Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Top 10 Things Ken Burns talks about

Ken Burns spoke at Widener University on Monday afternoon and I had the pleasure of being in attendance with approximately 200 people or more. My first impression of him was, he's prompt.  I saw him arrive through the same side doors I came in.  He was 15 minutes early and I also thought, he's young. He is actually 61 years old, which I still deem to be young by today's standards but he looks like he is in his 40's. There were no airs about him, he seems like a regular guy with passion.


His passion of course is history and story telling through film and rarely does his leave any detail out. After watching any of his films you not only think you know history but you get a rare glimpse at the emotional side of the people who made history. Here is a list his filmography credits.  I have seen quite a few and looking at this list I only want to see more.


He started his speech by quoting Abraham Lincoln and reflecting on Lincoln's powerful optimism despite his battle with depression. He also quoted the Pogo comic strip. "We have met the enemy and the enemy is us".  After briefing speaking very profound words, he opened up the conversation and took questions.

One question was about teaching history and his impact on education. He said his Civil War Series was being shown across the country 25 times today. He referred to his films as emotional storytelling not just stating the date and facts of the events. "We often retreat to the rational world", he said.


One of the reasons he did the The War about WWII was because a study came out where 40% of graduating high school students thought we fought with the Germans against Russia. Those numbers have decrease and it is under 20% now.


His father was an anthropologist.  Ken Burns considers his work emotional archaeology. He expects many people to find his next film the History of the Vietnam War to be controversial and those will be the people who will not see it. Many people have opinions on things they have never seen.  He made a correlation to the Warren Report.  How many people have actually read the Warren Report?  Yet so many people have opinions about it and who killed President Kennedy.


An audience member asked him about an appearance on the television show Finding Your Roots.  She asked, were you surprised and was it true. He said he knew a lot about his family history.  He is related to Robert Burns.  He is also a 4th cousin of Abraham Lincoln which may explain his ease and pride when he talked about Lincoln at the beginning of his talk.  He was speaking of family.  He was not too thrilled to learn a relative named Tuck was a Tory, a loyalist to the crown during the American Revolution, nor does he speak will admiration of a relation that was a slave owner. He is also related to Matthew Clarkson who was Mayor of Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever outbreak.

One participant sitting next to me asked, "Is there any particular person you would like to do a film about"? He said he has wanted to do, Martin Luther King all his life. He believes King to be one of the greatest heroes of our time but the family was too controlling and information was hard to come by.  A surprise to him, Mrs. King approached him and said you are the perfect person to do the Martin Luther King story and he agreed. He went to Atlanta and after a week of meetings he knew he could not do it.  The family was too limited in what they were willing to share and wanted to control what was revealed. He was in turn asked by another audience member if he had any trouble with the Roosevelt family.  He said he did not interview the family but only grandchildren are still alive but there was a little concern and modest anxiety. Ken Burns received the Roosevelt Association Award last week and he also said that the family, 161 descendants saw a preview of the documentary before it was released and they loved it.

Ken Burns first film was the Brooklyn Bridge in 1981. He has four on their way including Vietnam that I mentioned earlier.  He says the research never stops. We would be surprised at the size of his staff.  He does much of the research himself. The Roosevelts documentary cost was $15 million.  He has very little overhead. He continues to live in a small town in New Hampshire.  He has a salary and most of the profits roll back into development.  The Vietnam series so far is 18.5 to 19 hours long and the cost is $29 million. A lot of that cost is paying copyright fees to NBC, CBS, Time and Life for the actual footage. He also uses the National Archives as a reference.


After the talk, he left the podium and returned to the area just behind the stage where he first came in and also where I walked in.  I have this Irish superstition that you have to leave by the door you come in but I broke tradition.  It looked like you could go out that door and he seemed very approachable but I went out the back door but did head around the side of the building where that door was to get to the car.  Out walks Mr. Burns and two other guys and they headed down the path towards us. As he passed us by, he looked me directly in the eye and said hello, like we were neighbors and it was the neighborly thing to do.  All I could think of to say was, "thank you"and he responded "you're welcome". Off they walked. Maybe a regular guy on the outside but a keen insight on the inside.



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