Men's Journal

Life Advice from Ken Burns

 Courtesy Tim Llewellyn

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It’s come in different forms and different words, but if I were to distill it, it was to always be yourself. The thing I respond to and that I hope I’m able to bring to the table is a kind of authenticity and honesty. And that only comes from that essential Socratic question, “Who am I?” It’s never really fully answered, but the deepening of the question is the arc of our lives. I don’t know a time when it hasn’t been important to me. It came from my dad, from my mother’s bravery before she died [of cancer], from teachers. And also as a father of four girls. They are mighty BS meters. 

Your films never fail to convey the role of regular Americans amid these epic historical moments and towering figures.

There’s been a bottom-up approach that has probably defined my films more than anything. Whether it’s a fighter pilot whose first day of work was D-day, or some of the soldiers we interviewed from South and North Vietnam — or people whose bravery might not be taking place on the battlefield but some- where else, maybe back home — you begin to realize there are no ordinary people. That’s one of the great lessons of 40 years of doing this history business. There’s always somebody new you’re about to meet. 

You seem to go from a serious topic, say the Civil War, to a fun one, like baseball.

Yeah, I just spent the entire day in the editing room on an eight-part, 16 1/2-hour history of country music. Country music has been fun in a way that Vietnam was never fun. It also has emotions that are as powerful, because they are so elemental. Harlan Howard, the songwriter, said country music was three chords and the truth. And there’s lots of execrable country music, just as there’s lots of execrable everything, but when you distill the essence of the story, you get socked in the gut by the power of the simple stuff that happens. 

How hard was it to be a filmmaker early on?

[One of the] great platitudes, especially in documentary filmmaking, is perseverance, because there are many more talented filmmakers than there is money to make the films. That means disappointment will be an important character builder. I used to have on my desk two gigantic three-ring binders, four or five inches thick, each filled with hundreds of rejections for letters I had sent trying to raise money on my first film, on the Brooklyn Bridge. I saved them all. It took me as long to make a one-hour film on the Brooklyn Bridge as it took to make the Civil War series, five and a half years. 

Why did you choose Vietnam now?

It had to be done. It’s the most important event in American history in the second half of the 20th century. It is hugely defining. And a good deal of the divisions we experience today come from divisions of Vietnam that have never healed, in large part because we’ve refused to examine them. As one of our Army guys says, Vietnam drove a stake through the heart of America and we’ve never recovered. I’m not as pessimistic as he is, but I think Vietnam offers some stunning ways of understanding our present situation. What if I told you that I’ve been working for 10 years on a story about mass demonstrations across the United States, about a White House paralyzed by leaks and investigations, about a political campaign reaching out to a foreign government during an election cycle? Just about everything concerning the Vietnam War resonates in this particular moment. 

What do you think about the way this country wages war?

Well, it’s less this country than it is human beings. I find war the most insightful way to study human behavior. It clearly brings out the worst of us. But it also brings out the best of us in very unexpected ways. Unfortunately, there is no danger that we’re going to get rid of wars, I’m sorry to say. As one of our Marines says, we didn’t get to be the dominant species on the planet because we’re nice. And he went on to say, “People always said, ‘Oh, you know, the military turns kids into killing machines.’” And then he said, “Nope. It’s only finishing school.” 

In light of the history you’ve explored, are you optimistic about America now?

I am always optimistic about it. People are fond of saying “History repeats itself.” Right? You hear it all the time, and it’s crazy. Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Then I guess I’ve spent my entire professional life trying to hear those rhymes.