Ken Burns Interview

July 2, 2009
Filed under Feature Stories

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Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is bringing to your living room (on PBS TV, starting September 27) a six-part series about the history of the National Parks. It’s not just about the magnificent places we hold as hallowed, but a brilliantly told tale of the people—young, old, famous, until now unknown, rich and poor—that spent their lives creating and protecting these national treasures for all future generations.

-Stuart Bourdon, Editor, Camping Life magazine

SB: In this new series will we see the emotional intensity of some of your previous work, such as the Civil War, and what sort of stories can we expect.

KB: The story of the national parks is so deeply emotional that Dayton Duncan (co-producer and writer for the series) and I were stunned by the response from some people about what the parks meant to them.

This is the story of ideas and individuals set against the backdrop of the most spectacular scenery on Earth. It’s a history. It’s not a travel log, or a nature film, or a recommendation of which lodge or anything. It’s the story of the ideas and the individuals.

Some of them millions have heard of, Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and John D. Rockefeller Jr., but most of them haven’t been heard of, or hadn’t heard of when we began this project. Ordinary people, or so called ordinary. Black, and white, and brown, and yellow and red and beige and male and female and rich and poor and famous and unknown, from every region of the country and from overseas as well, who fell in love with some particular place and spent the rest of their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honors setting it aside.

What each of them had in common was a sense that these special places, which we have been able to save, could be not only refuges from the momentum of our lives, but reminders of a higher emotional being.

Those moments, the most amazing moments in their lives took place in a national park and as they relate them the emotion comes out. So the combination of the interaction between these historical stories and the people we’ve interviewed to tell those stories turns out to be a potent combination, every bit as emotional but in a different way as in The Civil War. If the Civil War and The War were the emotion of law, and heroism, catastrophe, these are the emotions of gaining something, of reconnecting with something authentic and that’s why the national parks are so important. That’s why our subtitle is “America’s Best Idea.” We stole that from Wallace Stegner, the writer who in his story said it’s the best idea we’ve ever had.

SB: Tell us a little bit about the scope of the production. How many years, places, people?

KB: We’ve been working on this for 10 years. We’ve been shooting for six. It’s six parts, 12 hours total. Our historical storytelling begins, after a poetic and visually stunning “intro,” in 1851 when the first battalion of soldiers went into Yosemite Valley, intent on dislocating the Indians that lived there, and one of the soldiers noted that it was one of the most beautiful spots on Earth. It ends essentially, before a hopefully as poetic and beautiful “outro,” with the A.N.I.L.C.A. (Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act] of 1980 President Carter signed into law that doubled the park systems size with the edition of all the Alaskan parks and wilderness.

We do go on to show other events, important events in the history of the parks, but we are historians and don’t like to taste too much of the modern history.

However, many of the issues we debate today, from the number of snowmobiles in Yellowstone to power plants adjacent to national parks to species diversification to habitat to increasing and adding parks, and the resistance among local and other groups that are opposed ideologically to the concept of parks, are issues that are seen in the history of our story. John Muir, desperate to have visitors to the national parks, wasn’t quite sure whether the automobile, the horse-less carriage as he referred to it, should mingle its gas breath with the cool air of the pines and the waterfalls. That’s history’s great gift. It permits us to discuss these things in a more dispassionate and reasoned manner.

SB: What did you discover or learn about the parks during the production of this documentary that you didn’t know?

KB: Most people think the National Park Service has always been there. It hasn’t. In fact, it doesn’t show up until half way through our third of six episodes. And most people think that the parks will always be there. But unless we’re vigilant and protect them, they won’t be.

You can lose a place and it’s lost forever. Once you save it, it requires constant vigilance to save that place and I think I was unprepared for the way the story of the national parks and the evolution of the parks ideal evolved in much the same way as our larger American narrative, the political narrative of all men are created equal.

In fact, we’ve seen the national parks as the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape. And you could have knocked me over with a feather when we began to realize that. I mean, in the beginning we saved spectacular natural scenery. We saved obvious things like the grandest canyon on Earth, the tallest trees, highest waterfall and amazing geothermal features in Yellowstone, but then we expanded for historical and ethnographical reasons, for habitat and species diversification.

We set aside battlefields and historic homes and seashores and recreation behind the damns that were built just on the edge of the parks. We’ve even saved places of shame with the notion that a great country can learn from their mistakes.

No other country on Earth does that. Manzanar, where Japanese Americans were interned during World War II is a national park service site, and so are slave cabins, and the site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania where the heroic actions of the passengers of United 93 in 2001 took place, and so is the site in Oklahoma City and its 168 chairs.

We are telling a history of the United States, and the heroes that saved these places are not just John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. They are George Melendez Wright, a Hispanic biologist who turned the park service attention in the right direction in terms of how animals should be cared for in the park. They are George Masa, a Japanese American immigrant whose photographs were instrumental in getting the Great Smokey Mountains set aside as a park. There are women involved, there are children, there are older people, there are poets, and the likes of Thomas Moran, William Henry Jackson, and Ansel Adams.

It was the buffalo soldiers, the celebrated African-American cavalry soldiers, who were protecting Sequoia and Yosemite in a decade when more African-Americans were lynched than in any other decade of our history. That’s a story few have ever heard of.

SB: Of all the parks that you visited, all the parks that you were involved with, did you end up having a favorite?

KB: Well you know it’s funny. Usually when people ask me what’s my favorite film, I say, “Do you have any kids? You know, which is your favorite kid?” If we’re good parents, we’re not supposed to have favorites. So it’s difficult to say which park or parks are my favorite.

In some ways my films, and by extension, the parks in the films are that way. We found that each park is special, but that some parks have created special intimate moments. That yes, they’re all beautiful, but it’s like baseball. In football, people will say “oh you know, I went to this game and Joe Montana threw a pass to Jerry Rice and we won” or in basketball they say “he inbound it to Michael Jordon with one second and he hit the three-pointer and we won,” but in baseball all stories begin with “my Dad or my Mom took me to the game.”

Parks are like that, too. It’s whom you saw them with. For me, it’s Yosemite and Shenandoah. Yosemite because it was the first major park I filmed for this project and the first time I had ever been to what is one of the most, if not the most spectacular place on Earth, but it reminded me that I had actually been to a natural national park before.

I thought I hadn’t. I thought I had only been to military parks, but in 1959 my Dad took me, as a young boy of six years, to Shenandoah National Park. It was the first and only road trip we ever took together alone. Because of the tragedy of my mother’s death that was about to befall our family, and other things, I had somehow forgotten about that trip. There in Yosemite, the night filming, I couldn’t sleep after an exhausting day of work. And I was thrilled to realize that I had something, a connection to the parks, nearly 50 years before that was so important to me.

SB: What do you think the parks really mean to Americans? And why should they be so important to us in the future?

KB: There is a momentum to our busy lives, but these parks and the act of camping help to at least arrest or give pause to, our lives. Life will be there when we get back, but the kind of spectacular psychic or physical changes that take place when we camp in our national parks are so central to our being as Americans. You know, we don’t say ‘my country ‘tis of thee’ thinking of metropolitan output or skyscrapers; we think about the land and our experience with the land and that’s a huge, huge wonderful thing.

We are at an existential moment right now in our countries history because the parks’ attendance was headed toward 300 million, and then it leveled off, and now it’s begun to dip in some places. It’s very simple—most people now live virtual lives. They spend their lives addicted to the cell phone, to their Blackberry, to the Internet and to video games.

Existentialism is a tension between being and doing, and a virtual life is neither. What’s happened quite simply is it’s just much, much harder to get families all together and get in the mini-van and go do that thing that we all did as kids—travel around to the parks and camp from one place to another.

I try to remind people that the virtual world will be there when they get back, but those parks won’t be there tomorrow, if we don’t enjoy them and advocate and argue for their continuance.


Ken Burns has been making documentary films for more than 30 years. Since the Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, he has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made. The late historian Stephen Ambrose said of Burns’s films, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.” A December 2002 poll conducted by RealScreen Magazine listed The Civil War as second only to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North as the “most influential documentary of all time” and named both as the “most influential documentary makers” of all time.

THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA, produced with Burns’s longtime colleague Dayton Duncan, who also wrote the screenplay, will air on PBS in fall 2009. The six-part, 12-hour series explores the history of America’s national parks. From the pioneers who first conceived of protecting our nation’s natural scenic treasures so they could be enjoyed and experienced by all to those who continue to be inspired and transformed by the parks’ majestic beauty today, it is a story of a uniquely American idea that embodies our sense of democracy, freedom and national pride. The series features some of the most breathtaking images of the national parks system ever captured on film, shot principally by chief cinematographer Buddy Squires (who has photographed all of Burns’s films), longtime Florentine Films cameraman Allen Moore, Lincoln Else (who also is a former ranger at Yosemite) and Burns himself.


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