You’d expect Ken Burns to be a pretty serious guy, but when Indiewire sat down with him at the TCA Winter Press Tour, he said that he loves it when people spoof his signature filmmaking style. “I get it,” he said. “I love it. I love that it pokes fun at seriousness as well as all that stuff you don’t want to be portentous. You want to be serious, but you don’t want to be portentous.”
Having been nominated 14 times for the Primetime Emmys — and winning five of them — there’s no denying that Burns has been one of the most influential forces in modern documentary film, creating a look and style that has defined nonfiction storytelling for decades. His latest project, the PBS two-part series “Jackie Robinson” (co-directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon), offers an in-depth look at the legendary ballplayer and how he changed America, with heavy involvement from Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s 93-year-old widow.
Below, Indiewire gets meta with a man who knows all too well what it means to sit down for an interview and learns just how he got President and Mrs. Obama on camera to talk about Robinson’s legacy. He also reveals who does the initial narration for his projects, before great talents like Keith David and Tom Hanks get involved, and just how many projects he’s working on right now. An edited transcript is below.
I’m curious, for you, how does it change your process when you go from having historical documents to having a living, breathing memory in front of you?
You know what, it doesn’t change the process, as the process is designed to receive any of that. You know, no one’s alive from the Civil War, but we can make the Civil War come alive. We did a thing on World War II in which there were no historians, they were all just witnesses. We did the Central Park Five, and it’s all contemporary voices. So for a filmmaker, as I’m sure it is for a writer, it’s about process, right? And maybe you get the interview, or maybe it’s no comment. And you have to get at the facts in different ways. I said this to somebody earlier this morning and I really meant that every project is a million — literally a million — problems, pejoratively. I see it as something you have to overcome: the resistance to ever do something, or write something, to film, to collect, to edit, to make the hard choices of anything.
Having Rachel [Robinson] was, let’s just say, a godsend. Because we did three interviews with her, and then as we got smarter, we asked better questions.
How long did you interview her per session?
Well, you know, we wanted to respect her and her stamina, so I don’t think we went more than an hour and a half. I’d be surprised if we tortured her for two hours. Maybe the first time, we did two hours and then realized, “Rachel, we gotta let you go and not wear you out.”
But she seems so passionate about making sure her story is told.
She is. You know, what keeps a person alive– To be 93, she looks like she’s 70 and strong. And I think a lot of it is her drive and her own… She inherited a lot of Jackie’s drive. For a while, she had to be subordinate to the dominant person in a very complex relationship. Not only a relationship with a man, in which she was an equal in that regard for the most part, but with somebody who was a national figure. But you know, she really runs things. And she’s terrific. She bosses me around, and she’s great. I love it. It’s like having a mom back.
Aw. That’s lovely. With that said, I’m wondering, like, when you go into development on this, you know that there’s so much other history being told around Jackie Robinson. For you, in terms of telling the story, how important is it to make something complete, even if you maybe repeat information that might be already out there?
I mean, you can’t tell the story of George Washington without crossing the Delaware. So inevitably, it’s not so much that you do it, it’s how you do it. A feature film is going to be incredibly different from how we do it. Emphasizing some things, deemphasizing others or not being able to emphasize for both. [Brian Helgeland’s biopic “42”] is essentially a year. Our film goes from 1919 to 1972 and into the present. So ours was a much larger mandate, but I don’t feel…
You know, I did see “42,” but more often than not, I refuse to see anything. Like, I’ve been working for almost eight years on a film about the Vietnam War and I have not looked at any film about the Vietnam War or subject matter — feature film, documentary or anything — because I don’t want to be influenced. It’s not the way you think, it’s the other way. What if somebody’s done something well? You don’t wanna be scared off from doing that in your own way. You want to be free to do whatever scene you want to do without that fear or prejudice that there’s some, you know… If you’re doing a horror film, it’s good not to have seen “Psycho,” so that maybe you could do a shower scene, too.
That’s something I understand really well because if I’m reviewing a TV show–
You’ve got hundreds of reviews of the same TV show.
And I avoid them as much as I can.
It’s like the plague, right? So you gotta. You wanna have your own voice. You don’t wanna think, “Well, maybe he’s right. I kinda liked it, but he really hated it.”
And beyond that, it’s just the confidence of knowing even if I did replicate somebody else’s thought, I came to it on my own.
Of course! And people do that all the time. Particularly critics.
Particularly critics. I mean, I collect scrapbooks of stuff and it’s amazing how there’s a kind of repetition. It’s not the fault of anybody. It’s not anybody’s thing. It’s just they’re reviewing the film. And the film will remain itself and that’s the benchmark.
That’s funny. So In your collecting of these reviews, do you see common threads across the market?
Oh yeah. I mean, everywhere. And the great thing is sometimes you’ll have a reporter, “Let me ask you something no one’s ever asked you.” And they’ll ask me something that everyone has asked me. I never embarrass them. I say, “Oh, you know, here’s the answer.”
I mean, you’re also interviewing people for a living.
Yeah, I do that all the time, so I think that helps you because it makes me more interested in giving you a concise comment.
Is there a part of you right now that’s thinking, “Oh, what can I give you?”
No, I think it’s less… It’s intuitive. Like, a baseball player can’t think about how to hit. I know what I want in an interview, so I don’t have to think it. It doesn’t have to be a mental process. I just realize that, “Oh, you’re like me! You wanna get something out of me at this time and you don’t want me to be overly dispersive, nor do you want me to be opaque and abrupt and terse.” [laughs] So I wanna give you what you want.
Oh, that’s great. I mean, we can keep this level of meta-ness going. For example, I know how I got this interview with you. PBS said there’s gonna be an opportunity, I requested it, and they were very generous in granting me your time. But how does that process work when you try to get an interview with President Obama?
It’s the same sort of thing. I think, you have, how much time do you have [to interview me]? Fifteen minutes?
Yeah. I’m at about seven minutes now.
I was told I could have 10 minutes with the President and two or three minutes with the First Lady and the President together. And I stretched it to 15, and it was great.
I mean, I’ve met them both and I know them, and I actually respect them and I respect the office. And so it was an extraordinary honor to be able to go to the White House and interview the President and the First Lady of the United States. And that’s how I treated it. I had some questions, I wanna get as many questions in, and they answered them unbelievably so.
It’s such a great get. But I want to get more nitty-gritty about it. So you call up the President’s office at the White House?
I actually had seen the President and, on my own, asked him to do this. And asked him again six months later, when I managed to see him again. And that was with the President and the First Lady, and I asked her and she said, “Okay, go through my office and we’ll get it done.”
Nicely done. I think that also speaks to the fact that so many of these projects are so long-living. I mean, you just mentioned doing working on the Vietnam War for eight years.
Yeah, and I finished the editing, but we’ve got a year of post-production and mixing and sound editing and onlining and that’ll take us through most of the end of the year.
What is the maximum number of projects you’ve ever worked on simultaneously?
Right now, 10.
That’s a lot!
It’s way, way too much — because they’re going. If you ask any filmmaker and they say 10, then they’re actually lying. It means that they have the ideas for 10 films. But we are actually turning out films. We have budgets.
I mean, you have a lot of different partners that you’re working with.
Yeah, but it’s not as many as you think. These are all kind of intimate. Five of those are my own, producing, directing, executive producing. Five are executive producing, co-writing, maybe co-producing — it depends on what happens as the films progress, the credit I’ll take. I’m trying to pay back. I’m trying to set folks up that I’ve worked with, where I have a lot of confidence in their skills and things. Mentoring, maybe, is too paternal a word. It’s just sort of helping people get the ability to [make films].
Having kind of pioneered this format of storytelling, it seems like it’s natural to want to keep that alive.
Yeah, I’m very fortunate that my daughter’s doing [“Jackie Robinson”]. It’s really close. But I have a couple of different producing teams and all of them ought to have the chance not to be tethered entirely to me all the time on every project. I can use my name and reputation to help raise money and to be the creative backstop as the executive producer or co-producer that allows them to go out and direct and produce films. That’s happening in three or four cases.
