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Documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on filmmaking in a pandemic

In this episode of Facing Forward, Margaret Brennan talks to documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about living through one of the most fraught moments in U.S. history, filmmaking during the pandemic and their new documentary Hemingway.

Listen to this episode on ART19


  • On Ernest Hemingway's connection to the pandemic: "It's hard to imagine that it didn't have a huge effect on his existential awareness, as Ken was saying, of mortality and the randomness and the unfairness of the fact that everything can be taken away and someone can be struck down. And that pandemic affected young people much more than this one. So, so many of the millions of people who have died were young people in their 20s and 30s or even children. It absolutely goes without saying that this would have had a huge effect on him."
  • On amplifying Black voices in documentary filmmaking: "I wholeheartedly support the need to invest in filmmakers of color and to increase the diversity and inclusion in PBS...I want to try to figure out how to work with PBS and others to just sort of be completely supportive of their objectives."

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"Facing Forward": Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Producers: Richard Escobedo, Anne Hsu, Kelsey Micklas

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28: Director Lynn Novick (L) and director/producer Ken Burns speak onstage during a panel discussion at "The Vietnam War" premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theater on April 28, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival) Tom Williams

MARGARET BRENNAN: Ken and Lynn, welcome to the podcast. 

KEN BURNS: Thank you for having us. 

LYNN NOVICK: Great to be here. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you all have been working together for years. What has it been like Ken, trying to work together during the pandemic?

BURNS: Well, it's interesting. You know, we recorded- Lynn and I the voice of Jeff Daniels, which is the voice of Ernest Hemingway in our film on March 1st and 2nd 2020. And then I went home to New Hampshire, we were in New York together and I have not left. And so it forced us to figure out how to do a very intimate process of editing remotely on Zoom day in and day out, how to conduct recording sessions remotely, how to mix and how to finish. But we feel very, very lucky because this project and others that we're working on in various stages of completion have been able to, for the most part, continue some things. Doing interviews had to be stopped or at least attenuated until we could employ some of the most rigorous COVID protocols. But, you know, we count our blessings because there are so many millions of people that have not had that same experience, have lost their jobs, have not been able to continue to work or are exposed to the virus in- in really horrible ways every day. And so we cannot complain.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You know, I know in news production, for TV production, it's really kind of forced this innovation to- to happen suddenly where we just had to figure out how to get on air. Lynn, do you feel like this has been challenging in a negative way, or has it sort of forced some innovation that you think you'll stick with?

NOVICK: You know, probably a little bit of both. It has forced us in a similar way to go from, you know, one day we're all coming to work, the next day everybody's at home. And yet we needed to be able to work together and our editors especially needed to be able to share media and share. Our producers had to share research. And we all have Zoom fatigue and we're all, you know, wish we could be together. And it's been difficult because some of our colleagues have gotten sick and we've just been trying to keep everyone, you know, in a good place. On the other hand, we're able to have meetings with people from around the world. You know, in one place we've been doing virtual promotions of the film and gathering large audiences that, you know, couldn't come to events. So there's been some upsides for sure. And we're grateful for, you know, the idea of being able to connect virtually in ways that we never would have thought possible.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And in some ways Ken, you know, you've got a captive audience at home, right? I mean we've heard so much about the appetite for streaming in particular. I know PBS has talked about having double digit year over year growth and streaming. Have you seen that impact, documentary consumption in your work?

BURNS: Yes, and I think it has to do with PBS. We- we were uniquely qualified to respond to the pandemic. We have the biggest classroom in the world and we also know how to reach every classroom in America. And that, I think, you know, helped us get a head start on all of this. I mean, they were in some ways built to be able to respond right away.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So what do you- what do you mean by built by being able to respond and tell me what that means for this new documentary you have coming out in a few days on Ernest Hemingway?


