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Interview: Ken Burns on documentary making

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17 October 2014

For almost his entire working life, documentary maker Ken Burns has been told that viewers no longer have the attention span to focus on the kind of long form, complex films he makes.

His legendary 11-hour series on the Civil War came out in 1990, during the prime of MTV and fast cut music videos. More recently, in the era of YouTube, he has produced lengthy films on American subjects such as baseball and prohibition.

Yet his films remain startlingly popular, like his latest The Roosevelts, which chronicles the lives of US Presidents Theodore and Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The 14-hour series launched last month with over 9m viewers on PBS in the US. “The relationships you care most about benefit from your sustained attention,” says Burns, who reckons there is a hunger for complexity and depth among viewers, most evident in the trend for binge viewing box sets of long series.

The Roosevelts features the now trademark Ken Burns effect, immortalised by Apple, of the camera energetically panning and zooming across still images from the archives. At a time when factual TV favours hyperactive onscreen presenters and fast cuts, The Roosevelts is also reassuringly measured: there’s a traditional ‘voice of God’ narration and interviews with historians, while the voices of the Roosevelts are read by a stellar cast including Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep and Edward Herrman.

Critics have called it “Tolstoyan” in its sweep, and it’s a fitting epithet for a meticulously researched series that has a great story to tell and is surprisingly moving.

Burns says the series was made over seven years and cost a generous $15m. Despite being the most famous documentary maker in the US, he still has to fundraise extensively. His method, he says, is to plan ten years ahead, building a ‘skein of films’ so he can sell more than one idea at a time to potential backers. He currently has five series in various stages of production, including an 18 hour history of the Vietnam War.

All of his films are part funded by US public service broadcaster PBS. He then raises the remaining 70-75% of the budget himself – from corporations, foundations and private individuals.

Burns works from the same rural town in New Hampshire he moved to 35 years ago to keep overheads low. The location seems to symbolise his independence as a filmmaker. “I don’t work for anyone, I work for myself,” he says. Fortunately, too, he works in a very different way from most people in TV, who rush to turnaround projects on ever-tightening budgets and timescales.

By way of example, consider the production process of The Roosevelts. Burns says the series thanks a “couple of hundred people in the credits” but was essentially “handmade” by a dozen key people. “It is like a detective piece, and doesn’t take six or seven years for naught – we are not idly waiting there. We collect 25,000 photographs even though we only use 2,250. We collect hundreds of hours of footage, even though we might use five hours. We go to all the locations to film for days, often in different seasons…”

“It is about marshalling and collecting the material, and not limiting research – too often research is for a fixed primary period,” says Burns, who adds.  “We are educating ourselves during the course of it. I am not telling you what I already know...The biggest thing is that process means everything to us. We are not wedded to the superimposition of preconception. If you never stop researching, then you are corrigible to the end.”

The result, admits Burns, is “very dense, written films.” But he doesn’t think audiences have a problem with this, despite many documentary makers feeling that narration is a no-no and the enemy of the picture. “Who makes these rules? Did this come down from Mount Sinai?” he asks.

This, of course, goes back to his earlier point about audiences having a hunger for complex subjects. And it makes you wonder why, in a country like the UK that is well served by public service TV, there are not more filmmakers like Burns who can – in his words – “deep dive into a subject.”

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History airs from 19 Oct on PBS America (Sky 534 and Virgin 243)



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