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Q&A with Ken Burns on “The Dust Bowl”

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Two part film debuts Sunday, 11/18 on PBS

It’s been said that more people have acquired their history from Ken Burns than from any other single source.

Over the last 30 years, the award winning documentarian and film maker has crafted definitive portraits on subjects ranging from The Civil War and World War II to baseball, jazz and our National Park System.

His latest film chronicles a catastrophe of Biblical proportions – the Dust Bowl of the 1930s that turned vast stretches of the Great Plains into a desert and convinced many of its victims that they were witnessing the end of times.

Episode one, “The Great Plow Up” premieres Sunday, Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. on MPBN and concludes on Monday, Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. with “Reaping the Whirlwind.”

Dow: What drew you to this subject and convinced you to take it on?

Burns: I think the thing that draws you most of all is always a good story and also the explosion of our conventional wisdom. When you think of the Dust Bowl, you think of what came to us through John Steinbeck or a photograph of a migrant farm family in the central valley of California where many folks fled for what they thought would be a better life.

This is a really important story. It was the worst man-made ecological disaster in all of American history - if not the world. It was a 10-year apocalypse filled with not just a handful of storms but hundreds and hundreds of storms that rearranged the landscape. The storms blew all the way east to Washington D.C. where Franklin Roosevelt could wipe his finger on his desk in the Oval Office and come up with a little bit of Oklahoma. These were storms that would deposit and cover ships 300 miles out in the Atlantic.

People were dying. It was killing not only their crops and their cattle but also their children. We were able to parachute in there several years ago and find enough living memories of it – folks who are now in their late 80’s and 90’s but were teenagers and children at the time. They bring it vividly alive. We also found rarely seen or never seen photographs and film footage and put it together to make this terrifying event come to life.

The film is not just a tragedy. Like all tragedies do, the Dust Bowl brought out the best in human beings so this is also a story of heroic perseverance that Americans recognize every time the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan.

Dow: Of the survivors whom you managed to find, what was the most memorable or moving story from those interviews?

Burns: There were so many but I remember sitting with Dale and Floyd Coen from Morton County, Kansas. I asked about the death of their little sister, Rena-Marie, who was barely 2-years old when she died in early 1935. Now, that’s an awfully long time ago but they broke down on camera as if it had happened yesterday. That reminds us that memory isn’t something that’s dusty or covered with cobwebs but something that we feel now. The purpose of history is to access memory which is history’s DNA. It’s part and parcel with what we’ve done. Whether it’s bringing alive The Battle of Gettysburg, getting to the heart of what baseball’s attraction is, the biographies we’ve done or the series on the National Parks.

In The Dust Bowl, you’re talking about people who were living on the edge. It was almost like combat. We asked one of the survivors who had gone to the beach at Normandy as a young army soldier – “Which was worse?” He said, “Oh, the dust storm was worse – it went on for so long.” In terms of PTSD, you can imagine what this ten-year apocalypse did to these kids.

Dow: I remember learning about The Dust Bowl in school but I don’t recall being told that it was a man-made disaster.

Burns: This is a thing that everybody forgets to mention. The southern Great Plains was covered with buffalo grass. We came in and turned over an area with agribusiness – the beginning of industrial farming. It was an area greater than the size of Ohio. There were some wet years and people had good crops so they plowed up even more and then all of a sudden, the normal weather came back and then a drought came back. The ever-present winds would combine with weather systems to pick up the dirt in these huge, magnificent in some ways, dusters. Black blizzards, they were called - a mile and a half high and 200 miles wide. Like a mountain range coming at you.

Dow: How do you decide which subjects you’re going to cover and are there any subjects you want to tackle but haven’t for whatever reason?

Burns: If I had a thousand years to live, I wouldn’t run out of topics I want to do. We do have lots of things planned that are in various stages. On the day after Thanksgiving, we’re releasing, theatrically in New York City followed by many other cities, a two hour documentary called “The Central Park Five” about the five black and Hispanic kids who were charged with the infamous Central Park jogger rape of 1989. They went to jail for upwards of 13 years only to be discovered that they didn’t do it. This is a story of not only how the cops but the prosecutors and the media could get it all wrong and how they continue to suffer under the burden of being a member of ‘The Central Park Five’ instead of just good kids who lost their childhood.

We finished and will release in 2014, a massive 7-part, 14 hour series on the history of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. We’re shooting two films right now – a biography of Jackie Robinson and a massive series on the history of the war in Vietnam that are slated for 2015 and 2016 respectively. In 2018, we’ve got a big series on a film we’re just writing now on the history of country music called “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and we’re plotting a biography of Ernest Hemingway which will take us through this decade.

Dow: Good Lord – that’s an overwhelming amount of work.

Burns: Yeah, but I keep saying, “Jeez, that’s not enough” you know? (laughs). I’m working 24/7 literally seven days a week.

Dow: Do people come up to you and suggest future documentary subjects?

Burns: I get 200 letters a month telling me what my next project should be and all of ours are inwardly chosen. It’s the way you choose a friend – you can’t really describe it. It’s like chemistry. Those folks that you’ll know for the rest of your life –it’s like that. You have lots of ideas in your head and when one drops down to your heart, you say, “That’s the one we’re going to do next.”

Dow: What is the strangest subject idea that someone has presented to you?

Burns: (laughing) What happens is someone – always very kind – will come up and hand me a self-published, three volume, 6,000 page memoir of their great-great grandfather who wasn’t even in the Civil War but just thought it would be interesting. And they’ll say “Can’t you make a multipart series on this?” And I say, “Gee, I’m really busy for the next 10 years but I’m sure it’s terrific.”

You know, in a way, that person is right. If you can tell a story well, there are no ordinary people in the world and everybody is extraordinary and there ought to be a way to make their story - in some way - shine.

Dow: Whenever someone compiles a list of our most treasured film makers, your name almost always appears. Who would be on your personal list of favorites?

Burns: I have lots of heroes. I grew up loving Buster Keaton, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and the Hollywood director Howard Hawks. I love Orson Welles, of course. Of the foreign directors, Luis Buñuel who was a Spanish-French film maker and Akira Kurosawa, the great Japanese director. If you’re open, you can be influenced by everything – just as you can be influenced by a ballet or a photographic exposition. Good art is good art is good art. Errol Morris makes these incredible stylized documentaries – very different from the kind I make but fantastic and I have great respect for his work.

Dow: You visited our area three years ago when you came to Acadia National Park shortly before your series on the parks aired. What comes to mind when you think of Maine?

Burns: I’ve lived in New Hampshire for most of the last 40 years so we’re brothers and neighbors. Maine is particularly close to me. I have lots of friends who live there. I think of Acadia. I think of Cadillac Mountain – where the first rays of the sun hit the United States of America and my job is to shed a little light on the United States of America.

Mike Dow can be heard each morning on WABK -104.3 FM. Soon, he will also be heard on Big 104 – 104.7 and 107.7 – The Biggest Hits of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.


Watch The Dust Bowl Preview on PBS. See more from The Dust Bowl.

Last modified on Friday, 16 November 2012 08:58

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