Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns spent years making “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” but since its debut on public television last year, he hasn’t waited to start something new — or several somethings. Already on his list of films-in-the-works: documentaries about prohibition, the Dust Bowl, the Central Park jogger case, Vietnam, the Roosevelts (including Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor) and an update of “Baseball.”
“This is pretty insane,” he said. “I love my work too much. I feel like I have the best job in the country. It permits me to travel around and dive into the complexity without becoming like the screamers on cable.”
Complexity and deep dives last, he said. Attendance at National Parks jumped after the films broadcast. People still come up to him almost daily to discuss his 1990 film about the Civil War and another film about World War II, which aired in 2007. Both will be high on his list of topics when he speaks at Georgia State University on March 25.
Here’s what he had to say about his work and its effect:
Question: “The Civil War” research involved archive material, “The War” involved memories and people who lived through it. What was it like to make those films?
Answer: In many ways it was more similar than it was different. When we made “The Civil War,” it was just gut-wrenching. I just said, “I can’t do this again.” But we were losing 1,000 veterans of the second World War each day. How could you not do it? We had to honor them before they disappeared. After having vowed not to do another, we saw ourselves inexorably drawn to it. We got the same kind of intensity off the couches. We heard the same stories, “I was scared, I was bored, I was hot, I was cold, I saw bad things, I did bad things, I lost good friends.”
Q: In the last few weeks, we learned that National Park attendance jumped by about 10 million last year, which they attribute in part to your film. What do you think of those kinds of direct impacts?
A: It’s funny, my first day of film class in college in 1971, we had a big argument over whether films actually make people do things and whether they’re preaching to the choir. I was on the “naive” position that films can move people. These films have proven that — attendance is up at National Parks, people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, re-enactments went way up after “The Civil War.”
Q: What do you expect the lasting effects of these films will be?
A: It’s been huge for “The Civil War.” It’s not a day when someone doesn’t come up to me. There’s no chance that wars are going to disappear. It’s just hard-wired into our human nature. But it is possible to remind people. Americans were excited to go to war — we hadn’t been at war in a long time, we were invading Kuwait — when “The Civil War” was broadcast. Someone, somewhere said that interest went down after that. I consider that the best. Nobody should be enthusiastic about war.
The people who brought us into Iraq, they could cavalierly make a commitment based on ideology, not experience. It’s not the glorified battle which is draped in bloodless, gallant myths – we force people not just to hear the story, but what it’s like to be on the front.
I’m not into advocating a political point of view. I’m not trying to do change people minds, I’m trying to remind them what we share in common. There’s too much plurbis and not enough unum. What I’ve done is about unum. Our stories are just that — our stories — not Red State stories or Blue State stories, not white people stories or black people stories, not male stories and female stories.
Q: Are there any stories that seem too big to tell?
A: I don’t think so. I don’t mean that immodestly. Every time I pick a subject, it seems so daunting and terrifying and wakes you up at 4 in the morning. They’ll always be scary. They’ll always be American. There are many interesting things in the world, and I travel the world, but I found the job I was supposed to have.
Q: Did you realize 30 years ago that this is what you’d be doing?
A: No. When we did “Brooklyn Bridge,” I was a kid in a candy shop. It got nominated for the Academy Award. I looked like a kid. The first time I went to the California was the Academy Awards. That next thing was “The Shakers,” then “Huey Long” and I just woke up and said, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing.” I’m supposed to be figuring out American history.
I have been able to, through these films, speak to people, of a way that reminds them of something essentially American. You are looking at Mr. Public Television. I’m proud they will have me. It’s kind of tortoise in “The Tortoise and the Hare.” You begin your life watching public television and at the end of your life, when you realize how little you know, you’re back learning.
Q: Your projects always seems to use other media, too, though, like books and music.
A: I require of myself that we look for the common ground. I think that each finished film suggests so much more. The books we produce allow us to expand that, elaborate on the film. “The Civil War”, the “Baseball” book, the “Jazz” audio can stand up against any on the subject. We’re always interested in the powers of music to work on our hearts so much quicker than the word can, or even the image can. It just seems to be part of us communicating.
Q: You’ve said you wanted to make a Martin Luther King Jr. film, but haven’t been able to. What stood in the way?
A: I’d love to do it, and I was contacted by the family about doing it. They hadn’t been able to let go of him. This was one of the most important men in all of human history, and as a husband and father, he was unknowable. Now, in death, they’ve exerted a control that I didn’t feel right beginning a film.
When they can let go of him and share him fully with the rest of us, I’m hard-wired to do MLK. I can’t think of a better subject. It’s time we delve back deep, deep and reveal him for the magnificent human being that he was. We think we know him, we sort of know the rudimentary aspects of his life.
If you think about George Washington, there wasn’t a school child who didn’t know him. All we think we know is wooden teeth, cherry tree. If George Washington can get lost, anybody can get lost.
Want to go? Ken Burns presentation and book signing. 3 p.m. March 25. Free. Georgia State University Student Center Ballroom, corner of Gilmer and Courtland streets, Atlanta. 404-413-1876, www.gsu.edu.