Battling Fatigue, Lonely Nights and the Specter of Defeat, Filmmaker Ken Burns Brings the Civil War to PBS
It wasn't like braving shot and shell at Gettysburg, but completing the series was nonetheless an ordeal. While editing the film, Burns lived in a one-room apartment on New York City's Upper West Side. Every night he would leave his stuffy editing room, go home, eat alone and go to bed. Suffering from emotional exhaustion, he soon found that if he gave up alcohol and started walking, he had more energy. His wife, Amy, 35, a former filmmaker, was back home in Walpole, N.H., with their daughters, Sarah, 7, and Lilly, 3. "There were some points where he got so worn down, I didn't know how he could have gone on." she says, "if it wasn't for his willfulness, it would have been much harder."
Apparently Burns has won his battle. So far the critics have raved. In this month's Gentlemen's Quarterly, Pulitzer prizewinning writer Ron Powers calls the work "a rare thrust of purposeful imagination that aims to...bequeath to the medium something that endures."
"My 93-year-old grandmother basically inspired the series." recalls Burns. In 1984, the lady, a daughter of Maryland—a Civil War border state of mixed sympathies—told her grandson how as a girl, around 1910. she'd brought her history teacher home for dinner. "During dessert, the teacher posed the hypothetical question. 'Lucile, we're in the middle of the Civil War. Who do you want to win?' "
" 'The Union, of course!' my grandmother answered. Although it was some 45 years after the war, her mother scolded her, 'Lucile, you do not mean that!' Even recalling the event, my grandmother started to cry because this had been the first time her mother ever said a cross word to her."
Burns, 37, was haunted by the emotional force of his grandmother's response. "I realized the power that the Civil War still exerted over us. If we look at the history of a country the way we would an individual, then the Civil War is the traumatic event of our childhood. I was compelled to find out what it was all about," he explains.
The director, who had won an Oscar nomination for his first documentary, Brooklyn Bridge (1981), and both Oscar and Emmy nominations for The Statue of Liberty (1985), was intrigued.
Sitting beside a bronze bust of Lincoln in his studio—a onetime garage behind his white Cape Cod-style home—Burns recalls his Civil War odyssey with pride. Determined to dramatize the conflict in a fresh and meaningful way, he ultimately wove his tapestry from some 300 old photographs mixed with live cinematography from historic sites, interviews with historians and dramatic readings by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Garrison Keillor, Sam Waterston and Julie Harris.
Keeping a tight aesthetic rein on the project, which was co-produced by his only sibling, Ric, 35, Burns says simply, "I went to tell the story." Occasionally the sheer amount of material threatened to overwhelm him. Only his near-swaggering self-confidence and a single-mindedness worthy of a Ulysses S. Grunt kept him going. Says Amy: "Ken can remember what he set out to do and follow that straight line, no matter what."
That tenacity is balanced by a softer side. Burns grew up in Newark, Del., and Ann Arbor, Mich., and was raised by his father, a cultural anthropologist. His mother, Lyla, died when Ken was 11, and his father, Bob, sees the effects in his son's work: "He kept on being as positive about the things he wanted to do, but I think [the death] added an increased sensitivity to his repertoire." Emphasizes Ken: "People forget. They think that history is mostly facts. In fact, history reduces itself to individuals and memories and emotions."
Since he views his life through the same emotional prism as his work, it's no surprise that Burns radiates warm feelings. "My daughters are my biggest productions—and my most important," he says. "Our family life is held together by Amy and an understanding I don't deserve."
Back in 1979, a friend asked Burns what he'd like to be doing in 10 years. "I said, I'd love to be living in New Hampshire, married to Amy, and making documentary films,' " he smiles. "Today all those things are true, so I've been an extraordinarily lucky person."
Marjorie Rosen, Stephen Sawicki in Walpole, N.H.