Chapter 16 of 26 from Ken Burns

Case Study: Navigating a Challenging Interview

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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.

Topics include: Case Study: Paul Fussell, The War • Putting Emotionally Potent Interviews to Use

Ken Burns

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

The 15-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. 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.

Ken teaches his unique creative process through case studies of his films, original treatments, voice over scripts, archival documents, and more.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps, assignments, and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Ken will also critique select student work.

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Ken Burns

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking