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David, voice-over: Over much of the past 3 decades, I've been an investor... David: The highest calling of mankind, I've often thought, was private equity.
[Laughter] David, voice-over: and then I started interviewing.
I watch your interview because I know how to do some interviewing.
David, voice-over: I've learned in doing my interviews how leaders make it to the top...
I asked him how much he wanted.
He said, "250."
I said, "Fine."
I didn't negotiate with him.
I did no due diligence.
I have something I'd like to sell.
David, voice-over: and how they stay there.
David: You don't feel inadequate now because being only the second-wealthiest man in the world, is that right?
[Laughter] More than a quarter of a century ago, Ken Burns came into the consciousness of all Americans with his epic 9-part series on "The Civil War."
Since that time, he's continued to make other documentaries about American history.
I share a love of American history with Ken Burns and have funded a number of his projects.
I sat down with him to discuss our love of American history and our view that Americans should learn much more about our country's past.
So, Ken, you are--I assume-- now in Walpole, New Hampshire, where you do much-- most of your work.
Walpole, New Hampshire is not known as a media center.
Ken: Ha ha ha.
David: So, I'm just curious.
How come you happen to do all of your work there?
Well, I moved here in 1979, 42 years ago, when I realized that becoming a documentary filmmaker focusing in American history was taking a vow of anonymity and poverty.
And though my first film was nominated for an Oscar and everyone presumed that I would come back to the city or go to L.A., I stayed here because of the labor-intensive nature of what I do, the fact that it's all grant-funded philanthropic projects and that they're very time-consuming.
So, I keep my overhead very low here, and it's quite beautiful in southern New Hampshire.
David: So I assume you're Walpole, New Hampshire's most famous resident.
Oh, gosh, I don't think so.
You know, I always thought that if my great-great-great- grandchildren sort of kept their heads low, they might be able to be a member of the volunteer fire department.
So there's a kind of a different kind of hierarchy here, where any notoriety plus 50 cents gets you a cup of coffee.
So, let's go back to how you became a documentary filmmaker.
Everybody who wants to be a documentary filmmaker now wants to be Ken Burns.
I don't know who your role model was when you were starting out, but did you grow up and say, "I don't want to be in private equity, I don't want to be in hedge funds," things important like that?
Ken: Ha ha ha!
David: You said, "I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker."
What propelled you towards that, and where did you grow up?
Ken: I grew up the son of an anthropologist and a biologist mother, who died very young of cancer, of a 10-year battle with cancer when I was 11.
I remember after my mom died, I saw my dad cry for the first time, and he cried at a movie.
And I said, "That's it.
I want to become a moviemaker."
And that--at that point, that meant Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford or Howard Hawks-- big-name directors of the sixties.
But I ended up going to Hampshire College, a new, brand-new experimental school that opened in the fall of '70.
I went in the fall of '71, and all of my teachers there were social documentary still photographers and filmmakers who reminded me, quite correctly, that there is as much, if not more drama in what is and what was than anything the human imagination can dream up, and often the human imagination dreams up things based on historical fact or the impossibilities of historical stories, as you know as well.
And I sort of had my molecules rearranged at Hampshire-- the way it taught, the teachers I was fortunate enough to have mentor me.
Jerome Liebling, particularly, changed the way I was, so I emerged a documentary filmmaker and had the kind of Hampshire-inspired chutzpah to decide that I would just not go to New York and apprentice.
I'd start my own company-- Florentine Films.
The first film we made which took 5 1/2 years to make-- 'cause I looked like I was 12 years old and I was trying to sell people the Brooklyn Bridge, on the story of the Brooklyn Bridge-- was nominated for an Academy Award, and it was in that space that I moved from Amherst, Massachusetts, where Hampshire was, to New York and then up here to Walpole, New Hampshire, where all the films have been if not physically made, then directed from up here.
Was it easy to raise money for the "Brooklyn Bridge" and did people say, "You're trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge"?
Ken: All the time, David.
In fact, it was the baby face.
I mean, I'm 68 now, and I actually know that I don't look like I'm 68.
