernicious. People die. But I think that the culture of Mayo breeds a kind of urgency about finding out how you can have a positive outcome for every patient. And they obviously will fail, and none of us will get out of this place alive, but I love their effort.

Ken Burns Revisits ‘The Civil War’ 25 Years Later »

How have your thought processes or creative concerns shifted in the past 15 or 20 years?
In this case, I’ve delegated a lot of work to colleagues, and they do a great job, and I think we’ve developed together. I live and work in rural New Hampshire, and the films get made there. So we’ve found a way to push away distractions and collaborate and shed our own preconceptions. And that helps us remain willing to change, to not be certain, because that’s the death—when you’re not corrigible. I have a neon sign in my editing room that says, “It’s complicated.” Sometimes the villains have positive aspects. Sometimes the heroes are flawed. All of that is important, so if you can work that in wherever it manifests itself, and not just depend on simple heroes and villains, it makes the film more interesting and more accessible and more human, and people begin to trust that.

Have you gotten better at acknowledging complexity as you’ve developed as a filmmaker?
You know, let me stop being modest. Yes. [Laughs.] We have. The Vietnam film is a classic example. When I was making Jazz, in the last half of the ’90s, Wynton Marsalis, the great jazz trumpeter and composer, said to me, “Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time.” And I just went, “Wow. Of course.” We know what that’s like. If you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone else, if you’ve ever had a family, if you work for other people, you know that’s exactly what’s true. You understand that part of life is accepting it. But somehow we tend to gravitate toward simple, easy stories. That’s why Marvel Comics makes so much money at the movies, because it’s just basic stuff, then they add a lot of bells and whistles to it. I’d rather not add any bells and whistles and make unsimple stuff.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

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