Award-winning documentary moviemaker Ken Burns admits to two obsessions: film and family. “There’s really little else that occupies my time,” says Burns, whose seven-part series on World War II—titled simply The War—begins Sept. 23 on PBS. “I put in 80 hours a week when I’m working on a series. I basically work my butt off, then I spend time with my wife and kids.”
His most recent obsession took six years to complete—longer than his previous historical epics The Civil War (1990) Baseball (1994) and Jazz (2001). The new, 14-hour series looks at the entire sweep of the war, detailing battles in Europe, the Pacific and Africa.
Yet it brings the global conflict home by telling the story from the focal point of four U.S. towns: Luverne, Minn.; Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Waterbury, Conn. By focusing on families and communities, the film examines the local repercussions of the bravery, tragedy and sacrifice that arose during a time of unprecedented, wide-ranging warfare.
“We can lose touch with what actually happens in a war,” the soft-spoken Burns says. “With World War II, especially, we’re forever shunted off into an appreciation of celebrity generals and politicians, a fascination with Hitler and Nazis, and the distraction of armaments and strategies.”
That’s why the filmmaker took the small-town approach to his story. “We wanted to tell the story on a more human level, from the ground up,” he says.
Affection for small towns
Besides, New York-born Burns, 54, has a natural affection for small towns. He lives in Walpole, N.H. (pop. 3,594), in the house he bought 28 years ago after graduating from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.
“I assumed, since I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker, especially one focusing on history, that it would be like being a monk and taking a vow of poverty and anonymity,” he says with a laugh. “But the greatest professional decision of my life was to move to Walpole.”
He also shares a home in New York with his wife, Julie Brown, 41, founder of the nonprofit program Room to Grow, which provides assistance to impoverished families with babies. His oldest daughter Sara, 24, lives in New York, too, and is writing a book. Daughter Lilly, 20, is a sophomore in college. His youngest, 2-year-old Olivia, is his first child with Julie, his second wife.
“Olivia was born during the making of this film, and she’s just full of life,” Burns says. “It was good to come home to this little ball of energy who cared not a bit about how the film was going or what I was doing during the day.”
He traces his interest in history and film to his parents, Robert and Lyla Burns. “My mother was sick my whole life, and she died of cancer when I was 11,” he says. “There was never a time when I wasn’t aware of her dying. Because of that, I think that story and memory became an important part of who I am.”
His father, an anthropology professor who relocated the family to Michigan and Delaware for his teaching jobs, would let Burns break his bedtime curfew if a good film was on late-night television. “He also took me to the Cinema Guild in Ann Arbor to see old films or French new wave films,” Burns recalls. “Watching a film was the only time I saw my dad cry. So I became aware of the power of film.”
For his early films—including an Academy Award-nominated 1981 documentary, Brooklyn Bridge—Burns did all the research, conducted every interview, held the camera for every shot, and wrote every line of narration and script. With success came the financial resources to hire assistants for subsequent projects. “The best thing I’ve learned since then is to delegate to people I trust,” he says. “Fortunately, I work with some amazing, creative people who share this vision with me.”
A fresh approach
Burns’ challenge for The War wasn’t finding talented crew members, but rather coming up with a fresh approach to a story that’s been examined and exploited hundreds of times in books, films and television programs. He found it by bringing the story home to four unique communities from different geographic regions. They were chosen partly because, Burns says, they aren’t the first towns that come to mind when people think of the East, South, North or West.
“This way, we don’t go into these towns with preconceptions of what they’re like,” he explains. “We wanted to anchor the stories in towns that could be anyplace.”
During World War II, Waterbury’s industrial niche made it a major supplier of armaments; Mobile was selected because of the war letters of one of its citizens, Eugene Sledge; and Sacramento fit the demographic that Burns wanted to tell the story of the Japanese-American experience during the war.
But how did he pick Luverne, a farming town of 4,617 in the southwest corner of Minnesota? Tracing the life of a former fighter pilot from Luverne, Burns came across the archives of the local newspaper, The Rock County Star Herald, and the sweeping, profoundly resonant, World War II-related columns of editor Al McIntosh, whose poignant chronicles during the conflict set the exact tone that Burns had been looking for.
“We read his columns and thought, ‘Oh my God, here’s our Greek chorus’,” Burns says. “His writing is the single greatest archival discovery we’ve made in 30 years of doing this kind of work.”
McIntosh’s newspaper columns are read throughout the series by actor Tom Hanks. “When I sent Tom the script and columns, he wrote me back and said, ‘Man, this guy is fantastic. I’m having dreams about him’,” Burns adds. “Al’s words are the first heard and the last heard in the series. I can’t overstate his importance to the way we tell this story.”
Other prominent voices in the program include Mobile’s Dr. Sidney Phillips, who was 17 when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He describes The War as “a good film, probably the best I’ve ever seen on World War II.”
All movies about war are limited, Phillips says, because nothing can fully capture the horror and drudgery of combat life. “They can never be totally realistic, because you can’t show the misery of lying all night in the cold rain or going without a bath day after day,” says Phillips, who fought at Guadalcanal island in the South Pacific and in other major campaigns of the war.
Respect for history
“There is an honesty to Ken’s filmmaking because he treats history with respect, capturing the drama of everyday life in even the most remarkable of times,” says John Wilson, senior vice president and chief TV programming executive at PBS.
As Burns anxiously waits for The War to air, he’s been editing his next series, a history of America’s national parks. He’s also accompanied The War to a few special showings, including the Cannes Film Festival, which screened all 14-and-a-half hours.
“People stood up and cheered,” Burns says. “This French woman, who didn’t speak any English, came up in tears and put her arms around me and just sobbed. It was one of the great moments of my life, to see that this film can travel outside of America and still be effective.”
He had a similar experience when he previewed the film for some World War II veterans who weren’t in the film. “One guy just broke down afterward,” Burns says. “He said he’d waited all his life, and someone has finally shown it the way he remembered it. That’s the best review I’ve ever received.”