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Capturing America's Treasures On Film

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Ken Burns
Documentary Filmmaker
Friday, September 25, 2009; 1:00 PM

Emmy Award-winner and Academy Award two-time nominee Ken Burns was online Friday, Sept. 25, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his newest film series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" (PBS, Sept. 27), and his many other documentaries, including "The Civil War," "Baseball," "Jazz" and "The Brooklyn Bridge."

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A transcript follows.

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Ken Burns: Ken Burns here. Happy to answer your questions today.

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Austin, Tex.: As a former park ranger with the NPS, I'd like to know what park or place you visited surprised you the most. What park provided you with unexpected insight?

Thanks -- I'm thrilled about this series.

Ken Burns: I can't think of a park that didn't provide me with those unexpected thrills. And I think that's the glory of the national parks, that as John Muir said, "It's still the morning of creation. Everything is happening right now."

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Washington, DC: Not a question, just a comment. Your Civil War series was extremely formative for me when I was growing up, spurring my interest in the time period and eventually my major in college. So, thanks!

Ken Burns: Thank You! The civil War is the most important event in the life of America. Everything that came before it, led up to it and everything after it, is in some small way at least a consequence of it. It's no wonder then, that it holds a universal and continuing appeal.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What are your thoughts on the new Yankee Stadium as opposed to the original?

Ken Burns: Being a Red Sox fan, you may have asked the wrong person the wrong question, but it is clearly a huge monumental structure that reflects both the glory of the Yankees dominance in this sport and also the excesses of the current age.

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Anonymous: How did you first get interested in this topic? It fits well with the rest of your films, but it doesn't seem like an obvious choice.

Ken Burns: I've always been interested in films that reveal ourselves to ourselves and I can think of no better subject than the national parks; they are a prism through which one can see refracted the whole history of our complicated United States. The best of us, and the worst of us, is on display in this drama. We've made not a travelogue or a nature film, but a history of complicated ideas and extremely interesting individuals.

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Rangers: I enjoy your work a lot. This is not a film question. Why were you at the Texas Rangers baseball game at the end of July? I was visiting and you were there, too! Thanks.

Ken Burns: I was having my birthday party at the park with some friends after a day of meetings and the Texas Rangers kindly let me throw out the first pitch. I thought they were unaware it was my birthday, but my middle daughter called them up and blew my cover.

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New York: Ken, I saw clips of your national parks film on the Web site, and got chills listening to the speakers describing what the parks mean to them -- the best representations of democracy, places of love, magical tributes to past, present and future. And it dawned on me that your films aren't just fascinating for the stories they tell, but also for the people who tell those stories. How do you find these people, and what do you look for in deciding who to feature in your films? I can't wait for the broadcast. Thanks.

Ken Burns: The key word in your generous question is love. With regard to the national parks, we look for people who could not only tell us about the history, but were passionate about their own personal experiences in the parks. So in the end, our film is not just a history, but a way of understanding that these parks promote sometimes the most intimate transformations within us and between us and the people we love most.

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Jellystone: How long did you work on this project -- how many hours did you shoot total, and what was the hardest thing you had to cut?

Ken Burns: We have been working on this project for more than ten years. We shot for more than six of those years and amassed literally hundreds of hours of footage that would go into making our twelve hour series. Our cutting room floor is filled not with bad scenes but with hundreds of beautiful things that just didn't fit and the hardest by far was to take out those stories of individuals that are just as important as those we do highlight, but there just wasn't room to tell their story.

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Alexandria, VA: What are your hopes for viewers' reaction to National Parks? More visitors to the parks, more funding to upkeep of the parks, more emphasis toward preserving our natural spaces, etc?

Ken Burns: Yes, yes and yes. I would love nothing more than to have the parks overloaded with people and every superintendent trying to figure out how to accommodate them all. That's a good problem to have in a democracy.

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Washington, D.C.: I believe the parks face significant shortfalls for maintenance and improvements. In the current economic climate, what's the best reason for spending federal funds on the National Parks?

