He’s explored the Civil War, baseball, and jazz in his PBS documentaries; now filmmaker Ken Burns takes on one of the most intriguing eras in American history—Prohibition. Debuting October 2 at 7 p.m., the three-part documentary explores the rise and fall of the 18th Amendment, telling the sordid and scandalous back-stories that occur in between. Ahead of appearances by Burns and co-producer Lynn Novick at the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago History Museum, Burns spoke with The A.V. Club about the filmmaking process, unearthing hidden stories, and the importance of taking a step back from tweeting and Facebooking.
The A.V. Club: Why does history interest you and not any other type of film?
Ken Burns: Humans communicate in stories. We can’t always have an understanding of the ongoing stories of contemporary life, but because human nature remains the same, history permits us to sit around a table and have a measured and civil conversation. As an artist, you tell stories, and the past is irresistible. I get excited about each new adventure that we do.
AVC: Each of your films addresses a uniquely American topic. Are there any requirements a topic must have for you to undertake it? For example, access to a certain amount of primary source material?
KB: No, we’ve covered a whole range of periods of history, some with photos, others with a paucity of them, where we have to rely more on live cinematography. There’s a sense that one has in one’s heart if it’s a good story or a collection of stories. One thing that’s clear is that I don’t want to tell people what I already know—that’s homework. I’d rather share with them the process of discovery. We’re familiar with it since we make ourselves familiar, but the films show the wonder and discovery.
AVC: So much of your research process is about exploring and keeping an open mind. How do you start?
KB: The more important question is when do you end it? Traditionally, film production involves research, then a period of writing. Out of the writing comes the script that becomes the template for shooting and editing. We begin research at the beginning, which is the logical place, but we never stop researching. Our scripts are informed by shooting and the discovery of research. The script isn’t set in stone before we begin shooting and editing, but it’s a malleable thing that is constantly changing. Our philosophy of research is that it never ends.
AVC: You’ve said that “all meaning accrues in duration.” How much time needs to pass before we can begin to make accurate conclusions about a historical event?
KB: There are two questions in there. In regard to a historical subject, we need 20 to 25 years to gain the perspective necessary to be confident that the narrative is correct.
I have said that all meaning accrues in duration. We live in a culture that is constantly subdivided. Television is interrupted every few minutes, we flit around the Internet—“surfing,” it’s called—but we rarely alight in one place. Now we send tweets, text with an abbreviated form. But for everyone, the work they’re proudest of and the relationships they care most about benefit from sustained attention. We don’t interrupt cinema, dance, theater, symphonies. A great deal of mass media is cut up and chopped, and we find it hard to find meaning in all the noise. What we try to do is provide ballast and weight. We want to remind people that it’s okay to live in that world, but it’s important to spend time giving sustained attention to something.
AVC: Your films span from telling the life of an individual to exploring national and international consequences. How do you strike a balance between these two views of history? What does each contribute to the overall narrative?
KB: What we’ve always believed in is a bottom-up view of the past as well as the traditional top-down view. You can say that a top-down American history is a sequence of presidential administrations punctuated by wars. But a bottom-up history gets to the people who fought the wars and who lived the consequences of the administrations. You come to understand some of the most complex aspects more easily by getting down to the ground. In The National Parks, we filmed the trees, but also the lichen on a piece of rock. In Prohibition, we cover the gangsters and the familiar stuff, but we also find bootleggers no one has ever heard about and stories about the people whose lives were impacted by the 18th Amendment.
AVC: Where do you look for the bottom-up stories?
KB: You just dig. We have a handful of researchers who are following threads of leads to find photos or a piece of footage. We visit hundreds of archives around the country, and find scholars or writers who can talk about a topic. This takes time, and the films are very labor-intensive projects. We worked for six years on Prohibition, and three and a half of those were concentrated. It’s a long incubation period, and we require that. We know what it’s like to see superficial treatments of history, and there’s nothing satisfying about that. We don’t want to do that. It’s possible to reveal the faults of someone and not diminish their heroic aspects. Lincoln wasn’t without his faults, but they don’t diminish his accomplishments as a President or an American.
AVC: Have there ever been any topics you’ve wanted to cover that just never panned out?
