Ken Burns, 67, is a veteran and famous American filmmaker who has made more than 30 documentaries in a career spanning more than 40 years. Among them is a much-loved history of the American Civil War and an equally rapturously greeted history of the Vietnam War. His six-part documentary on Ernest Hemingway is currently on BBC Four and iPlayer and there is an upcoming series on Muhammad Ali.
What attracted you to Ernest Hemingway as a subject?
We’ve been thinking about doing Hemingway for a very long time – Geoffrey C Ward, Lynn Novick [writer and co-director, respectively] and I – for literally decades, since the 1980s. We needed all that time to brood. We knew there were a lot of new studies that would help complicate the picture, that it wasn’t just this toxic male type with a bunch of wives and a literary legacy, but even more interesting dimensions that would allow us to d ‘explore greater depth. There is a tendency, especially in our media world, for everything to be binary: good, bad, yes, no, high, low. And we found Hemingway to be incredibly complicated, which we love because he’s loyal to human beings.
Do you think the Hemingway myth overshadowed his virtues as a writer?
Maybe, but once you dive into Hemingway, you’re just amazed at how spectacular he is and how hard it is to come up with any excuses, no matter how simplistic, to undo him. News is perfect art; novels, in particular A farewell to arms and The sun is also rising, are great literary works. Modernist writing was extraordinarily complicated, but as one of our literary critics Stephen Cushman puts it, he dared to pass himself off as simplicity. So he’s like Miles Davis next to Charlie Parker.
There are images in your movie of Hemingway being interviewed and he seems deeply uncomfortable, reading cue cards. Were you surprised by this?
“Surprise” is not good enough. It was mind boggling, it was embarrassing, it was excruciating to watch. It was impossible to explain, but apparently he was afraid of himself in front of the camera. It was later in his life, around the time of the Nobel Prize. We are starting to see the many demons who are helping her end become a much greater force in her life. There was a history of family mental illness, his suicidal ideation, the trauma of World War I, the trauma of his father’s suicide, accompanying alcoholism and self-medication, and then the significant brain damage – at least. nine we could count that might have created dementia.
Has your opinion of Hemingway changed as a result of the making of the film?
Absolutely. My literary appreciation for him has only increased, because of his ability to use words – even as we looked at the dramatic failures of his writing, where he really lost it for a while and wrote horrible things To have and not to have and Across the river and In the trees. I also learned a kind of sympathy. I felt uber-masculinity was a mask; if he was a deep-sea fisherman, big game hunter, outdoor enthusiast, brawler, woman lover, drinker, he also wanted to talk about the fluidity of genres in his writings.
The women in his life tended to be boys, but his third wife, war reporter Martha Gellhorn, was also quite fearless. Do you think he felt challenged by her?
Yes. I think Martha Gellhorn fundamentally threatened him. His writing begins to decline. He sort of sits in his shell, he doesn’t want to come out. She wants to go out and cover the world, especially the greatest cataclysm in human history. He is not so sure, having lived through the First World War and having fought in the Spanish Civil War. And so I think he’s terrified of her, maybe emasculated. I think she needed her independence. As she said, she wanted her name back. She believed that he could be a partner and that he pitifully had no capacity to be a partner.
You have made a large number of documentaries through a wide range of topics which tend to share strong American themes. But what are the decisive factors for you in choosing a subject?
There are three: history, history, history. Granted, all of the movies I’ve done so far in 45 years have been American, but now we’re working on a Leonardo da Vinci project, which will be the first non-American subject. I am intellectually drawn to the story and then there is something in the story that swells and goes down from your head into your heart. I’m going to be 68 and I’m working on eight films. It’s the process that is so interesting to me, rather than just releasing the movie. It’s like I’m enjoying the birth of every child, but it’s parenting that I really love. It is a form of distillation. We easily collect 40 or 50 times the amount of material that will go into a long film. I am happier when I edit and improve the film.
Among your frequent collaborators is actor Peter Coyote, who often narrates your films. What does it bring to the mix?
I love Peter like a brother. He is an extraordinary reader. And he has this amazing gift – we never send him anything in advance. He reads it cold the first time. And I swear, you have to take one or take two, that’s usually what’s in there. His voice is close to mine, but clearly with the timbre and qualities that a professional actor brings to him. He is very interested in our subjects and he has the capacity to inhabit the world.
Your films are particularly appreciated for their use of archival photography. What about the still image which is made powerful in moving pictures?
My father was an anthropologist and he was also an amateur photographer. I wanted to become a filmmaker and ended up going to college where all my teachers were social documentary filmmakers, set photographers. And so photography is a kind of DNA of my work. I look at a photograph as if it was the stop of a living moment. As I’m filming it, I want to take the sensitivity of this filmmaker and each photograph is a master shot that has a long shot, a medium shot, a close-up, a tilt, a pan, a revealing detail. At the opening of Civil war you rock from the face of an innocent boy to his belt stuffed with two guns. It spoke a million words.
In a sense, this is a great time for documentary filmmakers due to streaming services, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, but do you think the overall quality of filmmaking is improving?
We are definitely in a growing golden age. I thought we were in one in the 1980s. I was in public broadcasting all my time: it has become hell for fundraising – we don’t have the funding that the BBC has. The Vietnamese film costs $ 30 million. It took me every ounce of blood and sweat and tears to lift. I could walk in with my background in a streaming service and get that $ 30 million probably in one conversation for the next big thing. And yet, they didn’t give me 10 years, which I took to do the Vietnam series. But I would say we’re overwhelmed by an ever-widening array of really great and talented documentaries and work.
Which documentary filmmakers do you admire the most?
I would go back to Werner Herzog. We couldn’t be more stylistically opposed to each other. He once said on a panel at the Telluride Film Festival: “Ken is interested in an emotional truth. I am interested in an ecstatic truth. I love the work of Errol Morris from the 80s to the present day. I find that so convincing. And I think some of the new things that happened about Michael Jordan, about OJ, add to the feeling of the audience that the documentaries, which maybe were seen as castor oil – something that was good for you, but hardly tasting good – have now taken over the reins of storytelling, as Hollywood storylines, with wonderful exceptions of course, have become so predictable.
Is there a project that you have wanted to achieve for many years that you are missing?
Someone asked me this in the 90s and I said, “The project that I would like to do, but cannot do is the Martin Luther King story. And the reason I feel like I can’t do it is because the family is in so much control. And amazingly, by coincidence, the family contacted me then. They said, “We think you would be the best person to make the movie about our father and our husband. And I said, “You’re right. I rushed to Atlanta and spent a day with them, then wrote to them and told them I had to get away from it. He was a husband and a father whom they could not control in life and therefore they seek to control in death.
Having said that, with my daughter Sarah and her husband, David McMahon, we interviewed many people from the Civil Rights era. We’ve probably had 30 interviews and are building an archive for when we think we would have a chance to talk to family and get the kind of independence we need.