On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, filmmaker Ken Burns talks about his new 10-part, 18-hour documentary, “The Vietnam War.” Burns says he sought to upend conventional wisdom about the war by rewinding the iconic images, stories and music of the time and telling history through the lens of all the countries involved in the conflict.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
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Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. I’m part of the Vox Media Podcast Network. I’m recording this episode in San Francisco, which is pretty cool. Even cooler, I’m here with documentarian Ken Burns, who you know from making a million things. “War,” “Baseball,” how many more?
Ken Burns: Thirty-two.
Thirty-two, and we’re here today to talk about “The Vietnam War,” which, depending on when you hear this, should be airing on PBS.
Starting Sunday, September 17th.
Eventually you can watch it, I’m assuming, online. Eventually at some point it’ll migrate somewhere else.
Immediately you can stream the first five episodes that Sunday, and then the following Sunday when the second five get launched, you can stream the others. Then it’s a weekly series, and the DVDs are available on the 19th, and it’s going to run as a weekly series until Christmas. It’ll be hard to miss.
Eighteen hours. I’ve watched three of the hours so far. They’re great.
This is a really complicated story. It needed that amount of time. It’s something that Americans don’t really want to talk about, and if they do, they sort of just default to a kind of binary one and zero dialectic: good, bad; red state, blue state. It’s important, it seemed to us, to unpack that stuff.
Was this always on the list of things you wanted to get to, or did something push you there?
I did a film in 1990 on the Civil War. We literally afterwards sort of said, “No more wars.” It was tough. It was just tough to do, to handle the emotion, to handle the death, to handle all the images that aren’t in the film that we wisely edited out.
The Civil War soldiers, when they’d been in battle, said they’d seen the elephant, which is I guess the most exotic thing they could think of. We’d kind of seen it too, in a kind of platonic way, a shadow on the cave, and didn’t want to do it.
At the end of the ’90s, I heard that 1,000 American veterans of the Second World War were dying each day, and that an unacceptable number of graduating high school seniors believed that we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the Second World War. I said, “Okay.” So I dove into that.
If you’re going to fix every flaw in the American educational system ...
... you’ve got to make a lot more movies.
Or I’ve got to live forever, yeah, to do it right. Even before “The War” was — and we called it “The War” — was broadcast in the fall of 2007, probably the late winter or early winter in 2006, I turned to Lynn Novick, who was the co-director on that, as she is on the Vietnam thing, and I just said, “We got to do Vietnam.” And so we’ve spent the last 10 and a half years.
Meanwhile making other films, too. You’re prolific, as we’ve established.
Essentially, and Lynn too, but for a long while it was me out on the road raising money and sort of trying to get some critical mass of funding in order to be able to do it. Then starting in earnest, it’s been her No. 1 gig for most of the last several years. Then I’ve had lots of other things.
Is there something you want to correct with this? I’m old. I was born while the war was still going on, and in my mind, I’ve seen many versions of this war told, many movies — starting with “Apocalypse Now” — for many years later. A lot of the footage I’m familiar with. Is there something that you want me to see that I don’t know?
Yeah. You’re going to see a lot of footage you’ve never seen before. Access has been unusual from Soviet and other archives, Vietnamese archives, but we’ve essentially been imprisoned by a conventional wisdom about it. A lot of it has to do with that we don’t want to talk about it, or if we do, we get into an argument about it. Also, when Americans talk about the Vietnam War, they just want to talk about themselves.
It’s really important to understand it now that we’re 42 years out from the fall of Saigon that we triangulate not just the perspective that can be gained from the passage of time, but the kind of triangulation that can take place by realizing that this was a war with three other countries, one of whom disappeared. We’ve done extensive interviews with North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians in Hanoi and Viet Cong guerrillas, and the ARVN, those are the South Vietnamese soldiers, our erstwhile allies.
One of the really striking things about this is when you see someone explaining what it was like to shoot the Americans. You realize, “Oh wait, that’s right.”
We’ve got a couple of battles where we’ve got the guy shooting at the American and the ARVN. We’ve interviewed the ARVN and the American, and being able to see that from that multidimensional point of view.
When I was making my film on jazz, Wynton Marsalis said, “Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing can happen at the same time.” In war, there can be more than one truth. We sort of in our moralistic world want to say one plus one always equals two, but what we look for in something else is the acknowledgement that sometimes one and one equals three in our faith, in our art, in our whatever it is that compels us, love.
