Ken Burns & Dayton Duncan On “The Dust Bowl”
By Abbie Bernstein
In the 1930s, particularly between 1934 and 1936, the prairie regions of the United States and Canada were afflicted with terrible dust storms that blackened the air, choked people and animals and made certain areas uninhabitable.
Famed documentary maker Ken Burns (THE CIVIL WAR, BASEBALL, THE WAR, JAZZ) and his producing/writing/researching partner Dayton Duncan have now turned their filmmaking sights on this epic social and ecological disaster. The result is the four-hour, two-part documentary miniseries THE DUST BOWL, which airs on PBS this coming Sunday and Monday, 8 PM to 10 PM.
In person, Burns, originally a native of Brooklyn, New York, looks to be about half his actual age (he was born in 1953). Duncan has an imposing frame and a gentlemanly manner, quick to jump up and get a glass of water when an interviewer has a coughing fit.
Together, both men talk about THE DUST BOWL, what the event meant to the country and what the project means to them.
“This is a cautionary environmental tale,” Burns says, “about people who got excited about the possibility of populating an area of the country that had not been populated and to do agriculture there in a place that was marginally suited to that, and they plowed up way too much grassland and when the inevitable drought returned and the wind continued to blow, it blew the land away. It’s not the absence of food, it’s the human suffering that these hundreds and hundreds of dust storms gave not only to the region but to the whole country as it blew Oklahoma all the way to the Atlantic.”
What drew Burns and Duncan to the Dust Bowl as a documentary topic?
“We’ve been interested in it for a number of years, many years,” Duncan relates. “I wrote a book, which took me through that area, not to cover the Dust Bowl per se, but brought me into contact with people who’d lived through it, and the tales that they told to me were so unbelievable and compelling, and the story behind it seemed to me important, that we wanted to do it at some time. We don’t have a timetable. Ken and I worked on THE NATIONAL PARKS film together. We didn’t say, ‘Well, NATIONAL PARKS should then be followed by THE DUST BOWL.’ Instead, it was just, ‘What else is on the list of stories, and parts of our history that we want to tell?’ The compelling thing for the Dust Bowl was, if we didn’t do it now, there would no longer be any people who lived through it around to tell their story. So that really was the urgency for us. This is going to be the last film about the Dust Bowl that will rely heavily on the first-person accounts of people who lived through it, just because of the actuarial tables. This takes place in the 1930s. The people in our films are in their late eighties and nineties and they were young children during it, so there just won’t be any people left to tell the story.”
Burns notes that finding living eyewitnesses isn’t their primary consideration when deciding on a new story. Instead, he and Duncan think about that once they’ve decided to tackle a subject. “In this case, we did have to ensure that we did have enough people that would be able to – so-called ‘ordinary people,’ they’re far from ordinary – to populate the film, but we then would reach out – we already knew Tim Egan, who had written the book THE WORST HARD TIME. Dayton in fact had encouraged him to write it when a lot of people were discouraging him from writing about the Dust Bowl. THE WORST HARD TIME is one of the great books of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and we knew we’d seek out other historians who would help us. Mainly, we needed to have this anchor of the first-person material. When we realized we had that critical mass [of eyewitnesses who would speak for the documentary], then we could proceed. But we don’t go with any sort of preconceived notions of how they will be. We thought that by collecting more than two dozen first-person commentators from Dust Bowl survivors, that we would winnow it down to a half dozen, or maybe a couple more than that, stories. But we found it almost impossible to cut many people out. In fact, it demanded that we have a much more complicated, a much more intertwined and braided narrative than we originally thought, which is where we’re always prepared to change at any moment, what we’re going to do. So we go in curious and corrigible and looking to be told what the story is, not to impose our preconceptions on it.”
Burns of course famously did the documentary entitled THE CIVIL, which would seem to not have any firsthand witnesses.