For the narration, looking back, I was noticing that there seems to be almost a repertoire of actors that you’ve worked with.
Oh yes, very much so. Tom Hanks. Julie Harris, before she passed away, we used in almost every film. George Clinton before he passed away. Eli Wallach — “before he passed away” is some pattern I’m emerging here. So Keith [David] narrated “Jazz.” He did “Horatio’s Drive,” he did “Jack Johnson” and he did “The War,” “The Tenth Inning” and now this. Peter Coyote did “The National Parks,” did “The West” back in the mid-90s and did “The National Parks,” “Prohibition,” “Dustbowl,” “The Roosevelts,” “Vietnam” and…
So he’s already done “Vietnam?”
Oh, yeah. “Vietnam’s” locked, so yeah.
What goes into finding the right repertoire of actors?
A lot of it is luck. I started with Julie Harris, which is a good place to start because she could attract other people who could go, “Go away!” And then you’re, “Well, Julie Harris is doing it.” And they go, “What!”
I’ve had people come up. Tom Hanks came up to me and said, “You know, I owe you big time.” Because he had studied the structure that we had done in films. I had felt the other way around, that I owed him big time. And then he’s subsequently read for several films of ours, most notably, “The War.” And the next film I have coming out called “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” about a Unitarian minister and his wife, who saved Jews from Prague and other refugees at the eve of World War II. There are only two voices in the film. There’s no narrator. There’s only the wife and the husband from letters and diaries and journals and things like that and Tom is the Reverend Waitstill Sharp and he’s fabulous.
David O. Russell has now used Jennifer Lawrence in three films to great, great effect. “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Joy” and “American Hustle.” You find somebody who you feel speaks for you. So Peter, as is Keith, is an extraordinary narrator.
I’m the narrator for all of my films for 90 percent of editing, 95 percent of the editing. And when we’re close to finishing, then we go and record the narration. We’re constantly changing the writing, so it’s somebody who understands me, as well. And it’s a reciprocal thing, it’s not just me, the director, telling them how to read. It’s, Peter listens to me. Keith listens to me. They go, “How do you want it? How do you hear it?” And that’s great.
I don’t know how long other filmmakers go, but for a two-hour episode, we’ll take more than a day to record the narration, which will be in some total, much less than that. Two hours, maybe. Only an hour of that. But we’ll take an entire day to do it and that’s because we’re careful with the words. And you gotta regard it with a certain patience. People burn out, some people you can say, “Well, they were great, but I’m not gonna do that to them again.”
Just to clarify, do Keith and Peter listen to your narration?
Never. Oh, I would never let them, either, even if they wanted to. I guess if they wanted to, I would. Keith will read from the paper beforehand. Peter wants it cold.
Peter’s unbelievable. He just reads it anew. It’s like the first time. Sometimes you need experience, and sometimes the first time is the best.
Especially if you have that level of experience.
Yeah. He knows me now and he’s really good at as we’re reading all the interstitial talking heads, lists of footage. I’ll explain some stuff if there’s long montages. He’s great, he’s great. So is Keith.
You talked about doing a massive project from the Vietnam War, but then you’ve also irised in on somebody like Jackie Robinson. Do you see your output always kind of reflecting both approaches, the large scale and then the intimate?
Yes, exactly. And it’s not like those large scale [projects] aren’t intimate. In fact, the fundamental success of the Civil War are the individual soldiers’ letters. Same with “Baseball,” same with “Jazz,” same with “World War II,” same with “The War,” same with “The National Parks” and “The Roosevelts.” Those are the big series. And then you have the specific ones that often, as in the case of “Jackie Robinson,” are intimate but they reflect an entire age. This is the history of race in the 20th century, and unfortunately also the 21st century.
Hopefully not the 22nd.
Yeah. Let’s hope we grow up a little bit.
“Jackie Robinson” premieres April 11 and April 12 on PBS (just in time for baseball season).