Recalling his first documentary, Brooklyn Bridge,
made almost 30 years ago, filmmaker Ken Burns fast-forwarded to the
present and spoke about the World War II project that he is now
editing, last night at the Brooklyn Public Library. After vowing to
himself that he wouldn’t make another war film after The Civil
, Burns told an audience of history buffs, the reason he’d
been motivated to work on the project was a statistic he’d heard. "Apparently 40 percent of graduating high school seniors
think that we fought with the Germans
against the Japanese," he said. "And that’s in spite
of Band of Brothers, Schindler’s
, Saving Private Ryan, the execrable
Pearl Harbor. Even the best of them don’t give you
any context.”
Tracing “the arc of the greatest cataclysm in the 20th century” is
something that he’s now six years into. Broken into seven episodes, the
project is, he said, the story of four U.S. cities and how their
citizens were involved in the war. It combines the Burns trademarks of
still photos that come to life, first-person narration, and “footage
from the National Archives which is almost too horrible to watch.”
Burns still carries in his wallet a page ripped from the script of
The Civil War, the letter of a soldier to his wife
found on his body after the Battle of Bull Run. The page is in pieces
and needs to reassembled in order to be read from.
Burns told the audience that raising funds hadn’t really gotten much
easier since he cobbled together the $180,000 for Brooklyn
. The first funds for that came in an envelope from
Meade Esposito, one-time Democratic county leader of Brooklyn. “I had a
four-inch thick proposal and it took a year to get less than 1/20th of
budget,” he said of financing his latest project. If he were to remake
his uncharacteristically short first docu ‘ it was only 60 minutes long
‘ Burns admitted, "I think I’ve gotten better as a filmmaker but if I
were to do it again I couldn’t do it in an hour. I know now how to go
to an archive and make a scene come to life.”
Burns related the eight variables that make up his films in different
combinations. They break down the middle between visual and aural. The
first four are live cinematography (always film), newsreels,
interviews and stills. Photographic documentarians ‘ Andre Kertesz,
Paul Strand, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange ‘ have always been his
models rather than cinematic chroniclers of history. The other
components are third-person narration, first-person narration, special
effects, and music. And don’t underestimate those special effects.
Burns related that a fan who questioned him about the newsreel footage
that he used for sequence of building the Brooklyn Bridge didn’t
believe him when he told her that there were no newsreels in the 1880s
as the bridge was being finished. In the film, large pieces of stone
are seen hoisted by steam powered cranes ‘ all artfully manipulated
stills, as moving picture cameras were not yet in existence.
The filmmaker, who said that he now works on two to three projects at
once, expects the World War II series to air in 2007, and said, “One of
the benefits of working for PBS is that [if] you don’t like my films, it’s
all my fault.”