Last week we posted the first part of our very own Kelly Sawdon in conversation with the luminous Ken Burns. His new series, The Roosevelts, is wrapping up on PBS about now. Here’s part two.
You create complex narratives very successfully. How do ethics play into your vision or execution as a filmmaker?
I think there’s a very complex dynamic with regard to ethics. It’s very hard to articulate because what we’re doing is we’re taking still photographs and archival evidence from the past, and trying to figure out how to tell a story. Take for example our civil war film. It’s eleven and a half hours long.
Most of the time there’s battles going on and yet there’s not a single still photograph of battles taken during the civil war. So, we had to invoke some sort of frenetic approach — a quick cut, a detail on the cannon, and troops marching, and the glimmer of bayonets. If you cut them well enough, it gives a semblance of battle, the sound effects and complex narrative.
We’re serving a larger truth, but you’re on an ethical line and you’re constantly struggling. It’s really terrific, but if it’s too much we’ll pull back or we’ll say you know what, let’s not do that.
We made a film on Louis and Clark and those photographs or even paintings of the Indians when they saw them visiting, but there are later paintings and there are later photographs, which we used. Even though there’s a temporal dislocation of 60 or 70 years, it was more important to represent what the Shoshone tribe looked like than not do anything or to do some God awful reenactment. If you’re going to do reenactments, you might as well just make a feature film.
You spent considerable time investigating your subjects and after spending seven plus years on those topics, do you still find them fascinating? Do you continue to study them after you’ve completed a series?
You know it’s interesting; they’re like your kids. I feel so privileged that working in this way, being able to focus for as long and as intensely as we do. The great question people ask, don’t you get bored — it’s exactly the opposite. The more I work on something, the closer and closer I get to it. Just like the kid you send off to college, they’re on their own, they’ve got a life of their own.
The film’s released — it’s basically what’s more important right now is your feelings about the film, not mine. Yet, we stay with them and we learn more, and ever more you think about it in different ways, you actually go back and look at the film and see aspects of them that you may not have been consciously intended, or given off by the film. That’s very exciting to me.
Then after you’ve finished a series, has a fact that you weren’t aware ever come to light that would have impacted the direction you took on that subject matter?
Yes, it’s happened in a few instances and I’ve been very, very relieved as… a lot of contemporary documentaries are relatively temporal. Michael Moore’s Roger and Me is essentially for the General Motors of the ‘80s. That’s limiting in some ways as he presents it as universal.
I made a film on Thomas Jefferson and it was soon afterwards discovered that he was 100% confirmed, or 99.99% confirmed, that he actually had children with his slave mistress, Sally Hemmings. Our film dealt with the controversy, it’s been brewing since 1802. It started a continual whispering behind Jefferson throughout his life and throughout American history. The DNA analysis confirmed it.
Our film made the larger point that some people said look he did, no he couldn’t of, but it was mitigated by the great historian, the late John L. Franklin. He said it didn’t matter, he owned her. I think that in our late 20th century, early 21st century tabloids mentality, did he or didn’t he is really just a sexual fascination. That in fact the more important thing was that he owned her. Somebody could have said, “Where’s Sally?” He could have said, “I killed her, she displeased me,” and there was not a law in America that would have protected her. That power relationship is in fact much more important than the sexual one.
They’re very complicating things. I’ll make it more difficult for you right now, which is, Jefferson’s wife had died, Sally’s was the product of a house slave that he had inherited from his father in law. She, Sally, was also the product of not only a house slave, but his father in law. This is a young girl that was the half sister of his wife, who looked close to what his wife might have looked, only a dark skinned or a mulatto version of that. He had been lonely for a long time — I’m not excusing it. He owned her, she was a teenager when their relationship began, but that complicates the story. That’s what we did in our film is take the simplistic judgments that we like to make of people, like Oh, he’s all bad, oh, she’s all good and say, well actually a little bit, it’s not as simple as that.
Yeah — a lot of grey. So, the Roosevelts — no other family has touched so many American lives with so much exposure. Was there anything you came across prior to the film that was particularly unexpected?
I think everything was unexpected. I think it had to do with the struggles of each of them, how each of them were wounded people. Each of them overcame their adversity, either in childhood or later in life to serve other people. I think when you get into that dimension, you know the outer events that we thought felt familiar, take on a different task.
When you’re thinking about trying to lift the whole country up with the New Deal and they’re realizing that Franklin Roosevelt can’t lift himself up, you begin to understand the dimensions and the dynamics of his polio. You have an even greater appreciation. So, to me it’s not so much the gotcha.