We realize that it would be possible to make a space, a place where all these divergent points of view could come together. We wouldn’t make anybody wrong. We would just look at it. There’s lots of arguments about Vietnam, like we should have done this or we could have done this, or if we did this, this would have happened, but it didn’t happen that way. Stuff happened, and we just want a report on it without any agenda, without any thumb on the scale.
We can get into a whole discussion about objectivity and subjectivity, but you really think that you are a neutral arbiter in the telling of this story?
We can dismiss that there’s only one person who’s objective, and that’s God, and she’s not telling. The rest of us labor under subjectivity. What we wanted to do was be aware of whatever baggage we brought. I grew up in the war. I had a high draft number in the last year of the lottery. We wanted to be mindful of the things we carried into it, as Tim O’Brien would say.
He’s in the movie?
We wanted to free ourselves as much as we could.
I was reading an interview where you said you would snip out bits of interviews where you thought they were too subjective.
The last bit of editing was really removing adverbs and adjectives, because you just didn’t need to do it, or just leaving an obvious thing out. There was no need. If Richard Nixon did something great, we’ll say this was really great. If he showed himself in a tape, we didn’t need to say how venal that is. We just had to say, “Here’s him speaking in the tape.” That’s really important to gain the trust of people. The assumption is when they say, “Who’s your audience?” I say, “Everybody.” It’s like, “Yeah, yeah. No. Right,” but it is. We get high ratings in Arkansas and Oklahoma and Alaska as well as we have in San Francisco and Boston.
The opening frames of the movie you’re showing footage. Again, some of it is familiar to me, and the very famous execution photo I guess is during Tet?
I’m like, “Oh, I’ve seen this.” Then I thought, “Oh wait a minute. No, no, no. You’re showing it in reverse. You reversed the footage.” What is the point of doing that at the beginning of the movie?
It’s what I said, is that we are jammed with all these familiar images from Vietnam, and that helps reinforce the kind of superficial understanding of the war or ratifies our conventional wisdom. That’s not good if you’re going to really come to terms with what I think, what Lynn and I think is the most important event in the second half of the 20th century for Americans. A good deal of the disunion and the lack of civil discourse and the kind of degraded politics we experience today really metastasized in Vietnam. It was important for us to unpack it, to literally, “Let’s just go back.”
The first image of that scene is a helicopter jumping out of the South China Sea onto the deck of an aircraft carrier, the symbolic thing of pushing an aircraft carrier, the waste of effort and money to do that. Then going through many familiar images back to a French soldier walking backwards through a rice paddy. Then we repack. You’ll see all those images going forward in the course of the next 17 hours and 50 minutes. That was important, but they’ll now come with context. They’ll now come with a more complicated set of perspectives that permit you, we hope, to liberate yourself from whatever kind of lead weights that conventional wisdom represents.
In one of the interviews, one of the bits I saw, one of the combatants says, “I will talk about this candidly.” He’s talking about an atrocity. “Other people won’t, but please be careful with this, because I could get in trouble.” How often did you encounter someone who’s alive today where they’re thinking about the repercussions of what they’re saying, admitting to in real time?
Very little. The person you’re referring to was an NVA soldier, a North Vietnamese soldier. They are still a repressive communist regime, and there’s not a free press. There is a party line, and that party line still to this day does not acknowledge the atrocity that he is referring to and was aware of and probably participated in. I at one point took it out, thinking that his self-referential moment, thinking that that was unnecessary. It didn’t work. I put it back in, because it restores the urgency of this situation and reminds you that this is about memory and reflection and something that happened a while ago.
We have a lot of people from North Vietnam or from Vietnam saying stuff that ... Every documentary filmmaker wants a scoop, but we invited the ambassador to the United States and to the U.N. — the same person — in and said, “Look, we don’t want anybody to get in trouble.” He looked at it, and some of it you could see he was sucking in his breath, but he’s, “They’re old. They’re celebrated war heroes.”
You don’t think there’s going to be consequences for that person?
I don’t. I think that ...
There’s another soldier on the U.S. side who admits to other atrocities in the same episode, he’s not going to get prosecuted for it?
