Ken Burns on "The Address"
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The news that Ken Burns, whose 1990 documentary “The Civil War” is an American classic, was making a movie about the Gettysburg Address would hardly come as a surprise. But “The Address,” which premieres Tuesday on PBS at 9 PM, takes an unusual angle into Lincoln’s famous, and famously brief speech. Burns and his colleagues filmed students at the Greenwood School, a boarding school in Vermont for boys with learning differences, where each year, students spend several months memorizing the address in preparation for a public recitation of the speech. The resulting movie is Burns’ return to cinema verite, as well as a novel focus on Lincoln’s actual words.

In January, Burns and I spoke at length about “The Address.” Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

I wanted to start out by asking a question about this way into the Gettysburg Address, because the address is very much concerned with egalitarianism, and this is a very expensive private school. And I understand that provides a great frame, but was that something you considered at all?

To be fair, it is an expensive private school, but they have huge financial aid, so it sort of balances out. And it’s a very funky, very interesting place, and that’s what appealed to me. And also, the idea that you would take nearly three months out of the school year and across many—not all—but many of the classes and the disciplines use the Gettysburg Address as a unifying factor. And then the Gettysburg Address is egalitarian, and this is egalitarian in the fact that these are kids that regardless of their money have all been marginalized and many times brutally bullied. And they come here, and they have the new birth of freedom that Lincoln is talking about for the larger country….But to tell you the truth, as an artist, you just think to yourself this is a great story. Ten years ago, someone else would do it because this is cinema verite, and I don’t do cinema verite. And then I go back again and again, a judge three times over the past 10 years, visited them other times to talk about the Gettysburg Address and finally just said “Geez, the 150th anniversary is coming up. Why am I waiting for someone else to do this? Why don’t I just do it, for crying out loud?”

I was curious if you could go back and talk about the origins of the program. You brought up the questions I was going to ask, which is, how integrated is it?

You’ve got it in the English classes, you’ve got it in the history classes, you’ve got it in the speech therapy classes. You’ve got it in all these different things, and the integration of that is fantastic. And it’s so intimate. It’s a boarding school, remember?… I loved the fact that they could have this unifying event, and the founders, 35 years ago, thought of this and used the Gettysburg Address. And it’s just been built upon and built upon and built upon. But they’ve never been to Gettysburg. So what we did with part of our budget was we rented that bus and rented them hotel rooms for two nights and paid for five meals for the whole school and took them all there, and I gave them a daylong tour of Gettysburg.

You said that the founders thought about the Gettysburg Address from the beginning. Did they develop a curriculum at the time, or did the curriculum come in as the school began?

Well I think first of all, the Gettysburg Address is superimposed over what I believe the founders, not radical, but just sort of a reinvigorated remedial teaching—just sort of addressing the questions of dyslexia, which we know how to do, and ADHD, which we know how to do, and dysgraphia and executive function, and the alphabet soup of things that these kids have in varying degrees….You get kids helping other kids, you move around, and you have things in which everyone can attach to in different stages. So the big kids and the little kids, the middle schoolers and the high schoolers—if you make that division within Greenwood—are doing it, and it’s really great. We’re blown away at how it integrated into history classes and how it integrated into speech and how it integrated into all the various things.

The children seem very poised and self-aware. I thought Ian’s analysis of what bullying does to people in general…

That speech is unbelievable—the devils pull you down or the angels send you free.

It’s funny—you have the one-room schoolhouse metaphor—they seem like children from an age when adulthood was considered to start much earlier.

That’s interesting because I felt all the way through a vulnerability and an impossible youth. I’m the father of four daughters, so I know kids and girls are always ahead in terms of maturity and that sort of stuff. And so I was watching the fragility of these boys who have been bullied. What Ian is reflecting on is more his fragility, and that frustration of the social pragmatics class, when [one of the teachers] says, “Ian, who do your feelings belong to?” Ian says, “the government!” It’s this classic conspiracy theory line of today, heard right off of talk radio this morning. And I was stunned by that and felt protective of him and tried to just observe in a new way and collect in a new way because we had hundreds of hours of footage that came out of that. And some of the kids do come from very thoughtful positions because what you often find is that people who have been bullied and marginalized fall back on themselves and their own resources. And particularly when they have their own learning differences, then you magnify that. So you get poise as well as fragility. You get that thing that you kind of noticed as well as the sense of them being on some kind of thin ice. But I was overwhelmed by their ultimate strength. They did it—guys who were saying the day before or the hour before, ‘I’m not going to do it, did it. And that’s because they were terrified. The idea of reciting the Gettysburg Address before everybody is terrifying.