Ken Burns: That's an excellent question. We do suffer a backlog from neglect of the previous administration that some estimate to be over $8 billion worth of immediate maintenance for the parks. It may seem frivolous in these tough times, but spending money in the parks repays many times over the actual expenditure, not just in jobs, but in cohesion for our country. The same thing happened during the Great Depression when, paradoxically, the parks thrived as never before. They not only got FDR's stimulus money, but they got Americans flooding into their parks to feel, in the darkest of times, that we could continue together as a people.

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New York : A little off topic. Your Civil War series will endure for all time as the most memorable visual history of the conflict, but it has been criticized over the years for its treatment of some of the more difficult issues, which cannot be discussed without some acrimony, it seems. Unfairly or not, Mr. Foote was particularly criticized as being a sympathizer with the confederacy and later, segregation. I bring this up because recently we have seen town halls with people showing up with confederate flags, and racial signs which call to mind the racist Lincoln-hating signs of the time displayed in your film. If you were to make this film today, would this recent re-emergence of 'confederates in the attic' have affected the way that you dealt with some of these issues?

Ken Burns: I don't think so. I believe we were quite forthright and created enemies at the extremes of our political discourse and that's I guess a sign of a good documentary. Shelby Foote was not a racist, he was a southerner, with a southern perspective, but not a southern bias, and did in his books and in his novels decry the pernicious effects of segregation. As you know, all of my films tackle the very sensitive and controversial subject of race and I feel it is important to never pull any punches. We didn't then and we don't now. And if I were to make the film again, I'd do it exactly the same way, criticism be damned.

And I share your shock at the old symbols of the confederacy being used in the current debate taking place today. They remind us of how much work still has to be done to make a more perfect union.

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Arlington, Va.: If you were still making films in 2090 (and best of luck, you will be!), what developments in 2010-2009 would you be most interested in doing a film about?

Ken Burns: From your lips to God's ears! I think I would still be focused on the extraordinary election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. I think he represents the beginning of our third act in American history. The first act began with Thomas Jefferson, but his definition of all men created equal was limited. Our second act began on Nov. 19, 1863 when Abraham Lincoln delivered his celebrated Gettysburg address. In that speech, he essentially said, we really do believe that all men are created equal, but it would take another century and two more generations before our country would be able to elect an African American as president. That progress is one of the most significant things I've experience in my lifetime and I imagine we ill continually look back at his inauguration as one of the turning points in all of American history.

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Dover, De: Hi Ken,

If you had to pick one of your documentaries; which one holds the most signifigance for you or is your favorite?

Thank you for your time and wonderful work!

Ken Burns: Because I work with PBS, I'm able to make in each instance the film I wanted to make, so like my children it's hard to pick and totally unfair to pick a favorite. I suppose I'll always be known for The Civil War, but a tiny little film I made in the early 80s on the history of the religious sect the Shakers, is just as dear to me. Duke Ellington answered this question better than I just did. When asked which was his most important composition, our greatest composer said "the one I'm working on now."

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Hackettstown, NJ: Thank you for doing this series! Which of the parks is most in need of additional funding? Did you see cutbacks happening over the years you were doing the series?

Ken Burns: I think because of all the delayed maintenance in the parks, they all, if you look closely, are frayed around the edges. But I don't know if one park suffers more than the others. It would just be helpful for Americans to write their congresspeople and beg them to support their national parks. They are the crown jewels of our remarkable republic and could use a good dusting.

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Olney, Md.: Ken, Thank you so much for your wonderful, in depth documentaries. They are a major reason that I contribute regularly to my local station, WETA. I am a High School Social Studies Instructional Specialist in Montgomery County, Maryland and promoted your Parks documentary to all the Social Studies Resource Teachers across the county. I can't wait until Sunday night at 8 pm.

Our students and teachers thank you, please continue the great work!

Ken Burns: That's so kind, you know I work with the best network on earth, and I work at WETA, the best affiliate of that network and I am so thrilled you are not only a viewer, but also a supporter. A lot of people think NPS stands for the National Park System just as they think PBS stands for Public Broadcasting System. But the 'S' in both of them stands for service and that's what we try to do. Thank you for your support and kind words.

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Ken Burns: Goodbye, rushing off to new interviews and will meet you all on Sunday night on PBS. The series runs all week.

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