An interview with Ken Burns

Perhaps you can’t imagine why you would commit yourself to a 14-hour film about the Roosevelts. Yes, Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, has his face up on Mount Rushmore; sure, we know that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were hugely significant political figures. But 14 hours, over seven episodes? The film’s creator, the American documentarian Ken Burns, has a snappy one-liner to pull you in. He grins at me conspiratorially over his Caesar salad. “This is the American Downton Abbey,” he says. “Except it’s all true.”

It is hard to overstate the importance of Burns’s work when talking about documentary cinema in the US. An independent film-maker who has built his career by working with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the American non-commercial TV station, he first came to wide public attention with the broadcast of The Civil War. This epic, 11 and a half hours long, was the highest-rated series in the history of PBS: 40 million people watched its premiere in 1990.

The Civil War, now a staple of classrooms all over the US, is only a fragment of Burns’s achievement. Brooklyn BridgeJazzBaseballProhibitionThe Dust Bowl – to list the documentaries he has made with Florentine Films, his New Hampshire-based company, is to trace a groundbreaking journey through American history. His films have won 13 Emmy Awards and two Oscar nominations and he has been honoured by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences with a lifetime achievement award. And if you’ve got a Mac, you can click into iMovie and take advantage of “the Ken Burns effect” – which allows you to pan across an image, the trademark of his films and the one that has enabled him to make dynamic motion pictures using still photographs, as in The Civil War. (If you’re wondering, he doesn’t profit from this use of his name, though the late Steve Jobs, a friend of his, asked him if he would make their connection official. Burns asked for Apple to give him equipment to donate to schools and non-profit organisations and the deal was done.)

In the US, he is stopped-in-the-street famous. I am always astonished at how little known he is in Britain. The Roosevelts: an Intimate History may change that. When it premiered on PBS in September, it eclipsed even The Civil War, with more than 50 million people tuning in; Lord Puttnam, introducing him to a British audience when they were in conversation at the BFI in London, likened him to David Attenborough, as a naturalist of humanity, someone who “explains us to ourselves”.

Writing in the Guardian, Geoff Dyer compared the series to the work of Tolstoy and assured viewers that they shouldn’t be daunted by the length: “You will be gripped, enlightened, moved and thoroughly convinced that your time could not have been more profitably spent.”

But then Burns was ahead of the game with long-form television. He looks a little wry when he says: “We live in a world where people said, ‘No one will watch The Civil War’ – but they did. ‘No one will watch Baseball [almost 19 hours]’ – but they did. ‘No one will watch The War [14 hours]’ – but they did. Now they don’t say that any more, because we binge.”

He has been on the road with his friend Beau Willimon, the creator of the American House of Cards – the ultimate show for binge-watching – taking part in an event called “The Roosevelts meet the Underwoods”. The comparisons were about getting things done, about strong women, about the process of politics. It was here that the Downton Abbey line came to him.

 It’s not a bad comparison for this compelling blend of personal and political drama, much of which would stretch the bounds of belief, if it weren’t all true. How could you believe that a man shot in the chest from seven feet away – as Teddy Roosevelt was when campaigning to regain the presidency in 1912 – would go on speaking for more than an hour, the bullet still lodged in his ribs? There are many other gripping stories. Teddy’s fifth cousin Franklin, raised in astonishing privilege, a healthy and vital young man, became partly paralysed by polio, only then being elected president, pulling the country out of the Great Depression and playing no small part in winning the Second World War. Franklin’s wife, Eleanor, turned the despair of a troubled marriage into strength and became a beacon for women the world over.

The film is voiced by the all-star cast that is another hallmark of Burns’s work. Paul Giamatti brings vigour and a hint of vulnerability to the irrepressible Teddy; Edward Herrmann’s voice, as Franklin, compliments rather than conflicts with archival recordings of FDR; and Meryl Streep, as Eleanor, is breathtaking. “I loved her turn as Maggie Thatcher,” Burns says, “but I think this is even better. She’s not an impersonator, she’s an inhabitor. You should have seen the historians in our editing room – they would weep listening to her. Because they’d read all these things, but then they hear the cold type on the page come alive.” Just as important are the people of the New Hampshire town where Burns makes his home these days: Teddy’s would-be assassin, for instance, is voiced by the local baker.

Burns is 61 now – though with his floppy dark hair and ready smile he looks at least a decade younger and his energy is infectious. There are films in the works about Ernest Hemingway, the Vietnam war, the war on cancer – the disease that killed his beloved mother when he was 11 – and the great African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson. He knows, pretty much, what he’ll be doing every day for the next five years.

His films are admired by people at both ends of the political spectrum but he has never played it safe, and racial injustice, in particular, has been a powerful theme throughout his career. His work can be seen by some, he says, “as these nice little films – but you forget that history is much more dangerous, much more terrifying. I’ve been escorted out of Alabama churches by state troopers. I get death threats and an unbelievable amount of racist mail. There are some unreconstructed brethren who didn’t like the outcome of The Civil War and blame the messenger. In Baseball, the central through-line is the Negro League . . . This is our original sin. We tolerated slavery in a country that was bragging to the world that ‘All men are created equal’; those words were written by a man who owned other human beings. But a lot of people don’t want to hear that. A lot of people think that with the election of Barack Obama, we could say, ‘Hey, we’re post-racial.’ But we’re not.”

Burns’s first foray into recent history was The Central Park Five (2012), about the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park, New York City. They spent years in prison before their convictions were overturned. It’s a case that still scars the city, which tried to subpoena out-takes from the film in its efforts to show that the authorities had acted in good faith at the time – but without success. The five were recently awarded $41m in compensation. Burns is glad of the award but sadly so. “It’s not going to take away the PTSD they have. And the city didn’t apologise. No prosecutor or detective is going to jail, as I think they should.”

Burns is the chief fundraiser for his own work. PBS gives him, at best, 15 per cent of his funding. “I’m always out there with my tin cup,” he shrugs. To aid in the effort, he has set up the Better Angels Society for prospective donors, its name taken from Lincoln’s 1861 first inaugural address, in which he spoke of his dream that: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Burns’s eyes are alight when he speaks those words; they ring out through the restaurant.

They were on his mind, too, during the Scottish referendum, which he watched with interest, not least because he had just learned – thanks to DNA research done for another PBS programme, Finding Your Roots – that the family story he had always heard was true: he is indeed related to Robbie Burns. “The previous sentence in that address goes: ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.’ I almost wanted to go up to Scotland to say that.”

The pace of Burns’s life sounds exhausting, but even though he’s just stepped off a plane he shows no sign of weariness. When we spoke a couple of years ago, we talked of his mother’s death and how all of his work was, in a sense, about waking the dead. Today he talks about how Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt battled their demons: “Theodore said, ‘Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.’ ” And Ken Burns shakes my hand and gallops off.

“The Roosevelts” begins on PBS America (Sky 534 and Virgin 243) on 19 October (8pm). The DVD box set is out now