BURNS: Well, I think, first of all, we understood that broadcast television wasn't just it. That would-  something that would disappear after the first breeze like skywriting, but something that was durable, that we had obligations to the country by our mandate to reach into classrooms and to do continuing education and classrooms of the air and all sorts of the things, you know, that seemed boring, that the local PBS stations do the largest network in the country. We're increasingly doubling our streaming capacity. And what we've seen is just the increased numbers of people digesting, not as it comes over the airwaves, but when they want at a time convenient to them or their family. And that's thrilling that we've been able to open up this lane, so to speak, of- of how our stuff is digested, received.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How do you choose your subjects?

BURNS: They- they choose us, you know, we're interested in a good story period, end of statement. And so we have hundreds of ideas always and we- just suddenly something says yes in a big emotional way. There's no study group. There's no panels that we get. Oh, this will be good or that will be good. We just fall in love with something. And we've been talking about Hemingway from the early 80s on. But finally in the early aughts, we said, yes, we must and we've been plowing towards that ever since.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So Lynn, I'm- I'm interested in why in this moment Ernest Hemingway was the choice, because if you look at kind of where we are as a country, there's this re-examination of our own history, its sins. And Ernest Hemingway was flawed; he was brilliantly talented, but in some ways in reading in for this, like he was a poster child for toxic masculinity, alcoholic, emotionally abusive. He- I read an interview, Ken, you were talking about pacts he made with the devil, was your term in terms of political alignments with Stalin or sympathies. Ultimately, he dies by suicide. Why do you think it was important to tell his story? And do you feel like it's a celebration of someone who was so flawed?

NOVICK: Well, first to say that, as Ken said we've been thinking about Hemingway for a long time and we started working on the film in 2014. And it's coming out today in a very interesting and important time in our society, as you said, where we are reckoning with our history and dealing with the complicated, you know, hard truths of who we have been as a nation and our failure to live up to our ideals. And Hemingway is right in the middle of that. And we're not celebrating him, per say, for his flaws. We're actually interested in him for his artistic output. He's an extraordinarily important writer who left his fingerprints over literature to this day, and he led a very difficult life. And he's a difficult person to deal with. And we address all of that in the film. And we'd like to think that there's a way to see what he has to say in conversation with the moment that we're in, in terms of his masculinity, in terms of his attitudes about race and ethnicity, in terms of his attitude about colonialism in America. It's all in there. And a critical reading of Hemingway is a great way to actually investigate all the things that we're talking about.

BURNS: The facts of the Hemingway story, this mythology that he helped to construct, which was so opaque and seemingly unassailable, and I think we were over the number of years that we worked on this, able to break through and get to understand that the that on the other side of that toxic masculinity was, in fact, a vulnerability and anxiety, a sympathy and empathy, an ability to put himself into women's characters and really unusual times and in ways that are almost groundbreaking today. So there's something about it. And, you know, if we were going to throw out everyone who was in any way flawed, there's no one left.


BURNS:  And so what we have in somebody who is a personality writ so large as Ernest Hemingway is the great gift we have of being able to examine, as Lynn said, these flaws to not excuse them in any way to hold his feet to the fire for them, but to also understand the extraordinary contribution to literature that he made and find a way to reconcile that. And in the end, I think that that most people will find a certain degree of- of- of compassion for all of the things that he went through, all of the demons that pursued him, all of the parts, because- not just because of the the the great work he left it, but because he's another human being and another human being in many ways like us, insecure, worried about position. But I think we can recognize ourselves a little bit in that. And that's what the study of history, what biography is about. If it was all geography, we get nowhere. If it was all total revisionism, we'd know nothing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You just gestured to something that I didn't know frankly, about Hemingway, that- that gender fluidity and I want to play a clip here from Mary Dearborne, a Hemingway biographer. 


MARGARET BRENNAN: So tell me about this. Why did the both of you choose to explore this part of Hemingway?

NOVICK: Well, you- you can't avoid it. I mean, it's- it's- it's so much a part of who he is. And it's part of the historical record, both in his own personal writing diary and letters and also in his work. There's sort of little hints given in his early work and in his posthumously published novel, The Garden of Eden, which was very much a work in progress he wasn't able to finish. You see this exploration of androgyny and gender fluidity, and it just- it's unavoidable actually, and perhaps it resonates with us more as something to explore and to highlight because of where we are today. As she said today, it's something we talk about. And back then, we didn't even necessarily have words for this. So it- it was fascinating. We didn't have to look super hard to find it, but it was revelatory to us as well. We did not know this when we started the project.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, and it's so contradictory to the the snapshot version of him, which is like this--

NOVICK: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --sort of bar brawling, alcoholic, uber masculine man.