Burns says it’s really quite the contrary. “There’s lots of first-person stuff, but it just happens to be people who are dead.” Actors read letters and documents penned by people who were present for events covered in the documentary. “In THE DUST BOWL, it’s anchored by the story of a woman, now dead, named Caroline Henderson, who was one of the most eloquent writers that we’ve come across. We follow her throughout the whole film.”
Teasing, Burns points out a few other projects where the principals were no longer available to appear on camera. “You know, we made a film on Lewis and Clark, and we didn’t get a chance to interview either one of them. We’d like to. Abraham Lincoln was a big get for us, but it wasn’t going to happen. It’s just, you take what’s given. So some films have a lot of talking heads and very few first-person voices; some have a lot of first-person voices and no talking heads. Some have both. Some have lots of live cinematography, some have very little live cinematography, some are filled with still photographs, and no moving pictures, some are filled with lots of moving pictures and still photographs
“It’s just,” Burns continues, “we are in the service of good story. That’s it. That’s what draws us to a subject, that’s what animates our concern to make it better at every juncture, that’s what determines for us that the film is over and that we can release it and that’s what we hope people see is a good story. And now we know that a good story is in itself the collision of lots of things, of ‘I didn’t know that,’ of tensions and conflicts within that story, and that those tensions and conflicts give off some free electrons of meaning, of message, of cautionary whatever you want to call it. So it’s not so much that we want this film to do certain things, we just know that in the course of telling a complex story, many ideas that come and reverberate with things that are going on today that reverberate back in time will be there and that’s always a good thing. We want to make sure our films always have those kind of free electrons bouncing out of the stories.”
The filmmakers don’t start with preconceptions of how long a project should be, nor is the length dictated by broadcaster PBS.
“We’re getting better at it,” Burns allows. “It’s thirty years-plus into [Burns’ documentary career], so we can say, ‘We think it’s going to be this,’ but THE CIVIL WAR was going to be five one-hours. It ended up being nine episodes and eleven-and-a-half hours. BASEBALL was going to be five hours, then it was going to be nine hours, and it turned out to be eighteen-and-a-half-plus hours. By the time we got to this, we sort of thought, well, it could maybe be one, but probably it was going to be two, and then it was where you divide. It’s less [about running time] than, what are the goalposts? What are the dividing lines? How do you take a moment and make sure that’s the climax of Episode One that throws you into Episode Two? In the case of longer series, we just multiply those problems, those issues. These are welcome problems. In the case of our almost-finished film on the Roosevelts, we’ve got to figure out where the goalposts are. And we’ve learned from years of experience, you don’t want to impose those. We’ll be corrigible enough that we’ll let the material dictate that.”
What do Burns and Duncan see as some of the unique aspects of THE DUST BOWL as a topic? “Well,” says Duncan, “as a topic, it’s pretty hard to dismiss as other than it’s the biggest manmade ecological disaster in American history. What else is there? That’s enough for starters, but it also is a story of incredible suffering on a scale that you just can’t imagine, in terms of suffering physically, suffering mentally, suffering economically. It’s a story of heroic perseverance on a scale that we don’t normally come up against. So I think the story operates on a whole range of levels, and it brings into sharp relief all different aspects of American character against the backdrop on a scale that is almost too big to be believed, of this cataclysm of the worst manmade environmental disaster in our history. And then there are the filmic things.”
“I think another important point that distinguishes this,” Burns adds, “is that this is in large part an oral history. Not in the pure sense of the word – we have a very strong and eloquent narration written by Dayton, we have historians that anchor and guide the narrative and provide some perspective, we have the first-person voice of Caroline Henderson and a handful of others. But what’s the heart and soul of this are the twenty-six people whose personal stories relate this complicated narrative, and that’s unusual for us, that at the heart of the narrative story are so many individual stories, oral histories, that make it up. And that’s I think part of what drew us to this, why we’re so excited about it now. I don’t think we were drawn to it because we thought it would be an oral history – we were drawn to it because it was such an amazing story – but as we began to find the people, as it began to relate their stories, as we saw that none of them could be edited out, that they all needed to be inter-braided, we realized that that was sort of the beating heart of this story.”
