Meet Lynn Novick
The ‘Vietnam War’ co-director has been making movies with Ken Burns for decades. Why is only one of them famous?
There is a distinctive style to a Ken Burns documentary — the camera’s smooth movement over black-and-white photographs, an interview subject whose eyes seem to be gazing beyond the camera into the past, the lilt of a fiddle or the blare of a trumpet. But no matter how famous an auteur gets — and Burns has been America’s best-known documentarian for almost 30 years — no director makes a movie entirely on his own. “The Vietnam War,” which premiered on PBS on Sept. 17, is a Ken Burns documentary, but he couldn’t have made the film without his longtime co-director, Lynn Novick. And Novick isn’t just Burns’s partner on “The Vietnam War.” She’s the person most responsible for making “The Vietnam War” the epic story of two nations, not just one.
Burns has long worked with multiple teams; these different squads of writers and producers mean that he can sometimes release as many as two ambitious films in a single year. Among these collaborators, Novick stands out. She is one of the few people who have shared directing credit with Burns more than once, collaborating with him on “Frank Lloyd Wright,” “Prohibition,” “The Tenth Inning” (an update to “Baseball”), “The War,” and now “The Vietnam War.” Novick, not Burns, now conducts most of the interviews for the films they make together. And the movies that result are a product of a unique alchemy: Novick’s penchant for obsessive research blended with Burns’s eye for narrative arc.
Despite her essential role in the movies they’ve directed together, Novick’s work has garnered far less attention. As I worked on this series, watching Novick put the finishing touches on the final episode of “The Vietnam War” in a New York editing bay; seeing her field piercing questions from American and Vietnamese veterans at events promoting the film; and engaging in long conversations about how she and Burns made this ambitious, technically complex film, the disparity between Burns’s star power and Novick’s relative obscurity became more glaring — and more frustrating. Even people eager to credit Novick tend to get distracted by Burns’s celebrity: A rare 2011 profile of her, headlined “A Steady Presence Out of the Limelight,” devoted almost 400 words to discussing Burns’s high profile relative to Novick’s before getting around to Novick’s life and career.
Above: Lynn Novick interviews Duong Van Mai Elliott, who grew up in Vietnam and worked for the RAND Corp. interviewing captured Viet Cong fighters. (Florentine Films)
But “The Vietnam War” is fundamentally defined by Novick’s insight and insistence that the movie had to tell the stories of the people of Vietnam, both North and South, as well as of Americans. And the time she spent there representing the filmmaking duo prepared Novick, and Ken Burns’s Florentine Films for something new: a Lynn Novick movie, coming in late 2018 or early 2019 — without Burns as co-director.
Novick describes herself as “a little bit lost” after graduating from Yale University in 1983. Her academic focus offered accidental preparation for the career she ultimately found. As an American studies major, she explored the history of photography and the process of popularizing history.
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Novick took a job at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, where she accessioned and catalogued materials, worked on a show about Eleanor Roosevelt and organized her own small exhibit about 19th-century child photography. She considered graduate school, but inspired by “Vietnam: A Television History” and Burns’s movies about the late Louisiana governor Huey Long and the Statue of Liberty, decided to pursue a career in TV instead.
She interned for a public affairs show at WNET, a local public television station based in Manhattan, and then went to work for Bill Moyers, where she received what she describes as “a PhD in the art of interviewing.”
Novick got her chance to work with Burns as he was finishing up “The Civil War” in June 1989. He’d lost the associate producer responsible for clearing the rights to the photographs for the film, and Stephen Ives, who would later work with Burns on “The West,” recommended Novick. Novick couldn’t start until mid-July; she was getting married and had planned a honeymoon in France. But when she returned, she had all the rights secured by the end of August. Her predecessor had told Burns it would take at least until January.
At the end of the process, Burns decided that he wanted to work more closely with Novick. Though she had never produced a movie before, he asked her to assume that role on “Baseball.” “I literally had a stomachache for five years,” Novick says.
One moment that eased her anxiety was Novick’s first interview, with an elderly man who had worked for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, scouted baseball prospects including Jackie Robinson and pushed Major League Baseball to integrate. But when Novick sat down to talk to him, six pages of questions in hand, it became clear that her subject spoke too haltingly to provide usable footage. Unsure of what to do, Novick went ahead anyway, shooting six rolls of film, an expensive investment. As she and Burns reviewed the material, Novick spent the whole hour convinced that she would never be allowed to conduct another interview. At the end, Burns turned to her. “It happens,” he said.
The next person she interviewed for “Baseball” was Buck O’Neil, who became the crucial figure in the documentary.
