Shaken & Stirred

An interview with Ken Burns

On August 18, Commonweal media columnist Celia Wren spoke to filmmaker Ken Burns by phone about Prohibition, the new documentary he created with Lynn Novick. (Read Wren's review here.) The following is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for grammar and conciseness. Burns began by saying, of this documentary’s topic, “It’s one hell of a great story—firing on all cylinders, and just so reflective, good and bad, of who we [Americans] are. I think all of the films that we decide to do are an attempt to get under the skin and understand a little bit about the soul of the country.”

Wren: How did the idea come about to take prohibition as a subject?

Burns: I was walking across Brooklyn Bridge six years ago, and I met Dan Okrent [author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition], who is an old friend. He was about to begin work on a book about Prohibition. He said, “I know what your next film is!” And I said, “I know what my next three films are!” We talked for a while. [The subject of Prohibition] was so compelling, and he had already spoken to Lynn Novick, the co-director and co-producer, about it, and I guess had got her interested. What was difficult was saying, “OK, now we’re going to fit it in here [time-wise], and go about raising the money to do it.”

Making it was just such a joy, because it’s such an unexpected story. We all have our clichéd images of Prohibition: Maybe it’s a Model T with a machine gun blasting, careening around a rain-slicked Chicago street. Maybe it’s a flapper with a short skirt and bobbed hair, shimmying on the table of a speakeasy. Maybe it’s an axe going through a keg of whisky or beer, and [the liquid] flowing down the gutter. Our film has all of that, and it’s sexy and dangerous and entertaining. But [we also have] the deeper story: the ways in which the story is so emblematic of today. [Prohibition] is about a single-issue campaign that ended up with horrible unintended consequences. It’s about the demonization of recent immigrants to the United States. It’s about unfunded congressional mandates; it’s about smear campaigns during elections; it’s about a whole group of people who feel like they’ve lost control of their country and want to take it back. We think our times are so unique and new, and they are; but the Bible is also correct, that there’s nothing new under the sun, as Ecclesiastes says….

Every day was a revelation, an opportunity to learn something new: funny things, sad things, political things, social things, spiritual things. This was a hugely religious story, particularly in the 19th-century leadup to Prohibition. It’s all just fascinating and utterly American: We’ve always had this tension between the Puritan and the prurient, Sunday morning and Saturday night. That tension is always there in American society, we see it all the time in tensions and debates today, and we’re always going to be negotiating it. Prohibition was a particularly dramatic negotiation.

[The 18th Amendment] is the only the amendment to the constitution that limited human freedom—and the only one that’s been repealed. That, in and of itself, should be of interest to Americans, particularly as we debate the role of government today.

Wren: Yes, I hadn’t known a lot about Prohibition, and I was struck, watching the documentary, by how many broader social and civic issues played into this historical episode: questions about national identity, the city versus the country….

Burns: Black and white, rich and poor—all the divisions that we see ourselves beset with today. Our film in no way tries to make contemporary parallels: They’re there! We treat our audience as if it’s intelligent, and can make those connections as it sees fit. We don’t make propagandistic films. We try to make films about everybody. There’s already too much pluribus and not enough unum, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger used to say, and as I have famously repeated, over and over again. I’m in the business of unum.

Wren: And did you always know that all those longstanding resonant issues were bubbling beneath the surface of the prohibition story?

Burns: No. Dan [Okrent] tantalized us with a great story filled with unusual people—people we should remember today. Saying “Mabel Walker Willebrandt” [U.S. Assistant Attorney General in the 1920s] would be like saying “Hillary Clinton” or “Sandra Day O’Connor” today.

We don’t want to make films about things we know about and think you should know about: Last time I checked, that was called “homework.” We’re not in the homework business: We’re in the storytelling business. For us it was discovery, and we shared our process of discovery with everybody else. We were flabbergasted and thrilled and chilled by what we found out. Who knew about the Anti-Saloon League? And Wayne Wheeler—the single greatest lobbying outfit in the history of America. Wayne Wheeler—the first one that could make senators sit up and beg! You’d have to combine five or six contemporary characters to get a Wayne Wheeler.

Wren: You’re a mega-experienced documentary maker at this point. Did this project present any new challenges, or was it just business as usual?

Burns: There’s no such thing as business as usual, because we’re not in a business. We’ve chosen consciously to spend the last thirty-five years in public television. That’s meaningful. We’re not churning out widgets. Each [film] is like a blank canvas, and while we acknowledge that there’s stylistic consistency—and that’s a good thing—we hope there’s no formula. We guard against that very carefully. Each story has its own peculiar set of problems, each story requires us to calibrate the various things that we have at our disposal: still pictures, news reels, live cinematography, first-person voices in tension with the third-person narrators, the talking heads, the music, the complicated sound-effects track that we like  to do…. It’s always a wonderful but difficult and challenging research project: to find the pictures, to dig up the stories, to find out what actually happened, to engage the consultants that are the historical experts, to make the million judgments along the way that will go into the completed film.

