The Address – A Ken Burns Documentary

The Address Exclusive Interview
A Ken Burns Documentary

ken burn documentary

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose youthful looks and apparently inexhaustible energy belie his actual age, has six projects in the pipeline. As he explains, it wasn’t an overabundance of spare time that led him to make THE ADDRESS, but rather passion for the subject matter. The film, which premieres on PBS Tuesday, April 15, deals with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and follows a group of students as they attempt to memorize the relatively brief but enduring speech.

Burns is seated in a small conference room at Pasadena’s Langham Huntington Hotel, prepared to speak at two separate panels, one about THE ADDRESS and one about his other upcoming projects, for PBS’s portion of the Television Critics Association press tour. Meanwhile, he makes time for a one on one interview.

First, Burns explains how he came to make THE ADDRESS. “I live in a little town in New Hampshire called Walpole,” he relates, “and across the Connecticut River, which is the border between New Hampshire and Vermont, is the town of Putney, Vermont. My children have gone to the little tiny grammar school there, my grown kids and now my two younger ones. And there’s another school there called the Greenwood School, which I’d been aware of, a boarding school for boys only, nine, ten, eleven, up to seventeen, sometimes eighteen, who have learning differences, like dyslexia, ADHD, executive function, a whole alphabet soup of things that go on with them. And I was asked ten years ago to be a judge for [an event that has been held for] the thirty-five years the school has been in existence. They have asked, after the kids get back from Thanksgiving vacation, to not only memorize but to publicly recite in February, the Gettysburg Address, which would be a daunting task for any of us, but a minefield of anxiety and difficulties for these kids. And I was so moved, I said, ‘Somebody should make a film about it – it’s not my style,’ but after doing this for many years and watching the process and realizing that the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Gettysburg Address was approaching, I decided to make the film. So we did.”

THE ADDRESS, Burns says, focuses both on how the boys learn the speech and the text of the speech itself. “I thought this could be a perfect convergence of opportunity to focus on the attention on the hundred and fiftieth anniversary. This is the greatest speech ever delivered in the American English language. It is relatively short. These kids are marginalized and bullied at their other schools and their accomplishment in learning this is so fantastic that it gives them, as Lincoln says in the Gettysburg Address, a new birth of freedom.

“So the film is essentially the story of them getting to know it, set against the context of the Civil War and Lincoln and the delivery of the Gettysburg Address. But we also have, as we always do in film and television, this huge educational outreach here, which is, if these boys, with their learning differences and difficulties, can do this, anybody can do this. And we’re a country that has allowed to atrophy what used to be a point of pride of our educational system, that our kids memorized a lot of stuff. And it wasn’t just rote, becoming like a parrot. But they really put on their hard drives a lot of significant literature and poetry and important speeches. And we don’t do that any more. What if we challenged the whole country, not just school kids, but everybody – you! – to memorize the Gettysburg Address? So we went out and got all the living Presidents [of the United States, who] almost instantaneously agreed to recite it for our camera, we got people from the left, from the right, from politics and media, billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Steven Spielberg, Taylor Swift, Conan O’Brien, and we’ve done mash-ups of them. we have the U.S. soccer team, we have schools in Alabama and Utah, and you can just see who’s been doing it. But it’s all in the service of getting people to go to the website, learntheaddress.org, and to upload their own version. At the beginning, it’s very famous people, but after awhile, it’s just regular citizens who’ve learned how to do the Address and uploaded it. Hundred-year-old people and little kids and Joe [DePlasco, managing director at DKC Public Relations, which is working on THE ADDRESS in conjunction with PBS] – Joe took his daughter and they climbed over the rocks at Gettysburg and recited it there. It’s been this wonderful response, and we were barely geared up.

“Now, the [television] stations have been charged with reaching out to their communities, their state legislatures, their governments of their states and their schools and their churches, to encourage this. WETA, the station I work with, has given twenty-eight micro-grants to stations like Pittsburgh and Arkansas, El Paso and other places that are developing really great programs to get people to memorize it, all going back to this original thing and this conundrum, which is expressed in this film by one of the school psychiatrists, who says, ‘Americans like to think that we celebrate individuality, but we don’t. We sort of celebrate conformity, and when anybody’s a little bit different, we really take it out on them.’”

