As a young director with a risky film, Ken Burns had countless doors slammed in his face. How did he push past them, and how would he advise today’s young artists to do the same?
Question: How did you overcome the early obstacles in your career?
Ken Burns: Well I think filmmaking is obstacles. In fact, every film is a set of millions, literally, no exaggeration, millions of problems, but I use the word problems not so much pejoratively as if it’s just resistances, friction that you have to overcome. I’m 56 right now. I’ve been making films for over 30 years. I don’t look 56. You can imagine what I looked like when I started off and the first film I wanted to do was to tell the story of the Brooklyn Bridge, so people would slam the door and say, “This child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. No.” And for many years I kept two thick binders, three-ring binders of literally hundreds of rejections, so I guess the biggest sort of outer resistance was just finding the money to be able to produce these films that I wanted to produce, convincing people that even making a film on a bridge was a worthy subject, that it was going to be hard to keep it at an hour when they couldn’t understand why a film on a bridge shouldn’t be a short that was five or six minutes in length.
Inwardly I think it was trying to find a form. I mean a style that adheres to someone has to be an authentic process and style is the authentic application of technique and in my world that meant trying to refine dozens and dozens of techniques to make the past come alive and in my case I guess for the purposes of simplicity and brevity here I deal with eight elements. Four are oral and four are visual. The visuals are pretty obvious, the live cinematography, the interviews that we do, the newsreel footage and the still photographs in which I was most keenly interested in because of my training in still photography as well in which I wanted to go into and old photograph, not just hold it at arm’s length as had been the want of my colleagues, but to live in it, to listen to it, what sounds were making to take that old desire to be a feature filmmaker and see each still photograph as a master shot that had a wide, a medium, a close up, the possibility to tilt, to pan, to reveal and to make the photograph come alive. Orally we had a third person narrator, the voice of God, that’s sort of the traditional way that you communicated in documentary, but also I added first-person voices read off-camera by actors reading diaries, journals, letters, newspaper accounts of the period, and then a complicated sound effects track, as complicated as a feature film, that would hopefully help to will to life the still photographs and the archival footage we had, and a complex music track that was recorded not after the editing, but before, so the music became as organic as an element as anything else, and that’s what I needed inwardly, creatively to figure out how to perfect or how to understand what the… how the various elements would coexist before I could really call myself a filmmaker.
Question: What advice would you give filmmakers starting out today?
Ken Burns: You know the advice that I give is… always sounds so platitudinous because it isn’t specific to the medium of film. It’s totally specific to life. I’m in a medium in which people are attracted to it because they think it’s glamorous and only a small fraction of it is. It’s mostly a lot of hard work, so I think the most important thing that I would say would be two things. One, you have to be true to yourself. That is to say that you have to know who you are, whether you have something to say or not and it is no shame to honestly say, “You know what?” “I don’t think I have something to say.” “This isn’t for me.” “Maybe I will help in this business in a subservient role, but I am not going to be that director or producer or writer that I thought I was.” There is no shame in that, so knowing yourself is the first critical thing, to be able to walk away. You should do… Emerson wrote a beautiful essay called “On Self-Reliance” and in it he said, “You should do what only inly rejoices.” I-n-l-y. I think he was making up a word. Inly rejoices and I’ve always thought that that was true and I would wish that for every one, so despite how we are often, you know, attracted to fields that we think is going to be our discipline or we’re forced into by parents or by other circumstance you have to do what inly rejoices and you have to listen to that voice. And the second this is you have to persevere, particularly in documentary film. If you wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a feature film I could tell you the steps to take to do that, but every working documentary filmmaker I know has gotten there through their own unique path. There is no career path. That’s the good news and the terrifying bad news. There is no career path and you’re alone and you just sort of have to bring something to it and what I think it is among many other qualities is a kind of perseverance. It’s keeping and collecting those hundreds of hundreds of rejections for your first film as a reminder that you know you may not have… you may not be the most talented person. You may not have the best ideas, but you’re going to see this through and I’m sure there are lots of great filmmakers or people that would have been great filmmakers had they been able to follow through that had ideas much more interesting than mine, but didn’t and therefore aren’t filmmakers and we don’t know what they are because they didn’t have that ability to persevere against the inevitable problems, the inevitable friction that attends any effort to create something new.