Chat with Ken Burns
Welcome to SportsNation! On Thursday, documentarian Ken Burns stops by to chat about his career as a filmmaker, which includes the Emmy-winning Baseball (1994) -- plus the supplement Tenth Inning (2010). His newest work The Address focuses on Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and airs April 15.
Burns, who has plans for a film on Jackie Robinson to air in 2015, is a two-time Academy Award nominee and seven-time Emmy Award winner, has produced and directed more than 20 films during his career, including Brooklyn Bridge (1981), The Statue of Liberty (1985), The Civil War (1990) and The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009).
Send your questions now and join Burns Thursday at 1:45 p.m. ET!
Buzzmaster (1:36 PM)
Ken is here!
What's the biggest benefit to continuing to do your work in a tiny town in a tiny state?
Ken Burns (1:37 PM)
It allows me to focus all of my attention to what is a labor intensive work, historical documentaries. It's also a great place to raise a family.
How do you go about researching and finding a lot of the stories and anecdotes that you put into your films?
Ken Burns (1:38 PM)
One of the best parts of my job is it has a great deal of detective work. We never stop researching. We never stop. Most filmmakers have a set period of time. But we always keep going and learning.
Did you start in this business thinking PBS would be the best place for your work? When did you first feel that it would be a good working relationshiP?
Ken Burns (1:39 PM)
I kind of stumbled into PBS, because the sources of the grant funding, from the very first film require that it be shown on PBS. Then I realized that's the only place I could make them. It's free of the other market place. I could tell a legitimate celebratory history of America.
What's harder -- cutting down 150 years of history of the game of baseball into 18 hours or cutting down one speech into 90 minutes for The Address?
Ken Burns (1:40 PM)
It's got to be baseball. Though having 320 hours of footage to get into the Address was hard. But the Baseball one was hardest. We had plenty of peoples' favorites cut out. But here's the secret. I love it when people complain that I've left something out. At least they're not saying it's boring.
What is one thing from Baseball that you had to cut out that you wish you could have found a place for?
Ken Burns (1:41 PM)
There were many things. I wish I ahd been able to keep a very extended scene on Killebrew. I wish we could have done Musial not only in his retirement, but in our sixth episode. But that was too long already. Those are just two examples of the regrets you have.
What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Ken Burns (1:42 PM)
I think celebrating the complicated glories of the greatest country that's ever existed.
What was the most interesting thing you learned during the process of putting together the address?
Ken Burns (1:44 PM)
I think there are two things. That we live in a country where we are isolated from each other, because of our personal devices and modern media culture. But we yearn for community. I am struck by how many people responded to record The Address. The second thing, though we celebrate individuality, we really expect everyone to be the same. These children that suffer from these learning differences have been marginalized their whole lives. I came to know them as incredibly smart and gifted human beings, who just fall short of our collective insensitivity.
Ken, in making documentaries, you're not hiring actors and the like. So what types of things do you have to put into your budget?
Ken Burns (1:45 PM)
Actually, I do hire actors to read the letters and diaries and journals of the past, off camera. I've had the fortune to work with the best. But they work for scale. A fraction of their true value. Most of our budget goes towards research and editing. These are such lengthy and multiyear labor intensive projects.
How do you feel about how people consume media these days and the seemingly shortened attention spans? Especially given your sometimes lengthy presentations?
Ken Burns (1:46 PM)
I have been vindicated recently in my consistent insistence that people are starved for lengthy content. While we do have a small attention span, we do like new media and binge for hours on HBO's True Detective or PBS Downton Abbey. What we find is our very medium that has reinforced this tiny attention span has also promoted great passages of attention to these long forms. So, I feel competely vindicated.
Did you ever give thought to creating feature films or has it always been docs for you?
Ken Burns (1:48 PM)
I wanted to be a feature film maker from the age of 12. When I went to Hampshire College in Amhurst, Mass. in 1971, my professors there reminded me that there is as much drama in what is happening and what has happened as anything the human mind makes up. And I had my molecules completely turned around and become a documentary filmmaker. But I've never ruled out feature films.
Ken, after having all of this success over the years, how have you been able to resist going more commercial, which would bring more money and bigger film budgets?
Ken Burns (1:48 PM)
I think living in rural New Hampshire and working with PBS has permitted me to be the best filmmaker I can. I can put food on the table for my family. I can educate my children. What more do I need?
Do you have an office in or near your home in New Hampshire? Or do you still have to travel to do a lot of your work?
Ken Burns (1:49 PM)
I have an office just across my driveway and an editing room a mile away from my home. But the nature of my work necessitates that I do a great deal of traveling.
BIG fan sir. Any chance of you making a film on the chaos of the '60s. Politics, war, rioting, JFK-Malcolm X-RFK-MLK, drugs & rock-n-roll. Now there is a boffo sublect. Thank you.
Ken Burns (1:50 PM)
I am. I am working on a 10 part series on the history of the war in Vietnam as we speak. We're deep in the editing room.
Is their a project you have personally wanted to make for a long time but have never been able to so far?
Ken Burns (1:51 PM)
No. I feel very fortunate that I have completed on budget and on time every one of the films I have made. Having said that, if I were given a thousand years to live, I wouldn't run out of topics in American history that I HAVE to do.
Who was your favourite person to interview for Baseball, and why? My personal fav segments were with Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Ken Burns (1:52 PM)
It was Buck O'Neil, the late Negro League player, who communicated with his heart what makes the game so special. He gave us access to the incredible story of the Negro Leagues, the separate, but equally athletic superstars, who just happened to be black in a time when our country just couldn't accept equality.
Rich (New Jersey)
Hi Ken - you did a great job on the baseball documentary have you thought doing one about football or something else in sports related and what is your next project ?
Ken Burns (1:53 PM)
I love football and basketball, but baseball is still the greatest game ever invented and an unusual mirror into American history and the human soul. So, God willing and funding willing, I hope to produce further sequels, an 11th, 12th, 13th inning ...
Dave (Portland, ME)
In school, were you always top of the class in history? English?
Ken Burns (1:54 PM)
I loved history. I did pretty well, but I thought I was going to be a Hollywood filmmaker. It surprised me when my filmmaking ambitions caught up with a latent love of history.
Todd (Orlando, FL)
In what way is it a mirror into American history/human soul? I'm not disagreeing, I'm just curious what your exact thought is?
Ken Burns (1:56 PM)
I think if you look at the game, it's accompanied nearly every decade of American history. It reflects all of the themes of the history. There is race. There is immigration. There is the tension between labor and management. There is the exclusion of women. There is the nature of heros and villains and fools. There is how America really is and it's own mythology in how we like to see ourselves. Baseball is a great metaphor for life and character.
Ken Burns (1:56 PM)
I just really appreciate how thoughtful and intelligent the questions were. I am pleased you enjoy my work. Stay tuned.