No. I think what you’ll have is the possibility to create a space where you can have a conversation about these sorts of things. When you have a modern war, and it’s so covered so completely or so well as Vietnam was with a liberated press core, which doesn’t happen anymore, got a few lessons issuing out of Vietnam. We’re not going to blame the soldiers anymore. That’s permanent, as far as I can tell, and we’re not going to let the press have free access. They didn’t have it in World War II, they didn’t have it in Korea, but they had it in Vietnam.
Now we have a wonderful word that gets everybody excited, “embedded,” which means that they’re surrounded by a scrum of personnel that keeps them from seeing a little girl running down a street naked on fire from Napalm, or seeing the head of the South Vietnamese National Police assassinate on the spot a North Vietnamese spy named Lem, checkered shirt on the streets of Saigon during the Tet offensive.
I was going to get to that. Let’s go there. As you think about ... Again, it’s astonishing the footage that you’re seeing. One, it’s astonishing footage, and two, a lot of it’s astonishing because you see that it’s an American reporter on the scene saying this, “I’m watching this. I’ve been shot,” things that you just never see today. How do you think that’s going to affect future versions of the work that you do when you try to tackle the Iraq war or a conflict like that?
It’s interesting. I am in the middle, that for the rest of the world, finishing the film is the thing. The finished film, what’s shown is the thing. For me, it’s the process of making it. If I can sort of convince myself when I put my head on my pillow that I’ve made that film better that day, I feel a little bit better, and I go to sleep a little bit faster. I’m deep in the editing of a film that’s completely different, that’s a history of country music. Its points of anxiety for me are the same. The process is always the same, and the question is always the same, the larger question. I’ve made the same film over and over again, and it’s just saying, “Who are we? Who are these strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans? What does an investigation of this specific topic tell us about who we are and where we were and where we might be going?”
Just in terms of documenting, what sort of things were documented at the time? What sort of things are available for you to look at? Skipping all the way to now where everyone’s got a phone, everyone’s documenting everything at the same time, it doesn’t mean that they’re telling the truth, it means they’re documenting, how do you think that’s going to affect someone going back and creating a history of 2017?
Lincoln, frustrated with his generals in 1861 and 1862, somebody was complaining about them too. He says, “We’ll just use the tools we have.” I don’t mean to belittle this age of technology, but when the telegraph came along, people thought, “Okay, this is the death of this. Everything is going to change from now on.” Each of the technologies, you add the telephone, and you add the phonograph, and you add radio, and then you add television, and then you have the world we live in now, all of them represent significant technological changes in which we absorb. We’ll be taking stuff off iPhones from soldiers if we do another war. They’ll have seen it. There’ll be a certain immediacy. People come up to me, sometimes older audiences, and say, “People don’t write letters anymore. How are we going to be able to tell the story the way you did the Civil War?”
It’s going to be a selfie.
It’s going to be a selfie. It’s going to be, “Hey, mom. Hey, dad. I’m here. I’m in this APC. It’s pretty tough today.” We’re going to get it firsthand, and maybe it won’t have the poetry of that, but we got a kid in Vietnam who’s sending reel-to-reel tapes back to Missouri. The folks in his parents’ general store crowd around and they’re saying, “Hey, I just broke up with Darlene. Now I’m really on the prowl. I’m hunting this, and I’ve got a new car this.” It’s just as revealing as anything you’d ever want to hear.
I think that we’re always, as documentarians, as sort of hunter-gatherers, going to be willing to just accept that it’s going to be not a big stack of papers and old photographs, but it’s going to be digital files and email records and texting records. Is that really different? I suppose you can make a ...
I assume there’s a deluge of stuff that just ... your work will be that much harder, because you’re going to have that many more iPhone files to go through.
That’s very smart. There is a tyranny of choice, just as there is a tyranny of no choice. There’s a really wonderful moment in this movie “Moscow on the Hudson” when Robin Williams starts off the film as a concert. I think he plays the cello or something in a Moscow symphony. He’s waiting in line for he doesn’t know what. He gets there, and there’s nothing there, the tyranny of no choice. Then he’s going to go try to get some coffee from a New York City supermarket, and the guy says aisle three, and there’s now a thousand choices, and he faints dead away. That’s the tyranny of choice. It’s just all how you look at it.
We had huge volumes of material. The Second World War is the greatest cataclysm in human history. There’s lots of stuff on it. We figured out a way – in seven and a half years of sifting — to get what we thought was good, admittedly, consciously and intentionally from an American perspective. It probably would have taken us 20 years if we said we were going to do it from the Japanese, and the Russian, and the British, and the German, and Italian and all of the allies. Vietnam has taken 10 years in large measure because it’s been a hunter, gathering and then collating job.
I have many more questions. I’m going to try to narrow some of them down while we take a very quick break to hear from our sponsor. Back here with Ken Burns.
I’m back here with Ken Burns talking about “The Vietnam War” and the work you put into this thing. I was telling you I watched this on a laptop with crappy Wi-Fi. It still looks and sounds great. It’s very cinematic, which sounds trite to say, but it’s not the case when you’re talking about “The Civil War.” It looks like you’ve done some really, really sophisticated stuff, stitching stuff together so when you’re describing a battle, it looks like you’re Steven Spielberg creating a battle scene, but it’s obviously all through documentary footage. Is this something new for you, that kind of work?
I don’t think so. I think that each project has its own sets of demands of how you’re going to treat it. If you’re limited entirely as we were to still photographs, you’re dealing with what film directors call mise en scene. You’re taking a photograph and treating it as a master shot.
That’s the Ken Burns effect.
Into which you’ve got a long shot, a medium shot, a close up, an extreme close up, a tilt, a pan, a reveal, and isolation of details. You’re sort of in the sort of willing alive this stuff. Now, if you’ve got footage, you’ve got a different set of exigencies. In this case, it fit the music.
Our soundtrack is important. It’s very funny. It always struck me as crazy, and we’ve never done it as filmmakers for 40 years, which is soundtracks are added at the end to amplify emotions you hope are there. We bake them in at the beginning. Our music is as important as the narration that we’re writing or the testimony that we’re hearing from, or the footage, or the sound effects, or the talking heads. That’s great. It makes music organic and not some sort of added thing. It’s not icing. It’s fudge.
Again, in the parts that I’ve seen, there’s music that I associate with movies about the Vietnam War: “White Rabbit” from Jefferson Airplane, and then all of a sudden there’s a Beatles song. You really don’t get Beatles songs, original Beatles tracks, in almost anything.
Here’s the deal.
This is from Revolver, right?
It’s during a battle scene. How did you get it?
We have many Beatles songs. We have 120 pieces of found music. We have almost three hours of original music that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails composed for us. We also invited Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble in and gave them Vietnamese lullabies and folk songs that everyone North and South would have recognized from that period, would recognize to this day. Then they bent them in their unusual way. Then, in addition, we have 120 takes.
If we were a PBS documentary film company — or a film company associated with PBS, I should say — we could maybe afford 10 songs, 12 songs. None of them would be Beatles songs. We went early on to all of those people, to the Beatles, or to their estates, and said what we wanted to do. To an artist, they all said, “Fine, we’ll give you this most favored nations rate.” That permitted us to have those 120 things. We got Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. We have Nina Simone and we have Buffalo Springfield. We’ve got The Animals and ...
Anyone you couldn’t get? Led Zeppelin’s notoriously difficult.
We’ve got two or three Led Zeppelins.
You got Zeppelin?
We’ve got many Beatles and lots of Bob Dylan and Crosby Stills and Nash, and Paul Simon, and Simon and Garfunkel. I should just say Simon and Garfunkel. It’s a phenomenal track, and we just vowed to ourselves and then to them that we would never play a song that you couldn’t hear on Armed Forces Radio or on your transistor radio when you were marching against the war.
Then you went and created your own audio as well, right, in addition to the Trent Reznor score? When there’s gunfire, that sounds cinematic again.
About 90 percent, maybe even 95 percent of the footage that we get is silent MOS, sound from the old German directors in Hollywood, MOS. Yeah, we built soundtracks. They’re as complicated as any feature film, and I’ve always been like that. Civil War, Battle of Gettysburg has dozens and dozens of tracks going at once. It’s because I just refuse to sort of do the documentary thing, which is only need to put a few trump, trump, trump of the German troops marching into Poland, bang, crash. Our sound editors and editors went out into the woods with AK-47s and M-16s and pumpkins and squash.
That’s a real AK-47 that you’ve recorded a few years ago?
Or we’ve found or acquired other soundtracks and we build them. This is what sound editing is all about. For me, it’s waking the dead. You don’t want to do just that kind of classic British documentary where you see the trump, trump, trump of the troops, and that’s the only sound that ...