KB: I haven’t started a film that I have had to abandon, but I have always wanted to do a film on Martin Luther King Jr. I was worried that his family would have too much control over it. The family contacted me seven or eight years ago and said, “We want to make a film and think you should do it.” I said, “I think I should too,” but within a few weeks, I realized that they would have too much control. I hope that some day I will do the film I believe I was hardwired to do—a credible film biography of Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most important people in American history.
AVC: What are the central themes of your work?
KB: With each project, we ask the deceptively simple question, “Who are we?” Who are these people who call themselves Americans? We can’t really answer that question, we can only deepen it. Our themes are basic ones about human freedom and what is unique and exciting about our country. What are the aspects of this story that reflect the whole?
AVC: So what about Prohibition can help us answer the question of who we are?
KB: Prohibition is about single-issue campaigns with horrible consequences, the demonization of African Americans and recent immigrants, Presidential smear campaigns. These are only a handful of things that Prohibition engages, but you’ll watch and think, “My goodness, these are things we’re grappling with today.” Maybe we’re having a hard time talking about them today, but we come to realize that there is nothing new under the sun. What’s really interesting is to watch contemporary society, which thinks it’s so youthful, so sexual, so cool, and so hip, yet our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were doing the same things. We think of them as old, but they were taking drugs, having premarital sex, going to illegal speakeasies. Doesn’t that make my grandmother less stodgy? And doesn’t that require me to ask questions of her life and my own?
This isn’t homework. We’re trying to make art, but once documentary films are done, they’re not mine, they’re yours. You can make of it what you will. It will provide some understanding of today or it won’t. Some people will see it and say, “Let’s go out to the new bar that’s modeled on a speakeasy and have that old cocktail they used to make in the 1920s.” Others will see that we lack a civil dialogue. Prohibition reminds us of the dangers of taking things to the extreme, but there’s no right answer of what to take from it.
AVC:When I was in high school, history wasn’t required every year. We have politicians and public figures adjusting history to their needs. What are some ways we can improve our historical knowledge in this country?
KB: The first thing is to teach it, which we don’t do. The second is to realize that history includes the word “story,” and we can tell stories and not depend on dates and acts. We hope we’re able to get into an emotional archaeology, and when we do that, you’re riveted. When you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you are, or, more importantly, where you’re going. We’re seeing the tragic consequences of feeling like we could shortcut history in favor of more important subjects, but I can’t imagine anything being more important than the great pageant of everything that has brought us to this moment. We see politicians manipulating history or outright getting it wrong. It’s hypocritical to see politicians railing against recent immigrants when they couldn’t pass the test that immigrants are given. This is an interesting thing and a constant reminder that the U.S. is in perpetual tension between the prurient and Puritan. Prohibition came down to the divide between Sunday morning righteousness and Saturday night fun.
AVC: What were some surprising things you learned while making the film?
KB: I didn’t know about the power of the Anti-Saloon League, which muscled its way to the front of the line for those arguing about alcohol, and how effective it was about single-issue campaigns and completely unaware of the amendment’s unintended consequences. They thought making it an amendment was the way to go since no amendment had ever been repealed.
AVC: There’s been a rise of speakeasy-style cocktail bars opening over the past few years, as well as the show Boardwalk Empire. What is it about this era that endures?
KB: It’s sexy, it’s violent. People like gangsters because they get to kill the folks who piss them off. It’s a revealing period. The fashion is neat, the drinks are cool, the illicitness is tantalizing, the gangsters are dangerous, the flappers are gorgeous. We have all that, but lots of other stuff, too.
AVC: So we’re based in Chicago…
KB: [Laughs.] Chicago was ground zero for bootlegging and gangsters.
AVC: We know about Capone, but is there anything in the film that will surprise us?
KB: We have all those famous people in there, but it’s the people just trying to live and be in Chicago whose stories we also tell.
AVC: Your upcoming slate of releases includes the Dust Bowl, The Roosevelts, Ernest Hemingway, and more. How do you do so much at once?
KB: I have four daughters and a granddaughter and I keep them all straight—my projects work the same way. I’m asking the same question in each—who are we?—but they result in different stories and they’re all fascinating. I won’t have enough time on this earth to do as many stories as I want to do.