Three and a half decades ago, long before he became the most popular historian in America, the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns left New York for rural New Hampshire to avoid getting a "real job" while he edited what would become The Brooklyn Bridge, his first-ever film. Before it ended up being nominated for an Academy Award, though, Burns had to bring his own projector and set up the folding chairs himself at the Brooklyn Museum to make a screening happen—a scenario that definitely won't be repeating when Burns returns to the borough where "apparently one quarter of the world's population now lives" on December 7, when he'll be screening a newly restored version of the film and having a much more official Q&A session. In the meantime, Burns, whose new Vietnam War series premiered this fall on PBS, filled us in on how he squeezes in time to dictate tweets about the Civil War and tune into Guy Fieri while working on eight films at once in his culture diet.
What’s been most striking about revisiting this film?
What seems sort of miraculous is how I told the whole story in an hour. Now, the Vietnam War takes 18 hours to tell. And my whole professional life, in a way, began when I had a premiere of the film at the Brooklyn Museum. I remember dutifully setting up folding chairs and bringing a screen—the kind of tripod one that the first time you heard your dad swear was trying to put it up—and bringing the projector myself, and after showing it, I was kind of pissed off that someone asked me to answer questions, because I'd just spent five years working on it. But I went up, and it was wonderful—the first question was from a woman who said, Where did you get those motion pictures of the building of the bridge? I said that the bridge was built between 1869 and 1883, so motion picture hadn’t been discovered yet, but we did, in the second half of the film, show very, very early film that was probably taken by Thomas Edison, who was mounted on a train that used to run across the bridge around 1899 or 1900. She went, No, not that, I’m talking about when the stone was delivered from the quarries and were lifted up and brought to men building the towers. I said, Ma’am, those were all still photographs. She said, No they weren’t! Suddenly, I said to myself, Shut up, you’ve won, this is what you wanted to do—treat old photographs like they were real, which we did by adding the sound effects of gulls in the harbor and water lapping and men shouting and steam engines and hammers, which is how, to this woman, the photographs were moving.
How did you manage getting such a great quote from Arthur Miller long before you'd established yourself?
I’d been pestering him for months and months and months to get an interview, because he’d written a play called A View from the Bridge. He kept putting me off and putting me off and putting me off, and finally, I think to get rid of me, he agreed to this interview, which was when I decided to do a little homework and bought a copy of the play and realized on the drive up to Roxbury, Connecticut, where he had his farm, that it had nothing to do with the Brooklyn Bridge—it was just that every single book edition had the Brooklyn Bridge on it. My heart was pounding when he opened the door, and he was a tall man—like, 6'6", and I'm 5'8"—towering over me who said, "You know, I don’t know a goddamn thing about the Brooklyn Bridge," and I just shrunk. I was ready to kill myself on the spot, but he must have taken pity, because then he said, "Come on." Normally we’d spend two hours lighting his favorite study or the living room, but he wanted to do it outside, which we never do. I don’t even know what question I asked. But then Arthur and I became friends, and I used him as a voice—he was actually the voice of William Tecumseh Sherman in our Civil War series.
Getting to the culture diet questions: What's the first thing you read in the morning?
I usually read Leo Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, which is a set of quotes he has each day of various spiritual import, from literature to various religious tracts—the Bible, the Quran, the Old Testament, the Torah, the Upanishads from Hinduism, wisdom of writers, things like that. There are four or five quotes that I get in my email and read as a habit the first thing I wake up. Then I get a hard copy of the New York Times online, but I first skim it online, just to figure out what’s happening.
What books are on your bedside table right now?
I’m reading a lot. There’s a period in American history that I’m most interested in, Reconstruction, the time after the Civil War, but it’s so little known that I don’t know how to try to describe it—it usually comes to us as something that was a bad period, but it was actually very, very good. So I’ve got lots of stuff about that, about lynchings and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. For the second time, I'm reading both a book by Viet Thahn Gnuyen called The Sympathizer, which is related to the Vietnam story that we’ve done, and Amor Towle’s A Gentleman in Moscow. I’m also rereading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read in my life. Then I’ve got Ernest Hemingway’s collected short stories; Carly Simon’s memoir, Boys in the Trees; the great New Yorker writer Roger Angell’s book This Old Man; a biography of Winston Churchill, Hero of the Empire, by one of my favorite writers, Candice Millard; and Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, which I just finished. So, a lot of stuff.
What TV shows have been keeping you up at night?
