We’re Gonna Need to See Some Identity – A master documentarian of American history, Ken Burns and his bottomless curiosity help UCSB Arts & Lectures cap its 50th Anniversary season

Ken Burns has been shaping the way we think about history for the past 30 years with his epic, sprawling narratives of America’s past. In his multi-part documentaries for PBS, he has taught us about the Civil War, baseball, jazz, World War II and, in last year’s 12-hour series, the history of our National Parks.

UCSB’s Arts & Lectures celebrates the end of its 50th anniversary season with a very special appearance by Ken Burns on Monday, May 24, at the Coral Casino. Paula Poundstone emcees the event, which includes dinner and a silent auction of such goodies as a guitar autographed by Elvis Costello.

 Ken Burns and writer Shelby Foote on a 'Civil War' set. Al Levine Photo

Ken Burns and writer Shelby Foot e on a ‘Civil War’ set.
Al Levine Photo
Though softly spoken and devoted to a life behind the camera, Burns has a side career speaking at commencements, public groups, universities and businesses, with topics as far-ranging as his documentaries.

The Ken Burns style — which includes beautiful cinematography, well-known actors reading diaries or letters, and slow, revealing zoom ‘n’ pans on photographs — has become well-imitated, but the subject matter has, over time, revealed the core question of Burns’s work as a whole: As Americans, who are we?

When did you start realizing that you were asking this larger question about American identity?

That’s a great question. I am not exactly sure. I think that it took three or four films under my belt in the early ’80s to suddenly realize that, in many ways, each film was asking the same deceptively simple question, and that took a while to understand. And then at some point, I think it was during “Lewis & Clark,” I suddenly began to realize that it was also “Who am I?” That question, who are we, often becomes “Who am I?” in another situation when you dig a little bit deeper. And self-questioning is not always the thing that people want to do, either at a national level or at an individual level.

How close are you to answering that question, “Who are you?”

Well, I don’t think you ever answer it. Just as the “Who am I,” that ultimate Socratic question, is one that’s never definitively answered. It’s one that’s just deepened with each successive project.

Did your interest in history come from a film background or as a devout reader of books?

I am a filmmaker. That’s what I wanted to do all my life since I was about 12 to 13 years old. So you are talking to someone who had just the happy coincidence or fortunate serendipity of realizing that I had this latent, completely untrained and untutored interest in history that could just sit right in with my interest in films. And so I sort of see history that way. If you were a painter, you might choose to work in watercolors or oil or choose to do still lifes or landscapes.

Was your understanding of history shaped by certain books or films?

Oh, continually, certainly in films, but more importantly in books throughout my life, but not in a way that I said, “Oh, this is something that I am going to then make a film about.” It’s just that I read a lot of stuff. I have always been good at history. The last time I took a course in American history was 11th grade.

What do you remember about that?

Nothing. I actually did have a great history teacher in one world history class and a Russian history (teacher) who was just fantastic and brought it to life.

How much of your own personality goes into your films, and how much do you have to leave out?

Well, you want to leave out as much as you can, but at the same time, you know, like one’s own handwriting, that it is unique to you. So I think that you come to an understanding that there is nothing objective. It’s degrees of subjectivity. Am I a filmmaker like Michael Moore? No, I am not. I am not interested in making political statements for the sake of making political statements, however much I may agree or disagree with what his premise is. But I do recognize that you can’t help whenever you do anything, you express who you are. And indeed, not just me, but all the other people who work on the film, that it is informed by their sensibilities as well.

When you speak of the documentaries, you speak of “we” rather than “I.” Tell us a little about your team.

Well, this is I think one of the great mistakes that people make, is that it’s a “Ken Burns film.” I mean, each film is handmade by a small group of people. It’s not done by me alone. I am not like a writer who publishes a book and with exception of an editor and a fact-checker, that’s it. This involves hundreds of people, maybe a dozen of whom are central to the creation of that film and who deserve that “we,” rather than my “I.”

Describe your core group when you just started in 1981.

Well, it’s people I still work with, too. In that case it was just four of us who really made that film from soup to nuts. And I am still working with a guy who is my cinematographer now who was my assistant then, Buddy Squires.

Where did you meet him?

Buddy and I met at Hampshire College. He was an underclassman of mine. And we began working together right after college. We, and a third person and I, started this film company, Florentine Films, in 1976. So that’s 34 years already going.

What was the first film out of that partnership?

Well, the first true film that I think we would like to put our name to would be “Brooklyn Bridge,” but that was 1982. We just starved and tried to pay the bills by working as crewmen for other projects, but that was the one we could put our names to.

Who else was on that crew?

Four of us made it together. Amy (Stechler) and I wrote it, I directed and produced it. Roger (Sherman), Buddy and I produced it, and Buddy was my assistant, Roger did the sound. I mean, it was a wonderful kind of collaborative thing.

How big was that crew when you got to “The Civil War”?

Not big at all. We still don’t go out with more than two or three people. It just doesn’t happen that way. We keep it small and handmade.

Are you a good captain of the ship?

Very much, yeah. I’m the general that sort of sees it around. I raise all the money, I direct all the films. I no longer can do as much cinematography as I like or conduct as many interviews as I used to do, which was 100 percent. But the people I have worked with are so close and so trustworthy and so talented — that there are aspects that the final decision is mine, that time in the editing room. There are things I won’t give up, because that’s where the films are made — but we have delegated in many, many different ways to many different people.

Describe the process of getting a project off the ground. What are the first couple of weeks like?

Well, it doesn’t really work in that same way that you imagine. We made — it’s more a lot of ideology. You sort of feel drawn to a subject and decide that you want to do it, the way you make a friend. You can’t really tell. It has to do with chemistry. There are a lot of people in your class, but how come these two become your close friends? And so you are drawn to a story that way. We sort of set off three or four different things going at once. One is fundraising, it’s writing up ideas, the other is doing some research, and maybe there is actually some writing that goes on. But that goes on like in three different ways with the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, and by extension further than that. So it’s a great, great process. But it’s not like you film all at once. “The National Parks” was filmed over three years. We edited it over more than two. And meanwhile, I was the head of another film on the Second World War where we were shooting the parks and finishing and promoting another film on Jack Johnson while we were just doing initial planning. So I mean you are always overlapped and staggered. So right now I am in the editing room on a film on prohibition, but I am also shooting three other films and promoting a fifth film.

Where along the production timeline do you realize the scope of the project, in terms of episodes?

We let the material speak for itself. We have uneven episodes. We started off thinking that Civil War was going to be five one-hour (episodes), and it ended up 11-and-a-half hours in nine episodes. So somewhere along in the process, it tells you the kind of shape you needed. And I love the idea that the material ought to be able to speak to us rather than us continually imposing the artificial time limit of an hour or 90 minutes.

Documentaries have a habit of going off in a completely different direction in production than initially thought. Where does that happen for you? In the research?

Yeah, but it doesn’t really go off so much. Each one is a sort of prodigal experiment. You do start off at a place with some certain set of preconceptions and expectations, and then these are wildly changed, but when you get back to the finished thing, it’s not that much different than what you thought it would be. What it’s now flushed out with is all the discoveries you make during research, all the discoveries you make writing, all the discoveries you make shooting, all the discoveries you make editing. We go through 20 drafts of the script in the editing room and we want to be corrigible. We want to be able to change so these things undergo remarkable transformation. And that’s the thrill of it. I mean, why would you want to stamp out a product? We are not making widgets, we are making films.

The National Parks documentary seems to come at a time where we’re talking about it, policy-wise, but also at a time where we seem to be talking about national character and where we’re going. I’m guessing that you have a slightly longer view.

We are always so surprised at how contemporary our films are and seem to be ordered up precisely for the moment, but that’s only the understanding that human nature always is the same. The film we are doing on prohibition is just so unbelievably relevant and contemporary about right-wing groups starting up, trying to argue for less government, at the same time, they are imposing their views on other people. It’s just an amazing similarity to now.

This anxiety that we’ve lost our way — how often do we think that?

Well, this is an anxiety we are thinking in every single generation. Nobody has ever said, boy this is the greatest right now (laughs).

So for those that think that, what’s your answer? What’s the constant?

Human nature. Human nature never changes, circumstances do. History is not cyclical. It doesn’t repeat itself in that way, but human nature is the same, so that you have actions and responses to actions, and responses to those actions or those reactions that are similar in history and you can learn from that. So in order to ensure you have a future and certainly know about your present, paradoxically you have to know about your past.

What do you see currently that makes you optimistic?

Well, I am not sure it’s optimistic. I feel like I know periods that are very much like this. It’s optimism mixed with the pessimism that human beings don’t really grow up. They still love wars, and they still go to wars and there will be no chance that wars will end just because some of us decide it’s not a good idea. You have evidence where wars are necessary. So, this is a very tough conundrum to be a human being. The anti-government sentiment right now is just beyond bizarre, given the fact that we are the freest, least-taxed people on Earth.

And that stimulus program put in by this president is 1/100 of the stimulus program put in by FDR to get us out of the (Great) Depression. And that in itself was paled by the stimulus that was World War II, where the government went into every industry. I don’t just mean the car industry and told them to make tanks, but I mean the burlesque industry and told people how often they can take their tops off in their stage production per day. That’s government involvement in your life. But we consider that the greatest generation and we went with it; we sacrificed everything. The taxes on things were higher, the taxes on wages were higher, there was rationing and stuff. Some commodities that we take for granted were in short supply, and what did all of this giving up do? It made us the richest country on Earth. And now we turn around, we feel and sense this poverty of spirit. And yet all of the guide posts of collective sacrifice, nobody wants to do. It’s all about, oh you’ve got to cut taxes, you’ve got to do this. Well, maybe the answer is actually the opposite of that. I mean history certainly shows that.

Did you see a lot of America before you were out there shooting it?

No, but I have now spent the last 35-plus years seeing it, and you know, God, I have a very good familiarity with all the country, all 50 states.

You weren’t a traveler, then?

I didn’t have an opportunity to do that. First of all, I was a kid growing up and then in school and then — that just wasn’t possible.

How much of the National Parks did you get to shoot? You say you don’t get to shoot as much as you like to.

Well, it is because I am working on so many other things and, more importantly, trying to raise the money for all the future things, which is a huge, time-consuming process, but I went to dozens of parks, and my partner on this, Dayton Duncan, who is the writer and co-producer, he was able to go to all 58 of the natural National Parks during the course of this production, which is such a terrific accomplishment. And he probably was able to bring his kids along and sometimes his whole family.

Tell us a little of the projects you’re working on.

This year is an update of our baseball series called “The Tenth Inning.” In 2012, we will do “History of the Dustbowl.” In 2013, we will do “History of the Central Park Jogger Case”; and later, in 2013, we will do “History of the Roosevelts” — it’s a big, major series, seven parts or so, 14 hours. And then in 2015, we will do “History of Vietnam.” We are in some stage of production on all of those.

When: 5 p.m. May 24
Where: Coral Casino, 1260 Channel Drive
Cost: $350 (lecture and benefit dinner ticket)
Information: (805) 893-3465, www.artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu

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