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American Storytelling in the 21st Century: An Interview with Ken Burns

The late historian Stephen Ambrose said, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.” An American documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns has produced over 40 documentaries on American history topics ranging from the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Baseball, Jazz, and the National Parks to Ernest Hemingway, the Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War. He is the recipient of numerous honors, including two Academy Award nominations and 16 Emmy Awards. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Burns would go on to receive a degree in film studies and design from Hampshire College. In 2019, Brown University awarded Burns an honorary degree for “great distinction” in documentary filmmaking. 

John Fullerton: You might not be surprised to hear that I learned what the iMovie Ken Burns effect was before I learned a lot about the Vietnam War, the Dust Bowl, Hemingway, or the Mayo Clinic. How do you make sense of both the limited amount of interest and understanding of history in the US today and the widespread fame and popularity of your documentaries? 

Ken Burns: I’m a filmmaker, but first and foremost, I’m a storyteller, and I happen to work in American history the way a painter might work in oil as opposed to watercolor, or concentrate on still life as opposed to landscape. We’re still a relatively young country, and that means we’ve been less aware of our history. There have always been people who have been deeply moved and fascinated by it, but I think history is not taught very well in schools, so few people have a handle on it. A good handle is a good story. I think we make good stories. I have in my editing room a neon sign that has, in lowercase cursive, the words “it’s complicated.” I think too often in my medium and in the way we popularly digest most history, it’s pretty superficial, sanitized, and has a positive point of view. American history is really exceptional. It really has some dark, dark, dark edges to it, and I don’t think you can tell one side without the other.

John Fullerton: How do you approach providing complicated and often troubling narratives to a wide audience?

Ken Burns: I’m trying to be the viewer’s representative. I rarely know a lot about a particular subject when I begin work on it, and rather than tell you what we or you already know, I’d rather share with you our process of discovery, so my job is to be your representative and be that person who is ignorant but curious and wants to know more about something. Then we dive as deeply as we can and figure out how to tell as much as we can with all the contradictions that arise in our history. When we have a scene that works really well in expressing one narrative, but are confronted with something that’s contradictory, something that could change the entire scope and meaning of the scene, we don’t say, “I don’t wanna touch it.” We always go into it, and we always roil the waters. Sometimes the scene doesn’t work as well as it did before, but it’s a truer representation of that subject. That’s what I think is most important. 

John Fullerton: In a previous interview for the Vietnam War project, you were asked what prompted your interest in the subject, and you said that it was time for us to talk about Vietnam. How does the passage of time influence the perception of a historical event in our collective memory?

Ken Burns: Philip Graham said, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” But you know what? No one ever turns in a first draft. What you need to do is have the perspective, and my example is Vietnam. If we’d done it in ’85, 10 years after the fall of Saigon, we were in the middle of a recession, Japan was ascendant, there was talk about American decline, and Vietnam was the symbol of that decline. If we’d waited 10 more years to ’95, America was in the midst of the largest peacetime economic expansion to date. We were the sole superpower. Vietnam would have been important, but it would be just a blip in this otherwise thrilling trajectory. If you wait until 2005, we’re mired down in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were both like a mini­-Vietnam in their own rights, and your perspective would again change. So by the time the documentary comes out in 2017, you’ve got the ability to look at it from lots of different mountaintops and lots of different valleys. You gain perspective from the passage of time. You are able to fix the event through several different interpretations of it and lots of scholarship, which allows you to triangulate the best overall representation of the subject.

John Fullerton: Do you foresee any difficulty in the future, both representing and understanding US culture in an increasingly international context? 

Ken Burns: This is a good question, but I think it reflects the arrogance that we in the present always impose on the past, that somehow things are more complicated now. In fact, globalization is grinding to a halt. You may think of the history of globalization in the context of trade with the Silk Road, within the Mediterranean, and across to the West or East Indies, suddenly getting shut down by something interfering with their exchange of goods and ideas, and the political and social ramifications of those changes. And then you may think, “How does globalization today impact American culture?” I don’t think of it that way. I just want to tell a story, and I happen to be very lucky because I found the métier that I wanted to work in, which is American history. Just as I want to tell a good story, I want to make a good film. I’m not a historian. I don’t feel the responsibility to represent the culture, but I know that the films, in order for them to be good, must do that as part of their existence, but that’s not what keeps me awake at night. 

John Fullerton: How does working on those smaller projects such as The American Buffalo or Brooklyn Bridge influence how you approach and understand larger topics such as the Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War? 

Ken Burns: Essentially, they’re the same. The process is the same, and you’ll see that on those big, epic projects, the scope, while wide, is also intimate. They are bottom-up in lots of cases as well as top-down, and so while the subject is relatively small, the Buffalo film is a big, wide, continental story involving millennia of time and a thousand generations of native peoples, and it’s very complicated. The Brooklyn Bridge is celebratory and one of the great triumphs of engineering of the 19th century, if not the great triumph, and yet its story is also populated by crooks, petty politicians, and corrupt contractors. The constituent building blocks are these individual stories. In the Vietnam War, you can follow one particular Marine such as John Musgrave, and hear about his terror, excitement, and hardship while conducting combat operations in the jungle. Then you just flip over, and there is a Viet Cong saying exactly what his American counterpart is. When you have an American and his Vietnamese pal shooting through some hedgerows at some Viet Cong, and then interview the Viet Cong who are shooting at the Americans in the hedgerow and they both have the same exact view of what’s going on, that’s the universality of the human experience. It’s the smaller building blocks of stories that are constructed into a larger mosaic of history. 

John Fullerton: How can we use that knowledge to guide us through future tumultuous events?

Ken Burns: If you do history well, if you tell stories in American history well, they offer an extraordinarily good perspective on the contemporary dynamic. With the combination of the pandemic, racial reckoning, and political unrest, we happen to have landed in the middle of what I believe, without a doubt, is the fourth great crisis in the history of the United States. All these problems, the racists, the nativists, the anti­-Semitics, the anti-­immigrants, have been ever-present in our history, but never have they had their voices amplified by the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was Lincoln who predicted that “all the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa… could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” He presided over the closest we’d come to suicide, and you can feel a lot of those same anxieties echoing throughout the present. We have to realize that we are in control of our fate. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

**John would like to give a special thanks to Elle Carrière and Jillian Hempstead from Florentine Films for their help and support throughout the interview process.