BURNS: Ain't- ain't that the truth? I mean, this is the- he's the poster boy for that macho thing. And yet- and yet there's this whole other side that belies that. And so we find that incredibly interesting. This is in many ways, you know, man bites dog. You know, we- we- we could not, not pursue this, particularly because the durability of the myth is so opaque. It doesn't present us with anything other than, you know, the outdoorsman in the big game hunter and the deep sea fisherman and the brawler and the drinker. And it's all true and it's part of who he is, but it's not the whole part. But if everything freezes on that frame, then you're going nowhere, like a Zoom meeting that's stopped dead. And so, you know, you got to reset. And in this case, by using the letters, by talking to his surviving son, by triangulating with the new scholarship that's happening, by trying to come to terms with all of the mental illness issues, the chronic brain injury issues, the alcoholism, all of that stuff, to paint a much more complex picture in which we can tolerate ambiguity, we can tolerate undertow, we can understand that it is not everything is not black and white anywhere, that there's not a big on and off switch, that we have the ability or even the right to manipulate. We just have to present him as he is in all of the cringeworthy things- and there's a lot here. And all of it that is enduring and in some cases of some of the writing immortal.

MARGARET BRENNNAN: I want to play another clip from your film : 


MARGARET BRENNAN: So, Lynn, what ultimately led to the mental illness that may have led Hemingway to kill himself?

NOVICK: You know, we are not going to be able to make a definitive statement about that, and that would be really impossible to do. But we can trace a number of factors. And first of all, there's a family history of mental illness. His father suffered from a mood disorder, ultimately took his own life in a psychotic depression when he was in his 40s. Other family members subsequently also had mental illness issues. Hemingway himself suffered from depression and anxiety and suicidal ideation, both before and after his father took his life. And then there's also alcoholism, which could be, we could say now maybe potentially self medicating. But for him coming of age during prohibition and just living the lifestyle of a lot of drinking and celebrating that- that's a factor. And then over the course of his life, he suffered numerous, as many as nine serious concussions slash head injuries, potentially traumatic brain injury, and potentially the consequence of that CTE, which can cause depression, confusion, dementia. And you put all of this together and in a way, it's- it's miraculous he was able to be as functional and successful as he was for as long as he was. And I should also say the stigma of mental illness at the time, in the last decade of his life, he was very unwell at different times, delusional, paranoid, confused, aggressive, and nobody really wanted to talk about it. And so whether it was addressed as mental illness, as that should have been at that time, he probably did not receive the standard of care at the best mental hospital because he didn't want to go to a mental hospital, because he didn't want the world to know, as he said, that he was losing his marbles. And so it's just- it's a tragic unraveling at the end. And, you know, and then I should also say finally access to guns, which is also a huge factor in suicide.

MARGARET BRENNAN: A lot of threads being pulled together that I know Ken, you are also working on a film due out next year about mental illness. And I know throughout this pandemic, the CDC has been tracking just how devastating this isolation, this experience has been for so many people in this country. What have you learned over the past year and has it informed the film you're working on?

BURNS: Well, I'm serving as the executive producer. I'm trying to mentor some other filmmakers, and they're producing a film which is addressing that. The fact that it's occurring in the pandemic, as you said, in which a kind of magnifying glass has increased the heat on so many people, particularly our young people who are struggling with remote learning, but also others where loneliness, a classic American affliction, is there. It goes back to what Lynn was saying. Trying to remove the stigma of mental illness for Hemingway was nigh impossible. At that age, that time, late 50s and 60s, it was impossible. Today it is not. And we've made some inroads, but not enough. And I think a lot of it will be addressing, particularly in younger people, the you know, how we reach out, how we sort of lock arms and try to provide the kind of soft landings that that that we can provide as a society working together rather than as sort of a society of just rugged individualists, sink or swim kind of mentality. And it takes a kind of sense of our collective value, you know, the collective freedom, what we need, not just what I want in order to make any kinds of- of inroads in that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: OK, both of you, please stay with us. We're going to take a short break.