You said before you haven’t really done cinema verite before—that’s not what you do.

Well I did in college a little bit, but I spent the last 40 years practicing with photographs and things like that.

So that must have been an adjustment.

It just was like using a muscle I haven’t used. If you look at my first film on the Brooklyn Bridge, there’s a little city-and-country school in Manhattan that every year for their kindergartners and first graders, they build the Brooklyn Bridge with blocks. That’s what they do, and I filmed them doing it. And it’s the same thing. So it was just like using a muscle I hadn’t used. But as I was explaining to someone else before, it’s the same process. It’s like solving problems—solving them in a good way. Problems aren’t bad. They’re good in filmmaking. So what do we do here? How do we tell the story here?

Since it’s obviously been a while since you made the Brooklyn Bridge movie, have there been advances in cameras that affected the way that you–

You’ve got a close reading of this film. So at the end of the gala–that is to say, before the coda of going to Gettysburg, which the school had never done—the last shot of that scene is a tall, beautiful Max sort of melting into his mom’s arms. An hour before, he wasn’t going to do it—he was terrified. And later on he explains at Gettysburg that if he was elected president, he wouldn’t be able to give his inaugural speech. Not realizing of course that you’d have to give up to 10,000 speeches up to that chance. But he wouldn’t be able to do that—he’d be so nervous.

But he did it, and it was a huge accomplishment. He got second prize in the high school stuff…And we had sort of blocked out the gala with lots of cameras. We blocked out the podium with some backstage stuff, and Chris Darling, the co-producer with me, knew the order of the speeches and knew where the parents were sitting. So somebody filmed the parents every time someone was giving a speech. But I realized that the cameraman who had gone off to film Max’s mom was doing Max’s speech, but Max was coming back. So that was taken with this [Burns shows me his iPhone]. They were all digital technology. No one shot film on this, which is the first film that I’ve ever done that has not shot primarily on film. This is all digital, and that shot—arguably the most important shot was shot with this thing. I fell to the floor. I literally went back and sat on the floor and filmed Max coming back. I had no idea that he would do what he did.

You’re working with kids, and lot of them have different challenges with attention. Did you work with their teachers to try and arrange set up so that you wouldn’t disrupt their lessons?

You’re asking a version of the Heisenberg principle, which is that the thing observed cannot help but be altered by the act of observation, and that is a law…We just decided to plaster ourselves against the wall and be the flies on the wall. And I limited it—I shot at the assignment, and I shot at the end, but Chris Darling, who is my administrative assistant, I turned into a producer and a sound man. We took one of our interns—unpaid because we had no money at that time—and she found a friend of hers, who worked for nothing for three months, and the three of them, Lindsay, David, and Chris Darling, they went every day school was open and some days when it wasn’t. And the kids got used to them—they ate with them, they played with them, whatever. And then stuff began to unfold without the self-consciousness. Though we permitted and insisted—I insisted in editing that we [allow] those glances at the camera just to acknowledge that the Heisenberg principle is there.

I was wondering if you could talk about which of those moments you chose and which of those to include.

You understand that you’re moving inexorably towards this performance that you’re either going to sink or swim in. And what was so beautiful is that, for the most part—some had to be cued, some stumbled and whatever, some had various differences of effect. You see the one kid who’s talking very slowly, and the mother is watching and the parents are crying. That is not the trick of editing. That is simultaneous footage, where you’ve got several cameras. And you’ve got the parents watching him at that exact moment of the address, looking at each other like, ‘I can’t believe our son is at this place. And you see at the end, afterwards, that before Max melts into his mom, his father’s got him in a headlock, and he is sorting of looking around embarrassed, “Is anyone seeing that my dad is loving me to death?”

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.