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Filmmaker Ken Burns: What I’ve Learned About History, Love and Myself

One of the qualities that has made Ken Burns into a multi-Emmy Award-winning documentarian is his fascination with stories about people and events, and the fact that he doesn’t limit himself when it comes to picking the subject matter for his films. Rather than focusing on topics that he knows, he prefers to delve into the unknown. As a result, his projects are diverse: “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The War,” “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” “Prohibition,” “The Central Park Five” and upcoming on PBS on April 15 is “The Address.”

the address“The Address” tells the story of the Greenwood School, a small institute in Putney, Vermont, where each year the students — bright, talented young men with learning differences and learning disabilities — are encouraged to memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address. In its exploration of the Greenwood School, the film also unlocks the history, context and importance of President Abraham Lincoln’s most powerful speech.

Then later this year, Burns will take an in-depth look at the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in a seven-part, 14-hour series entitled “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” One of the topics the series will delve into is how their love and marriage survived an extra-marital affair. If you think you’ve seen the movie, Burns is here to tell you that wasn’t the real story.

One of the key factors in obtaining all the details that make his films such special meditations on America is Burns’ ability to connect to his subjects. He says one element that is essential in so doing — and is important to all relationships — is the ability to be a good listener.

“People want to be heard,” the twice-married father of three tells eHarmony. “People want to feel like they are somebody and not a wholly-owned subsidiary of somebody else, so listening is a hugely important thing. It’s good as a filmmaker, but it’s obviously good as a husband and a father and a friend.”

In this interview, Burns also talks about the most touching love story he has ever come across that dates back to the Civil War, what marriage has taught him, why he thinks relationships haven’t changed over the years and more.

eH: How has the Gettysburg Address, which was panned at the time, become the most beloved speech in American history?

Ken Burns: You know it’s interesting. It’s gone through many cycles where, initially, it wasn’t as well received, or it didn’t have the [place in] history that we now recognize that it should have, and that comes in large part because it’s short, concise and speaks directly to the central themes of American life. It’s essentially the Declaration of Independence 2.0. The original Declaration said all men are created equal, but Thomas Jefferson, who wrote it, owned other human beings. [In making this speech], Lincoln was dedicating a cemetery to the great Civil War that was fought over the issue of slavery. So he was doubling down on the Declaration and saying that we really do believe that all men are created equal. Our operating system ever since has been that. When the first anniversary of 9/11 came, that’s what we listened to, the Gettysburg Address. We thought those words were medicine.

eH: What do you think Lincoln would have thought of today’s political climate?

KB: I think he would have recognized a lot of it. When he delivered the Gettysburg Address, a Chicago paper – this is his home state of Illinois – said the cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, dish-watery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States. That sounds like a classic, partisan, political thing and we’ve had this since the beginning of the Republic. Now, it’s just that we have new platforms and new media gets amplified. Our populace learns less and less about their history, so it’s harder to differentiate, and since we think that all we have to do is live in an all-consuming and, thereby, forgettable present, we’re unaware of the fact that, as the Bible says, there’s nothing new under the sun. [Ecclesiates 1:9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.]

eH: In the work you’ve done, is there a love story that stands out to you or an astounding example of what real love is?

KB: Of course. First of all, there’s one love story, which is mine, of my country. That’s a good one, but the one that I think you’re looking for is the one from the Civil War series. The end of the first episode has a letter from a Rhode Island volunteer named Sullivan Ballou back to his wife in Smithfield, Rhode Island. Her name was Sarah, and he describes in one letter — I think it’s the most beautiful love letter I’ve ever come across in my life — love at many different levels: love of country, love of government – something you never hear today – love of cause, love of family, love of children, love of wife, but also love of the lover. He imagines that he will die and that his breath will be the breeze that cools her cheek. You can’t read it without crying. You can’t hear it without crying, and he did die a week later at the first battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War. That letter is probably what made the Civil War series. I think that every man wishes he could say those words to the woman he loves, and, I think, every woman wishes her man could say those things to her.

eH: The fact that it was preserved from more than 100 years ago…

KB: I’m wearing a wedding ring and the inscription inside of it says “love multiplies.” I think it’s the only absolutely certain calculus I have about the way things work. I think that because the letter survived, or copies of the letter survived and people passed it around, it has that effect, just as a good gesture sometimes turns into two gestures, which turns into four, which turns into eight and suddenly things are better. I think that this is the formula of the universe that love multiplies.

eH: You mentioned your love for country. Was that an influence from your parents or developed from everything you’ve experienced?