And you can imagine what I looked like at 23 and 24 when I was beginning to work on it--25.
Um, so, they would say, "This child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge."
And for a long while, I had two 3-ring binders on my desk, you know, each--those 3-, 4-inch-wide, big, expandable affairs, with all the letters of rejection which I kept for, you know, a decade on my desk, just to remind me of just how incredibly hard--and it's still hard to--to raise the money to do these things, but the independence is--is worth it.
The--the idea of being able to present to you a film on Muhammad Ali that I'm not apologizing for.
It's a director's cut, and if you don't like it, it's all my fault.
You know what I mean?
And I don't want to not say, "Oh, the executive producer "wouldn't let me hire this person or this--the budget didn't allow me to do that thing."
You know, it's just, we get to do it in the time it takes to do it.
So, after the "Brooklyn Bridge," you did a number of other documentaries, I think another 6 or so-- Ken: Yes.
David: before you decided to do the epic "Civil War" series, which took how many years to do and how long did it take to get all the work done, the research done, and how long did it take to raise the money for that?
You know what?
We were raising the money up until the very, very end, and it's just--it's still--it's never easy.
It took us 5 1/2 years from the moment I decided to do it, which was Christmas Day 1984, where I was visiting my father with my brand-new daughter and my wife.
And I just said, "I know what my next project is."
And he said, "What?"
I'd finished a book called "The Killer Angels" about the battle of Gettysburg that morning, that Christmas morning.
And he said-- I said, "The Civil War."
He goes, "What part?"
I said, "All of it."
He just shook his head and walked out of the room, like "My idiot son."
But you know, 5 1/2 years later we came out with something which is--I'd always felt even as early as the "Brooklyn Bridge," I said, I wasn't interested in excavating the dry dates and facts and events of the past.
But the only thing that could hold those shards together, the glue that could hold that was an emotional archaeology, not sentimentality nor nostalgia, which is the enemy of good anything.
Um, it's the higher emotions our founders thought could be released if people were given a chance to govern themselves.
And so, we're interested in what those higher emotions are that we, you know, tend to avoid.
We prefer things to be 1 and 1 equals 2.
We prefer not to talk about the 4-letter word the FCC allows me to say when talking about Muhammad Ali-- love--and but yet our lives are compelled by the things where 1 and 1 equals 3, not 2-- you know, the art, the faith, the relationships, the love that we have for other people.
And that's what I pursue in my little, tiny niche, my little bailiwick, all these, now, nearly 50 years of doing this.
So, people were mesmerized by it.
And were you shocked at how it kind of transformed our culture in many ways and people were talking about all the time?
Did you anticipate that?
In fact, I'd been with the press tour, and they said, "Ken, this is terrific, but no one's gonna watch it" because Steven Bochco, the great TV guy, had a new police procedural that was a musical called "Cop Rocks" and nobody would watch this.
And then everybody seemed to watch it, and it had 40 million viewers the first time and, you know, DVD, blank DVD tapes-- uh, not DVD, but cassette tapes were what ran out in Washington, D.C.
I got invited to the White House, I was on "The Tonight Show," and you know, it was just-- it was flabbergasting.
And what was really helpful to me, David, was staying here in Walpole, because the pressure also to leave again-- Hollywood presumed that just documentary was just a step, a rung on some career path that would inevitably lead to making feature films, and I was saying, "No.
I like my day job" and being here and insulated by the--the people who are sort of-- they're--I think they're proud of what I've done, but it matters what the content of my character is than the length--in fact, I have on my--on my refrigerator an old and faded "New Yorker" cartoon, um, that shows some men standing in hell, the flames licking up around them.
And one guy says to the other, "Apparently, my over 200 screen credits didn't mean a damn thing," and of course they don't.
It really has to do with character and has to do with courage.
It has to do with some of the themes that continually occur and reoccur in American history.
You're a phenomenal student of that as well, which we admire and transcend the limitations of that person's time and space.
We realize that when Abraham Lincoln says in his first inaugural, "The better angels of our nature," we begin to understand that the half-life of that phrase is--is almost endless and a goad to us, even today, to try to bring our better selves or an answer to when the lowest common denominator of us seems to have taken over.