Do you imagine people are going to watch this on a 60-inch TV? Are you aware that it’s going to happen, have you ceded to the fact that it’s going to be viewed on an iPhone at some point?
Yeah, there’ll be lots of people who will do that, but there’ll be millions and millions of people who watch it on TV. I got to assume that most of them have a pretty good TV. If they do, they’ll do great. If they have a fantastic TV, this is going to just blow their minds, because it’s 5-by-1 surround, and the bullets go across the screen, and planes go across the screen, and stuff happens in it.
You’re Ken Burns. You can go get the Beatles. You can get Led Zeppelin. I assume you can get ...
It’s actually Sarah Botstein who’s the lead producer who is our tenacious wrangler of that. Friends ... when we made our jazz series we worked with Jeff Jones, who was then at Columbia, now the head of Apple. We did an unusual thing there. We took the two biggest producers of records, publishers of records, and put them together. They’re natural competitors. That represented about 60 percent of jazz. Then we went to the other smaller labels and said, “Look, let’s all do this so that when we have a greatest of, it isn’t the greatest when you were on DEC, it’s the greatest across your entire life.”
What I was going to ask is, you have access to lots of things, I assume lots of people. Maybe I missed it, because I’ve only seen two of the episodes so far, but I didn’t see John McCain. There’s John McCain archival footage. There’s Henry Kissinger archival footage. It doesn’t look like you’re talking to those people. I assume that’s intentional.
Oh, intentional from the very beginning. In fact, one of the first meetings I took is I went and saw John McCain. I saw John Garrett. I said, “Look, we’re going to make this film. You’re going to be in it archivally, but we’re not going to interview you.”
They’re in the public sphere today, and they’ve got an interest, however conscious or subconscious, and kind of burnishing an image. Certainly Kissinger has that, Jane Fonda has that. They’re all in the film, but they’re not going to be interviewed.
There’s a POW story, makes you think of John McCain, but you’d rather hear from that person than John McCain.
That’s right. One, because ...
Because you’ve heard John McCain’s story so many times?
No, no, because his story is in there, and it’s very poignant. It’s incredible, the footage from the French journalist. We learned from his people a lot of context to that, that very celebrated interview which he hates, because he thinks it shows weakness, was done after many, many bones were set, without so much as an aspirin. Then afterwards they beat him, because he wasn’t sufficiently grateful to his captors. That adds a little dimension on John McCain’s heroism.
Instead of just quoting one line from Kerry’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we quote it extensively. It’s really brought to life in that way. Same with Jane Fonda. We found new footage, and same with Kissinger. He’s there on the tapes. A lot of what he says on film in other films belies what he says in the tapes. You just don’t want ... I’m not in the gotcha business. I just want to be about facts. What happened? We don’t need them there. They’re huge characters in the film, significant, particularly Kissinger, Kerry and McCain.
It’s not that you want to tell the story from the perspective of sort of people who were underfoot. It’s just that you don’t want Henry Kissinger’s revised history.
Right, or any, or John McCain’s or John Kerry’s, however conscious or unconscious it might be. It’s just smart to do it that way, just as we made the decision there’d be no historians in our World War II film or no historians in this one. There are people who’ve written books that turn up that are grunts. We don’t tell you who they are until the end of the film. You don’t have to know that Karl Marlantes, the first talking head that you see in the film, wrote a novel about it. You’ll find out at the end of the 18 hours. Not everybody’s like that. Most of them are so-called ordinary people. What we’ve learned — particularly from all of our histories but I’d say essentially from the war films — is that there are no ordinary people.
There are obvious not parallels ... When you watch a Vietnam War movie in 2017, there’s lots of stuff to think about that’s happening in the real world, divided America, etc. Obviously if you started this 10 years ago, different setting.
Think about this, if I can just go for a second.
When we said yes to this, Barack Obama was a month or two away from declaring that he was going to be this challenger, this improbable challenger to the front-runner Hillary Clinton. Not only did he overtake her and win the nomination, but he won the election against John McCain and then won a second term. Now he’s out of office. It’ll be eight months by the time this is broadcast.
Then let me tell you what this film is about. It’s about mass demonstrations in cities all across the country, about a White House in disarray, a White House frustrated with leaks, a White House with a president at the top who’s sure that the news media is making stuff up. It’s about a big document drop of hacked documents, classified material into the public sphere that’s embarrassing and counterfactual to what’s been said in policy for many, many administrations. It’s about asymmetrical warfare where the mighty might of the United States military seems incapable of making a dent. It’s about an alleged political campaign that allegedly reaches out to a foreign power at the time of a national election to try and determine that election.
How about that? What did we learn from that? That history repeats itself?
History does not repeat itself.
That the timing is crazy?
You’re not condemned to repeat what you don’t remember. Here’s what it is. Human nature remains the same, and human nature superimposes itself over the seemingly random chaos of events. Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” If he did say that, it’s wonderful.
I’ve spent my entire professional life sort of listening to the rhymes, the patterns, the motifs, the echos of things. What you have is that human nature doesn’t change. We never once while we were making the film, never in the entire 10 years did we go, “Wow, isn’t that a lot like Iraq?” Or, “Isn’t that like Afghanistan?” Or, “Isn’t this kind of like now?” We finished it before Trump was in office, but we were not unmindful, even back when we started it, that there were so many parallels.
Is there any temptation to go, as you’re finishing up, “Boy, we should get some footage of Donald Trump explaining that his personal Vietnam was avoiding getting STDs?”
That, to me, would be the classic example of a thumb on the scale. The film goes up to the present. Obama made a trip there and said something there, and sort of the last kind of contemporary thing before we go into our coda and denouement where you learn the fates of all the folks that you’ve been caring about for the last 10 episodes. To put Donald Trump into it is a way of being cute. It’s an easy layup. You want to hit three-pointers from half court, you know what I mean? You’ll miss a lot of times, but you want to try it from there and not the easy layup.
I’ve done a bunch of these now in, what, 100 or so episodes, Eric?
That’s a bunch.
It’s a bunch, and I’ve been lucky enough to talk to a bunch of directors. I think all of them are making something that is either debuting or coming almost immediately after it shows up in the theater to Netflix or Amazon. You are someone I always associate with PBS. Most of your films, all of your films ...
All of them.
Every single one?
Every single one.
Have you ever thought about going somewhere else? I’m assuming that whatever PBS offers you, Reed Hastings would be happy to do the same or more.
Yeah, they might, but here’s the thing. There’s no business model for PBS, and there’s no business model for what I do. PBS has one foot tentatively in the marketplace and the other proudly out of it. When your house is on fire at 3:00 a.m., do you call the marketplace? No, you do not. When you expect boots on the ground at Normandy or Kandahar, do you expect that the marketplace is going to take care of that? No, you do not. I’m not suggesting that PBS has anything to do with the defense of the country.
It would be alarming if it was.
I do actually believe that it makes the country worth defending, because we, on a very small budget and much maligned, make some of the best children’s, and the best science, and the best nature, and all sorts of programming. My point is that I was with the head of HBO who’s a friend, Richard Plepler, and someone quite naturally said ... We’d screened an episode of that, and he said, “Why isn’t Ken with you?” He paused for a second. I just filled the void and I said, “Because you wouldn’t spend as much as we spent over 10 years to make the Vietnam film.”
That’s the point here. This will end up on Netflix, as most of my stuff is, or in some other place, as well as available on PBS and all the streaming stuff, all the platforms. The original place is this unique. To me, it’s like the tortoise and the hare fairy tale when we were growing up. The hare inevitably gets kind of tired and lies down, and the tortoise just keeps going.
Let’s stipulate that between Jeff Bezos and Richard Plepler and Reed Hastings, you could get what you want, in terms of resources and time. You could do what you wanted, and you could do more.
Maybe. Maybe, but I’d still have somebody ...
But you like PBS. You like the values.
I like the values of PBS. I like the fact that the S doesn’t stand for System but for Service, and that the most important thing, the P, is what I’m into. Maybe they would do that, but there would still be a suit or maybe an open-collared person who would say, “You know what? Too long. Too short.”
“Make it two years.”
“Not sexy enough. Too sexy. Too violent. Not violent enough.” Every single film I’ve made for public television has been my director’s cut. Sometimes my writers, because we have to cut stuff out, are happy to have DVD extras. I’m bored by them. I want you to watch my film, because I can say to you that if you don’t like it, it’s all my fault. I know lots of friends in Hollywood who still say, “They wouldn’t let me use this actress,” or, “I wanted to go with this writer,” or, “I really wanted to have this scene, but no.”