This is one of the key issues of THE ADDRESS, Burns points out. “This is celebrating difference and seeing the way these kids could overcome the specific gravity of their particular set of learning differences, just as the country had to outgrow the hypocrisy of the Declaration of Independence that said all men are created equal, but the guy who wrote it owned other human beings, and that Lincoln could double down and said that we could all have a new birth of freedom. So in essence, this is all about a new birth of freedom on lots of different levels. And we like to do things together. We like to sing together – the National Anthem or ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ or to sing in church. And we [as a society] don’t do that. We’re all independent free agents. And the irony is that the Gettysburg Address gives these kids their own free agency, but in the context of community.”

As to how the Greenwood School’s students present the Address, Burns explains,

“When they’re practicing, they sometimes recite it together, but the whole purpose is that these kids, who have a whole range of learning differences, get up in front of two or three hundred people and recite it by themselves, which is like jumping out of an airplane, for the first time.”

In terms of Greenwood’s student population, Burns relates, “This school has fifty kids, ages in this class between eleven and seventeen, though it’s been younger and older at different times. Thirty-four of them recited the night of the gala. Twenty-seven of them did the Gettysburg Address; others had mastered it in earlier years and so chose other readings, three of which we sample in the film, including a speech by Frederick Douglass and a speech by Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin’s famous speech from THE GREAT DICTATOR.”

Although many people don’t know this, there are multiple known versions of the Gettysburg Address, Burns explains. “The kids are mainly working from the Bliss version [the only draft signed by Lincoln, named for Col. Alexander Bliss]. The school focuses on the Address across many different classes, and so they’re getting it from different angles – speech pathology and speech therapy, sometimes it’s remedial classes, sometimes it’s History, sometimes it’s English, so they’re learning it in lots of different contexts, so in many cases, they’re learning it for other [purposes]. But not to confuse and muddy the waters, they’re all learning the Bliss version. But one of the things we’re doing is encouraging people to understand that there are many different versions of it. There’s an original draft called the Nicolay version, which is after one of Lincoln’s two secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. And then there are other ones [the Hay, Everett and Bancroft versions], so they range in lengths and amounts. We tend to believe that the Bliss version is the one he delivered, though there was obviously no stenographer there and obviously no recording devices that would have been able to confirm it.

Although it is not as long as many of Burns’ other projects – his famous THE CIVIL WAR documentary series is nine episodes and a total of six hundred and eighty minutes – the filmmaker says THE ADDRESS was still demanding. “Nothing’s easy. It’s all difficult. It’s short. This is an hour and twenty-four minutes, and not, let’s say, twenty hours or fifteen hours or whatever other projects have been. And it had to be shoehorned in. I’m already working on six projects at once, they’re all underway. These are not just ideas for those, these are films that are either fully budgeted or almost fully budgeted, and shooting is going on today, right now, on the last film of our ten-year project on Ernest Hemingway, so there’s a lot of stuff going on, and the last thing I needed was another project, but this was so moving and so dramatic and such a once-in-a-lifetime thing. As a father of four daughters, falling in love with and kind of ‘adopting,’ in quotes, fifty boys was a really terrific thing. And these are boys who, you’ll see when you see the film, run outside with no shirts on in the middle of a snowstorm and slide down and do boy things, and also help each other, struggle with each other to overcome some of their differences to do this amazing thing, which is learn this most beautiful of speeches.

Besides the Address itself, Burns’ film also tackles the subject of how it is learned. “Very much so. Without being didactic, there’s no explanatory narrator; there are some title cards explaining the historical context, which are narrated by the boys, you’re watching process happen on how kids in all their variety learn. Some kids memorize it right away, but are having a hard time pronouncing words. They have severe lisps. One sweetheart of a kid in the film named Gio can memorize it pretty quickly, but can’t say the word ‘third.’ He says ‘surd.’ And his speech pathologist is working on having him say ‘nation’ and ‘form these things’ and ‘rather’ – T-H – that he can’t do and you watch that happen. Another kid, Cooper, can’t say the word ‘dedicated.’ He hears it, and the teacher repeats it, ‘dedicate,’ ‘We come to dedicate’ – ‘We come to desiccate,’ ‘We come to decorate’ – he can’t do it. His classmate standing next to him, Thomas, turns to him and says, ‘Cooper, say “dead.”’ Cooper says, ‘Dead.’ Thomas says, ‘Say “Kate.”’ Cooper says, ‘Kate.’ Thomas says, ‘Say “dedicate.”’ He says ‘dedicate.’” Burns snaps his fingers. “That’s the end of the scene, and you realize sometimes they teach each other.”