And--and, you know, I look for that in the history.
That's part of the emotional archaeology.
Why did you not go the route of becoming the next George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, make an enormous amount of money, and then after you made a lot of money, you can go back to doing what you were doing before?
Ken: Well, I don't know.
It wasn't for me.
I really like the idea of public broadcasting, PBS.
It's public, but it's also that "S" is not system.
I like that idea.
I also think PBS has one foot tentatively in the marketplace and the other proudly out of it.
Lots of what's best about this country is not necessarily in the marketplace, which is of course one of the best things in this country as well.
And so it's not making the other wrong.
It's just saying that if I'd gone to a premium channel or gone to a streaming service, it might have been easier to get the money, but then they would own it.
I own my films.
They would also not permit me 10 1/2 years to do the "Vietnam."
They'd want it in a couple of years, and the kind of corners that would be cut in that process was nothing that I wanted to do.
I also was aware that even with the success of "The Civil War" series, people would come and ask me what I was working on from other places.
And then when I'd say, "Baseball," they'd say, "Oh, great.
That'll sell," you know.
And then they said, "How long is it?"
And I said, "18 1/2 hours," and they would walk away.
And then after "Baseball" had an even bigger audience than "The Civil War," they'd come to me, "What are you doing?"
And I would say, "Jazz," and they'd go "Long?"
And I'd go, "Yeah."
They'd go, "No, African-American stuff doesn't sell."
And you just suddenly realize that sometimes you had to pick these projects, all of them, based on your gut, not on a focus group, not on some marketing panel, but what you wanted to do, and the place that permitted me to be myself-- and I don't--I don't know why I keep saying "I" and "me" because it is such a collaborative effort with writers like Geoffrey Ward, who I've worked with for, you know, 40 years; Dayton Duncan, another writer, for more than 30 years; co-producers and co-directors like Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein.
My own daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon.
We made the "Muhammad Ali" film.
They are the writers of it and the co-directors of it as long as producers and a real orchestra of editors and associate producers that-- that make me look good.
And so there's something incredibly rewarding about this intimate group of people that, you know, for the last year and a half have been all on Zoom.
You know, instead of just a couple of images, we have a box with 20, and--but we're getting-- we're getting things done, and--and I love that collaboration.
I love the fact that you--you can't do it alone.
So, how many projects do you have in the works now?
Can you say what some of the ones are?
Ken: Yeah, yeah, I don't know why people make this stuff secret.
We're doing a history of the buffalo, a sort of--it's actually a biography of not an animal but a biography of the people who use the animal, the people who brought that animal to the brink of extinction, and then those very same people who nearly killed it to--who brought it back from extinction.
It's a parable of de-extinction, I guess you might say.
We're doing a massive series on the history of the American Revolution, not just 55 white guys with powdered wigs in Philadelphia, but a very, very complicated story of a bottom-up story of people, 1/4-- 1/5 to 1/4 of the country remain loyal to Great Britain.
And this was a civil war.
Our civil war was not a civil war.
It was a sectional war, north against south.
And you can say brother against brother all you want.
It's nothing compared to the revolution, where Benjamin Franklin, for example, his own son William was the royal governor of New Jersey, was the last governor standing, was deposed, was imprisoned, got out, started a terrorist organization that killed patriots.
I mean, had completely estranged from his father and his father completely estranged from him, but it's a story of freed Blacks and--and enslaved people and Native Americans who were systematically being dispossessed of their lands, of women ignored in the final judgment, but central to the story and of course, those loyalists and those patriots and not just the superficial image of the sturdy minuteman, but a motley group of foreigners and poor people.
And, in fact, something very similar.
Um, George Washington mandated that the entire Continental Army be vaccinated against smallpox, and nobody argued.
Now, some people say we are in a technology race against China and we have to spend a lot of time educating our y-- our children about science and math and engineering and things like this.
Why should people really want to watch history about things that happened 100 or 200 years ago?
What relevance is it, would you say?
Ken: Well, you know, I think it's hugely relevant.
History gives you that ability to have a kind of perspective, to see where the precedents are for all of the dangerous things, for example, that we find ourselves in today.
There are precedents, and yet there is in its totality obviously unprecedented dangers and threats to the United States.
And I think it would be incumbent upon Americans, who are often blind to their history, to understand exactly how their government works, what the Constitution is actually about, what it says, what the nature of our government is.
You know, we don't teach civics anymore.
And a lot of the reasons we feel like we've lost a cohesion is because we've forgotten the glue that's held us together, not just in the patriotic ways, not just in the emotional ways, but in the very functional ways of how you get things done, and that's what civics is.
It isn't just 100 senators and 435 representatives in 3 branches of government.
It's how human beings together get things done and compromise and see that there is a shared common good.
And so, history becomes a way-- it's a table around which I think we can all have a shared discussion of what we want and how we might continue to cohere and how we can let the better angels, perhaps, reassert themselves.
That's--that's what I'm about, and I think people want that.
I think the divisions are huge and massive and threatening and have exposed the fragility of our institutions, indeed our democracy and our future, but I also think, deep down, people, if they're made aware of the fact that they share common everything-- I mean, one of the fallacies of the Holocaust is just the myth of race of, you know, biologically it doesn't exist.
You know, we are all the same.
And I've said to you before, David, you know, I've made films for more than almost 50 years about the U.S., but I've also made films about "us," that is to say the lower-case, 2-letter plural pronoun.
And so, I'm--I'm addressing these films to everybody, regardless of their political persuasion or where they come from or their sex or their wealth or their race, whatever it might be.
I want to reach everybody to remind them of the "us," all of the intimacy of this, plus all the majesty, the complexity, the contradiction, and the controversy of the U.S.
It's all there, and we don't need to say, "Oh, we got to limit our history "and teach it only this way and teach only the good stuff.
It's morning in America again."
We need to actually have a rich history that pulls back the camera and reveals all the startling and at times, yes, contradictory and not-so-pleasant things.
But at the end of the day, you know, it's just like a football coach.
"We stunk today on defense.
We got to be better."
We want to be honest.
If we're gonna be exceptional or say, "We're exceptional" in this country or "The greatest on Earth," you can't do that if you've pulled the wool over your eyes and you're just pretending everything is sugar-coated Madison Avenue sanitized version of who we are.
It isn't pretty, but in the end, accepting the contours of it makes us better and makes us stronger.
Now at this point in your career, do you consider yourself a filmmaker, a historian, an educator, or a public figure that's well-known and recognized by everybody?
Ken: Well, you know, the biggest thing is that I'm a filmmaker, and that means I tell stories and I happen to the way a painter might choose to work in oil as opposed to watercolors.
I choose to work in history, American history.
With the exception of the upcoming "Leonardo da Vinci," they've all been in American history.
And history is conveniently mostly made up of the word "story" plus "hi."
And all the other stuff that comes, I'm pleased that these films live in schools, that they have an educational dimension.
I'm pleased that people respect the work, which means that if you know who I am, it means that you've seen a film of mine and that that means that at least these stories are reaching some group of us.
As much as I want to reach every single person, it's at least exciting.
You know, I'm walking in New York City and, you know, a fireman goes by and he says, "Hey, you're the guy that made 'The Civil War'" or, you know, somebody walks up to me to complain what I left out of "Baseball," which I love.
"Baseball" is 18 1/2 hours, and people, if they tell you what you left out--I'm not an encyclopedia.
I'm not a dictionary.
I'm a storyteller.
You have to leave stuff out.
And if they think I've left something out of 18 1/2 hours, that means they didn't find it boring.
They just wanted the '59 White Sox that they happened to grow up loving and we didn't have time or room or space to do.
So I--I have these conversations with people all the time about who we are and what it means to be an American at lots of levels.
And lots of different people trust us to do-- and I'm gonna emphasize "us"-- trust us to tell a complicated and truthful story.
And in a time when the truth seems fungible, when we are always accusing the other of fake news, it's important to have at least a space-- I think PBS provides that-- where you can get an accurate, balanced view of what's taken place.
It doesn't sugarcoat, and at the same time isn't just invested entirely in revisionism.
