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Selling the Brooklyn Bridge: Ken Burns was intent on pursuing his childhood dream, and he wouldn't take no for an answer.

Ken Burns faced a quadruple whammy when a couple of years out of college he approached the first of many potential funders to ask for money for his first full-length film. It's always hard to raise cash. But in this case, he peddled a documentary back in an era when documentaries weren't cool. It was also about history. And he looked 17. And, get this: The film was about the Brooklyn Bridge.

"People would say, this child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge," recalls Burns, who had been inspired by reading The Great Bridge by David McCullough, who would narrate the film. "Actually, for many years, I kept two three-ring binders on my desk, each filled with rejections for that one film."



He slept on his brother's couch in his college living quarters in New York City for a while and later slept on floors of friends' apartments as he toiled by day to sell the Brooklyn Bridge. Burns soaked up historical accounts, so his fundraising pitches made the bridge and the long-dead people who built it come alive. He'd enthusiastically describe, as he does to this day, the dramatic story of the bridge's construction (the designer and promoter died before it was completed), and the corruption of the era ("It's a wonder that it got made."). He'd describe the bridge's symbolization of strength, vitality, ingenuity and promise. ("it's just an amazing piece of sculpture, if you will.")

Burns became, in a word, obsessed. "1 was just really hand-to-mouth trying to survive, and going into businesses and foundations trying to see if we might raise $1,500 or $1,000. ... For every yes, there were 150 no's."


Persistence paid off. The upshot: The documentary appeared on PBS and garnered a 1982 Academy Award nomination, which validated his whole concept: a new way of documentary-telling that used powerful photographs, music from the period, narration by historians and actors reading in the voices of people of the period, and other effects to make the dead come to life.

Moved to Dream Big

With that first film, Ken Burns became what, he is now famous for through his long line of films, including The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The National Parks, and his latest, an update to his epic Baseball called The Tenth Inning, which is to air on PBS this year.

"I think maybe an ingredient of success is not so much talent. I've got to think there are dozens and dozens of people who are much more talented ... but I persevered," Burns tells SUCCESS. "I realized that you weren't going to be handed this."


Today, it's still a time-consuming job to raise money for his personal-record six documentary projects now under way, says Burns, now 57, from his small cluttered office with three gigantic Palladium windows overlooking a beautiful New Hampshire setting.

When he's not filming or researching on location, Burns works here amid relics from different past projects, including autographed baseballs; books; photos of Lincoln, Jackie Robinson, Huey Long; dozens of framed pictures not yet hung; as well as photos of his family. He moved in 1979 to this small town of Walpole, N.H., because it'd be cheaper to live in than New York City, and would let him to pursue making his first film as he did freelance jobs.

Burns traces why he got. into this line of work to his childhood. He was just 11 when his mother passed away. Dad, an anthropology professor who was usually strict about curfew, grew lenient about bedtime if there were a movie on TV or they went to the movies. The elder Burns admired American classics and European New Wave films. At one point, a film moved Dad to tears--and young Burns never forgot it. His father didn't cry at Mom's funeral. But. he was moved by the 1947 movie Odd Man Out, starring James Mason as an Irish bank robber trying to escape from police.

The power of that movie convinced young Burns, then 13, to become a filmmaker along the lines of legendary Hollywood director John Ford.

Waking Up the Dead

That changed when Burns enrolled in a fairly new college that stressed creativity, Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where professors of film and photography, Jerome Liebling and Elaine Mayes, shrugged their shoulders at Hollywood. They were principally still photographers who relied on the. power of a single image to convey complex information. Under their tutelage, Burns developed the technique he's known for--giving photos resonance by moving the camera slowly over them (since dubbed "The Ken Burns Effect"). By graduation at age 22, Burns knew he wanted to be a documentary maker specializing in American history, even though "the last time I had a course in American history was in 11th grade."

"I was interested in liberating the documentary from the tyranny of it being educational or just, you know", homeworklike," Burns says, "rather than engaging folks on a dramatic level.

