Over the past decade, Ken Burns has become a polarizing figure in the documentary field, even as his PBS series have reached more viewers than any American documentarian besides Michael Moore. For many, his work has settled into a cozy formal conservatism, epitomized by his narration and zooms into photos. His latest film, The Central Park Five (co-directed by his daughter Sarah and David McMahon), pushes him outside his comfort zone. While slickly made, it relies mostly on the intensity of its interviews, atmopsheric cinematography and well-edited archival footage to get its powerful story across. Based on Sarah’s book of the same name, it tells the story of the five teenage boys who were falsely accused and convicted of raping a woman in Central Park in 1989. The film exposes a tabloid media and police that were all too ready to demonize poor people of color. While the Central Park Five’s convictions were eventually reversed after the real rapist stepped forward, there’s no happy ending to The Central Park Five. The men’s lawsuit against the city remains unresolved, and the film itself has become a part of it, as the city has subpoenaed the filmmakers for access to their outtakes to use in its defense. Studio Daily talked with McMahon and Sarah Burns about these issues and more.
Photo, top: Defendant Yusef Salaam walks into courthouse flanked by police officers in Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon’s The Central Park Five. Photo courtesy of NY Daily News via Getty Images.
Studio Daily:  The Central Park Five abandons a lot of the stylistic trademarks of Ken Burns’ usual work. What inspired you to drop them?
David McMahon: We hadn’t set out to set aside the conventions that have served Ken well over the years, but we were open to the possibility that we could make a two-hour film that could be suited to theatrical release. When we first interviewed the Five, they had such a command over their own stories that we thought we could get out of the way and let them tell their stories. Often, Ken’s subjects, like Abraham Lincoln, Jackie Robinson or Louis Armstrong, aren’t around to tell the story. We had this great luxury of being able to hear the story directly and being able to fill it in with other interview subjects, like lawyers and journalists. Often, Ken takes advantage of photographs by panning or zooming across them. We had an embarrassment of riches with archival footage of the ‘80s. We had a great, choppy rhythm. We didn’t need to turn to photos. The stylistic departures came together organically.
Studio Daily: Sarah, when you were working on your book, did you ever think about turning it into a film?
Sarah Burns: Yes. It was pretty early on in the book process that all three of us realized we wanted to turn it into a film. The film allowed us to show the New York of the ‘80s and to interview the Five and show them through their own words. As much coverage as they got, no one had ever really asked them to tell their own story. It seemed ripe for telling in this way. It would help us have a larger conversation about some of these issues.
Studio Daily: How were you able to get the rights to get the confession videos [in which the Five offer false confessions, shot by police surveillance cameras, to the rape]?
Burns: They had been released to the media. They’re everywhere.
McMahon: At various archives, we found several versions. If you look back at news coverage from the time, you’ll see snippets of the confessions, only days after they were recorded. They’ve been out there forever.
Studio Daily: But you couldn’t get the NYPD to talk to you?
McMahon: During the book process, Sarah tried to talk to police and prosecutors. They all hid behind this idea that because they were named in this ongoing civil rights suit, they couldn’t talk. We do feel that their perspective is represented in the film. The narrative they created is laid out in the film. That was one of the great challenges. How do we represent their side when they won’t talk to us? We also had to take into consideration that their theories often weren’t based in fact. Also, the confessions were in some cases the product of 30 hours of interrogations. These seasoned detectives worked to get a script that they could take to a prosecutor. We only have the final product and the memories of the Five. What happened to them was imprinted very heavily because it’s such a shocking thing to happen to a teenager.
Studio Daily: How closely did you work with your editor in shaping the material?
Burns: Very closely. Our editor, Michael Levine, was a hugely important part of our creative process. A lot of the pacing, particularly in the introductory sections, is the result of his ideas about how to put us in that place.
McMahon: He worked with Ken on Baseball. He has a very long list of great films on his resume, including a lot of cinema verité, where directors gave him hours of footage and asked him to shape it. We thought he’d be good for this because he was coming from outside our shop and might bring his ideas about working outside the usual Ken Burns style.
