WASHINGTON - Known for his award-winning documentaries like The Civil War, Baseball, and The Roosevelts, Ken Burns is adding a new honor to his resume.
The visionary filmmaker will deliver the 2016 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. The annual address is the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.
The man who would almost always rather be asking the questions than answering them joined us in-studio to talk about his career and about the honor.
NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES
“My partner in almost all the films I've made over the last 35 years has been the National Endowment for the Humanities,” Burns told us. “They have made me - in every single way - a better and better film maker. So I have an opportunity, in some ways, to pay back, to talk about the role the humanities plays - not only in our scholarly live - but in our public lives an Americans.”
“We feel that we're frayed around the edges, and the Humanities is one way to knit us back together again. And to also return again and again to the kind of themes that is I like to talk about - the sub themes in American history about the nature of human freedom - but also race, Burns said.
“We sort of don't want to talk about that today in America, and we kind of have to talk about it and I'm trying to, I've spent most of my professional life trying to advance that conversation and now I have one of the most distinguished platforms to do it on with the Jefferson Lecture.”
“I'm in the history business,” Burns said. “And most of the word ‘history’ is made up of the word ‘story.’ So, I tell stories.” He said he uses the same approach when writing for a lecture as when writing narration for his films.
“Despite our age where people said our attention spans are reduced to that of a gnat, that we live in a YouTube generation - all meaning accrues in duration,” Burns said. “The work you're proudest of, the relationships you care the most about have been benefited from your sustained attention.”
As an example, he told us, his ten part, 18 hour documentary on the Vietnam war took ten years to put together. He said that while the project ended last November – the crew has revisited it to make changes about 2- times.
“What we want to do is make films that aren't just - everybody's red state or blue state – I want to be purple, right down the middle,” he said about his philosophy on filmmaking.
He starts films with an original conception, he told us, and tries to free himself of preconceptions. He said sharing with people his process of discovery get people to immerse themselves into his stories.
His documentary, The Civil War, was the project he says changed the most from conception to completion.
“We didn't try to put out what we already knew,” Burns said. “We were willing to learn as we went along the way and so what the audience benefited from was the enthusiasm of creation, of discovery, of saying, ‘Wow, I had no idea.’”