Wren: Was there a particular discovery of a photo or a fact that was particularly surprising?

Burns: The fact that America, after banning the sale of alcohol, became one of the world’s largest importer of cocktail shakers—that’s pretty wonderful. Also the idea that this is a story about women. I’m the father of four daughters, and I have one grandchild, who’s a “she.” And this is entirely a story of women. It is born of women’s frustrations over their powerlessness. Women help make [Prohibition] a go. Women are the enforcers: Mabel Walker Willebrandt. And women are also the disobeyers. They never went into the saloons but all of a sudden they’re drinking in speakeasies, and there’s a sexual revolution going on. It’s a woman—Pauline Sabin [founder of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform]—who helped reverse the tide and end Prohibition.

I find all of this just an amazing revelation, along with Roy Olmstead, the “Good Bootlegger,” the ex-cop in Seattle. Or George Remus, the narcissistic lawyer who sets himself up and for a while is the most profitable bootlegger in the country….And we went and found people old enough to tell us what actually happened. We live in a culture that thinks only people between the ages of 12 and 18 have anything to say to us, and I don’t believe that at all. I believe our elderly are among our most valuable resources, and our films are always populated with folks who are articulate, and have been there, and have the wisdom of accumulated experience.

Wren: Do you think that the fact that Prohibition was a failed experiment has contributed to ignorance about it? Are people sort of embarrassed and perplexed by the episode?

Burns: I wish that were the case, but unfortunately that is not so. In 19th-century America, everybody—every school kid, every adult—knew something about George Washington. They could quote his speeches. They thought it was important to know where he had actually slept. That’s amazing. And then, all of a sudden, because we thought we’d never forget anything about George Washington, we forgot everything about George Washington. All of a sudden the story was that he had wooden teeth: Not true! That he never told a lie: Not true! That he threw a dollar over the Potomac: Not true! If we can lose George Washington we can easily lose Mabel Walker Willebrandt or Wayne Wheeler. ….What was that statistic that came out a few weeks ago—that only nine percent of 4th graders could recognize a picture of Abraham Lincoln? Horrifying! He’s on the $5 bill! We [Burns and his colleagues] are trying to light a candle in the darkness here.

Wren: You talked about the stylistic consistency of your documentaries: Do you ever feel the need to burst out in another direction?

Burns: No. I don’t mean to equate my own work in any way with Cézanne, but if you stood in a gallery filled with Cézanne paintings, they would, at a distance, all look the same. And you wouldn’t go to him and say, “Monsieur Cézanne, do you ever think of painting the way Picasso paints?” I get this question all the time. What it is, is: “Don’t you wish you could do something like Michael Moore or Errol Morris?” But I can’t be Errol Morris, and I can’t be Michael Moore. They’re both unbelievably exciting filmmakers, but I can only be me.

Having said that, I’m now working on a film about the Central Park Jogger case. It is unmistakably about the same things that I’ve been interested in: race, society and aspects of freedom and justice in the United States, but it happens to be relatively recent history. The film will have no narration, lots of talking heads, lots of mixed media. But I’m using the same editors, and the same people that do the music. I’m making it with my daughter and my son-in-law. My daughter [Sarah Burns] is the world’s biggest expert on the case, she published a book this spring called “The Central Park Five….” [The stylistic changes] are not done out of the desire to do something different, but out of the desire tell a good story—a story that needed to be calibrated in a different way…

Wren: What is your own default drink?

Burns: I am a Prosecco man right now. I went through about three decades where I was never far from Jack Daniels. Then I had a period of not drinking for a long time. So, as I worked on this film, I could see it from the perspective of someone who was a “capital T” teetotaler.

Wren: Did you deliberately knock off alcohol for this film?

Burns: No. It was when I was working on The Civil War—the only major film that I’ve done I didn’t edit in my home in New Hampshire. It was in New York, because of the editor I wanted to use…. I had to commute and I had two small daughters, and I just realized that without breaking to off to have that drink at the end of the day, I could add hours to my work schedule. So as an experiment I just stopped drinking alcohol for a while. Then in the 1990s it was white wine for a while, and then I did  red wine for a while. And now I do Prosecco.

Wren: I’ve always known I didn’t know a lot about Prohibition, and I was so glad when I heard that was the subject of your new documentary.

Burns: We’ve been so surprised by the subject, first as civilians, then as filmmakers. When we’re sharing it with people, the best thing to hear is ‘I didn’t know that!’ And that’s what we’re hearing everywhere. ….It’s interesting how hungry we all are for what history can give us. 

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.