Asked whether the words of the Gettysburg Address resonate with the boys, Burns replies, “You’ll see. My answer will be a poor excuse for what happens. The transformation of these kids and the course of their lives – you see them struggle to do the tricks that memorization involves, but then, when the meaning starts hitting, it’s pretty amazing. Many people are moved to tears by their performances.”

Burns adds that the he also gained a deeper understanding of the Address. “Any time you parse something, you’re going to go deeper. And I’d certainly parsed [the Address] when I made the CIVIL WAR series twenty-four years ago, and it’s a hugely important speech in our national life. When the first anniversary of 9/11 happened, one of the few English words spoken was the Gettysburg Address, besides the list of the dead.

“These ten sentences, these two hundred and seventy-two words in the Bliss version, you get to have a real understanding of the speech. It’s the Declaration of Independence 2.0. It’s Lincoln doubling down on what Jefferson couldn’t deliver, which is all men are actually created equal. It’s the operating system which we’re still operating under. That’s why it was read on the first anniversary of 9/11. There’s been no other set of words that replaces [this speech as] our catechism. Kennedy comes in with ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ That floats around as a kind of free idea. But an integrated description of what we’re about, that’s the Gettysburg Address, following on the heels of the failure of the Declaration of Independence in extending liberty to all people. That’s why the Civil War was fought.”

There are ways of hearing the Address that make it more alive, Burns says. “’And that government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ emphasis not on prepositions – ‘of,’ ‘by, ‘for,’ which all the stentorian speakers are always giving – but the people, as he said, shall not perish from the Earth. And that ‘that they will have a new birth of freedom.’ That’s the key word, that out of this crucible of suffering – remember, he’s traveling a now-quiet battlefield where the greatest battle ever on American soil took place, and he’s dedicating a cemetery to the dead, and in the first sentence, he takes care of history. ‘Four score and seven years ago.’ Nobody spoke like that. He was just trying to find a new way of saying, ‘Eighty-seven years is not that long to be alive as a country.’ And the second sentence is about the now, and then he goes on to basically say, ‘Here’s who we are and here’s what we need to be, let’s dedicate ourselves to this.’”

In 2014, many people are dismissive of the concept of speeches as a whole, an attitude that Burns opposes. “Words matter. I disagree entirely with that supposition – I think it’s part of the snark and part of the cynicism of a media culture. Words really do matter, and you can think about the speeches that have gone since Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, his second inaugural, which is one of the finest speeches ever written, speeches that Theodore Roosevelt gave, that Franklin Roosevelt has given, that John Kennedy gave, his inaugural speech, Barack Obama has given several and they’ve had huge resonance. Ronald Reagan has given speeches that have had meaning. George W. Bush gave a speech to Congress in the National Cathedral in the first few days after 9/11 that were incredibly reassuring and incredibly powerful. It’s only the culture that we live in, which is accustomed to the shortening of everything, that finds speeches a little bit too much bother. So the best thing to do, rather than to hear them or to read them or to acknowledge them or to parse them or to dive into their soul is to just dismiss them. So you have a lot of people who just say, ‘Everything can be done with less than a hundred and forty characters.’”

Then there are some people who believe that words don’t matter, only actions count. Burns has a different response to this mindset. “That is sometimes true. That’s to say, that to do is to be. This would be Jean-Paul Sartre, this is the heart of existentialism. And that’s true. We’re really nothing until we act, unlike Descartes, who said that just being is doing. I like Frank Sinatra’s answer to this, which is, ‘Do be do be do.’ We in this country particularly are formed because of words. We are here because of words, and that’s a hugely important aspect of who we are. We’re not here because of geography, we’re not here because of race, we’re not here because of language, we’re not here because of religion, we’re not here because of conquest. We’re here because we agree to subscribe to some words, particularly the second sentence of the Declaration. That’s our catechism – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ Well, Lincoln realized, and the country realized, that there was some inevitable tinkering that had to take place and we actually had to make all men equal. So yeah, hugely important.”

Asked if he has anything else he’d like to address about THE ADDRESS, Burns responds, “We’d like you to memorize it and we’d like you to spread the word about it, and you’ll be able to do it [at LearntheAddress.org].”

And then, without a moment’s hesitation, Burns concludes with, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civial war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus so far nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”

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by Abbie Bernstein

 

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Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein is an entertainment journalist, fiction author and filmmaker. Besides Buzzy Multimedia, her work currently appears in Assignment X.
Abbie Bernstein