Ken Burns — A Master Filmmaker on Creative Process, the Long Game, and the Noumenal (#386)


“There’s always the certainty that the opposite of what I might believe in might also be true.”
— Ken Burns

Ken Burns (@KenBurns) has been making documentary films for more than 40 years.

Since the Academy Award nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, Ken has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, including The Civil War; Baseball; Jazz; The Statue of Liberty; Huey Long; Lewis & Clark; Frank Lloyd Wright; Mark Twain; Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson; The War; The National Parks: America’s Best Idea; The Roosevelts; Jackie Robinson; Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War; The Vietnam War; and The Mayo Clinic: Faith — Hope — Science.

Ken’s films have been honored with dozens of major awards, including sixteen Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, and two Oscar nominations; and in September of 2008, at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards, Ken was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

His newest work is Country Music. It explores the history of a uniquely American art form: country music. From its deep and tangled roots in ballads, blues, and hymns performed in small settings, to its worldwide popularity, learn how country music evolved over the course of the twentieth century, as it eventually emerged to become America’s music. Country Music features never-before-seen footage and photographs, plus interviews with more than 80 country music artists. The eight-part, 16-hour series is directed and produced by Ken Burns, written and produced by Dayton Duncan, and produced by Julie Dunfey.

It debuts on PBS on Sunday, September 15th, 2019, at 8 EST/7 CST.

The first four episodes will stream on station-branded PBS platforms, including and PBS apps, timed to coincide with the Sunday, September 15th premiere. The second four episodes will be timed alongside the broadcast of Episode 5 on Sunday, September 22nd; each episode will stream for a period of three weeks. PBS Passport members will be able to stream the entire series for a period of six months beginning Sunday, September 15th.

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, StitcherCastbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

#386: Ken Burns — A Master Filmmaker on Creative Process, the Long Game, and the Noumenal

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Want to hear another podcast with an artist who tells stories in a unique way? — Listen to my conversation with Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind Humans of New York. (Stream below or right-click here to download):

Brandon Stanton - The Story of Humans of New York and 25M+ Fans

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.



  • Connect with Ken Burns:

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram


  • What are the stories behind the comforting mementos Ken carries in his pocket? [08:06]
  • What is the less comforting memento with “a weight and a disturbing heaviness” Ken can’t carry in his pocket? [13:14]
  • What purpose do these mementos serve for Ken? [15:06]
  • What does a wholehearted “yes” feel like to Ken when he’s considering a project, and what’s his best example of this experience? [18:14]
  • On the sadness of wrapping up a long project, the hospice care of the creative process, and dismantling the myth that history repeats itself (though it may very well rhyme). [23:05]
  • When a project that Ken has been working on for 10 years resonates eerily with the present. [26:25]
  • What’s the motivational neon sign that hangs in Ken’s editing room, and how does it speak to the process of trying to complete a project that’s always in a state of flux? [29:20]
  • On The Civil War somehow capturing the public’s attention more than ABC’s Cop Rock, and the millions who have seen it in the 29 years since. [34:39]
  • Ken talks about dealing with debilitating anxiety and doubt early in his career, and developing General Grant’s “morning courage” over time. [35:47]
  • The three things Ken tries to do as he helps others deal with their own debilitating anxiety. [40:17]
  • Music as “the art of the invisible” and a “benign form of heroin.” [41:10]
  • What do the three things Ken mentioned earlier look like in practice, and which are the hardest to navigate? [43:06]
  • “How much pain has caused us the evils which have never happened?” [45:02]
  • Ken’s personal philosophy is an alloy made stronger by its inclusiveness in the space between us and US. [45:49]
  • What is Hampshire College and how is Ken’s story — and success as a filmmaker — entwined with it? [52:13]
  • What lessons from Ken’s mentor Jerome Liebling have had the most impact on his trajectory since graduating from Hampshire College? [58:04]
  • When a cliche about what happens if you love your work (and, by extension, the people with whom you work) happens to be true. [1:03:05]
  • How did Ken’s father react when he made the decision to go to Hampshire instead of The University of Michigan? [1:04:41]
  • As the “smartest man” he ever knew, but “like a Maserati without a clutch,” does Ken think his father may have suffered from depression? What qualities did Ken inherit from his father and mother, and what have conversations with his brother and father in law revealed about his own motivations as a filmmaker? [1:06:16]
  • The pros and cons of digging deep as an emotional archaeologist. [1:13:45]
  • As we seek to find the sum of our parts, it shouldn’t be too surprising when the math doesn’t always add up. The human condition is anything but rational, but it makes for good storytelling. [1:16:27]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:19:33]


Posted on: September 12, 2019.

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Who was interviewed? Here's a very partial list: tech icons (founders of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Craigslist, Pinterest, Spotify, Salesforce, Dropbox, and more), Jimmy Fallon, Arianna Huffington, Brandon Stanton (Humans of New York), Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ben Stiller, Maurice Ashley (first African-American Grandmaster of chess), Brené Brown (researcher and bestselling author), Rick Rubin (legendary music producer), Temple Grandin (animal behavior expert and autism activist), Franklin Leonard (The Black List), Dara Torres (12-time Olympic medalist in swimming), David Lynch (director), Kelly Slater (surfing legend), Bozoma Saint John (Beats/Apple/Uber), Lewis Cantley (famed cancer researcher), Maria Sharapova, Chris Anderson (curator of TED), Terry Crews, Greg Norman (golf icon), Vitalik Buterin (creator of Ethereum), and nearly 100 more. Check it all out by clicking here.

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