"Many, many, many years later, after much good fortune and hard work, someone told me that what I do is wake up the dead," Burns says. In an oft-quoted statement, the late historian Stephen Ambrose reportedly said of his films, "More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source."

While perseverance is a key to Burns' success, his trust in and close working relationships with collaborators, some of whom he's worked with for 25 or 30 years, have been essential. As described on the Academy Awards' website, his team "works on several parallel tracks at the same time, producing a working script, performing extensive research into each subject, choosing historical pictures and written material, and interviewing experts. The process continues during the two to three years it takes Burns to finish the film."

"He doesn't approach anything lackadaisically," says longtime filmmaking partner Dayton Duncan, who marvels at Burns' boundless enthusiasm. "I don't mean that he's so much a Type A person. He gets enthusiastic about, everything. And his enthusiasm infects t h e people around him and it colors everything that we do."


'Ideas Large Enough to Be Afraid Of'

Duncan recalls how Burns' "eyes got the size of saucers" upon watching a herd of wild buffalo stampede over a rise during filming of their .1997 Lewis and Clark documentary. Duncan says the sight was something he had become blase about since he'd already written about the explorers several times and retraced their steps time and again--but not Burns.

"He's jumping around like a kid let out of school," Duncan says. "Not only did that energize me," he. says, but "I realized that an important element of the him was that the characters that, we were following--they were seeing these things for the first time as well." The filmmakers worked at ways to bring that sensation to viewers, too.

Such enthusiasm also gives Burns great courage, Duncan says, which makes him unafraid to decide to do a 10-hour series on topics others avoid. When Burns decided to do an epic on the. Civil War, "people thought he was crazy," Duncan says. "But I think it obviously proved just the opposite."

The Civil War won more, than 40 major awards, including two Emmys and two Grammys; attracted an audience of almost 40 million during its 1990 premiere; and was the highest-rated series in the history of American public broadcasting, prior to Burns' Baseball, which attracted more than 45 million viewers when it. aired in 1994.

Burns draws inspiration from a quote he has on his office door by theater impresario Tyrone Guthrie: We are looking for ideas large enough to be afraid of again. "What that tells you is that you don't sit down on the side of the. road like the hare and rest. You're always the tortoise, slow and steady," Burns says. "You are trying to figure out how to bite off more than you can chew."

He thinks that's what he's doing now by working on six documentaries simultaneously, including a history of Prohibition, the Dust Bowl, the Roosevelts and the Vietnam War. It's a time of "testing my being, in every sense of the word," Burns says. "Physically, emotionally, spiritually."

Life as Art

Ken Burns "is not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period," wrote media critic David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun last year. "That includes feature filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I say that because Burns not only turned millions of persons onto history with his films, he showed us a new way of looking at our collective past and ourselves."

So, what are some of Burns' life lessons?

* Persevere! Success "requires a great deal of hard work, overcoming of obstacles," Burns says.

* Friction is inevitable. "How you deal with the friction," Burns says, "is really a test of who you are as a human being."

* Seek replenishment. For Burns, replenishment comes from his family. He has three daughters, ages 26,22 and 4. "They're a source of renewal for me," Burns says. "The time that I have with them is precious."

* There are no unimportant details. In Burns' style of documentary-making, words are equally as important as images and music. And pacing also is important, explains filmmaking partner Dayton Duncan. Example: Let's say an actor reads a four-sentence quote from Theodore Roosevelt for a documentary. It wouldn't be unusual for Burns to have the actor read it five or six times, and then painstakingly splice together the preferred enunciations to get across the intention of what Roosevelt was saying and meaning, Duncan says.

* Be ready for special moments. Burns is aware that in filmmaking, as in life, opportunities may occur just once. Burns is keen on being ready. His colleagues notice he shows up 15 minutes before any scheduled meeting time, which can pay off when shooting footage outdoors. "This is art that we're dealing with," Burns says. "You have to have the presence to recognize it when it arises and grab at it, or the ability to sort of wait for it to come."


Watch an excerpt from "The National Parks: America's Best Idea"
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Author:Deneen, Sally
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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