Unsurprising for someone working on seven documentaries at once while raising a 6-month-old daughter, Ken Burns has a cold. “These are all chicks in the nest, chirping for food,” he says, referring to the former, not the latter. “So long as everything is under way, then I am obligated as a parent to go out and earn the money to bring back the food to feed them.”
And so, at McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village, there will be no beer for Burns. Instead, he shuffles across the sawdust-covered floor and asks the waiter for a glass of hot water. The waiter looks at him as if he’s just tried to order an artisanal chorizo from a ballpark hot-dog stand, and walks away in silence. “Well, that didn’t go over well,” Burns says. He’s wearing his customary goatee and toting a copy of the Times, and if not for his habit of reciting historical quotes, he could easily pass for one of the dozen-odd tourists fighting the smell of vomit on a McSorley’s afternoon.
A few minutes later, the waiter passive-aggressively brings an extra ale to the table. Burns orders some vegetable soup.
Burns the Teetotaler isn’t a publicity stunt, though it might as well be. His next film, premiering sometime this fall, is on Prohibition. But to hear Burns describe it, it’s about far more than that. “If I told you the film I have just finished right now,” he says, “is about single-issue campaigns that metastasize, about the demonization of immigrants, about smear campaigns against politicians, about unfunded mandates, about a whole group of people who feel like they’ve lost control of their country and they want to take it back, you’d say, ‘Man, you’re making a film about today.’ ”
Prohibition will be his 22nd documentary for PBS, a prolific partnership that started 30 years ago and gave birth to Burns’s most famous triptych—epics on the Civil War, baseball, and jazz that made him the country’s historian-in-residence. Stylistically, Prohibition is of a piece with the rest of his oeuvre. There’s the deliberate pace, the mix of detail-rich narration and readings of primary documents, and, of course, the iconic, slow-pan Ken Burns Effect. At five and a half hours spread over three nights, it’s also signature Burns in its sheer length. Burns wouldn’t make his documentaries any other way. “All meaning accrues in duration,” he says, offering the kind of observation that used to be called a koan and now would more likely be communicated via tweet.
“While we’re happy to do this,” he continues, pounding away at an imaginary BlackBerry, “we are real hungry for duration. What if I told you I could only do this for two minutes? Sorry, Chad, good-bye.” And then Ken Burns asks me how I like my sex. “Do you want it to be really quick or do you want it to be a little bit longer than really quick?”
Burns certainly likes his professional relationships long term, even if he carries on several at a time. After Prohibition comes an oral history of the Dust Bowl, in 2012. Then, in 2013, a project on the Central Park Five—the black and Latino teenagers who confessed to sexually assaulting the Central Park Jogger, then recanted, saying they’d only offered their confessions under duress. Then: a smaller film on Jackie Robinson, a megaseries on the Roosevelts, and a full dive into the Vietnam War, in 2016. He also recently started work on a history of country music, aiming to prove that it’s not nearly as red state as we all make it out to be.
Burns realizes this is not normal. Ruffling his hair back and forth with his fingertips, he leans forward on the table like it’s a lectern. “Doing Roosevelts reminded me that there is such a striking psychological dimension to all of this.” The whole family, he explains, had “limitations,” but Teddy was especially messed up, long plagued by the death of his mother and first wife on the same day in February 1884. “Black care”—Roosevelt wrote, using a common phrase of the time that evoked despair and sadness—“rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.”
Without realizing it, Burns had long been living Teddy’s advice. Burns’s mother died when he was 11, and his only memories of her are from while she was gravely ill. It’s this pain that he says drove him into making documentaries, a medium that “psychologically worked for me. Some of the things we do are to keep the wolf from the door.”
After a bit more prodding, his soup bowl now emptied, Burns goes full Freud. “I mean, I’ve talked to a psychiatrist about this. He said, ‘Well, look what you do for a living. You wake the dead. Who do you think you’re really trying to wake up?’ ”