FLR: How has your family and personal background influenced the way you approach your subjects?
KB: My family and personal background are completely interwoven into what I do as a filmmaker and the types of stories I tell. While the topics are not specifically selected based on my personal experience, what I’ve experienced throughout my life influences greatly how we tell these stories – whether it was the experience of visiting a national park with my father, my interest in music, or my education as a filmmaker.
FLR: What is your favorite part of the filmmaking process and why?
KB: I enjoy the entire process – from developing the story idea, to the interviews and then working with colleagues in the editing studio. It is there – in a small New England village – that we handcraft these films.
FLR: How much have emerging technologies affected your approach to documentary filmmaking over your career, and in what ways?
KB: Not much, really. We still shoot in film. But now we are using new technology to edit online. Our editors can work on a film and get it to us in our offices in New York to review the next morning. But basically it is still a craft where we write, shoot and edit.
FLR: What goes into the decision of picking your subjects for a documentary?
KB: We’re always looking for stories that help us as a people better understand who and what we are. History for us is a way to get a better sense of who we are. If there’s any one thing that we are looking for it is how the personal plays into the public, how the experience of a national event – the Civil War or World War II, for instance, – is played out for everyday people or what a particular event or activity – whether Jazz or Baseball – tells us about ourselves as Americans.
FLR: Who were your favorite musicians to work with, in particular with the Jazz series?
KB: Wynton Marsalis in the flesh, but also I feel I got to know Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane intimately.
FLR: Who are some of the historians, anthropologists, experts, etc. that hold a special place in your heart because they have inspired you to tell the stories they’ve helped to uncover? If you could have one of your favorites to contribute or interview, no longer with us, who would you choose and for what project?
KB: Stephen Ambrose for the National Parks film.
FLR: What are three books to read, or documentaries to watch for every armchair historian?
KB: A Stillness at Appomattox – Bruce Catton
The Guns of August – Barbara Tuchman
A First–Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt – Geoffrey C. Ward
FLR: What is one of the strangest things you’ve learned about while exploring the archive on a particular subject?
KB: I once discovered a photograph of a wistful, almost–smiling Robert E. Lee that I had never seen before. I found it at the bottom of a box of loose, uncatalogued photographs at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. The greatest words I ever heard from an archivist came when I said I’d never seen that image of Lee, and he said, “Neither have I.”
FLR: You’ve been led out of lectures in the South because of particular reactions to The Civil War, have there been any other “strong” reactions to your films, good or bad?
KB: History remains a very political terrain. People are constantly engaged in what it means to be American and what our past is about. We’ve had people scream just about everything – musicians we did not focus on in Jazz, baseball players not included in the Baseball series, areas of the country not included in the National Parks film. As a country, just as our democracy is a battleground for inclusion, from abolitionism to women’s rights and civil rights and gay rights today, history is a battleground about who we are.
FLR: What was it like to have the whole history of baseball under your belt and to be able to delve into the current scandals and recent big moments of the sport in The Tenth Inning?
KB: I guess as soon as the Boston Red Sox won the World Series I knew there would be an update on the Baseball series. The 10th Inning was great fun not because of scandals or great moments. It was great fun because we were able to watch as baseball and our lives aged together and to realize that regardless of what has happened over the last 16 years, baseball remains the greatest sport ever invented.
FLR: In working on Prohibition, how might have the Prohibition era and its gangsters paved the way or served as a model for modern gangs? And do you find that the moral code of today’s America has contributed to the glorification of drugs and alcohol in gang culture, where thugs have also become celebrities, much like Al Capone or George “Bugs” Moran were in the past?
KB: I am not sure that the Prohibition-era gangsters served as a model for modern gangs, though organized crime as we know it still has a direct link to that era. I think it has more to do with how crime and gangs can take advantage of a vacuum, in the case of Prohibition one created by a failed government–driven effort to legislate morality. Also, as a country we may glorify drugs and alcohol, or play down their overall social impact, but we’ve moved away a bit from glorifying criminals.
FLR: Do you feel that there are parallels between the Dust Bowl era and the recent man–made financial disaster that is taking its toll on the American people and how could they be brought to light?
KB: There are very few Americans left who remember the Dust Bowl. Also, since the Depression looms so large in American history, we tend to forget the significance of the Dust Bowl as the largest man–made disaster until that time. I’m hopeful that the film will allow some of those individuals still alive an opportunity to talk about that disaster while also allowing the rest of us to get a very real sense of how mankind–s actions make a difference when it comes to the environment.
FLR: What other projects beyond Prohibition and The Dust Bowl do you have in the works (if you can talk about them)?
KB: The 10th Inning will air in the fall of 2010 followed by Prohibition, Central Park Five (about the Central Park Jogger case) and The Dust Bowl. We are also working on a biography of the Roosevelts – Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor – and a series on the Vietnam War.
FLR: And finally, what has been your favorite project to date, or which of your films are you most proud of?
KB: My favorite project is always the one I’m working on – and that sometimes means I have multiple favorite projects at the same time. I’m proud of all of them.
Browse our list of titles written by Ken Burns.