Above: Lynn Novick with Ken Burns, during the period when they were working together on “Baseball.” Novick first worked for Burns on “The Civil War,” where she cleared photo rights for the film. Afterward, he asked her to produce “Baseball” with him. (Florentine Films)
Before they began working together, Burns had done almost every interview for all his movies. As their working relationship evolved, he began to cede that role to Novick.
“She’s a total different interview style from me and I can remember sort of biting my lip a few times,” Burns says. “For me it’s all about listening and moving in on a twitch or an eye thing and following it.” But as she had when she was working for Moyers, Novick conducted pre-interviews and did so much research on her subjects that she sometimes surprised them into discussing new areas of their lives and expertise. By the time they made “Frank Lloyd Wright” in 1998, the pair shared the directing credit, as they have on most of the movies they’ve made together since.
Burns credits Novick with the insight that “The Vietnam War” would have to be shot in Vietnam as well as in the United States. And when it came time for their first trip, Novick ended up taking the lead on the Vietnamese half of the project after Burns had surgery for kidney stones and his doctors advised him not to travel. He never made it to Vietnam.
The Vietnamese government practices extensive censorship, and Burns and Novick do not have the profile there that they do in the United States. In Vietnam, Novick and producer Sarah Botstein relied on their advisers, including the higher education experts Ben Wilkinson and Thomas Vallely, and Vietnamese Air Force veteran Ho Dang Hoa, to explain who they were and the reach their film would have. But even without the Burns brand as an introduction, Ho praises Novick’s ability to connect with her subjects, investing the time to develop relationships with them before their formal interviews and showing interest in the details of their experiences.
Many of the veterans she spoke with had never told their stories in “a systemic way,” Ho says, relating their experiences instead as “a broken memory.” Novick, he points out, “asked the veterans the whole story from the time they joined the war until they left.” Because she had spent time with them and heard at least part of their stories during their first meetings, it was easier for her subjects to forget that the camera was rolling and talk to her simply as a friend, albeit one who would “make them go through their war, all the years of the war, one question after another,” Ho says.
After Novick gathers stories such as these, the chemistry of her partnership with Burns lies in figuring out how to fit years of research and reporting into a cohesive arc. Both of them say that one of Burns’s gifts is the ability to see their film as an audience will see it, clarifying the narratives and spotting areas where he thinks Novick and writer Geoffrey C. Ward, who also worked with Burns on films such as “The Civil War” and “The Roosevelts,” haven’t provided proper context or where a piece of material might work better.
“I can get the big picture super quick and she’s going to do the the the trench work,” Burns says. “You don't win the war if you don't do the trench work. And you also need the grand strategy.”
Above: Lynn Novick shooting on location in Vietnam. (Florentine Films)
Novick’s trench work doesn’t end with interviews and research. As “The Vietnam War’s” premiere date approached, she screened the film for the people she interviewed, preparing them for what it’s going to be like when an audience of millions hears them tell the most difficult stories of their lives. In the United States, Novick sat with Bill Ehrhart, who fought with the Marines in Vietnam and has written influential poetry about the war, and his wife and daughter as they watched a scene where Ehrhart describes how he traded military rations for sex during the Tet Offensive. She has stayed in touch with Jean-Marie Crocker, whose son Denton died in Vietnam, recognizing that there is a difference between knowing that a Burns documentary might make you famous and actually experiencing that. She and Botstein even took Jack Todd, a deserter who fled to Canada and renounced his U.S. citizenship, to West Point for a conversation with cadets.
And in late August, Novick returned to Vietnam to screen the series for her Vietnamese subjects and to introduce the film to a larger audience. “The Vietnam War” has been subtitled in Vietnamese, and will premiere online in Vietnam the same day it begins to air in the United States. Novick says that after all her Vietnamese subjects gave her, she felt a responsibility to make the series available to them, rather than simply bringing back their stories for American consumption. She was also keenly aware that she and Burns had been allowed to say things about the war that Vietnamese filmmakers had not and that they could help Vietnam understand its own civil war, just as Burns did for Americans in 1990.
To Ho, even though he had worked on the film, the bluntness of the Vietnamese veterans in the film and the history Novick and Burns assembled were a revelation.
“I myself feel that for so long, I was a victim of propaganda,” he says. He cites the film’s portrait of the power struggle between Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Party First Secretary Le Duan, who was long presented as a minor figure in the war, and the movie’s exploration of atrocities, including the Northern purge in the former imperial capital of Hue during the Tet Offensive of 1968. “This is the first time some truths, many truths, were exposed” in Vietnam itself, he says.
