Ken Burns is one of the most prolific documentary filmmakers of all time. He has always relied on objective eyes. Throughout the editing process he regularly screens his films to unbiased viewers, or as he calls them, “warm bodies,” encouraging criticism and remaining, as he says, “corrigible.”
Since delivering the 2012 LMU Commencement Address, Ken has worked to strengthen the SFTV community. He has employed several SFTV students as interns (myself included) at Florentine Films, the documentary empire that Burns co-founded in 1976. In the humble town of Walpole, New Hampshire, Ken has a post-production house, an administrative office and a newly built “Barn” designed for film screenings.
At Florentine, interns are utilized in all areas of editing and writing. On any given day they could be researching archival footage, formatting a script or even cutting a sequence together. Interns also have the opportunity to attend advisor screenings where historians, interview subjects and friends of Ken’s are brought to Walpole to view rough edits of the films. At the screenings, interns are encouraged to voice their opinion and interact with the writers, producers and advisors.
Specifically, what about the LMU program or environment did you like? I gave the commencement there a few years ago, and I spent a couple of days on campus and was extraordinarily impressed with the program. I was able to meet with faculty and students and see the sort of range and depth and quality of the program. While there was very legitimate theatrical works being produced, and animation, I found it interesting that in Los Angeles, the city of fiction film, there should be such a strong and vibrant documentary program, and that excited me. The idea, the opposite of bringing coals to Newcastle: how to bring a discussion of a truth to a city devoted to artifice.
What constitutes a “warm body?” I think a warm body is somebody who’s curious but ignorant. That is to say that they got a brain on their shoulders, but they don’t know specifically about your subject, and what they offer you is a very visceral direct way of reading the state that your film is in. So you bring a warm body into an editing process, and it permits you to see where your assumptions have failed. We sometimes assume that our audience knows what we know, and as filmmakers, it’s mostly our job to rid ourselves of these preconceptions, the kind of conventional wisdoms. You bring in a warm body to react in satisfaction or confusion or curiosity or doubt about how you’re presenting. Having a warm body is telling you a lot about whether in the end, the most important thing, your film, your story, is perceived in the right direction.
What’s the common thread through each of your films? I think it’s a question. A curiosity about how our country works. What it is to be an American? What is the nature of freedom? I think in each film I ask one deceptively simple question: who are we? Who are those strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans?
Ken is currently immersed in a 10-part, 18-hour series chronicling the Vietnam War.
Ken’s film The Central Park Five will be screened in Mayor Theater on March 16th as part of SFTV’s Monday Nights Series. On March 18th he will be coming to SFTV for a master class to discuss the film. That same day he will be interviewed by Stephen Galloway of The Hollywood Reporter for The Hollywood Masters. This event is open to the public. RSVP below.