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Interview: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick On Their Compelling Series, ‘The Vietnam War’

 

There are countless books, films and documentaries on the Vietnam War, but none have been told quite in the way that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick tackle it in the PBS series. Over eighteen hours, the ten-part series deals with the entire war, giving us all perspectives including going into Vietnam and getting the Vietcong perspective. Over the course of ten years, Novick and Burns worked to bring us the most comprehensive look at the war.

Read my chat with Burns and Novick below:

What I loved about your documentary was how you worked on this  by having the many perspectives. Where do you start with that?

Ken : In the first episode, we wrap the footage taking us back through time, but we also in that same episode flash head through wormholes where we take the title literally, Deja Vu and see the French experience an opportunity to throw ourselves ahead and give a little brief taste of the American experience. Essentially, you do a chronology which is basically and then and then and then. If you’re not putting your thumb on the scale and advocating one particular point of view or another, which is all limiting, you then have an opportunity to find out the essential truth of all human things which is that there are many truths. There are so many truths. The truth for North Vietnamese is very different compared to that of an American who is opposed to the war or an American who is gung-ho for it. If you just make a particular group wrong, you lose the opportunity to have a multi-dimensional portrait. It wasn’t that we were without our own feelings and thoughts and you can see it throughout the film.

Nixon did something good. We weren’t afraid to extend to him that it’s very smart not just politically but it makes good policy to end the deferments based on education and make the drafts fairer for everybody.

Lynn, you and Ken have been working together for years, but what made you want to take on Vietnam?

Ken and I are nine years apart in age. I think our perspective on the war is different just by virtue of our age. I’ve been really obsessed with the Vietnam War for my entire adult life. I think it’s because as I was growing up, it was the important event happening all around me. I knew something terrible was happening, but I certainly didn’t understand it, but I knew it was extraordinarily painful and disturbing. I knew people had very strong feelings about it. It wasn’t like World War II when you had this feeling where everyone was in it together, more or less.

From High School on, I’d watch all the films and watch the documentaries, but still never felt that I could understand it. As long as I’ve been working with Ken, we talked about Vietnam, but for many years he’d say it was too soon and we needed more time to understand it. After we had finished our film, The War, it felt like it was the right time.

I think having gone to school for ourselves about how to handle talking to people who have been through a war was a big part of it. I conducted most of the interviews for the film on WWII and spent time with combat veterans and their families, even though it was a long time for them, just viscerally appreciating how painful that was, we felt gave us some understanding of how to talk about Vietnam.

Photo credit PBS
In terms of the people you spoke to, how did you whittle that down because you’re taking on many perspectives?

Ken: You wanted to have a range of American experiences and you want to find out the people who get left behind in these stories, that is to say, our allies, the South Vietnamese and what they felt at the civilian level as well as at the military level. You also want to find out about the people that opposed their own government. You also wanted to hear, for the first time, from the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese and the civilians.

We spent ten and a half years working on it. That had a lot to do with how much we were biting off and how much we had to learn. There was also new scholarship to digest. For a while, this is one-stop shopping for Vietnam scholarship because there are people who have worked for a dozen of years to describe one aspect, say military stuff in Vietnam that newly released stuff has helped them understand. Or what was going on geopolitically. Or the experts on the White House tapes and in no place have they been all aggregated together.

Someone will write a book in ten years time that will be an elaboration, but for the time being, if you want to know what happened in the Vietnam War, our film is a pretty comprehensive and wide-ranging study.

This is something history scholars will be using in years to come.

Ken: Oh, there are all the people who watched The Civil War series, but we are in more and more countries and it has gone into the education system so it’s being used at the college and high school level.

That’s so thrilling and to me, that makes it an evergreen.

I feel we never really got that perspective until now

Lynne: It wasn’t really accessible. It’s been a fairly closed society and been difficult for Western journalists to penetrate for a variety of reasons. Partly to do with the internet and evolution, I think it’s more open and people feel free to speak. I think there’s a sense that they were genuinely interested in having their story told to an American audience and ultimately to their own people.

Was it always going to be eighteen hours?

Lynn: Not really. We set out, in the beginning, to say we were going to tackle the whole Vietnam War. We estimated, based on previous projects to try to make it seven parts but we also knew from the beginning we wanted to understand and get deep into Vietnamese perspective. We didn’t know how that would look like and how much screen time it would take. It was a guestimate at the beginning and we started collecting raw material and it ballooned.

If we had made the first act of our film, it would have been twenty-four hours long. Once we got a third of way into the project, it was clear it would be fourteen hours. We didn’t know how long it would be, we whittled it down, but it’s a pretty epic story and we felt we didn’t need to fit it into a particular construct. It’s as if you’re writing a novel and say it has to be 602 pages, no more, no less. The story told us.

You’re working on this for ten years, how did your perception of this change as you’re making it?

Ken: Everything changed. I grew up in a college town rife with anti-war sentiment including from my family. I studied it growing up and had a draft number and fortunately high. I was very much involved. From the first day, and every day after that, there was kind of a wonderful humiliation in which whatever conventional or superficial knowledge that I had, whatever baggage I brought to the situation you had to leave it. Each day was a revelation. We’d finish a scene and it would look good. We’d read something or meet a scholar who had done fresh research and we ordered a neon-signed for the editing room saying “It’s Complicated.” When you have a scene that’s working, the last thing you want to do is change it because you think you could destabilize it. We began reveling in changing it to make it better, accurate and perfect.

The narrator says, “Four North Vietnamese regiments came down the Ho Chi Minh trail” We have lots of scholarly back up for that number but the scholar that we’re feeling most confident about says there are only three. