Visual Arts — June 26, 2019 12:49 — 0 Comments

Ken Burns On His New Country Music Documentary

The documentarian, Ken Burns, is one of the most decorated and beloved filmmakers of all time. He and his team have chronicled many of the pillars of American history – from the Civil War to Jazz to Muhammad Ali to much more. I got to speak with Burns about his process and about his latest release, Country Music, a 16-hour masterpiece and ode to the American musical genre. I spoke with him for a story that will appear in Alaska Airlines’ in-flight magazine in September. 

Do you remember the first time you pointed a camera at something and captured real intimacy?

Real intimacy. I think it was probably a little Kodak brownie camera that my dad had given me. And it was me taking a picture of my brother or my parents at the beach in Delaware when I was little.

About how old do you think you were?

Oh, I would say 7 or 8. My very first memory – period, full stop – is of about 2-and-a-half or 2-and-three-quarters in the basement of our tract house in Newark, Delaware, where my dad was an anthropologist. He built a dark room because he was an amateur photographer, as well. And I remember – I have this little filmstrip of moving between the stud walls of that moment. And then it jumps to me in his arm, his very strong left arm, while his right arm manipulated these tongs in the eerie darkness of the red light of a dark room. And this magic took place, which is this blank sheet washed in foul smelling chemicals suddenly revealed an image that he had taken. And it was of my brother and me, a Christmas card.

Why do you think you’re drawn to the pillar eras of American history and how do you choose each topic?

Well, I think the glib thing is to say is that they choose me. I’ve made the same film over and over again and each one asks a deceptively simple question: who are we? Who are these strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans. And what does an investigation of the past tell us about not only where we’ve been but where we are and, most importantly I suppose, where we may be going. So, while it looks like a wild diversity of topics, they’re all in American history. I’m completely untrained in American history. The last time I took a course in it was eleventh grade where they make you take it. I loved it, don’t get me wrong. But I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to be a storyteller. And how fortunate it is that I got to marry these two loves right away and be able, for now, forty years since I gradated from college to do what I think I’m supposed to be doing.

Do you remember the moment you said, “Yes, I’ll make this country music documentary!”?

Oh yeah, very much so. We work in 10-year plans and we had vaguely – we were working on the first four or five years of five or six projects and the back half of it was less definite. But we knew one was going to be the Vietnam war and one was going to be this and one was going to be that. But there was another big, as we call it, tent pole, meaning a big series. And we were bandying about some ideas and they would come out in 2018 or, in fact, 2019. And this is back in 2010-2011. And I was staying with a friend in Dallas and he looked at me one day when I came down for breakfast and said, “You ever think about doing something on country music?” And we’d thought about it as an idea but it was no longer a light bulb among many light bulbs above my head. It was now something that hit my heart. It goes back to your question about something intimate. I said, “Of course!” And I went back to Dayton Duncan who was going to be the producer and writer of whatever that big project was and we were fooling around with some ideas and I just said, “What about country music?” And it was the same nanosecond to say yes with all his heart. Then, for the last eight years, we’ve plowed toward doing it. And that’s what happened.

I finished a book on Christmas Day on 1984 at my dad’s house in Michigan and I looked up and I said, “I know what my next film is!” And he said, “What is it?” And I said, “The Civil War.” And he said, “Oh, what part?” And I said, “All of it.” And he kind of shook his head, like, my idiot son, and walked out of the room. That was Christmas of 1984. I finished the book, The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. It won the Pulitzer Prize. It was mainly about the 20th of Maine Regiment in the Battle of Gettysburg and it made that whole thing come alive.

All off the previous films that I’d worked on are all completely different, you would think – the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Huey Long, the history of the religious sect the Shakers, the Congress, the painter Thomas Heart Benton – really diverse array of subjects, all obviously very American. They all had as the defining moment the Civil War. And it had hovered over each film in such a significant way. As you did the narrative of those early films, you really tripped over it. You fell. You went, “Oh, the Civil War is a big deal!” So, it was sort of begging to be done.

One film that Dayton and I worked on called Horatio’s Drive, he tried to get me to do it for 10 years before I finally said yes. Another time when we were talking, he said, “What about national parks?” And it was, like, instantaneous. Of course! History of the national parks! That took 10 years from the moment we were driving out west working on a project and we’d realize that some of the most transformative experiences we had as individuals had taken place in national parks and that we wanted to share that story. It’s not just standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s who you’re standing at the rim with, your dad or your mom or if your family went together or that’s where you proposed. It really matters who sees this stuff. So, every film has a kind of origin story.

Is there a story or anecdote about an artist or era that you learned making this movie that sticks with you today?

Oh, my god! We don’t make films about things we know about and then tell you what to know. The last time I checked, that’s called homework. What we’re interested in doing is sharing with you a process of discover. So, just as you go – you may be a big country music fan or you may know a little bit or you may not know anything. But you’re going to be going, “I had no idea” all the way through the film. People who are experts, scholars, have said, “I had no idea” as they’ve watched the film. That’s what we’re after with ourselves.

So, when you challenge me, I can’t do one. But if I had to do one: we were fortunate enough to interview Merle Haggard before he passed away five or six years ago. And his interview is one of the central interviews of the film. His story, he spends a lot of time from the beginning of episode one when he’s commenting on Jimmy Rogers and how great Jimmy Rogers is, one of the early pioneers of country music in the 1920s. To his own remarkable story, escaping juvenile detention places 17 times and ending up in San Quentin and foregoing an escape that did work for a time until a cop was killed and the guy who told him, “Don’t go, you can sing and write songs and play the guitar, you can be somebody” and convinced him not to go, killed a cop and was executed. It’s as dramatic a story and then him going straight and the kind of music – Emmylou Harris who came into country, you know, after a folk and rock sort of apprenticeship, said, “When anyone asks me what’s country music? I say, ‘Buy any one of Merle Haggard’s records. Put it on any cut and start from there.’” So, I think in some ways, the centrality of Merle Haggard – but the minute I let that out of my mouth, then I’m not talking about Hank Williams or Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton, who’s one of the great forces of nature in the world.

Was there an artist you discovered or re-discovered who you fell in love with musically while making this movie?

Well, a lot of people and most of them we were discovering. I mean, I’d heard of them. The Carter family, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Carter family. The Stanley Brothers. But now we suddenly hear their music and see it in context and be able to hear the best of it and hear the story behind it. This isn’t a playlist. This isn’t a Time Life get this series now and get all these cuts. This is 574 music cues that are connected by story, by narrative. So, when you find out why Dolly wrote, “I Will Always Love You” then you’re going, “Wow! I had no idea!” So, what you’re doing is you’re taking a moment when 1 a really great song and 1 the story of how it got made equals not 2 but 3! That’s what we’re looking for in our lives. That’s what we’re looking for in our writing, in our art, in our music and our filmmaking and our paintings, whatever it is. We want 1 and 1 to equal 3. And life tells us in carpentry it has to equal 2 but in every place else it doesn’t.

What freedoms and constraints does making a 16-hour film offer you and your team?

That’s a very super-intelligent question to ask. I’m very fortunate to have spent my entire professional life making films in the public television system. So, there is a kind of latitude that we have to make the right film. 10 episodes, 18 hours on Vietnam. 9 episodes, 12 hours on the Civil War. 9 episodes, or innings, 18-and-a-half hours on baseball. And this one was 8 episodes and 16-and-a-half hours. And you hear the half, which means there is a nonstandard length. One of those episodes is nearly 2-and-a-half hours long.

So, to me, there is a huge discipline in telling only that story. You want to be encyclopedic, but if you are no one watches it. No one wants to read a telephone book. And the greatest criticism we get – and we love it – is people telling us what we left out. Because we go, ”Yeah, we had a wonderful scene on that. But it was too many notes.” So, for us the discipline is to actually – you would think that making a big, long film was kind of additive but it’s actually subtractive. You’re starting off with 1000 hours of footage. You’re starting off with touching and looking at 100,000 photographs. You’ve done 175 hours of interviews with 101 people, 20 of whom have died since we made the movie, which makes their speech that much more golden in a way as much as we miss them as acquaintances or friends. Then, you’ve got a narrative that’s maybe a 32-hour film and then you start cutting it back. And that’s where it’s subtracting. You go, “Boy, that scene’s really great but it’s got to go.” So, our cutting room floor is filled with good scenes, not bad stuff, not the junk. It’s not the detritus, it’s the stuff that you wish could be there. That’s the biggest thing – the discipline is in both those things. We’re given the great permission to go long in an age when supposedly no one has attention span but it’s not true! Vietnam had 39-million-plus broadcast viewers, which is the same number that watched the Civil War. Then they had 13-million streams. You do the math. That comes out to 52-million and if you want to round down, saying some people streamed and watched, okay. 50 million is an awfully lot of human beings watching and sharing that experience and we hope that Country Music will have a similar type of audience. I think it’s so surprisingly emotional that it will creep up on people and knock ‘em over the head.

