In Depth

Ken Burns on His 'Best Idea'

Filmmaker’s History of National Parks Is an Environmental Film by Default

Ken Burns’ new six-part, 12-hour film “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” debuts in the fall of 2009 on PBS. Directed by Mr. Burns and co-produced with his longtime collaborator Dayton Duncan, who is also the series’ writer, “The National Parks” starts in the mid-1800s, when the parks were just an idea, and charts the system’s growth through 1980, with the addition of vast swaths of Alaska.

More than six years in the making, the film interweaves Mr. Burns’ characteristic archival material and profiles of the varied characters who brought the concept into being with stunning contemporary photography from American wilderness areas and personal reflections from the everyday visitors who have found inspiration there through the years.

Mr. Burns, who is 55, talked about the film with TelevisionWeek correspondent Elizabeth Jensen in late September, the day after he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

TelevisionWeek: Did you envision this as an environmental film?

Ken Burns: No, I think we’re in the history business. And so this is the story of how the National Parks came into being and how they evolved as an idea. Our belief is that when you tell good stories that are mainly centered in biography—and this is the story of several dozen extraordinary people, most of whom you have never heard of; there are John Muirs and Teddy Roosevelts, but beyond that there are dozens of people, so-called ordinary people, who just fell in love with a particular place and decided to save it. If you tell a history well, if you are engaged in biography, you can’t help but sweep along in its way all of the issues that are going on.

In deference to my friends who are journalists, who deal with the present and near past, this is an area that we’re not interested in. Our film begins essentially in 1851 and it ends for all intents and purposes—though it looks forward—it ends in 1980. But every single issue—environmental, political, historical, biographical—that we engage in the course of the 12 hours is reflected in today’s debates.

I think what happens is that we’re so dialectically preoccupied that it’s really hard to talk about things now without being in your own camp. People watch their own news to have their own political viewpoint reinforced. Even the word “environmental”—bells go off: “Oh, I think I know where you’re from.” We find it, the past, a way to subtly bring up all the issues, just as we talked about with “The War.” We were dealing with the questions of necessary wars and unnecessary wars, questions of leadership, of what goes through an ordinary soldier’s mind. These never change.

TVWeek: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to take one example, was born of the early environmental movement. Do you get into that in the film?

Mr. Burns: Very much so. What we’ve done is we’ve centered it essentially on two individuals. We found a guy named Horace Kephart, who was at the time the bestselling author of nature books, a guide to camping and wildlife. He had been an early prodigy and then fell on hard times. He had been an alcoholic; he lost his wife and six children to divorce.

He started over in the Smoky Mountains. He bumped into a Japanese immigrant named George Masa, who took photographs, and together he wrote and Masa photographed and they began to promote the fact that the old-growth forest was about to be completely clear-cut by a rapacious timber industry.

This movement was born between Asheville, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn. The city fathers all got to help set aside the Smoky Mountain areas—the Great Smoky, as some wise New York PR firm suggested at the time.

What happened is you got a grass-roots response. … Kids were contributing pennies and nickels and dimes from their piggy banks.

TVWeek: So it was like the Statue of Liberty?

Mr. Burns: It was exactly like the Statue of Liberty, and it reminded me exactly of Pulitzer’s campaign back then.

And then what happened is the Depression hits and it’s like a billy club to the forehead. A lot of the pledges that people made weren’t coming through. Even though John D. Rockefeller Jr. had, once again—like Acadia, and as he would do in the Tetons—come to the rescue and offered the remaining amount to be raised, the pledges from ordinary people had fallen short because of the ravages of the Depression.

And in the midst of the Depression, for the first time in the history of the National Parks and therefore the United States and probably therefore the world, the United States government, Franklin Roosevelt, paid the remaining amount—the first time money had ever been spent to acquire land for a National Park.

There was a race against time; the loggers were determined to get as much done before the deal was settled. And they were even timbering stuff that was part of the deal.

TVWeek: Could you broadly sketch out the film’s other themes?

Mr. Burns: It’s important to understand it’s not a travelogue, it’s not just pretty pictures of nature or a wildlife film, it’s not filled with recommendations of what lodge or inn to stay at. This is the story of the ideas and the individuals that made this thing happen.

For the first time in human history, land was set aside—huge tracts of natural scenery—land was set aside not for royalty, not for the very rich but for everybody, for all time. It’s an utterly American idea, growing out of a million impulses that deal from our new political freedoms, from the sense of the magnificence of the continent and its possibilities.

Our first episode is called “The Scripture of Nature.” It’s born out of the idea that as we shake our European traditions, we can find God more easily in works of nature than in the great cathedrals, that we can walk into Yosemite, as John Muir did, and escape the severe Calvinist religion of his father.

The idea also comes out of a sense of urgency. Thomas Jefferson thought this continent that he dispatched Lewis and Clark to explore was going to take 100 generations to fill up, and we filled it up in less than five. And all of a sudden, by the end of the 19th century, we’re looking around going: “We’re going to lose all this. We’re going to lose the buffalo; we’re going to lose these places.”

