Ken Burns: 'America's Storyteller' on His Creative Process

After The Fact
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Ken Burns has been called America's storyteller a title earned over more than four decades and thirty three films including his most recent one on country music. We traveled his barn. That is his office in Rural New Hampshire talk about how he creates art from history. My first film was on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and when I started fundraising forward in seventy seven. I looked about about twelve years old and people delighted in turning down saying that. This child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge and when I finally amassed a a can't say a critical mass But some money to film I started filming and I finished most of the principal photography in the summer of nineteen seventy nine and realized allies with all this footage and no money that I needed to get a real job and I had a really nice offer for a job but I felt in my bones in my guts that if I put the footage up on top of the refrigerator on a shelf I'd just wake up. Twenty twenty five years later and having not finished it so I wanted to move to someplace where I could live for nothing and figure out how you made a film about a bridge. How you how you told stories in history how you animated old photographs how you use sound effects and music and I moved here to the house? I'm living in now. I rented it for a couple of years. My oldest daughter was born there and so I had to buy hi it. The best professional decision I ever made was deciding to stay here. Once that film was nominated for an Oscar. Everyone said Oh you come back to New York and I said no I think. Can we stay here. The work I do is so labor intensive it's like academic or medical scientific research takes years and years and years to do it right and and it was more important to put the very difficult still to this day grant money and I'm very grateful for for pews involvement for for decades in the work that we've done put that all on the screen to have zero overhead in essence So that we can tell the funders that look. It's it's on the screen if we're take ten and a half years to do Vietnam or eight and a half years to do country music or the war. The history of the Second World War that we did that that the the felt that their money was going not some costly rent in midtown Manhattan But in a rural area where it's very clearly all all up on the screen. The work clearly energizes you. Are there things outside of work that allow you to have the energy and vitality and creativity the practices that you do yourself that allows you to sort of grows beyond as a filmmaker that also influences you as a filmmaker. Being a father is the most important activity. Yeah I have four daughters. I'm blessed I'm rich and daughters who ranged from the late thirties to a nine year old. They're the greatest teachers. I live in the spectacular. Her place that nature continually Reminds me of my insignificance and so the humility that comes from understanding the ending. How much nature us is actually makes you bigger just as if you if you think that you can say to somebody you know? Don't you know who I am. Doesn't commend you to the smallest and weakest little place and first of all in Walpole New Hampshire any notoriety variety award celebrity plus fifty cents. Gets you a cup of coffee. I do the New York Times Crossword puzzle in INC in physically. I buy the paper everyday we day and I read novels or magazines and watch television mostly for news and sports rabid baseball fan and then mostly I walk and I do that at least once a day. If not twice a day by the end of the day I have about ten miles. What happens in walking is very interesting hosting its meditative? Sometimes it's it's it's social. I can talk to daughters. I can talk to colleagues but mostly it's so lower with my dog and we've just sort of watch things leaves falling from trees SUNSETS and sunrises. That's what Emily Dickinson called the far theatricals of day which I still think is one of the greatest phrases of all times and I am very much addicted to the far theatricals a day. One of the things we want to do is talk just about your creative process. That's how you go about doing what you do. We start with the most basic question. Which is how you pick your topics? You've talked a lot about how you've got a whole range going out for the next next ten twenty years which is amazing. But how do you decide you know the glib answer is that they choose me. I I'm just looking for good stories in American history and that's what I want to say I is that I'm a storyteller. I'm not looking to make a political comment on the present though I know is Mark Twain is supposed to said that history doesn't doesn't repeat itself but it rhymes that is to say I've never finished a project where I haven't lifted my head up at the end of this long usually multiyear process and not seen the way in which the themes the important themes are not only evergreen but are resonating in the present. We do get completely distracted by the idea. That history repeats itself it does not it never has please show me where it has you know. Are we condemned to repeat what we don't remember no. It doesn't seem team that that's the case is knowing history thing. Of course it is so I think we just come to it from the sense that we have an amazing story to tell in our country. I feel that too often. It's it's been sanitized and that the real version which is incredibly diverse. An incredibly complicated is the one we ought to be focusing on and that in no way does does it diminish the positive aspects to give Some of the negative stuff the novelist Richard Power said the best arguments in the world won't change. I'm just single persons mind. The only thing that can do that as a good story so I'm not in the business of changing people's minds but I am in the business of trying to figure out what a good story stories

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