Did you learn anything about the power of music by making this film?

Yeah, you know, I’ve always – music has been a central part of my filmmaking process. I do it a little bit differently than anybody else, which is most music is done after the film is locked and you score it, which is a mathematical term. You time it. You know what it’s like to turn down the volume on a horror film, it’s suddenly not scary anymore, right? So, we actually record our music before we begin editing. So, we will change the phrase of words rather than music. We don’t need to have someone compose it for us. And when we do have somebody compose originally material, like Trent Reznor for Vietnam, in addition to the 120 musical cuts from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, etcetera. We cut to him not the other way around. So, when you’re subject is music as in this one or Jazz, then you’ve added yet another dimension. Music is no longer just background or even middle ground. But it’s foreground and sometimes hyper-ground as the person you’re talking to about a particular song, which you’re listening to in the background, suddenly starts singing that song and does it in a way that blows your mind. I think there is enough examples of that in that 2-and-a-hald-hour “highlight” film you saw to get it. We work really long, hard hours to back time so that when Winton starts scatting or Loretta starts singing along, it’s in time with the music.

Does finishing a project like this ever feel like a breakup?

Leaving it? Yeah. There’s a bittersweet thing. But what I’m doing right now helps to ameliorate that, which is the Evangelical dimension, that part of going out and talking to people. Traveling around the country. We’ll probably go to 60 cities, you know, and places from Portland to Atlanta, from Austin to Boston. And share with people clips of the film. That helps ease the blow of having to leave it. But I always watch it when it’s on with everybody else. And then people come up to me afterwards. They’re still coming up to me today about the Vietnam film and talking to me about it. People come up to me about the Civil War film, that’s 29 years old. I feel really grateful that the stuff we’ve done has had an influence on people in a good and positive way.

Some of the sections in the country music documentary are quite emotional. Did you ever find yourself tearing up during the movie making process?

Oh, yeah, oh my god! We sobbed. We sob in the editing room. You should see – in our little, tiny editing room, there must be six boxes of Kleenex. Because we need to be moved. We need to see that the combination of images, the fortuitousness of a comment of a talking head, the felicity of the writing, the drama of the music itself – whatever it might be – that it has somehow given us this emotional thing. I was trying to raise money for my very first film. It was on the Brooklyn Bridge. I looked 12 years old. People were always turning me down and saying, “Ha! This child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. No!” And proverbially slamming the door. But I remember saying that I was uninterested in an excavation of mere dry dates and facts and events of the past. That we were going to be engaged in an emotional archeology. And I think that’s what we do. It’s not sentimentality. It’s not nostalgia. Those are the enemies of good anything. But the higher emotions that are really what it’s all about. I mean, we make jokes about country music, do we not. We say, “Oh, pickup trucks and hound dogs and six-packs of beer.” When, in fact, country music grapples very directly with two four-letter words that people have a real hard time relating to or be able to express: and that’s loss and love. Most of the songs are about that and the best songs are most definitely about that. Go rest high upon that mountain will the circle be unbroken about burying your dead mother. “Go rest high” is about the loss of a friend. “I’m so lonesome, I could cry.” Johnny Cash’s, one of his masterpieces is, “I still miss someone.” If you Google Rosanne Cash and “I still miss someone,” you’ll find the three-minute clip at his memorial service. Try not to cry. It’s so beautiful. And a tribute to him and he’d just gone, he’d just died and they’re having a memorial at the Grand Ole Opry and she’s singing one of his most beautiful songs. It’s great. So, yeah. To us, even – you look at Vietnam, people cried. Because these are things that are tough. Civil War, people still talk about the music, the violin and the letters home and how it made them cry.


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney