Selling the Brooklyn Bridge

UPDATED: June 8, 2010
PUBLISHED: June 8, 2010

Ken Burns faced a quadruple whammy when a couple of years out of college he approached the first of many potential
funders to ask for money for his first full-length film.
It’s always hard to raise cash. But in this case,
he peddled a documentary back in an era when documentaries weren’t cool. It was also about history. And he looked 17.
And, get this: The film was about the Brooklyn Bridge.

“People would say, this child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge,” recalls Burns, who had been inspired
by reading The Great Bridge by David McCullough, who would narrate the film. “Actually, for many years, I kept two three-ring
binders on my desk, each filled with rejections for that one film.”

He slept on his brother’s couch in his college living quarters in New York City for a while and slept on floors of
friends’ apartments as he toiled by day to sell the Brooklyn Bridge. Burns soaked up historical accounts, so his fundraising
pitches made the bridge and the long-dead people who built it come alive. He’d enthusiastically describe, as he does
to this day, the dramatic story of the bridge’s construction (the designer and promoter died), and the corruption of
the era (“It’s a wonder that it got made.”). He’d describe the bridge’s symbolization of strength,
vitality, ingenuity and promise. (“It’s just an amazing piece of sculpture, if you will.”)

Burns became, in a word, obsessed. “I was just really hand-to-mouth trying to survive, and going into businesses and
foundations trying to see if we might raise $1,500 or $1,000…. For every yes, there were 150 noes.”

Persistence paid off. The upshot: The document appeared on PBS and garnered a 1981 Academy Award nomination, which validated
his whole concept: a new way of documentary-telling that used powerful photographs, music from the period, narration by historians
and actors reading in the voices of people of the period, and other things to make the dead come to life.

Moved to Dream Big

With that first film, he became what Ken Burns is now famous for through his long line of films, including The Civil War,
Baseball, Jazz, The National Parks, and his latest, an update to his epic Baseball called The Tenth Inning, which is to air
on PBS this year.

“I think maybe an ingredient of success is not so much talent. I’ve got to think there are dozens and dozens
of people who are much more talented… but I persevered,” Burns tells SUCCESS. “I realized that
you weren’t going to be handed this.”

Today, it’s still a time-consuming job to raise money for his personal-record six documentary projects now under way,
says Burns, now 56, from his small cluttered office with three gigantic Palladium windows overlooking a beautiful New Hampshire

When he’s not filming or researching on location, Burns works here amid relics from different past projects, including
autographed baseballs; books; photos of Lincoln, Jackie Robinson, Huey Long; dozens of framed pictures not yet hung; as well
as photos of his family. He moved in 1979 to this small town of Walpole, N.H., because it’d be cheaper to live in than
New York City, and would let him to pursue making his first film as he did freelance jobs.

Burns traces why he got into this line of work to his childhood. He was just 11 when his mother passed away. Dad, an anthropology
professor who was usually strict about curfew, grew lenient about bedtime if there were a movie on TV or they went to the
movies. The elder Burns admired American classics and European New Wave films. At one point, a film moved Dad to tears—and
young Burns never forgot it. His father didn’t cry at Mom’s funeral. But he was moved by the 1947 movie Odd Man
Out, starring James Mason as an Irish bank robber trying to escape from police.

The power of that movie convinced young Burns, then 13, to become a filmmaker along the lines of legendary Hollywood director
John Ford.

Waking Up the Dead
That changed when Burns enrolled in a fairly new college that stressed creativity, Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where
the professors of film and photography, Jerome Leibling and Elaine Mayes, shrugged their shoulders at Hollywood. They were
principally still photographers who relied on the power of a single image to convey complex information. Under their tutelage,
Burns developed the technique he’s known for—giving photos resonance by moving the camera slowly over them (since
dubbed “The Ken Burns Effect”). By graduation at age 22, Burns knew he wanted to be a documentary maker specializing
in American history, even though “the last time I had a course in American history was in 11th grade.”

“I was interested in liberating the documentary from the tyranny of it being educational or just, you know, homeworklike,”
Burns says, “rather than engaging folks on a dramatic level.

“Many, many, many years later, after much good fortune and hard work, someone told me that what I do is wake up the
dead,” Burns says. In an oft-quoted statement, the late historian Stephen Ambrose reportedly said of his films, “More
Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.”

While perseverance is a key to Burns’ success, his trust in and close working relationships with collaborators, some
of whom he’s worked with for 25 or 30 years, have been essential. As described on the Academy Awards’ Web site,
his team “works on several parallel tracks at the same time, producing a working script, performing extensive research
into each subject, choosing historical pictures and written material, and interviewing experts. The process continues during
the two to three years it takes Burns to finish the film.”

“He doesn’t approach anything lackadaisically,” says longtime filmmaking partner Dayton Duncan, who marvels
at Burns’ boundless enthusiasm. “I don’t mean that he’s so much a Type A person. He gets enthusiastic
about everything. And his enthusiasm infects the people around him and it colors everything that we do.”

‘Ideas Large Enough to Be Afraid Of’
Duncan recalls how Burns’ “eyes got the size of saucers” upon watching a herd of wild buffalo stampede
over a rise during filming of their 1997 Lewis and Clark documentary. Duncan says the sight was something he had become blasé
about since he’d already written about the explorers several times and retraced their steps time and again—but
not Burns.

“He’s jumping around like a kid let out of school,” Duncan says. “Not only did that energize me,”
he says, but “I realized that an important element of the film was that the characters that we were following—they
were seeing these things for the first time as well.” The filmmakers worked at ways to bring that sensation to viewers,

Such enthusiasm also gives Burns great courage, Duncan says, which makes him unafraid to decide to do a 10-hour series on
topics others avoid. When Burns decided to do an epic on the Civil War, “people thought he was crazy,” Duncan
says. “But I think it obviously proved just the opposite.”

The Civil War won more than 40 major awards, including two Emmys and two Grammys; attracted an audience of almost 40 million
during its 1990 premiere; and was the highest-rated series in the history of American public broadcasting, prior to Burns’
Baseball, which attracted more than 43 million viewers when it aired in 1994.

Burns draws inspiration from a quote he has on his office door by theater impresario Tyrone Guthrie: We are looking for ideas
large enough to be afraid of again. “What that tells you is that you don’t sit down on the side of the road like
the hare and rest. You’re always the tortoise, slow and steady,” Burns says. “You are trying to figure out
how to bite off more than you can chew.”

He thinks that’s what he’s doing now by working on six documentaries simultaneously, including a history of Prohibition,
the Dust Bowl, the Roosevelts and the Vietnam War. It’s a time of “testing my being, in every sense of the word,”
Burns says. “Physically, emotionally, spiritually.”