Tuesday, July 18, 2006

“Film Free or Die” Ken Burns

NH Gurus
“Film Free or Die”
Ken Burns calls tiny Walpole, NH home - don't think you'll ever get him to move.
by Lou Bortone
July 2006

Los Angeles is the entertainment capitol of the world; New York City is the undisputed global media center. Chicago is television mogul Oprah Winfrey’s kind of town, while Atlanta is home to CNN and Ted Turner. Park City, Utah has the Sundance Film Festival; famed director Francis Ford Coppola bases his studios and production company in San Francisco.

Then there’s Walpole, New Hampshire… Quiet, rural, quaint, out-of-the-way and off the beaten path, Walpole is a New England postcard come to life. But when it comes to documentary filmmaking, unpretentious Walpole, NH might very well be the center of the universe. Simply because, since the beginning of his career as a filmmaker, Ken Burns has intentionally chosen to live and work and flourish in the Granite State – specifically, Walpole.

Since moving from New York City to Walpole and renting a house there in the summer of 1979, Burns has made all of his celebrated films out of that very same house. Burns eventually bought an additional place in the center of town to house the burgeoning film business, and Walpole is now considered a hub for historical documentary film production.

The list of highly-acclaimed documentary films that Ken Burns has produced from Walpole over the last 25 years is long and impressive: The Statue of Liberty, Congress, Baseball, The West, Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, JAZZ, Mark Twain and, most recently, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson – just to name a few.

Among his many documentaries, Burns achieved his greatest critical and commercial success in 1990 with The Civil War, an 11-hour documentary broadcast on PBS that broke all previous ratings records for public television. The series has been honored with more than 40 major film and TV awards, including two Emmy Awards. Burns served as producer, director, co-writer, chief cinematographer, music director and executive producer for The Civil War. The nine-episode series became the first documentary to gross over $100 million, and was seen by an estimated 40 million people. Like all his work, Burns produced The Civil War in Walpole, New Hampshire.

Why New Hampshire?

“People always ask ‘why Walpole,’” admits Burns. “Really, the only answer is, you just have to look around you! I live in a spectacularly beautiful town, and a town that works. That is to say, it takes care of its business in a really good way,” Burns explains. “My town of Walpole seems to be the model for how things ought to be run.”

Some of Burns’ love for the area comes from his ability to focus and work far away from the distractions of a big city. While Burns concedes that he might be more “plugged in” to his field living in New York or L.A., he wouldn’t be nearly as prolific. “We are just able to focus our attention here,” says Burns. “We get things done…we’re just very productive. There’s nothing better than locking myself in an editing room and coming out with a film and then sharing it with the world.”

In fact, Ken Burns calls the move to New Hampshire the single greatest professional decision he ever made. “I remember sitting in New York City in the spring of 1979, and I had shot a good deal of this first film on the Brooklyn Bridge, and the work print was sitting on top of my fridge,” recalls Burns. “I realized that I needed to survive and if I didn’t do something (with the film) soon, I would have to get a ‘real’ job. I saw my future!”

Burns understood that he was at a real juncture in his life: stay in New York and get a traditional job, or get out and make his film. Knowing he’d wake up ten years later with unfinished films and unrealized dreams, “It was at that moment that I just said that I’m moving to New Hampshire!”

Despite not being in proximity to colleagues in the film world, Burns believes there are limitless advantages to being a filmmaker in New Hampshire. Burns sees certain Granite State “traits” that serve aspiring filmmakers and creative types well. “It requires so much perseverance,” says Burns. “You’ve got to know that this is what you want to do.” “Second,” explains Burns, “there’s no career path…nothing’s going to be handed to you, and, in the rugged spirit of this State, you really have to forge your own way.”

Burns also credits the State’s “live free” attitude with giving him the freedom to develop his craft as a filmmaker. “I feel not just proud, but lucky that I had a State that permitted me to experiment with myself – to try out different versions of myself. So I kind of invented myself in New Hampshire.”

Film Free

The freedom and independence that is part of New Hampshire’s heritage has proven a perfect fit for Ken Burns’ filmmaking philosophy. Because he does so much of the producing, directing and editing himself, he makes no apologies for the final product. There are no corporate studio executives breathing down his neck, no silent partners, no committees, and thus no compromises. “I’ve been able to make the films I wanted to make so, if somebody doesn’t like it, I’m proud to say it’s all my fault,” says Burns. “And I’m proud to say that New Hampshire is a large part of why that’s true.” “Essentially,” concludes Burns, “If I didn’t film free, I would die!”

The State’s motto holds special meaning for Ken Burns, and he believes strongly in the words Live Free or Die. “It has become a sense of the identity of this State,” suggests Burns. “For right or wrong – and very often we are for wrong – we do it our own way. And as far as my own personal life and the choices I’ve made, that’s been a really good thing.”

“Particularly as someone who’s spent a good deal of my professional life trying to come to terms with war, the phrase ‘Live Free or Die’ has especially strong meaning for me,” explains Burns. “The oxygen that we’re permitted to breathe, not only in this country, but in this State, comes from a willingness of some people to not tolerate any yolk whatsoever.”

Shared Inquiry
The subjects of Ken Burns’ documentaries run the gamut of Americana. So how does he choose a project? “If I were given a thousand years to live, I’d never run out of topics in American history!” Burns enthuses. “We don’t have an agenda or an axe to grind…the projects are all united by a curiosity of how our country ticks. By pursuing a topic that I don’t know about in advance, we can find out a little bit more about ourselves – and I like that kind of shared inquiry.”

“So rather than tell you what I already know,” Burns continues, “I can share with you the enthusiasm for what I’ve just learned.”

Inevitably, Burns explains, he gets drawn to certain topics. “I’m passionately involved with the question of race in America,” says Burns. “Because I think it’s the number one theme or subtext to our complicated dance with what freedom means. The whole history of the United States is entangled with the lives of African Americans and the question of race.”

Granite Status
While Burns has become an evangelist on behalf of the Granite State, part of his exile from New York City at the start of his career had to do with escaping a traditional career path. “When I realized that I was going to be an historical documentary filmmaker, I assumed that it condemned me to a life of anonymity and poverty,” kids Burns. Having long since given up his vow of anonymity, Burns could have succumbed to the allure of Hollywood or the excitement of the Big Apple – but his roots are planted firmly in New Hampshire soil. He’s raised his family here, based his production company Florentine Films here, and has no intention of joining the jet set.

Today, Burns is still in Walpole and still creating some of America’s best documentaries. His long and fruitful partnership with public television continues, where his next project, The War, will be seen in September 2007. The War is a 7-episode, 14-hour series on World War II. In addition, Burns is working on America’s Best Idea: Our National Parks for a 2009 release, as well as a series entitled Forbidden Fruit: Prohibition in America.

Lou Bortone is a freelance writer and television producer living in Exeter, New Hampshire. His video production company, Granite Planet Productions, creates corporate and non-profit video projects, television commercials and digital content for the web and mobile devices.

NH Gurus is an ongoing series about individuals and businesses in NH who have developed national and international reputations and choose to remain in New Hampshire.

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