There are plenty of ways to tell a good story. And according to filmmaker Ken Burns, nothing beats a historic black-and-white photograph.
Twenty-two years ago, however, before his documentary “The Civil War” changed the way people learned their history, that wasn’t always the prevailing opinion. But for five consecutive nights in September of 1990, Americans sat transfixed to their television sets watching an 111⁄2-hour documentary filled mostly with black-and-white images from 150 years ago.
Attracting a huge audience
Burns’ work attracted 40 million viewers, the most ever for a program broadcast on PBS. For that film and dozens of other documentaries produced by his company, Florentine Films, Burns will receive the Empire State History and Archives Award on Monday, Nov. 26, at the Center for Performing Arts in The Egg.
“When I first started writing proposals to granting agencies, it was for five one-hour segments,” Burns said recently in a phone conversation from his home in Walpole, N.H. “But I was turned down by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on my initial approach because they couldn’t possibly imagine how anyone’s interest could be sustained for over five hours using old photographs. I resubmitted it, they finally agreed, and the project grew to 11 and a half hours because it deserved it.”
“The Civil War” wasn’t Burns’ first film. In 1981 he earned an Oscar nomination for “Brooklyn Bridge,” a documentary based on the David McCullough book “The Great Bridge,” and in 1986 he got another Oscar nomination for his film “The Statue of Liberty.”
Multiple award winner
“The Civil War” earned him two Emmys, and in 1995 and 2010 he won two more Emmys for “Baseball” and “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” In September of 2008, at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards, Burns was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
In winning the Empire State Archives Award, he joins a group that includes C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb; actors Sam Waterston and Richard Dreyfus; and historian/authors Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro, Michael Beschloss and Henry Louis Gates. Burns will be interviewed by Abraham Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer from 7:30-8:30 p.m. on Nov. 26. Holzer will also present Burns with his award on behalf of the New York State Archives Partnership Trust.
“Those people are hugely important in the study of history, and it really is a tremendous honor,” said Burns. “Harold’s been a friend for years and the fact that he and the Archives would feel me worthy is something I can be very proud of. So it gives me great professional satisfaction to accept the award, and it’s also a good opportunity in these days of tough budget times to see just how valuable our libraries and our archives are.”
Burns grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., dreaming of being a filmmaker. He had expected to attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where his father taught. But after reading an article about Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., he changed his mind.
“It was the obvious thing to go to Michigan because my dad taught there, and a few years before my mother had died and my family was decimated financially by her illness,” remembered Burns, who lost his mother when he was 11. “But after reading the article about Hampshire, I just had to go there. I found out because of advanced placement courses I had enough credit to graduate from high school early, so I quit school and got a job and worked full time to make some money. Hampshire also gave me some scholarship money, my grandmother gave me some money, so I figured I’d go there for one year or two and then come back and finish at the University of Michigan.”
That didn’t happen.
Right place for him
“Let me say that there is nothing wrong with the University of Michigan,” said Burns. “But it was my hometown and there were 40,000 students. Hampshire had just a few hundred kids and they were doing things a bit different, stuff that in the late ’60s people were saying we should try with our education.”
Burns ended up getting a degree in film design at Hampshire, where, according to the school’s website, “students design their own programs of study instead of following predetermined academic pathways.” Despite taking off a year to raise more money for tuition, Burns got his degree in film design in four years and immediately started making films.
“It was the best decision I ever made, and I did not recognize that kid who came to Hampshire after I was done,” said Burns. “I was exposed to teachers who had a profound effect on me in every way, shape and form, and I don’t just mean theoretically and academically, but also spiritually. These are people who remain friends today.”
Taking the plunge
Graduate school just didn’t seem like a good idea to Burns.
“I was hungry to get out in the real world; I was hungry for life experience,” said Burns. “And rather than go be an intern somewhere or find a low-level position to start out with, I just kind of naively started my own film company. We had no money, but we had some adequate equipment and some good faculty.”
Burns’ small company did a few short films for various nonprofits and also produced a short documentary for Old Sturbridge Village. Six years after graduating from Hampshire in 1975, Burns’ film on the Brooklyn Bridge earned him his first Oscar nomination.
