The Doc Is In: Ken Burns on 'The Roosevelts' & Resurrecting History (INTERVIEW)

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns talks about his new PBS series "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History" and gets very personal about what compels him to "wake up the dead."
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Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns talks about his new PBS series "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History" and gets very personal about what compels him to "wake up the dead."
Ken Burns seven-part, 14-hour series marks the first time the lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt have been woven into a single narrative. (Photo: Rahoul Gose/PBS)

Ken Burns seven-part, 14-hour series marks the first time the lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt have been woven into a single narrative. (Photo: Rahoul Gose/PBS)

About 2,100 years ago, the great Roman orator Marcus Tulius Cicero said, “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living,” and if Ken Burns, the much decorated, critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker, has accomplished anything in a career that spans more than three decades, it is exactly this. It is no hyperbole to declare that all of American history is but Lazarus to the 61-year old Burns, whose latest film, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, premieres September 14th on PBS, revivifying and illuminating the tangled lives and expansive achievements of the Theodore, Eleanor, Franklin triumvirate in a manner even the most seasoned scholar may find surprising.

“Many of us have some idea of the historical narrative. Or so we think,” Burns laughs. “The truth is, we think we know history. We think we know these people. But we don’t. With The Roosevelts, certainly one of the most bold-faced surnames in the country’s history, we could never have guessed the depth we were going to plumb with this intricate combination of psychological, personal, social, military, and political elements these three people created and were created by. You hope for that. You trust in that. But you never know for sure.”

As a perennial optimist and aeonian seeker, the native New Yorker has labored and usually triumphed on a series of films that seeks always to “reveal meaning without committing the error of defining it,” as political theorist Hannah Arendt once said. Relying on “found objects” − vintage photographs, archival film, personal letters, and superlative interviews from a vibrant array of sage scholars – Burns is a master evocateur, less interested in political advocacy or ideological coercion than in simply permitting the nation’s ghosts and all their shadows to cross once more the stage, the boundless narratives of “reason and nightmare,” as JG Ballard once opined, insistently asking: who are we as a people?

“In all of my films, I’m trying to get to the heart of that question,” says Burns, a gluttonous gobbler of encyclopedias since early childhood who made his first film – a day in the life of his Ann Arbor, Michigan high school – at the age of 17. “But it’s one of those questions – like, what is the meaning of life? – that I don’t think really has an answer. To me, the best I can do with the films that I make is to deepen the question by sounding it, by asking it. I’ve come to believe that asking the question – who are we as a people? – in all of these different ways, in so many different contexts, is becoming, hopefully, an answer of its own kind.”

"That’s what I’m trying to do as a filmmaker, invite everyone – and I mean everyone, sincerely and not naively – to find their own connection to a past that can be quite haunting so that we can locate, as Lincoln said, the better angels of our nature.” − Ken Burns

Whether chronicling nearly two centuries of the so-called American experience – from the operose construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in the late 19th century to the ebullient, perennially aching origins of jazz, the checkered, superstitious yesteryears of baseball to the byzantine patriotism, base bigotry, and lethal clash of ideologies that nearly laid to ruins our young country in the 1860s – Burns genuinely believes, and often very palpably conveys, the ways in which past, present, and future are inextricably connected. “Even in a country that pretends it doesn’t need to know any history, it can be powerfully eerie,” he says. “History always has the possibility for every single person to have their own authentic relationship to what’s happened and what’s happening. That’s what I’m trying to do as a filmmaker, invite everyone – and I mean everyone, sincerely and not naively – to find their own connection to a past that can be quite haunting so that we can locate, as Lincoln said, the better angels of our nature.”

Theodore Roosevelt Photo

Family ties: young Theodore Roosevelt would become the 26th president of the United States and his niece, Eleanor, would marry his fifth cousin, Franklin, who became the 32nd president. (Photo: PBS)

The seven-part, 14-hour Roosevelts – which Burns says “does things intellectually and emotionally and visually we’ve never achieved before” – boasts voice work from an awards-toting cast of luminaries (Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti, Edward Herrmann, and Ed Harris), a spellbinding musical score by composer David Cieri, and Burns’ indelible visual signature, his camera slowly sweeping across and almost into vintage photographs, generating a history that feels simmering and alive.

Burns says the key to his films’ success – made, for the most part, with the same, 10-person crew with whom he’s engaged for 32 years, including Roosevelts writer Geoffrey C. Ward, and a loyal stable of curators and historians – is his insistence that all subjects be approached with wonder. “That process – or practice, if you will – allows us to really embrace the contradictory pieces of a narrative or a human being without any judgment or revisionism,” he says. “It’s about staying open. We love the complications. We love the pieces that don’t seem to fit. The quote-unquote imperfections, they’re all okay. The Roosevelts were very complex individuals, and I believe by sharing the whole story, the multiple aspects, which we all have about us, somehow makes them – and their story – more accessible.”

If Burns, whose devotion to resurrecting a nation’s clamorous chapters and eminent phantoms, granting them new skin and fair light for contemporary audiences, has become the “most musical of mourners,” as the poet Percy Shelley once wrote, it is not purely for the love of baseball, national forests, war veterans, or be-bop. Indeed, it is far more personal.

“Years ago, my father-in-law asked me what it was I thought I did for a living. I thought it was an odd question, so he told me: ‘you wake the dead. You make films and you ‘wake up’ Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson. You bring them back to life. But who is it you really want to wake up?’” Burns recalls. “And my father-in-law was so right. My mother died when I was 11. Cancer. There was never a moment of my sentient being when I wasn’t aware that she was dying. Maybe that’s at the heart of all of this. I’m sure you wouldn’t be talking to me right now if she hadn’t died.”

THE ROOSEVELTS: An Intimate History airs Sunday, September 14th through Saturday, September 20th from 8-10 p.m. ET on PBS.