LOS ANGELES – If President Trump wants to turn around his ratings, he might consider nominating Ken Burns as secretary of education.
Not that the filmmaker is looking for a demotion. The 62-year-old filmmaker is already America’s most engrossing history professor, leading courses on baseball, prohibition, national parks and jazz. Throughout his tenure, he has striven to include the Midwest, a nod perhaps to his formative years in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his father taught cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan.
His latest work, “The Vietnam War,” an 18-hour film premiering Sunday on PBS, uses Minnesota-bred writer Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam vet who grew up in Worthington, as one of its most poetic witnesses — even borrowing the title of the final episode, “The Weight of Memory,” from O’Brien’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated collection “The Things They Carried.”
Burns also has been spending time in Rochester, supervising a 2018 project about the Mayo Clinic, where he goes for his annual checkup.
The “professor,” dressed in a tailored sweater and jeans, sat down earlier this year for a wide-ranging interview following a press conference about “Vietnam.”
Q: Watching you on stage, I couldn’t help but think that maybe your true calling was teaching at a small liberal arts college somewhere. Was that ever an ambition?
A: You know what? I have the biggest classroom in America. Public television really represents that. But I’m trying to be an artist. The stories just happen to be in American history.
Obviously, there’s overlap with “educational stuff,” and the films have been super-successful in schools. The fact that it’s 27 years after we did “The Civil War” and it’s still being shown in hundreds and hundreds of schools is good news.
But I’m mainly interested in reaching that broad audience and speaking to everybody, not just the Upper West Side or Nob Hill. We have great ratings in Oklahoma and Arkansas and West Virginia, where public television is a big part of their lives because they don’t have the wide range of stuff those urban centers may have.
Q: You are associated with the East Coast, where you’ve lived for four decades, but people may not know you spent a good chunk of your childhood in Michigan. Did that influence your view of the country?
A: Oh, totally. It’s where I grew up and more importantly, it’s what happened while I was there. My mom died of cancer when I was a couple months short of my 12th birthday. She had been sick my whole life. What I do for a living is wake the dead. That formed me more than anything, I guess.
We’re working on this Mayo Clinic project and there’s always the talk of “Midwestern nice” being kind of an imperative thing. I know what that’s about and I get it; it’s part of my upbringing. But it’s really wrong, particularly in the United States of America, to say, “Oh, that’s Southern, that’s Western, that’s Eastern.” That’s just not the case. Everybody struggles in the same way and everybody loves and wants the same things for their kids, regardless of political orientation and regardless of what divisions we want to superimpose on them. Saying somebody is a Midwesterner is just a little data point.
Q: The Midwest does tend to get overlooked.
A: People call it flyover land. We don’t. We’ve made films about Lewis and Clark and the Dust Bowl. For World War II (his 2007 film “The War”) we went to Luverne (in southwestern Minnesota) and we’re back in that area again with Tim O’Brien. I’m not looking at region; I’m looking at experience.
Q: What’s the American thread in the Mayo Clinic story?
A: First of all, its an utterly American story but it’s unique. So often, it’s about making a quick buck, but these people who founded it were willing to serve the poor, the elderly. These days, it’s not just about cutting-edge medicine, but about dedication to patients and faith and hope.
Q: You also produced a documentary about the history of cancer two years ago. I may be connecting the dots too much, but are you starting to think about your own mortality?
A: No, no. That was for my mom. I’ve never really said this, but my dad was the outlier in the family. He was a cultural anthropologist. So I’ve spent my life in the humanities and the arts, and that was from DNA from my dad. My mother had an advanced degree in biology, which was pretty unusual for a woman to have in the 1920s. So science was never an alienating thing to me. I love the fact that I’m in my 60s and I’m exercising new muscles.
Q: You’re one of the great documentarians, but much of your time is spent pitching to sponsors and being a spokesperson for your projects. Do you wish you had more time to interview and edit?
A: Yeah, I know what you’re talking about and I appreciate your understanding of that, but I think these are all part of the job description. I do love filming and I do love interviewing and I do love the editing process, but I also love this evangelical dimension. If you need to apply shoe leather to get the word out, that’s fine. It’s not a pact with the devil; it’s a bargain with the angels.
Q: Selling this project seems more difficult. Vietnam was such a divisive conflict that some people may not want to listen.
A: I think we’ve done enough films that people trust us. I’ve been lucky that the film projects I’ve chosen have, unconsciously, been what the zeitgeist needed at that moment, whether it’s “Baseball” when the strike (by major league players) was happening, or World War II just before the veterans were dying off. We hit “The Roosevelts” when lessons about leadership needed to be told.
Q: But for years, didn’t you resist the idea of going deep on the Vietnam War?
A: Yeah, that’s exactly right. After “The Civil War,” we said no more wars, but then we ate our own words and spent seven years on World War II. Not that we’re dissing World War I and the Korean War by leaping over those. But Vietnam was a tale of morality with an identity that’s woven into the fabric of who we are. It was at the heart of a predicament we find ourselves in today and we hope, in a way, to help further the conversation.
Q: You spend so much time talking. When you’re not “on,” do you just shut down? What does Ken Burns’ quiet time look like?
A: You know, I live in a tiny little village in New Hampshire and have for 38 years. I’m trying to figure out what that represents. Maybe it’s a place where I don’t have to be “on.” I don’t mind being on, but it may just be the necessary part of the yin and yang of that. I’m 3 ½ hours away from New York, and that drive is all quiet time. I’m either on the phone or listening to the radio. It’s set on Sirius’s Real Jazz or NPR at 5 p.m.