Given that the Dust Bowl took place in the Thirties, before current thinking on ecological cause and effect, do Burns and Dayton believe that people at the time should have known better as they were plowing up the soil?
“Of course,” Burns replies, “there were many, many choices involved. You look at the BP disaster, where everyone was saying, ‘This is the worst disaster in America.’ Well, it’s not. We’re a couple years later, or a year and a half later, and things are getting back to normal – we think. [The Dust Bowl was] is a ten-year apocalypse. The United States government could have not encouraged the heedless piling up of land that should have remained [intact]. They should have listened to the Indians and they should have listened to the ranchers. As one said, ‘This is wrong side up.’ The unscrupulous folks should not have done what they had done in selling the stuff and I think people just got caught up in a classic American bubble and thought it would always be good times, and it wasn’t. And so if you could just be a little bit more, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t plow up this much, let’s just see and maybe there are steps and phases and oh, look at this drought, this tells us a lot,’ the human suffering could have been mitigated to some extent.”
“So the answer is, yes, they could have [avoided the disaster],” Duncan adds. “There’s a lot of the human nature of people that had a momentum. They weren’t forced by their government to do it. The government was culpable in its encouragement. So it could have been a lot different. There were people who said, ‘This should remain as grassland.’ They weren’t as advanced as we are now scientifically to talk about the evolution of the grasses and that kind of stuff, but there were people who said, ‘This should be a grassland, it should stay, and some of this really isn’t a good place to be trying to plow up and turn into [land to] grow crops.’ But is it likely that it would have been different? That I don’t know.”
How do the filmmakers hope audiences will respond to THE DUST BOWL?
“We like good storytelling,” Burns answers. “That’s what we want and we’re very happy at the response we’ve had. We know, because of those free electrons [of meaning], we’ve got a lot of other things – we’ve got connections to present-day moments, we’re in the middle of a drought now, we always know that there’s an educational dimension to [documentaries] and we’re very happy that that happens, but our first and foremost obligation is to our audience and the audience for a filmmaker expects, first and foremost, one thing, and that’s a good story. And that’s what we endeavor [to do] and apply most of our efforts. We’re not political filmmakers, we don’t have a polemical agenda. We are not environmental filmmakers, we are not pointing arrows at all of this. But we know that there are political and environmental aspects of this story that are part of it, that are given off by the complexity of the narrative, and that’s okay, too.”
Burns is philosophical about what happens when he completes a project and it airs. “It’s like sending a kid off to college. When you finish a film, you’re going to love them forever, they’re part of your lives, but now it’s yours [as a viewer]. Now, what do you think? And that’s what we look to our audience for and want that conversation. ‘You never finish a work of art,’ someone said, ‘you abandon it.’ We don’t abandon it,” he laughs, “we get to that point where we think it’s done and then we send it off in the world and it has adventures. Look at THE CIVIL WAR – it’s twenty-two years old and still talking back and that’s exciting.”
How did Burns become a documentarian in the first place? “Well,” he relates, “I went to Hampshire College in the early 1970s, and all of my teachers in film were social documentary still photographers, who reminded me, I think quite correctly, that there’s much more drama in what is and what was than anything the imagination can dream of. There are a lot of people who feel that drama – Shakespeare would be one of them – is a much better way to communicate the truth, whatever that is. For the last forty years, I’ve never lost my affection or appreciation or interest in the ability to tell it that way. I just think if I were given a thousand years, I wouldn’t run out of topics for documentaries without that sort of stuff, so … Never say never.”.
In fact, Burns says he’d like to do some fictional filmmaking as well. “I’ve wanted to do that from the very beginning and there’s a little bit of interest right now in the possibility of doing a film on Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion.”
Duncan, on the other hand, is firm in his desire to stay in the nonfiction arena. “I’m an ex-reporter/nonfiction guy, and I don’t necessarily think I have the imagination to make things up, so I’d much rather take the raw material of what actually is or what actually was and try to construct it into a good story – and by saying ‘a good story,’ I think Ken means the same thing. By saying we want to make ‘a good story,’ it doesn’t mean that we want to make things up. A good story just is factual and compelling, and we don’t see any discrepancy or any contradiction in that being both at the same time. So I would say, ‘Never say never’ as well, but I think it would be much less likely that I would be writing the script of a fictional story that Ken directed. I’d put my money in Ken’s [documentaries].”
Besides THE DUST BOWL, what’s coming up next for Burns and Duncan? One project, Burns says, concerns “The black and Hispanic then-boys, now young men, who were falsely accused and convicted of the Central Park jogger rape and served up with full sentences. We are working on the last part of a seven-part fourteen-hour history of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. We are shooting two films right now – one is a biography of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play major league baseball, and we also did a major series, seven parts and fourteen hours again, on the history of the Viet Nam War. Dayton and I are planning, Dayton is researching and will soon be in the writing phase on the history of country music – this is seven episodes, fourteen hours and in 2019, we’ll also have a biography of the writer Ernest Hemingway.”
As if these aren’t enough, Duncan adds, “There are a few other things. We’re trying to raise money [for projects] in the worst possible climate imaginable.”
What was the most difficult aspect of making THE DUST BOWL?
“It’s the same problem with every film that we’ve ever made – what to leave in and what to leave out,” Burns says. “The material speaks to you and tells you what it needs, but it also needs a strong hand that is saying, ‘As good as this is, we have to get rid of it, and as marginal as this is, this is critical to the transfer of information. As powerful as this is, we’ve got another thing that’s similarly powerful, so we have to transform this from a story to just a headline.’ All of those are things that you have to do when you work on it. We don’t know ‘hard.’ We know that every film is a zillion problems, literally, but we don’t see problems in the pejorative sense, we see that as what our work is. How do we find the people? That’s going to take a lot of hard work. Where do we find the pictures? That’s going to take a lot of hard work and some tough decisions. How are we going to whittle this down to two hours? That’s going to require some stuff. Favorite scenes sometimes have to go and, as I just was alluding to, we had two powerful deaths of children in a row, and one had to go. It was a Sophie’s Choice, and we ended up making I believe the right choice and we turned the second one into something more abbreviated, no less effective, maybe more effective because we didn’t wring out yet another painful moment by moment tick-tock of a passing of a small baby.”
Originally, Burns and Duncan tried placing both incidents close together in the editing, but Burns explains, “We watched our reactions and early on, they were both powerful and we kept them as long as we could, but there was some point when you realized, this was asking too much of our audience. It was an exhausting experience back to back, twice over. Dayton did an incredibly creative thing, to turn the second death into something entirely different, but entirely effective, so we didn’t feel like we lost it, but at the same time, it wasn’t asking our audience to go through the second one back to back. And that’s a hugely important thing. If you see the movie AMADEUS, the Emperor Franz Joseph says, ‘Too many notes. It has too many notes.’ People flit away or they bow out or they get overwhelmed or whatever it is. They shut down. And our job is to make sure that you’re sticking with us. That’s our job.”
What would the filmmakers most like the audience to come away with after watching THE DUST BOWL?
Duncan answers. “I’d just like them to come away with a deeper awareness of why it happened, how it happened, and what people went through during it, because I just don’t think that’s registered.”
THE DUST BOWL
Premieres November 18 and 19, 2012
8:00–10:00 p.m. ET on PBS
Order Your Copy of THE DUST BOWL
Release Date: 11/20/2012
Source: Pbs (Direct)
Abbie Bernstein is an entertainment journalist, fiction author and filmmaker.