For the individual Vietnamese soldiers interviewed, “The Vietnam War” is a personal history, a “souvenir of their life,” as Ho puts it. Novick says that she recognized it could be “overwhelming” for the veterans who spoke with her to see their experiences on-screen, given how painful the memories they recounted to her often were. And because the film juxtaposes American and Vietnamese soldiers, her Vietnamese sources weren’t seeing themselves only on-screen: They were seeing their own stories in new contexts.
Above: Lynn Novick during a trip to West Point with Jack Todd, an Army deserter who renounced his U.S. citizenship and who is one of the subjects of “The Vietnam War.” (Florentine Films)
On her August trip to Vietnam, Novick recalls closely watching North Vietnamese Army Gen. Lo Khac Tam, who speaks openly in the film about his sense of guilt about the soldiers he was unable to bring back home to their families in the North, as he watched himself in the movie.
“He said he usually thinks about their dead,” Novick says. But after listening to the American soldiers, Lo told her that “he thought it was self-centered for the Vietnamese to grieve only for their own dead, and that the film sort of brought home to them that the Americans who died were also the sons of regular people who were caught in this epic event.”
Just as the Vietnamese stories Novick brought back to the United States have been eye-opening for American audiences, the Americans’ accounts of their wartime experiences were striking to Vietnamese viewers. As one Vietnamese veteran explained to Novick, “We’ve been told a lot of reasons about why Americans came here and what they were doing, but this film shows us way more dimensions of that than we ever knew.”
Novick says that at the August screenings, viewers responded to Bill Ehrhart’s blunt honesty about his conduct during the Tet Offensive; to Jean-Marie Crocker’s grief; and to retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak’s admiration for the truck drivers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail who were the targets of his bombs. Novick had numerous conversations with Vietnamese viewers about a section of the film about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The idea of a monument that names every American service member who died touched audiences in a country where veterans’ cemeteries are filled with gravestones for a great number of unknown soldiers.
Novick said one of the highlights of her trip was watching Vallely, who served with the Marines in Vietnam, banter with North Vietnamese soldiers. They talked about the relative merits of the C-rations Americans would throw away — pork and lima beans got low marks from the Americans — and that the starving North Vietnamese troops would forage. Vallely longed for one of the North Vietnamese backpacks, while his counterparts envied American ponchos. Though the tone was light, the conversation struck Novick as speaking to the idea that war can be a unifying experience as well as a divisive one: Whatever side these soldiers fought on so many years ago, they shared a respect for good gear, and mixed feelings about those beans.
On the plane on her way to Vietnam in August, Novick says that she had convinced herself that it would be her last. She prepared to say goodbye to people such as Ho; Le Minh Khue, who drove a truck on the Ho Chi Minh Trail; and Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese veteran who wrote a novel inspired by his experiences called “The Sorrow of War.” But once she was on the ground, Novick knew she had been wrong. Now that “The Vietnam War” is finished, Novick feels as though her friendships with her Vietnamese sources has begun a new and franker chapter, one in which they discuss contemporary politics, their families and Novick’s personal life (she was recently divorced). Though she brought her daughter with her to Vietnam, Novick has yet to bring her son, and she wants to share the country with him. Novick has spoken to Vietnamese government officials and to filmmakers about the possibilities of doing documentary film workshops in the country.
And someday, she hopes that she can take Burns to Vietnam. If she does, it would be the rare place where Novick gets to introduce Burns, rather than the other way around.
Novick described “The Vietnam War” as a turning point for both of them. The story they were telling “required each of us to really, truly just let go of any ego and put it all on screen.”
Even without that trip, and 30 years into her working relationship with Burns, Novick described “The Vietnam War” as a turning point for both of them. The story they were telling “required each of us to really, truly just let go of any ego and put it all on screen.”
Novick is also going out on her own, working with Botstein on a documentary about the Bard Prison Initiative, a program that allows men and women in prison to earn degrees through the college. Their project is one of a number of films being made under the Florentine Films banner that Burns is not directing, some of which tackle contemporary rather than historical subjects.
In one of our conversations as “The Vietnam War” approached its premiere date, I suggested to Novick that she was at an inflection point in her career and that this movie provided a perfect moment for her to step forward more and claim the credit that she has long been due. Certainly it seems like it ought to be that way, but I was curious to know whether that was actually what Novick was feeling. After a long pause, she offered a response as careful as it was revealing.
“I do feel like I’m developing this different profile, which feels good. Yeah. Can I say that?” she asked, almost as if the permission to talk about this delicate subject was mine to give, and as if I hadn’t already agreed with her. “Ken has been very generous. He is a larger-than-life force in our society. It requires some work to open that up a little bit. ... It feels really great to be able to talk about it together in that way, and for the world to understand my role a little bit better.”