Um, do you feel as a public figure you have an obligation to speak out on public issues beyond just the ones you're making films about, or do you feel that's not appropriate for you or people like you?
Ken: You know, I've read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as I'm sure you have.
And the first amendment is about freedom of speech.
So, I would never say you shouldn't.
I have always driven in my professional life to not do that, to go out of the way to not be partisan.
I am a citizen of my town and of my state, and my country, and I vote.
And I, you know, try to support candidates whose positions I agree with.
I've spoken out on a couple of occasions quite forcefully about it and taken some grief, but also gotten support.
I just try to make sure that-- that I keep a kosher kitchen.
You know, my--my-- the films are tough and they may reveal sympathies.
Of course, how could they not?
But at the same time, I think they're fair and balanced for people who are interested in what's going on and not just the reaffirmation of their own set of beliefs, however fraudulent that might be.
But at times, I think it's incumbent upon citizens and I would say CEOs and even people in private equity to speak out and say, "Look, you know, I think this is "a particularly fraught time in American history.
"Its future is, I think, very, very challenged right now "and it's gonna require those of us who care about its institutions and its meaning to work hard."
And sometimes that's saying out loud unpleasant things we'd rather keep our head down and not say.
Where somebody that's well-known as you are, clearly the most famous documentary filmmaker in the United States, maybe the world, people might say, "This person has made a lot of money and is very, very wealthy."
Um, I know that you haven't really pursued money.
Any regrets about that?
Well, you know, I told you, David, that I moved up here to Walpole 42 years ago last month because I presume that becoming a documentary filmmaker in American history was taking a vow of anonymity and poverty.
Neither has happened.
I am well-settled.
And I'd like to say that as, you know, we met-- we have to have a way of measuring riches, not just with how much you have in the bank, how much you're worth.
It has to be different things that has to do with character, that has to do with family.
You know, I'm the father of 4 children, and I am just-- my most important job is that.
You know, if that was the one word on an epitaph, I would be happy.
And add "filmmaker" after that.
And so I think that in many ways, I feel rich as I could possibly be.
I don't--I work really hard.
I don't know what I would do.
I mean, sometimes, I'll tell you, when I'm driving, you know, late at night from New York to Walpole, New Hampshire, which is about a 4-hour thing, sometimes I wish I had somebody driving me or sometimes I wish I had a faster instrument than an automobile to do it, but that doesn't happen very often.
And I feel happy and successful and I feel financially comfortable and that I can, you know, pay-- the most important things would be to be able to pay for my children's health and their--their education, and I can do that.
So, many people recognize you because you have a very famous hairdo that I've asked you about before.
But to some people, they may say, "Well, Ken, what hap--?
Where did that hairdo come from and where has it gone?"
Because right now, it seems a little different than what I've seen before.
Yeah, it's grown out a little bit, David, but COVID, you know, I ended up with hair going back down to my shoulder.
And I finally realized that one of the things I had to do-- I had--I'm a very loyal person and I used to have hair down to my waist in my college and my hippie days before that in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
And I had it cut off in the summer of '75, and I've gone to the same person, now a grandmother many times over, who was a young gal cutting hair in Amherst, Massachusetts, and I still seek her out.
And I finally just said to her, "You know, COVID's enough of a change that I ought to be able to do something new."
So I'm ending up with shorter hair.
Tom Brokaw, who's been a mentor as well, when I turned 60 8 years ago said, "You know, time for a big-boy haircut."
And I said, "Oh, wait, I thought you said 70."
And so, now, I guess, you know, 2 years short of 70, I'm getting a big-boy haircut.
Well, Ken, I want to thank you for a very interesting conversation.
You may not realize that your dog was in part of the conversation.
Ken: He--this is my executive producer.
You know, what they say in Washington, and I think it applies to filmmaking, too.
"If you want a friend, get a dog."
And that's Chester, who I call my executive producer.
He's never barked once.
And every once in a while, he will pass through.
Either he's heard this stuff before or he's sick of hearing my voice or something, but he's curled up over there and is happily snoozing away because I've put him to sleep.