“I like to say how the best decision I ever made was moving to New Hampshire after graduating,” said Burns. “When you become a documentary filmmaker for PBS, you also take a vow of anonymity and poverty, and New Hampshire was the cheapest place to live. But really, the best decision I ever made was staying in New Hampshire after that first Oscar nomination. Everybody was telling me, ‘You gotta move to New York or Los Angeles,’ and I just said, ‘Nope, I’m staying here.’ ”
Familiar with region
Burns got to know the Capital Region pretty well while making his second full-length documentary in 1984, a film about the Shakers, a religious group that got its start at the Ann Lee site next to Albany International Airport. He followed up “The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God” with films on the Statue of Liberty, Huey Long, congress and Thomas Hart Benton before really hitting it big with “The Civil War.”
The film not only earned him two Emmys but also won two Grammy Awards, the Producer of the Year Award from the Producers Guild of America, a People’s Choice Award, a Peabody Award, a Dupont-Columbia Award, a D.W. Griffith Award and the $50,000 Lincoln Prize.
Holzer, who has written, co-authored or edited more than 40 books on Lincoln, said he watched “The Civil War” twice to make sure he really appreciated the “entire scope” of the film. Then, it hit him.
“I turned to my wife and said, ‘This is going to be big business, maybe for the rest of our lives as well as all Civil War authors,” remembered Holzer. “That was my final reaction, a very selfish one. But before that I realized it was a great film, the best television exploration of that subject ever, and it kicked off this golden age of Lincoln and Civil War scholarship that is still going strong.”
More projects on way
While Burns’ “The Civil War” certainly is the pinnacle of his career, he wasn’t done, not by a long shot. He has made 13 films since 1990, has two more coming out this year (“The Dust Bowl” and “The Central Park Five”) and is already working on “The Roosevelts,” expected to be ready by 2014, “Jackie Robinson,” by 2015, and “Vietnam,” by 2016.
“With it being the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and with Ken being the guy who brought the Civil War to life, it seemed like an appropriate time to honor him,” said Robert E. Bullock, president of the New York State Archives. “Our decision was echoed by the people of the Capital Region who quickly snapped up all the tickets for Monday’s event. Typically, we have a few hundred tickets left heading into the night of the event, and that includes people like Goodwin and Beschloss, but this year we sold out a month in advance. The response was overwhelming, and we couldn’t feel more strongly about Ken being deserving of the award.”
According to Bullock, Burns will be driving to Albany from New Hampshire the day of the event and will be leaving Monday night to drive back to New Hampshire.
“Some of our laureates have come in from California, and typically we pay for their transportation here and make provisions for them to stay in a hotel,” said Bullock. “When I talked to Ken’s assistant on the phone, she said, ‘No thanks, he’ll be driving home that night himself. He likes to drive and he uses that as thinking time.’”
Power of photographs
While many of Burns’ earlier films, such as “The Civil War,” were dominated by black-and- white photographs, he’s shown on numerous occasions that he can use whatever the technology of the time period offers to advance the story he’s telling. But a photograph, black-and-white or color, seems to work best.
“There’s something about the power of a photograph that says it’s real,” he said. “You use a painting and after a while the look becomes a little cartoonish. You just can’t avoid it. But we’re unafraid of color, and we’ve used it in several films. I’m not a person who’s into re-enactment. If you’re going to do that, you might as well make a dramatic film.”
Burns, the father of four girls, is immersed in the making of “The Roosevelts.” Providing the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt is actress Meryl Streep, who recently played another historical character, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in “The Iron Lady.” Edward Herrmann is the voice of FDR and Paul Giamatti handles Teddy.
“I’m as excited about this project as anything we’ve ever done,” said Burns, who married his second wife, Julie Deborah Brown, in 2003. “Believe it or not, nothing has been done on the three of them portraying it as a family drama. It’s an intimate history without neglecting the outer world that they influenced so much and were in turn influenced by. And, if you thought Meryl Streep’s performance was Oscar-worthy in ‘The Iron Lady,’ she’s even better in our film.”
Although the 1,000-seat theater at the Center for the Performing Arts is sold out for Burns’ appearance, Bullock said that WMHT-Channel 17, the Capital Region’s PBS affiliate, will broadcast the event at a later date.