We’ve got lots of new scholarship and then we interviewed a woman who was the wife of the person Eleanor said she loved the most, David Gurewitsch, at the end of her life. They all lived together in a tree of one. She never appeared before in films, so made great use of the scholarship that was made available first to Geoffrey Ward, my writer, about his distant cousin, Davey Stekley, who was as close to Franklin as anybody’s every been. Not sexual, but the deepest friendship that he had. He confided stuff that he didn’t even confide to Eleanor. You’re learning aspects of Franklin’s life that even Eleanor would say, oh no he never expressed disappointment. Well, you’ve got lots and lots of letters in which he did to Davey. That opens up and gives dimensions to a notoriously opaque personal life Franklin Roosevelt.
The films of Ken Burns take an America as their subject that resists, as the man himself says, the bold-faced way we look at culture. In a world where it seems all the information is available, it takes discipline and a steady hand to handle honestly a history that in the midst of so many shortcomings is singular in its vision and meaning. Mr. Burns’ new series, The Roosevelts, begins its run on the air today on PBS — and back in July, we had a sparkly preview screening of the film at The Theatre. Our very own Kelly Sawdon had the chance to chat him up in the interim.
Okay, first, what is it about the US specifically as a subject that keeps you coming back?
Well, you know I think that if I lived to be a 1,000 years, I’d never run out of good stories in American history. My brain is filled with them. I’ve already planned out ten years in the beginning to plot the ten years after that.
Lincoln referred to the United Stated as the last best hope. There’s lots of things that we do badly, but we do represent one of the best experiments of human kind. I think it’s within the tension between our best selves and our worst selves, between what Abraham Lincoln called our better angels and those lower, that they’re just amazing stories.
Roosevelt points out that these are within ourselves. That heroism is not perfection, but a very interesting negotiation. Sometimes the war between somebody’s obvious strengths, and maybe their not so obvious weaknesses.
Your style as a filmmaker manages to be both new and familiar. From your perspective, do you have a singular style?
Yeah, I think that if you analyze what the word style means, it just means authentic application of technique. Everybody in whatever medium they’re working, somebody’s painting, or dance, or theater, or whatever it is, film, you develop a recognizable style because you’re using the techniques of your medium authentically. That’s the only thing that matters.
People often say, well why don’t you, won’t you change your style up? Change for change sake is nothing. It’s being fashionable, it’s not being anything else. I don’t want to be fashionable, I want to have my own style.
While I suppose if you took a look at all my films from a distance, they’d seem similar. If you go up, each one has a kind of unique set of solutions to whatever the issues were in that film. We may be engaging the same elements, the still photographs and first person voices, and archives, and things like that. I pride myself on resisting temptations.
I think the whole idea is that style isn’t something you just sort of settle upon and that’s it. There’s a lot that goes into the formula. I think style is actually a very complicated obligation to oneself. Not just to be authentic to the process, but also to be constantly critical and trying to engage the thing you do at a higher and higher level.
Well put. One of the greatest strengths in your films is how round the texture of your characters are. As an artist, you work in a genre laden with perceptions of what is real or true. With so much information out there on the subject of your films, what makes you handle these people so evenly?
It’s funny — you’re absolutely right. We’re sort of bombarded, cascaded with information, and what we do with all that information is kind of shut down. We adopt sort of simplistic, conventional wisdoms about people. That’s part of the reason why we don’t have any heroes because we can have a simplistic definition of heroism that is perfection and then when we don’t see anybody perfect around us — and there are none — we’re then rubbing our hands and saying where are all the heroes.
What we decided to do was go back to the past to examine these people and see their complexity. All of the sudden, that superficiality, that conventional wisdom, sort of evaporates. It’s useful. The Roosevelts become deeper, one appreciates them a little bit more. They’re complex, they’ve got undertones, they’re not without flaws. In some ways, that doesn’t in anyway diminish their strengths, it actually puts them in sort of stronger place and I think it also helps make people realize that they’re human.
Too often, in a bold-faced culture, we don’t see that, they’re just on a pedestal. What I like is that the Roosevelts are among the most-bold faced, political names. In our film, they feel like the rest of us. They have divorces, they die, they get sick, they overcome difficulty, there are betrayals, there’s great love, there’s great passion. All the things that we feel and now the onus is taken off of them because we are presented with a side that makes them human, and not just the cardboard cutout expectations of what we think we know. That’s what we try really hard in our films to do.