I think Reed Hastings would let you do what you want, but I’ll let it go.
No, I think he would. We’ve had conversations with him about that stuff, but I’m at the dance with them that brung me, and I think I’m leaving with them.
For a long time, if you thought about documentaries, you thought about you. In the last few years because of Amazon and Netflix, I think primarily, HBO to some extent, it seems to be a giant boom in documentaries. They seem to be something that are made fairly easily, fairly quickly at a price, and the streaming services seem to gravitate to them. What do you think about that explosion of documentaries?
I don’t actually agree completely, because I remember in ’85 when I came out with my third or fourth film on Huey Long, “The Turbulence of the Demagogue,” there was an amazing article in the New York Times about it.
That was a good history echoing there.
Yeah. There was Fred Wiseman there, and there was Errol Morris, and there was all this sort of stuff ...
Yes, there have been other people.
It was an article about how diverse documentary was. I think we’ve been in a golden age for decades, but what the streaming services do — and what frankly is in contrast to some bankrupt sort of evidence on the fictional side, which is these franchises where you’ve got “Batman 47” or “Iron Man 63” ...
“Avengers in Space.”
... you just have a thing. What you realize in Hollywood is that essentially each of the films can be reduced to some plot. Now there’s some incredibly great artists who are friends of mine who transcend that regularly there, but for the most part, the tiredness of the plots are replaced by the freshness of the documentary, which is just ... this is what happened. There’s something incredibly exciting ...
We’re doing both, right? They’re making “X-Men 44” and they’re making a million different documentaries.
Right. That satisfies, I guess, a lot of chirping chicks in the nest, but the interesting thing is, and I think it’s really important to remember that the same laws of storytelling apply to me as they do to Steven Spielberg. I’ve talked to him about it, to drop a name, about how we do the same thing. He can make stuff up, I can’t, but the same laws of, if you want to get technical, Aristotelian poetics, and all Aristotle did in his essay was describe a beginning, a middle, an end, a protagonist, an antagonist, a climax, a denouement, all the things that we know. There are people who make money selling books about how to write a screenplay in Hollywood when the best screenwriters have never cracked a book formula about it. That’s the essence.
People want to be told stories, and we’re now at an age ... Maybe I’m coming around to agreeing with you, where we are beginning to understand that documentaries, and maybe it’s that the documentarians have begun to understand that these are not necessarily didactic lessons in telling you what you should know, but things that are informed by the same kind of dramatic impulses and laws that govern a feature film. You’ll see that in all the films that you’re thinking right now that have been filling up our airwaves over the last few years.
Do you go back and think about, “Boy, if I had the access to the sophisticated equipment that much cheaper, that much lighter, boy, the film I would have made 30 years ago would have been astonishingly different.” Or it’s the same movie?"
No, never. Never. It’s always the same movie. It’s always the same stuff, and maybe for you guys ... But I don’t think a computer ever saved me any paper, which was one of its arguments.
It took me six months to learn how to print something in the new office. I’m one of the only people who’s printed something there.
Yeah. Yeah. I meet a lot of people who are paperless, so I realize that my old fogeyness has a kind of statute of limitations of tolerance on it. I just think that the films take the same amount of time. I suppose it’d be close, but I still shoot film sometimes.
What do you think of the fact, we touched on this a little bit, but that everyone is documenting everything all the time? Obviously it’s not the same as telling a story, telling a research story, but everyone now seems comfortable with ... Sometimes it’s narcissism, sometimes it’s something else, but everything is photographed or videoed constantly now. It’s rare. We’re actually not filming this, amazingly enough, but almost everything else does seem like it’s filmed now. Do you think about sort of what that means for society, what it means for storytellers?
I think I’m less concerned with me, because I just assume that I’ll continue to sort of sow and reap in my back 40, but that I think it has huge societal implications, mostly because ... You used the word narcissistic and things like that. We’re all now independent free agents. I do want to get around to, I think, a positive aspect of this, which is this independent free agency separates us from everybody else. We think we’re connected, but we’re actually deeply disconnected. We look for ways to be connected. I think that with this tsunami of data that pours over us all the time, we are starved for curation.