Well, I'm a member of the Academy, so starting a few weeks ago I've gotten about 150 DVDs to sort of wile away the winter hours. But I also watch sports—baseball, mostly, which is out of season now, and football. I think SportsCenter on ESPN is one of the greatest shows of all time. I watch the shows my daughter Lilly works on, Broad City and Search Party, but not as religiously as she does. The only thing I watch with my younger daughters is Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Fieri—we will never, ever tire of watching it. You just watch people cook interesting, greasy stuff that you probably just gain weight from watching, so you don't need to eat them, but it's just insight into how all across the country, people are eating really greasy, wonderful foods.
Do you watch documentaries, too?
I have to be honest, I don’t watch as many as I want to, because I’m so busy making them. [Laughs.] I’m working on seven or eight films right now: a history of country music—huge, eight parts, 16 and a half hours; a three-part history and biography of Ernest Hemingway; a multipart biography of Muhammad Ali; a kind of biography of a place, which is the history of the Mayo Clinic; a biography of Benjamin Franklin and the history of the American Revolution. And we’re hoping to dive in very shortly to a history of the gene, to follow our film on the history of cancer. So we’ve got a lot going, and I have a couple of other projects where I’m serving as executive producer.
You have a pretty active Twitter presence. What are your favorite accounts to follow?
You know, I’m too old. Basically, every once in a while I will tweet something, but I don’t have time, so someone else maintains it. Something will happen, like Yogi Berra will die so I’ll call up say something, or there's this big brouhaha over compromise and slavery with John Kelly so I’ll tweet my thoughts about what caused the Civil War, since I know a little bit about the Civil War. [Laughs.] I’m not trying to be an old fogie, but I think we spend too much time on social media—it’s funny that we’re more connected than ever, but we’re not connected at all. There’s a kind of fundamental loneliness and solitude about just being with your device, which I’m trying to abolish. The Latin motto of the United States is E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one. Quoting the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., there’s too much pluribus and not enough unum. I’m in the business in trying to figure out how you get things done together and why things don’t work in a civic way, which has to do with how we’re distracted. To add yet another metaphor, we’re fiddling while Rome burns.
So when you want to share your thoughts about the Civil War, for example, you call someone up to tweet it for you?
I call up a dear, dear friend who maintains the account for me, and I will dictate. Sometimes if I’ve read a good book or somebody’s doing a good thing, I’ll just pass that along. But I have literally never been on Twitter myself, nor have I ever been on Facebook in my life. I talk on the telephone to people and I give speeches and commencement addresses and I write articles sometimes—that’s the kind of old-fashioned communication that I do. You know, we just had 34 million people watch the Vietnam series. That’s talking to a lot of people at the same time, not like a Twitter account with a few thousand followers.
Do you have a smart phone?
I do—I have an iPhone 8 which I’m using right now. I was friends with Steve Jobs, so I got the original iPhone one day before the world got it—as I’m sure several hundred other people did—and it was mind-blowing. A messenger just showed up with it, and I felt very privileged because he was sending it to rural New Hampshire.
What’s the last thing you googled?
I do the New York Times crossword puzzle every day, which gets progressively harder throughout the week, until it’s a mammoth mic drop on you. So sometimes after I finish a puzzle, I’ll go onto a particular site that has people arguing about the puzzle, and I’m always sort of saying, Why are you arguing about this?
It sounds like you’re trying to get around admitting that you cheat and look up the answers.
No, no, no. I have hit brick walls and given up with a couple of blank spaces, and then I’ll look it up, but it’s not cheating—I don’t fill it in and go back. But even then I feel some sort of ethical line—when you look it up, it means you didn’t do any of the puzzle and it disqualifies it.
What’s the last concert you went to?
Wynton Marsalis playing jazz at Lincoln Center. I made a big series on the history of jazz and became close to him, and any time he just talks, let alone picks up his trumpet and blows into it, I want to be there.
What’s the last song you had on repeat?
Well, I’ve got the soundtrack to the Vietnam War series, which has Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio," which they hadn't licensed before, and which most people don't put together is about the Kent State shootings. Both of my younger kids, my 12-year-old and my seven-year-old, have fallen in love with it. I actually came downstairs and somehow someone had set a timer on the Bose CD player in my kitchen, so I walked into the kitchen, and it turned on at 5:59 in the morning. I just had to grab them both and be like, "Listen to this!"—and they were both of course, like, "Why would you wake me at six?"
What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
I read a book. I don’t look at a screen, because it sort of wires you. I like to realize I’m falling asleep as I’m reading—it's a delicious thing.
See W’s most popular videos: