The other Burns comes back east
With The Way West in postproduction, Ric preps for his New York City saga

Photo of man in derby hat on newly laid ties for railroad
"The West was the future
to Americans of the east in 1845.
Fifty years later, in 1893, the
West did not look like the future
to anybody in America."

Originally published in Current, June 6, 1994

By Joseph Flanagan

A land that Thomas Jefferson predicted would take a thousand years to subdue was conquered in five short decades, and the story of that time is so shrouded in myth and lore that it is difficult to see as anything but a dream.

For filmmaker Ric Burns, who for two and a half years has been engrossed in coaxing a three-part, five-hour series out of those extraordinary years, it is a matter of "scraping away the surface soil and seeing the stark structure that's underneath."

The product of his and Producer Lisa Ades' efforts is The Way West, the latest in a short but remarkably successful career that has seen Burns emerge from the shadow of his celebrated older brother, Ken, and establish himself as an eminent documentary filmmaker.

The series is co-produced with WGBH, The American Experience, and Britain's Channel 4. Now in editing, The Way West [eventually aired in May 1995 and was scheduled for repeat in fall 1995].

Reports of conflict between the Burns brothers during the making of The Civil War inevitably led outsiders to be curious about their relationship, and the curiosity will no doubt be heightened by the fact that Ken is working with director Stephen Ives on a separate PBS series about the West.

More ambitious with each film

Judy Crichton, executive producer of The American Experience, has characterized Ric Burns as a filmmaker who gets more ambitious with each film. Burns and Ades already are busy with pre-production of an unprecedented documentary history of New York City, planned to run eight hours on-air. [When the series finally began to air in November 1999, it had reached 10 hours, with two more yet to be finished and aired in 2000.]

The New York City project will be Burns' fourth documentary since 1989, when he appeared, relatively unknown, in Crichton's offices, armed with little but the conviction that a film about Coney Island was a good idea. He and his brother Ken were just completing the five-year Civil War project, and Ric sensed that it was time to tap his own potential. He established Steeplechase Films (named after the first park at Coney Island), persuaded The American Experience to do the project and teamed up with Lisa Ades, who at the time was a producer at WNET and had worked on local New York public affairs programs such as Metroline and Eleventh Hour. Referred to Burns by her former boss and executive producer of Metroline, Lois Bianchi, Ades impressed him as "by far, the most appealing and engaging candidate, and she very quickly became indispensable to that project." "Coney Island" won the Organization of American Historians' Erik Barnouw Prize.

While researching The Way West, Burns came across what he describes as the "terrible parable" of the Donner Party and found the story to be so rich that he could not envision reducing it to a 10-minute segment in a larger series. Once again, he found himself working the producers at The American Experience, who were squeamish at first about the cannibalism in the Donner Pass, but who eventually helped him make his second highly regarded documentary, winning a Peabody Award, a Writers' Guild Award, and the National Board of Review's D.W. Griffith Award for the best television program of 1992. "The Donner Party," like "Coney Island," made its way onto Time magazine's list of top-10 TV programs of the year.

With the new frontier series, says Burns, "the story we wish to tell is how the West went from a seemingly inexhaustible resource to being, for all its size and grandeur, painfully fragile and finite; not just to the Americans who went west, but obviously, and tragically--and this is the crux of the story--to the Americans who were already there ... It is really the story of two competing visions of how to live on the continent."

From the pioneer movement, to the Gold Rush, to the building of the transcontinental railroad and the massacre at Wounded Knee, Burns sees a common theme that unites the period: "The West was the future to Americans of the east in 1845, the year the phrase 'Manifest Destiny' was coined. Fifty years later, in 1893, the West did not look like the future to anybody in America."

The Way West is moving into post-production at a time when a host of "Western" programs have been appearing on public and commercial television, and brother Ken is working with director Stephen Ives to produce The West, a 10-hour documentary to be aired in 1996. PBS gave approval to both; the programmers were satisfied that the two projects were distinctly different.

The Way West, says Judy Crichton, "will be filtered through Ric's sensibilities." She is sure, she says, that the Ives/Burns film will be "wonderful," but is careful to point out that it, too, will be distinguished by the mark of its director. The West will also cover a full 100 years or more, while the Ric Burns series deals with half that period.

Stephen Ives acknowledges that some degree of overlap is inevitable, but says, "We're doing a show that's profoundly different on a number of levels ... We're going over a dramatically broader canvas." The Ives series will deal not only with the settlement of the West, but with the interaction of all the different cultures of the West, which, says Ives, "was a defining experience for this country." Therefore, the The West will feature the perspectives of immigrants, women, runaway slaves, and others. "In order to understand it, says Ives, you have to approach the West from every point on the compass."

"We were not aware of other projects," Crichton says, when work first began on The Way West, and likens curiosity about the two different Western series to the reaction to Orlando Bagwell's Malcolm X, which aired at about the same time as Spike Lee's film. "People said, 'How are you going to top that?' Well, we're not going to 'top that'.'' What is important, she says, is the fact that each production has a sense of authorship.

PBS has been supportive of Ric Burns' series all along, according to Kathy Quattrone, v.p. of programming. In spite of the work being done by Ives, she says, she does not recall anyone raising the issue of duplication when the decision was made to fund Burns' film. Quattrone observes that it is not uncommon for PBS to fund programs that deal with similar subjects: American Experience, Nova, and Frontline all featured episodes about or related to the Kennedys.

When the Burns brothers found out they each had separate projects in the works, "We were sort of surprised and startled," says Ric. "There was some head-scratching, and we wondered for a while if it wouldn't be best if we joined forces." Both projects, however, were already fully staffed and had proceeded too far along to make a collaboration feasible.

Ken, says Ric, has primarily been occupied with his series Baseball, and will have no more or less to do with The West than an executive producer ordinarily would. He understands, he says, why Ken's name is so often attached to the project, but The West "will sink or swim because Steve Ives is a great director, not because Ken is a great executive producer."

Burns says that in hindsight it seems like less of a coincidence that the idea struck numerous people in the early '90s. The history of the West, he says, is so rich and varied that it is not likely to be exhausted or overdone by too much attention. The recent spate of Western films and television shows, he thinks, is part of a renewed popular interest in history and can only be beneficial.

"I think we're living in a time when history has re-emerged as one of the popular forms of entertainment, and that's great. It sort of slept for a couple of decades, in the '60s and '70s, and now it's really back, as it was before TV, when historical novels and historical movies and historical poetry and history itself were mainstays of popular culture.''

With the renewal of history on TV and film, Burns sees it as inevitable that producers would turn to the great narratives of the 19th century--the Civil War and the West--for the stories that defined the culture.

''I think there's room for a lot of projects and I hope it keeps on booming."

Burns originally intended The Way West to be a three-hour series, but he expanded it to five hours, which prolonged its production and delayed its airdate. The first, 90-minute segment covers the early westward expansion, from the 1840s to the end of the Civil War. The second, also 90 minutes, goes from 1865 to the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. And the final, two-hour episode deals with the sequence of events between 1870 and 1893, culminating in Little Big Horn, the massacre at Wounded Knee, and the official closing of the frontier.

As one might imagine, the task of choosing which characters to portray prominently in a tale full of prominent figures was not an easy one. In the end, Burns and Ades chose to focus on Custer, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Sherman, Cody and Sitting Bull. There were many other options, but the producers primarily stayed with the great Lakota leaders and the main military figures. "What they did and what they stood for, he says, "expressed the conflict that's at the essence of our story." To salvage them from myth and caricature, Burns attempts to portray them with all their complexity.

No two characters, perhaps, embody the epic struggle between cultures more than Crazy Horse and Custer. Calling to mind an observation made by the author Stephen Ambrose, Burns says, "Custer had this quintessentially American quality of always becoming." No acquisition of fame, power, or glory seemed enough. Crazy Horse was the representative of a culture devoted to preserving its own way of life. Crazy Horse just wanted to be what he was."

Reinvention of modernism

Even as Burns and Ades edit The Way West, work is well underway on the script for their next project, a history of New York City from the early 17th century to today. "There is tremendous interest in the project," says Burns. Funding permitting, it will go into production next winter. "The NEH has supported us handsomely for the pre-production and we have very strong interest from PBS, who have indicated their willingness to support the project." The search is on for corporate underwriting.

Burns finds it interesting that there has never been a history like the one he plans to produce, "a comprehensive, biographical portrait of the city as it has come into its own and struggled with the possibilities and problems of its own history." What led him to the subject was not only a love for the city, but also a curiosity about the vitality that the city radiates far beyond its five boroughs. Burns sees New York as the "financial and imaginative capital" of America and the world, and also as the place where modernism has been invented and constantly reinvented. What Burns and Ades hope to do in charting the history of New York is to show how the city evolved into the "preeminent modern environment" that it is today.

In his view, America is a culture devoted to transformation, and New York City is "the laboratory where the idea of America as the capital of transformation worked itself out." It is the place, he says, where art and commerce, "the two great engines in the economy and in the imagination for changing one thing into another take place in the most condensed form. ... If there is ever going to be a place," he says, "where people learn to creatively settle their differences and live together, it's going to be in places like New York. For all its trouble, the story of a place like New York is essentially the hope of the world."

Like The Way West, the history of New York will be chronological and narrative. If the meager pictorial and photographic record was daunting in the making of "The Donner Party," Burns and Ades happily face the other extreme: sheer abundance. "Coming from 'The Donner Party,' " says Burns, "where it was an almost monastic discipline to figure out how to tell that story, it's wonderful, even at these early stages, to be awash in possibilities." The first episode, covering the period from the early 17th century to the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, is full of archival paintings, maps, blueprints and drawings.

Some of the earliest film footage taken in the New York City of the 1880s yields something unexpected. Perhaps in awe of the new technology in their hands, the cameramen simply panned the streets, and their wonder at the act of recording is evident in the simplicity of the images. The result is prolonged shots of buildings, architecture, crowds and harbors, and gives Burns an invaluable documentary record to work with.

Nine yards and a cloud of dust

Lured away from doctoral study in English literature to work with his brother on a 1985 documentary on Huey Long, Ric Burns found filmmaking an "intriguing process," and from that point began to edge closer to directing. By the time they were finishing The Civil War in 1989, he had brought the reverent zeal of a historian, a literary sensibility, and what he had learned about making documentaries all to bear on a concept for "Coney Island." It seems that what has given his films life, both literally and figuratively, is a perspective that is scholarly and poetic at the same time. In spite of the Donner Party's notorious association with cannibalism, Burns made the tale a parable of Americans who suffered terribly for wanting too passionately to reinvent themselves.

"He thinks like an author," Crichton says of Burns, "which all good directors do." She describes him as "inspired," and "brilliant," and referring to his years in an academic environment, says that "he can be one hell of a difficult person to argue with. He can be the most persuasive person on the face of the earth."

If Ric Burns' informal apprenticeship in film proceeded along at a comfortable pace, his move to directing was a bracing experience. Regardless of the close collaboration with his brother on The Civil War, Burns would find that directing a film is something that is often done in a cloud of uncertainty and, essentially, alone. "You don't quite know how harrowing the responsibilities can be until you're holding the reins yourself." When "Coney Island" was finished, he says, "it was a sense of enormous relief and almost wonder that I'd been able to see it through to completion. The most talented directors would confirm that it's surprising how difficult it is to make even the simplest film. It's very hard to predict what works before you shoot it. With the best script and the best idea and the best material, it's still nine yards and a cloud of dust as you work the material and work the material and try to solve the creative challenges that come up every hour of every day. It was, more than anything else, a sense of relief and pride to have gone through it once myself and running the whole show, and realizing that at least everyone was still standing when the project was over."

Rather than bringing a pre-existing style to a film, Burns has found that it is the story itself and the material available for telling it that will determine how the film will take shape. After The Civil War, Burns found himself stretching the form of historical documentary in his subsequent projects. The scarcity of photographs and pictures required that stretch in "The Donner Party." Burns says that he and Ades gladly faced the challenge, so that they could use other styles of filmmaking. Two-thirds of the film was contemporary footage. "We have lots of pixilated and animated camerawork, there is lots of slow motion, and while it's still not Industrial Light and Magic--it's within the quaint world of historical documentary films--we were doing something experimental."

In making "The Donner Party," Burns and Ades create a dreamlike effect to evoke the "hypnotic sequence" the settlers went through as they proceeded in a kind of sleepwalk to their doom high in the Sierra Nevadas. "Almost all the footage was slowed down," he says, "so that the quality we were hoping to create throughout the whole film was sort of mesmerizing. You were conscious of being hypnotized by the imagery. It was as if, in a dream, they were moving, and were aware only too late that they were part of a process that they could not stop."

American dreams, American nightmare

There is sometimes a melancholy aspect to history in a Ric Burns film, something beyond the altruism that is often associated with the American experience. It has been noted in "Coney Island"; it was undoubtedly present in "The Donner Party," and it is integral to The Way West. "It is impossible to look at any aspect of human endeavor without seeing a contrast of light and dark. I think I'm drawn to stories in which that contrast is particularly heightened. And I think I'm drawn to it because ... it's not very difficult to see how the light and the dark are, in fact, related. ... People who are following great dreams frequently find themselves generating an enormous amount of trouble. I think that's a very American thing. I think that running through the center of the American experience has been an unfettering of human potentiality, so that people can follow dreams more vigorously than perhaps they've been able to in other cultures, and yet, that pursuit, precisely because it is unfettered, releases impulses that are not, by any means, always happy and bright, and they result in outcomes that are frequently catastrophic. I think it's something that we all recognize very deeply. If there's a structure to what's tragic about the American experience, it's the dream that becomes a nightmare because it's followed too ardently. ... The message in these stories is that a wiser assessment of consequences needs to take place before the fact, and not after. That's what's so terrifying about the story of the West, that what was lost and what was damaged was so tremendous."

There is a tendency, Judy Crichton says, to look longingly at earlier periods in the history of documentary film and think of them as the "golden age" of documentaries. She believes, however, that there has never been a time when more good work was being done with greater regularity than now.

Steeplechase Films, located in New York's Upper West Side, is like most independent production comnpanies. Steeplechase consists primarily of Burns and Ades, but the staff fluctuates between five and fifteen, depending on the stage of production. With The Way West now in post-production, the staff is small. Based on their experience working together on "Coney Island," Burns and Ades decided to go into a partnership, which has continued through "The Donner Party" and The Way West. Burns and Ades also will co-produce the film on New York. Working in film, Burns says, requires an "intuitive intelligence" that enables a producer to look at something and determine whether or not it will be successful. "Her radar in that respect is as acute as anybody I've ever met."

Though Burns says that he and his brother "happily agreed" not to work together on the next project after The Civil War, he admits that the prospect of working again with Ken Burns is tantalizing at times. They have discussed the idea, but have not found the right project. "We're each other's only siblings, and we are a year-and-a-half apart, which creates great closeness and mutual headstrongness. If we were to work together, we would have to find the right project and adjust our egos to fit it." Burns speaks of the pleasure of working with someone with whom there is so much shared sensibility, and with whom "99 per cent is known in advance." The project that would induce them to collaborate again, however, has not come up yet. "Maybe it won't," he says.

Burns says that in the future he would like to try his hand at making other kinds of films. There are projects he envisions as dramatic productions, but is circumspect about what he has in mind. There is much one does not know as a documentary filmmaker, he says, that he approaches the idea of feature films with caution.

In spite of his success, Burns says, he must still do the careful work of selling his projects. A filmmaker's credits are not necessarily as important as the thought, passion and research that are behind the next production proposal. The idea for a film, he says, must not be just an idea, "Hollywood-style," but something that because of its careful and thorough preparation, can already be seen as a film that is on its way to reality.

"I've seen that in action," Burns says, "sitting on NEH panels and talking to people in PBS. When you read a proposal in which you can feel the passion of the person, and you can see the film in 30 or 100 pages, you're loathe to let that go." The proposal must take the form of a compelling story with all its narrative problems sorted out. Burns knows when he sees the telling combination of mechanics and soul. "You can hear the engine on the freight train starting to go. That is the engine, and what most people who are smart do when they see anybody that's got that, they just get out of the way, because that's going to go someplace."

Inspired ideas and production money are in short supply for independent filmmakers, and Burns considers himself fortunate that he could do the kind of work he wanted to do. Public TV gave Burns not only the resources to make his films, but also the creative freedom to make them as he desired. They haven't suffered from intusion by funders. "That's the point of public TV: that there cannot be even the appearance of a conflict of interest between the funding source and the producers of the film. Where else does that happen?"

He speaks of the crucial role of Judy Crichton, who uses her "extraordinary gifts" to help realize a filmmaker's vision. "The bliss of the work, and the reason I would never trade it in for anything else is that they want you to succeed. They want you to make exactly what you said you were going to make. I've had nothing but the best possible collegial experience with Judy Crichton, Margaret Drain and the people at The American Experience. The same was true with The Civil War and the people from WETA. It's an extraordinary environment in which to work."



To Current's home page

Current Briefing about the telling of history on public TV.

Later news: A few months after the airing of The Way West, PBS distributed The West, produced by Steven Ives under Ken Burns' aegis.

Later news: PBS airs the first 10 hours of the 12-hour New York project, 1999.

Outside link: Web site for The Way West.


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