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Arts & Entertainment

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.

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

Great course! Ken really gets into the nuts and bolts of the documentary.

Ken Burns was a great teacher. I have new tools to help me polish up my own craft thanks to this man.

Thank you, Ken, from the bottom of my heart, assuring me that I can.


A fellow student

Roll 145! My gosh - you have given so much to this masterclass, bluish red brains off the head n a nostril off 12-14 year olds - I'll never forget 19 year old Paul Fussell's words as visuals.

JD Mayo

My grandfather before he passed he told us storys about him in the Korean war never about combat but only to his family not a stranger and only stories about him being in camp or being on guard. He didn't like talking about the bad.

A fellow student

I was jarred when Mr. Burns said "that is gold," at the end of the Paul Fussell segment. I was disappointed that he would use the word, and it kind of changed my opinion of him, but I also knew it seemed so unlike him. Then, his followup apology brought me right back to him, and was so heartfelt that I can now picture no one else making films like The War or Vietnam. Mr. Burns, you talk about a lot of things, but so far I don't think you have credited your sensitivity as the asset it truly is...

Chris J.

I don't know if his break at the end of his "gold" comment was pre-planned or not, but it was really good that it was included. Wow. And, if it was pre-planned, nothing against him, it was still really important to keep that in. I suspect it was not pre-planned on script.

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.