MARGARET BRENNAN: So this has been just such a tumultuous year for the country, everything I feel like is being scrutinized. And Ken I want to ask you about something that you have been frankly, a direct target of. You've had this relationship with PBS for decades with these amazing documentaries. It's also made you a lightning rod for criticism from fellow filmmakers who say the fact that you are white, the fact that you are male, is crowding out opportunities. Looking at a letter written in the past few days that says when you program an eight part series of Muhammad Ali by Ken Burns, what opportunity is there for a series or even a one hour film to be told by a black storyteller? This is criticism of PBS, but it is made very personal in these attacks. Do you want to respond?

BURNS: Well, I don't take it personally. In fact, I wholeheartedly support the need to invest in filmmakers of color and to increase the diversity and inclusion in PBS. PBS already does it better than any other place, but we have room to improve. In fact, with our films, we get a significantly small amount of money from PBS and we go out and raise money from other sources. And I'm- I want to try to figure out how to work with PBS and others to just sort of be completely supportive of- of their objectives. It's very important that we do this. It's been what my work has been about. We've been trying to tell a complicated American history from the very beginning that was diverse and inclusive. This is work that I know that PBS is committed to working on and having a real conversation and not just a, you know, a Band-Aid approach. It's- it's something that I completely agree with and enthusiastically will work hard to try to address this with PBS.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you think the impediment is? You talked about fundraising there. Is that- is that part of one of the barriers?

BURNS: Of course it is. You know, the first, I think, seven or eight films that I made and didn't have a cent from PBS. I didn't even know that I could even get any money from PBS. And so I labored for years trying to raise money. And, you know, when you've been doing it for 40 years, it doesn't get any easier. You do know how to do it. You have a track record. And so people tend to- to say, well, OK, but, you know, that doesn't excuse us not trying to increase. Look, the more we the more storytellers we have telling our very complicated history, the better it is. The different perspectives are hugely important. And that's been part of our work, the hallmark of our work, I would suggest, but also becomes very important that other filmmakers be telling their stories as well. And that helps our country in every way. I completely support these efforts.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, Lynn, women have often been over overlooked in the film industry. There are two female directors nominated for Oscars this year, the first time ever. Do you think that's an important marker? And is there such a thing as equity?

NOVICK: Well, you know, I do think there's a difference between the scripted Hollywood world and the documentary world and the public media world just to sort of carve out, there are big differences. And, you know, I think it's great that there are two women nominated in the best director category. And it shouldn't be unusual. Why? Women are half of the population, you know, and it's shocking in a way that it's taken this long to get to that point for the Motion Picture Academy. But when you look at the documentary world, it's a very different picture. Many, many colleagues of ours are female PBS, CPB, the public media infrastructure. They're women in positions of prominence and power. That said, I think it's also true that, you know, the- the voices that have been privileged in our society for hundreds of years have been male, and so women have had to assert themselves to be heard and to be taken seriously. We are in a place where things are- have been moving and are moving in a much better direction.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I mean, this is all part of the conversation of this incredible year we've had. 

NOVICK: Right. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: I mean, do you think- I- I know I've read Ken that you have said, you know, you're sort of too proximate- you're too close to this moment to really make a film. Lynn, do you feel that way, too? I mean, this is such an extraordinary moment for so- there are so many storylines just in the past 12 months to pursue.

NOVICK: I mean, I personally find it completely overwhelming, and I'm not, as you guys are in the business of trying to cover it as it's happening. I'm just trying to understand what's going on from- and also being at home and just trying to digest the avalanche of information and news and important stories. And it would be very hard to do a definitive or even a historical piece about this, because it's happening right now. Ken and I always say we need somewhere between 10 and 25 years for time to pass. So you can actually sift through all the really interesting information of what happened and try to pull out what actually is meaningful. We don't have any perspective right now. And- but the sense of living through history, it's- it's in my lifetime, I'm 59, it's unprecedented I feel, just the scale and scope and the importance of what is happening, the changes, the challenges, the tragedies, all of it. I've never lived through anything like this.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Ken, is that ever possible for you to turn that part of your brain off when you're living through moments like this to say, you know, well, this would be the character here or this is how I would tell this part of the story we're living through now?

