Film & TV

Case Study: Navigating a Challenging Interview

Ken Burns

Lesson time 12:24 min

Not all interviews run smoothly. Using raw footage from The War, Ken walks you through one of his most difficult interviews, and shares how four simple words transformed it into some of the most powerful moments in the film.

Ken Burns
Teaches Documentary Filmmaking
The 5-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.
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We should be pretty honest that we're there for-- in most of our interviews, for what we could call the tough stuff, the difficult stuff, the painful stuff, the things that bring up the memory of death or loss or horrors that no human being should see. And it's not that you're going to hit them with it, but you're going to figure out a way in which you made them comfortable enough that they feel comfortable enough to share that. And that's the way it should be. So we're working in our film in the Second World War, called "The War." We're telling the story of the Second World War, the greatest cataclysm in human history, mostly through the eyes of people from four geographically distributed American towns. But we've also got a few ringers in there. And we have a historian, Paul Fussell, who was actually in combat as an infantry man. He was in France in 1944 and 1945, where the life expectancy of a Second Lieutenant-- which he was-- by age 19 was something like 17 days. In 17 days, you were either killed, severely wounded, or you went crazy. And he went six months without ever brushing his teeth, without ever taking a shower, without ever changing his clothes, because he was really good at what he did. And what he did was not get wounded, not die, not go crazy, and more important, knew how to kill the other-- the enemy, and do it very expertly. So we had a we had a-- gold in our hands. But he's also an academic. And so he came with a certain amount of self-consciousness. He was, in the first three reels, palpably-- palpably-- anxious. And it manifested by the fact that his mouth went completely dry. And we always sit some water next to somebody so that they can, you know, take a sip and, you know, clear their throats. But this wasn't working for him. And you could-- you could almost hear his heart pounding. And there was an awkwardness. And so the first reels were something like this. It wasn't the material was so bad, but you understood that the way he was vibrating, it wasn't quite working. So-- KEN BURNS (ON VIDEO): What was the mood of the country right after Pearl Harbor? Did all the young men rush to enlist? I mean, what was just the general tenor. PAUL FUSSELL (ON VIDEO): OK. My friends, who were different from me, they were athletic. I was not. I was aesthetic. My friends all rushed off to join the Marine Corps as Patriots. And they were all accepted immediately. And within about two weeks, they'd been sent off to Marine training. - So there's nothing wrong. He's expository. But you can see he's so nervous. And he's feeling the need to sort of add more detail. They were athletic. I was aesthetic. He's-- that was a great line. It would have been great, but it kind of had an unnaturalness. And he himself wasn't sure whether he would add it in. I have spent the first few reels desperately trying to make him comfortable and nothing's working. And I've actually stopped and I've said, Paul, you know, it's OK. Take ...

The drama of truth

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

This Masterclass was incredible. It's an amazing trip in documentary filmmaking. Ken Burns is the most interesting, patient and passionated filmmaker I've ever listen to. I learned a lot about documentary but most important I learned that the most important thing is to start something and work very hard.

Im a bit of a masterclass junkie and watched many. Bravo for the Ken Burns one its the best one to date ! He is so gifted as a filmmaker and now a educator as well

blown away by listening to this very intelligent human being.

Ken Burns has touched on what most of us hoping to have a successful documentary think and feel. FEAR. And I now know that it's okay to feel that emotion, but it's equally important to take that first step to embark upon that inner dream and to build the confidence necessary to convince others that your project is not only worthwhile but necessary. Very inspiring.


A fellow student

This respect and humble gratefulness for those being interviewed is so important. How he talks about it in this lesson is beautiful and reaches into the heart of the matter.


Thanks for bringing up again the necessity of an ethical approach to film-making, the respect for the material, for the people being interviewed. For me this is the difference between a film that exploits the "surface" of narration and a film that stimulates a deeper interpretation of reality, reveals the complexity of the subject, avoids hyper simplification of issues. This is the way to have the film maker's presence disappear for the benefit of the "Story". Great work! and thanks for sharing it.


This is my favorite class from his masterclass so far. It touched my heart.

Ian M.

The pause after that "gold" comment and the clarification was a clear reminder to me why I love Burn's work. We should all aspire to infuse our creative work with the empathy and gratitude that Ken talks about.


The pause to think about the "gold" phrase, and the clarification, was almost as chilling as the combat descriptions.

Deborah K.

What you said in your correction after talking about gold was astoundingly revealing about how deeply you respect everyone in front of your camera. So insightful. No wonder people trust you with their deepest stories.

James M.

Guilt over finding gold: So very well put. I recently interviewed a man who told me his dad died when his snowmobile fell through the ice. When he told me that, I instantly knew I had a great "short" film and I immediately felt guilty for finding that gold. Originally, the story was about a man who started to play hockey late in life and couldn't find a place to play because he was not as good as the others. He started his own league. I called the story "Ice Hockey Orphans" because he created a place to play for people like him. In fact, he didn't play hockey and BECAUSE of his fathers death, he had to quit school and go to work. So not only is he an ice hockey orphan himself, but he's an orphan helping other orphans PLUS his father died falling through the ICE. My police is that I'm telling a story about a great man who went though a devastating and came out helping others to live THEIR dreams.

Stuart T.

Ken, your humanity towards your interviewees is admirable, This is way your films are among my favorites. I have been involved in over 300 interviews with WW2 and Vietnam veterans over the years. Each one of their stories has touch me personally in one way or another.

Michael O.

"And that's when an interview becomes Gold." I was shocked, my world turned upside down to hear Ken Burns call the description of horror as 'gold'... shamelessly commercializing the pain and horror of war by way of an interviewee's vulnerability. Thoughts of alt-right talking heads, Fox News sensationalism raced through my brain. Momentarily, I had thought I would walk out of this class and never come back. Fortunately, Ken caught his mistake, and restated his position, I think even apologizing. This moment serves as a cautionary tale for documentarians (including myself) to continually weigh the facts, weigh the intentions both inside and outside.

David C.

Totally blown away by this Lesson. Paul's words and Ken's follow-up - including the long pause - are just awesome. Ken's honesty, respect and humbleness are just so moving. His ability to create emotion is just fantastic. Thanks again, Ken.