Studio Daily: The Central Park Five are remarkably frank. Was there anything they didn’t what to talk about or anything you felt uncomfortable about including?
Burns: They were all pretty ready to open up and talk about this. Through the process of working on my book, I’d been talking to them for years. They were amazingly open about telling their stories. I think there are details they leave out. For example, when we ask Kory {Wise, one of the Five} about going to prison, one can only imagine what we went through and I don’t think he’s quite prepared to talk about it. He talks about what happened and he mentions “the jumping, the stabbing.” You get a sense of what he went through even though he doesn’t go into a lot of detail. I think that’s one place where it may have been too difficult to tell us exactly what happened. For the most part, they were very generous with their stories.
Studio Daily: Did you choose the music selections? I thought your use of hip-hop in the montage of ‘80s New York was quite well-done.
McMahon: Ken has always used popular music of the era. We wanted to have an edgy feel to it and use music that would transport people back to that time. Also, the rhythm of hip-hop allowed for a different style of cutting. It helps the pacing. All the music that appears in the film is from East Coast artists. For some of the Five, it was the soundtrack of their lives. It felt right, and Michael deployed it well.
Studio Daily: Do you think the tragedy of the Central Park Five is tied to a particular time and place or could it have happened anywhere in the U.S.?
McMahon: Yes, and yes!
Burns: I think this case and the way we look at it has a lot to do with New York in the ‘80s. Something just like it could happen today, though. The underlying suspicion of young people of color can be seen in the Trayvon Martin case and the stop and frisk policies in New York.
Studio Daily: What was really noteworthy for me was seeing all these tabloid headlines basically writing the Central Park Five out of the human race. Even today, the New York Post writes about murderers or rapists as if they’re not human. Most of the time, they’re talking about genuinely horrible people, but in the case of the Central Park Five, they turned out to be innocent.
Burns: The coverage at the time was completely dehumanizing. You’d think the media would have learned, but I don’t think they have. When my book came out, the Post published an excerpt from it about Matias Reyes {the actual rapist of the Central Park jogger} but they ran a photo of the Central Park Five and captioned it by calling them hoodlums. It doesn’t stop. Jumping to the most salacious conclusions without worrying about the consequences if you’re wrong still goes on.
McMahon: If you look at the way lynchings were covered in the early 20th century, that same language is present. It’s present in overage of Emmett Till. It goes beyond just the media. There were some assaults in Times Square a few years ago, and Michael Bloomberg referred to them as a “wilding,” which is a word that comes out of the Central Park jogger case. We now know that it was done by a serial rapist acting on his own, but the language is so convenient that our mayor uses it to describe the actions of teenagers of color.
Anton McCray, one of the Central Park Five, with his mother Linda McCray during the trial in 1990.
Anton McCray, one of the Central Park Five, with his mother, Linda McCray, at the time of the trial in 1990. Photo courtesy of NY Daily News via Getty Images.
Studio Daily: Can you talk about the film’s current legal situation?
McMahon: Our lawyer issued a motion to quash the subpoena a few days ago. We’ll wait for a response from the city. We feel that we’re protected by reporters’ privilege and shouldn’t have to turn over any of our material.
Studio Daily: How did you divide the labor [as co-directors]?
Burns: We divided the interviews up fairly evenly. The research was mostly in our hands. The film’s creative decisions were mostly made in the editing room. There, we figured out what fits and where the pieces go.
Studio Daily: Did working as a trio of directors ever present difficulties?
Burns: No, it was surprisingly smooth. Most of the time we found ourselves agreeing about things in the editing room. Because there were three of us, there was a sense of democracy, where if two people agreed, the third could say “Okay, let’s go with that.” It actually was a good system for us.

The Central Park Five [official site], a Sundance Selects release, opens theatrically this Friday. It will be available on demand beginning December 7.