When “The Civil War” came out, when “Baseball” came out, when “Jazz” came out, when “The War” came out, when “The National Parks” came out, all of those, those are large, lengthy films, all the critics were sort of anxious that nobody would watch it, because we were in an MTV generation with just a short attention span, or that this would happen. People did watch it, and the same sort of 35 to 40 million people sort of marched along to all of those films. When “The Roosevelts” came out, another big series, the most recent one before “Vietnam,” they never said that again, because they understand we’re in a place where we binge watch. What that represents is the desire to trust in someone else’s artistic judgment and to self-curate.
People are watching 60 episodes of “Game of Thrones.”
And just digesting it in big gulps. I defy you to do that with “Vietnam.” I think you’re going to need to take a break. It’s really intense. It’s very immersive, and there’s a couple of episodes if you see them in context, you’ve just got to stop. We did that. The veterans that we always had in every screening, two or three veterans, because their BS meters are so finely tuned, they just get up and walk out and smoke cigarettes and come back a couple hours later and cry and hug each other and tell stories alone. That’s kind of the immersive intensiveness, but we still want that to happen, because we actually liberate ourselves from the tyranny of all the other voices, at least for that time.
It’s all right to go back and watch the kitten with the yarn. It’s really okay. I’m not denigrating that sort of stuff, but I do think that I believe that all real meaning accrues in duration, and that the work you’re proudest of, and the relationships you care the most about have benefited from your sustained attention. We do too many things in our lives today that are broken up into sort of almost micro parts, and that when you have an opportunity, like that great long dinner that went on for a long time, or that party that was sustained, or that relationship that you’ve had over generations, and you realize the way in which you are defined in relationship to that person’s happiness and sorrows, that’s what matters. I think people have challenged me all along about the long form, and I go, “It’s okay, people will watch,” and they do.
That intensity you’re talking about, there is an episode you start off where you’re interviewing a helicopter pilot, and he’s already agitated as he’s telling you the beginning of the story, and it’s super intense. Then it just escalates. I had to hit pause in my hotel room last night and said I got to ... If I smoked, I would go have a cigarette after that, and that’s a minute and a half.
Yeah. No, that’s exactly what Ron Ferrizzi, a Hollywood helicopter pilot crew chief who is just unbelievable. He comes back in the film again, and I was just with him when we had a screening. He’s an amazing human being.
I’ll take you back to the beginning of our third episode in which a Gold Star mother is talking about her son and the books that he loved more than the other siblings. She read to him, and she’s reading to him Henry V, the Saint Crispin Day speech about how you men who were not here are lesser men, because you didn’t get bloodied in this thing. This look comes across their face in which it’s almost, “Oh my God, I sent him to war.” It’s just a flash, but it’s an intelligent and reflective person doing that. It’s the exact opposite of Ron Ferrizzi, sort of kind of smoke coming out of his ears. It’s almost like a cartoon.
It’s the same thing, which is you want to study war, because it’s so flipping revealing of who we are as human beings. It isn’t just the bad stuff. That’s kind of obvious. Man’s inhumanity to man, you got that in eighth grade. It’s more complicated. It’s about fellowship. It’s about courage. It’s about friendship. It’s about loss. It’s about love. It’s about all these things. War can actually be a pretty interesting vessel to contain these complicated people we call Americans.
If you are listening, at this point we don’t need to tell you to go watch this. Obviously you’re going to go watch “The Vietnam War.” You can’t binge it, like Ken said. You could technically do it, but you shouldn’t.
You can do what we do. The best we did was over three days, and we were wrung out. It hurt. We cried, and that’s good, but there will be people who will watch it all, but I think you can space it out. PBS is showing the first five episodes over five consecutive nights, and then taking a couple days off, and hitting you with the Tet Offensive on the second Sunday night for five episodes. Each one of those nights, they’re showing it twice. It’s available for streaming right away, and the DVDs, whatever those are called. DVDs, are they still around?
It’s movies on TV, they call them streaming things. I don’t know what they’re called.
I remember 8-track cassettes. I had 8-tracks.
I’ve seen an 8-track cassette before.
Yeah, I had one.
You guys are smart. You guys will figure out how to watch this. Ken, you’re awesome. Thank you for coming by.
God, the other way around. Thank you. This has been terrific. We’ve been on this promo tour for weeks, and weeks, and weeks. It’s really great to ...
You’re holding up pretty well.
No, it’s good to have a conversation.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.