And we did something really unique: We, at least temporarily, arrested our acquisitive tendencies. Everything about America is about the almighty dollar, and for some reason we were willing to stop. We had to sort of do all these political ploys, declare these places like Yellowstone worthless, Yosemite worthless. …

But then people began being woken up, and there’s an essential spiritual paradox: When you are made to feel insignificance by the hugeness of nature, a giant sequoia, the depth of the Grand Canyon, the majesty of the rocks at Yosemite, paradoxically it makes you bigger. … John Muir said: “In order to go in, I have to go out.” … In order to have some understanding of who I am, I have to actually have a relationship with nature. And that fits with Thoreau, it fits with Emerson, it fits with Jefferson. A democracy requires an interaction, a conversation with nature.

So what happens is we create this thing, as Wallace Stegner called it, “America’s best idea,” which is our subtitle. And as someone instantly says, it’s not our best idea, Thomas Jefferson’s articulation of freedom is, but after that you’d be hard pressed to find a better idea.
And then we watch it evolve, that it isn’t just waterfalls and geysers and gigantic canyons, it’s also the evolution of species diversification. You’re beginning to save habitats. You’re taking the Everglades, which everyone, even the Park Service, thought was a worthless swamp, and suddenly saw it as a place of startling beauty.

The Park Service leads the understanding of species protection: The predators have always been killed; we suddenly change policies. It’s the magnifying glass that shows us our environmental life over the last 160-some years.

TVWeek: Your film is not about politics, but you clearly have your own personal politics. [Mr. Burns produced the tribute film for Sen. Ted Kennedy that aired during the Democratic National Convention.] This film is going to have things to say that fit into the national debate right now. Do you wish it were running right now?

Mr. Burns: Yes, very much so, even without [Alaska Gov.] Sarah Palin in the mix. We were saying that. And we would be showing it over the last year and people would be saying, “Boy, I wish that we could have this out right now.”

[“The War” opened with a quote: “There’s no such thing as a good war, there’s only necessary wars.”] We recorded that before the invasion of Iraq … and yet we’re not unmindful of the fact that that creates a kind of an authentic, unmanipulated conversation with what’s going on. It’s not us being propagandizers, it’s not us forcing an issue. We’re just saying, yes, the experience of war has its resonance today. Can we have an intelligent discussion about it? And we did.

And I think, too, with this, we’ll be able to use the platform of history. That doesn’t have a lot of the current hot topics that polarize people, and nevertheless it is the story of great polarization. We’ve always wanted not to just speak to the choir. We want to speak to everybody and get them to understand.

[An example:] Teddy Roosevelt’s a complex figure. He’s as much a hunter who loves to kill quadrupeds … but he’s also the genius of conservation in our country. And a marvelous figure in our film. Everything’s there, but it doesn’t have to be a cudgel.

TVWeek: When you accepted your Lifetime Achievement Award last night at the News & Documentary Emmys [on Sept. 22], you seemed to be saying, wait a minute, my lifetime’s not over. How did you feel about this award?

Mr. Burns: There’s a kind of “Yikes.” There’s that excitement and the great honor with it, but it’s more the sense—I made a joke about it early on. …

I look much younger than I am, so at least I have worked for 30 years or more doing this. I’ve been making films professionally for 33 years, which is career-length, so I guess they’re all right. I’ve got at least another 33 to go. I’ve got stuff I gotta do. So I thought the joke about “Could it be a half-lifetime award?” was very much how I tried to internally reconcile the obvious.

TVWeek: You have at least 10 more years’ worth of work in public television?

Mr. Burns: More than that. The contract’s through 2022, but I think we’re going to have all the films [that are in the works] done by 2020, so we’ll probably start a new one there. But 2022, I’m 69 years old. [Laughs.]

[PBS] owns the distribution rights till 2025 on all the films, so I assume we’ll just start a new deal then. This is my second 10-year deal, and this is too much fun. …

We have Vietnam; we have the dual biography of the Roosevelts; we have the Central Park jogger film, which is completely unique; the Dust Bowl; Prohibition we’re working on right now; we’re updating the baseball series; I’m going to go to a meeting right now about [a feature film version of the 2005 documentary on] Jack Johnson. The sky’s the limit. …

What I realized halfway through my speech last night, one of the things I wanted to say I’d forgotten to write about. One time I was actually a judge on one of these Emmy things, this was like 15 years ago. They send you about 60 billion tapes and you diligently sit and watch them all and take notes.

There was a fairly interesting documentary on [theater director] Tyrone Guthrie. … Somebody said he was at a meeting with him, and he fixed him with a stern gaze and said: “We are looking for ideas large enough to be afraid of again.” When I watched that in the film I just sat up straight. I ran it back, I typed it out, and I put it on the door to my office, where it still remains to this day. And that’s what it is: It’s biting off more than you can chew and learning how to chew. That’s it.

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