Ken Burns clearly likes feeling uneasy, scared even.
He and his filmmaking partner, director Lynn Novick, say that going into a project they’re never sure just how they’re going to pull it off.
“We bite off more than we can chew and then learn how to chew it. Yeah, it is exactly that,” says Burns. “I would never make a film where I go, ‘oh, I got this.’”
Burns’ first film aired on PBS nearly 40 years ago and since that time he’s produced multi-episode projects that include Baseball, Country Music, The Roosevelts, and The Dust Bowl, among others.
He says that during production on the epic series The Vietnam War, which took ten and a half years to make, “there wasn’t a day until we locked it where Lynn and I [didn’t] look at each other and go, ‘is it going to be all right?’”
For his latest project, Hemingway, Burns examines the life and works of the iconic author in a three-part six-hour documentary series.
Also taking part in the production is Emmy-award winning actor Jeff Daniels, who voices the notes and letters of the Ernest Hemingway, along with additional voice acting provided by Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson.
Burns spoke about casting Daniels in such a pivot role, revealing, “Jeff and I have known each other for a couple of decades. It seems hard to believe. We are both Michigan boys, and so we share that in common. What he did for [the production] was he inhabited the words, and that was important.”
Daniels says that in reading Hemingway’s work aloud, “you get pulled into his darkness. He’s sharing something, and maybe he doesn’t even know what he’s sharing. He was a fighter, and he was fighting stuff through his fingers with that typewriter and he was fighting stuff inside.”
Burns agrees, adding, “I think that’s right. He constructed a mask that was false, but even with that mask in place, the mask of the big-game hunter, et cetera, he was also questing for a kind of truth about things.”
This facet of the man, that Hemingway, while considered a prolific and thoughtful writer, was also considered a hurtful human being to others, was something that Burns says his team dealt with thoughtfully. “As I confronted all of this negative stuff, it became important that the art transcended it and basically didn’t excuse it. And we do not excuse him. We hold his feet to the fire in dozens of ways.”
A result of this examination, say Burns, is that he discovered, “we often find with great artists, there is this terrible price to pay among those closest to that person and among the outer circle and, of course, most notably to one’s self.”
Daniels remarks, “Yeah, lucky for him, he could write. And he’s not the first artist to battle demons. It is pretty common. But he really had a lot going on inside of him.”
Novick say that in the beginning of the project, “I felt pretty clear that I didn’t like Hemingway and that I wasn’t sure how I [was] going to feel spending six hours with him as a viewer, [seeing] that he was really unkind and hurtful to people and so self‑centered.”
But, she admits that her thoughts about Hemingway shifted, saying, “At the end, I think having really spent the time to get under his skin, I felt a lot more compassion for him and his struggles and his demons than I did at the beginning.”
Now that this project is hitting the air, Burns is currently entrenched in finishing his next project – a four-part series about Muhammad Ali – which will debut in the fall of 2021.
He says that in picking his topics, “It has to be done with your gut, and it has to just be a good story. There’s thousands of good stories. I have said before that if I had a thousand years to live, I wouldn’t run out of topics in American history.”
And, he’ll continue to be scared by all of it as he says, “There’s a really short distance between terrifying and exhilarating, and that’s where you have to live.”
‘Hemingway’ begins Sunday, April 5th on PBS.