No filmmaker is more synonymous with award-winning historical documentaries than Ken Burns. No political family is more synonymous with changing America than the Roosevelts. So it was only a matter of time before the two would come together. Ken Burns’ latest documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, set to air on PBS this fall finds new material on these iconic figures and intertwines their lives to create a narrative about them as a family, not just their individual achievements.
In town to attend PBS’ Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour panel, Burns presented a sneak preview of highlights from the seven-part documentary at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles on July 22, 2014. Following the presentation, Stephen Ujlaki, Dean of the LMU School of Film and Television, moderated a discussion with Burns and the screenwriter Geoffrey C. Ward.
Burns introduced the 60-minute presentation of excerpts focusing on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor as individuals, as well as, how they related to and completed each other’s work. “They talked about each other all the time,” said Ward. “They sometimes resented each other, too.” Many people know that the media were asked not to show FDR’s struggle with walking, but it was Theodore Roosevelt who forbade reporters to take pictures of him playing tennis – a “rich man’s sport” – for fear that it would alienate him from the people. Burns and Ward delved into Franklin’s strong relationship with his mother and the difficulties he suffered after contracting polio all while demonstrating an incredible optimism to the American people during the Great Depression. For Eleanor’s story, the film takes a deeper look at her difficult childhood living with alcoholic relatives and a mother who chastised her for her lack of beauty. It was her uncle, Theodore, who showed her a rare kindness and encouragement she lacked from most of her family.
Burns noted that the Roosevelts remain extraordinary but accessible. “Theirs is a truly human story, and they went through the same personal trials that we all go through,” Burns said. “They all believed that government could do good and that we owed something to the less fortunate.”
Burns gives extensive credit to Ward, an author of three books on the Roosevelts, for his script. Ward stated how “thrilling it is to see my work come to life after having these pictures and images in my mind for 30 plus years.”
Unlike traditional documentary filmmaking, which involves a dedicated research period followed by a script that’s set in stone, Burns’ small team never stops researching or writing. “In the beginning is the word. We start with Ward’s eloquent narrative, but the writing, as good as it is, is elastic and able to adapt to changes as research brings up new information. We edit like a film shoot deciding on zooms, close ups and wide shots. We add sound effects such as waves, laughter or gunshots to help tell the story. The music is recorded in advance so the score can dictate the pace and rhythm of the film. It’s a longer but more organic way to work. The talking heads are also created in the editing room, and our scripts never describe the visuals. We trust the pictures to represent the history.”
Closing out the evening, Ujlaki asked which part of the film had the most impact on them. Ward said, “I was very committed to the polio story of FDR because I had polio as a child. We found footage of his last inauguration where he finishes his speech – the shortest one he ever did – and he’s unable to move from the podium. The Secret Service had to carry him down. I cry every time I see it.”
Burns replied, “The fact that, at the Mount Rushmore dedication, Franklin Roosevelt believed there would still be Americans ten thousand years from now pondering about our time is the supreme act of faith. We are all beneficiaries of the confidence that Sara D. Roosevelt instilled in her son.”
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History will debut on PBS on Sunday, September 14, 2014 with a seven-night premiere. The 14-hour documentary will air nightly at 8:00 pm through Saturday, September 20, 2014 with a repeat at 10:00 pm.