Ken Burns: ‘I felt that Hemingway’s uber-masculinity was a mask’
K en Burns , 67, is a veteran and celebrated American film-maker who has made more than 30 documentaries in a career lasting more than 40 years. Among them is a much lauded history of the American civil war and an equally rapturously received history of the Vietnam war . His six-part documentary on Ernest Hemingway is currently on BBC Four and iPlayer and there is a forthcoming series on Muhammad Ali .
What attracted you to Ernest Hemingway as a subject ?
We’d been thinking about doing Hemingway for an awfully long time – Geoffrey C Ward , Lynn Novick [writer and co-director, respectively] and me – for literally decades, since the 1980s. We needed all that time to sort of ruminate. We knew there was a lot of new scholarship that would help complicate the picture, that it isn’t just this toxic masculine guy with a bunch of wives and a literary legacy, but even more interesting dimensions that would permit us to explore things at a greater depth. There’s a tendency, particularly in our media world, for everything to be binary: good, bad, yes, no, up, down. And we found Hemingway tantalisingly complicated, which is what we like, because it is faithful to human beings.
Do you think the Hemingway myth has overshadowed his virtues as a writer?
Perhaps, but once you dive into Hemingway, you’re just stunned at how spectacularly great he is and how difficult it is to find excuses, however simplistic, to cancel him out. The short stories are perfect art; the novels, particularly A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises , are great works of literature. Modernist writing was extraordinarily complicated, but as one of our literary critics, Stephen Cushman, says, he dared to impersonate simplicity. So he’s like Miles Davis next to Charlie Parker.
There is footage in your film of Hemingway being interviewed and he comes across as deeply uncomfortable, reading from cue cards. Were you surprised by this?
“Surprised” isn’t good enough. It was flabbergasting, it was embarrassing, it was excruciating to watch. It was impossible to account for, but apparently he had a fearful worry about himself on camera. This was later in his life, around the time of the Nobel prize . We’re beginning to see the many demons that contribute to his end becoming a much greater force in his life. There was a history of family mental illness, his suicidal ideation, the trauma of the first world war, the trauma of his father’s suicide, the alcoholism and self-medicating to go along with it, and then the significant brain injuries – at least nine that we could count that would have possibly created the dementia.
Werner Herzog once said: ‘Ken is interested in an emotional truth. I’m interested in an ecstatic truth’
Did your opinion of Hemingway change as a result of making the film?
Very much so. My literary appreciation for him only increased, at his ability to use words – even as we delved into spectacular failures of his writing, where he really lost it for a while and wrote god-awful stuff such as To Have and Have Not and Across the River and Into the Trees . I also learned a kind of sympathy. I felt that the uber-masculinity was a mask; although he was a deep-sea fisherman, a big-game hunter, an outdoorsman, a brawler, a lover of women, a drinker, he also had a desire to speak about gender fluidity in his writing.
The women in his life tended to be boyish, but his third wife, the war reporter Martha Gellhorn, was also quite fearless. Do you think he felt challenged by her?
Yes. I think Martha Gellhorn threatened him fundamentally. His writing begins to decline. He sort of goes into his shell, he doesn’t want to go out. She wants to go out and cover the world, particularly the greatest cataclysm in human history. He’s not so sure, having been through the first world war and having done the Spanish civil war. And so I think he’s terrified of her, maybe emasculated. I think she needed her independence. As she said, she wanted her name back. She thought he could be a partner and he had pitiably no ability to be a partner.
You’ve made a large number of documentaries across a wide range of subjects that tend to share strong American themes. But what are the deciding factors for you in choosing a topic?
There are three: story, story, story. I do admit that all of the films that I have done so far in 45 years have been American, but we’re now working on a project about Leonardo da Vinci , which will be the first non-American topic. I’m drawn intellectually to the story and then there’s something about the story that magnifies and drops down from your head into your heart. I’m about to turn 68 and I’m working on eight films. It’s the process that’s so interesting for me, rather than just putting the film out there. It’s like I appreciate the birth of each child, but it’s the parenting I really love. It’s a form distillation. We collect easily 40 or 50 times the amount of material that will go into a long film. I’m happiest when I’m editing and making the film better.
Among your frequent collaborators is the actor Peter Coyote , who often narrates your films. What does he bring to the mix?
I love Peter like a brother. He’s an extraordinary reader. And he has this amazing gift – we never send him anything in advance. He reads it cold the first time. And I swear to you, it’s take one or take two that is usually what’s in there. His voice is close to mine, though clearly with the timbre and qualities that a professional actor brings to it. He’s immensely interested in our subjects and he has the ability to inhabit the word.
Your films are particularly celebrated for their use of archive photography. What is it about the still image that is rendered powerful in moving pictures?
My father was an anthropologist and he was also an amateur still photographer. I wanted to become a film-maker and I ended up going to a college where all of my teachers were social documentary, still photographers. And so the still photograph is a kind of DNA of my work. I look at a photograph as if it is the arresting of an alive moment. So as I film it, I want to take that feature film-maker’s sensibility and each photograph is a master shot that has a long shot, a medium shot, a close-up, a tilt, a pan, a reveal detail. In the opening of The Civil War you tilt from an innocent boy’s face down to his waistband stuffed with two revolvers. That spoke a million words.
In one sense, this is a great time for documentary-makers because of the streaming services, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, but do you think the general quality of film-making is improving?
We are definitely in a crescendoing golden age. I thought we were in one in the 1980s. I’ve stayed in public broadcasting my entire time: it’s made fundraising just hell – we don’t have the funding that the BBC does. The Vietnam film costs $30m. That took me every ounce of blood, sweat and tears to raise. I could walk in with my track record to a streaming service and get that $30m probably in one conversation for whatever the next big thing is. And yet they wouldn’t give me 10 years, which is what I took to make the Vietnam series. But I would say that we are overwhelmed with a continually broadening spectrum of documentaries and really great, talented work.
Who are the documentary-makers you most admire?
I would go back to Werner Herzog . We couldn’t be more stylistically opposite to each other. He said once, at a panel at the Telluride film festival: “Ken is interested in an emotional truth. I’m interested in an ecstatic truth.” I love Errol Morris ’s work from the 1980s to this day. I find it so compelling. And I think some of the newer things that have come along about Michael Jordan, about OJ, add to a sense on the part of the public that documentaries, which were perhaps seen as castor oil – something that was good for you, but hardly good tasting – have now taken over the storytelling reins, because Hollywood plots, with obviously wonderful exceptions, have become so predictable.
Has there been a project that you’ve wanted to do for many years and it’s just got away from you?
Someone asked me that in the 90s and I said: “The project I’d like to do, but can’t do, is the history of Martin Luther King. And the reason why I feel like I can’t do it is because the family is so controlling.” And extraordinarily, coincidentally, the family then contacted me. They said: “We think you’d be the best person to make the film on our father and our husband.” And I said: “You are right.” I rushed down to Atlanta, and I spent a day with them, and afterwards I wrote them and said I had to step away from it. This was a husband and a father they couldn’t control in life and so they’re seeking to control in death.
Having said that, with my daughter Sarah and her husband, David McMahon , we’ve been interviewing lots of people from the civil rights era. We’ve probably got 30 interviews and are just assembling an archive for that time when we feel that we would have the ability to talk to the family and get the kind of independence we need to have.