KB: I think it’s been an ongoing evolution. I was certainly aware of history all my life. I was certainly aware of the spectacular history of the United States. I then learned the complicated history of the United States. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and went to college in the ’70s and started my business in the  ’70s, and have been going ever since. So I’ve seen a lot of water under the bridge, the historical bridge, but I agree with Lincoln and his address to Congress in 1862 when he said: We are the last, best hope of earth. My films have been very complicated looks at many different aspects of our country without them being whitewashed, or sanitized, or a kind of Madison Avenue version of that past. It’s been critical. It’s been tough, but it still celebrates the glories of the United States. I’m very proud of that love affair.

eH: A lot of your films cover past times in history and experiences during those times. Do you think things like relationships are more complicated these days based on all you’ve learned?

KB: I’ll go back to Ecclesiastes and say there’s nothing new under the sun, which is a very poetic way of saying that human nature never changes. You know there are people in history who like to think there are cycles. I don’t believe that’s true. There are those who like to quote the phrase from George Santayana: People who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat it.  I don’t think that’s true either. I think just human nature is the same, and so, I think, people lived and loved as fully 10,000 years ago as they do today — perhaps even more so, because we weren’t distracted by so many things that today make us all sort of isolated, separated, individual free agents, but they really had to participate out of necessity in figuring out how to get along. Relationships have always been complicated. Love has always been complicated, hard and required work and attention and diligence for as long as there have been human beings. The investigation into the past doesn’t just shed light on important historical events and quotes, but it also shows you how human behavior is so similar to how we are now.

I’ve just finished a series on the history of the Roosevelts in which there is an extraordinarily complicated relationship between Franklin and Eleanor, because it’s blasted by distrust and by an extra-marital affair, but it’s also one of the most complexly beautiful relationships I’ve ever come across that endured that betrayal.

eH: We saw the movie, right?

KB: The movie was complete fiction. FDR was surrounded by people, many adoring women and men all his life, but a lot of it had to do with [the fact that] he couldn’t move and as his wife, in part reaction to the betrayal, set out for a political life of her own, so he found himself alone and often was surrounded by adoring females, but I don’t think he had a relationship with any one of them. I think he had a relationship with his wife, who was his most important advisor and closest partner, and so it makes it a very complicated and utterly modern type of story that also you can find antecedents of well into ancient classical history.

eH: What is the driving force behind the choice of subject matter for your films? Is it personal interest that you have, or things that you think haven’t been talked about enough?

KB: It’s always personal interest. So it means that some story grabs me. I don’t make films about things I know about. I make films about things I want to know about. Rather than tell you what you should know, a kind of homework, I’d rather share with you the process of discovery. The most satisfying thing about being a filmmaker is how many people come up to me to say that film that they just saw of mine, a subject that they thought they knew, they had no idea how little they knew, or how excited they were to learn so many new things about, whether it was the “Dust Bowl,” “The Central Park Five,” or the big series like “The Civil War,” “The War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” or  “The National Parks.”

I like that because that’s my process of discovery, as well. So it’s just that I’m drawn to something. It’s the chemistry of friendship in a way, the chemistry of love. You fall in love with a subject and you’re drawn to it and that’s what you focus on.

eH: So what do you love about your life and your work right now?

KB: Just about everything. There’s no differentiation between life and work. Life is work. Work is life. Family and friends and associates, professional associates, sort of blend together, which I really, really like. There’s no clock-punching or slavery to the weekly cycle. Monday doesn’t come with dread. Friday isn’t a day to be looked forward to. I work every day of my life. My oldest daughter and my son-in-law work with me on films. My office is in my house area. The editing room is not too far away. I do a lot of travel, and I meet other people who I feel a similarity with. I feel like I’ve got the best job in the country.

eH: What has marriage taught you?

KB: About compromise. Yeah. George Will in our film on Thomas Jefferson was talking about democracy as the politics of the half loaf. You never get everything and, I think, the most important thing I learned was articulated best by my best friend, David. He said the secret to a good marriage is not making the other person wrong. It’s a hard thing to do.

Ken Burns’ “The Address” will air on April 15 at 9 p.m. on PBS. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.