BURNS: You know, we're working so hard on the projects that we're doing and we're- we're really disciplined and focused on trying to tell those stories. But we're totally aware that whenever we finish the story, whatever it might be, prohibition or the Vietnam War or any film that we've done, that when we finish and lift up whatever time it lands in, it will rhyme in the present. Mark Twain is supposed to have said history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. This is clearly the fourth great crisis and I think the most critical crisis in the history of the United States after the Civil War and- and the Depression and World War Two, this combination of the virus, covid virus and the virus of white supremacy and racial injustice that's 402 years. And the age old human virus of lying and misinformation and conspiracy and paranoia, all of these things have conspired to create a toxic brew that does require perspective. It does require some sort of triangulation, and that will come with the passage of time. But yes, as each new thing happens, insurrections and vaccines and resistance and the big lie, all of these things add players to- to the drama that you wish you could- you could wrestle to the ground. But that's not the way narrative works. You in journalism, as Lynn has suggested, are struggling with, as Philip Graham said, the first rough draft of history. We then can't turn in a rough draft. We have to actually allow scholarship and others to intervene and allow that just simple passage of time to get a perspective on it, to understand what's going on. But, yes, this is as- as fraught a moment as I've ever been in in my life.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do either of you have a sense of what living through the 1918 pandemic was like for Hemingway? He would have been like 19 or 20 years old.

NOVICK: Yeah. He was- he was, I think, largely in the hospital recovering from his wounds and the First World War. And he was in Italy. And, you know, he would have seen how the flu would have swept through and a lot of people were killed or died. And he was having an affair with a nurse and she was caught up in taking care of a lot of people who were dying. And, you know, he doesn't write about it directly, but in his fiction. But it's hard to imagine that it didn't have a huge effect on his existential awareness, as Ken was saying, of mortality and the randomness and the unfairness of the fact that everything can be taken away and someone can be struck down. And that pandemic affected young people much more than this one. So, so many of the millions of people who have died were young people in their 20s and 30s or even children. And there's just it's- it absolutely goes without saying that this would have had a huge effect on him.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Ken, apart from you've got an upcoming film on Muhammad Ali. What else do you see on the horizon?

BURNS: We've got a lot of different projects. Lynn and I are working on a film about the U.S. and the Holocaust. The- you know, what we knew and when we knew it, what we did and what we didn't do, what we should have done. Very, very complicated. Born out of an interest from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., that we we treat this very important and very critical subject. I'm doing a biography of the buffalo, which is a story, I guess, of de-extinction, if you will. It's not really about the buffalo, but the human beings around the buffalo that were sustained by it, another group of people who nearly brought it to extinction and those same people who saved it from extinction. We're doing our next war - I hate to be so crass - after a Civil War, the Second World War, which Lynn and I worked on, and Vietnam, which we co directed as well, is on the history of the American Revolution. And we're doing one on LBJ and the Great Society trying to understand about muscular government. We have our first non-American topic, Leonardo da Vinci. All of these are sort of planning stages or early beginnings. Benjamin Franklin and the Holocaust, a biography of Franklin, a slave owning founding father, is- is- are- those are both in the editing room. So after Ali, those will be the ones you'll see first.

NOVICK: And I have one more project, which is a history of crime and punishment in America as executive producer of making the film with Laurens Grant, a documentary filmmaker on the West Coast. And that has certainly- we've been working on for quite a while and talking about it for five years or so, and with the events of the last year and the reckoning on race in America, you know, seems extremely important and urgent as well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, good luck to both of you with those projects and thank you for your time today. We're going to take a quick break. 

BURNS: Thank you. 

NOVICK: Thank you.

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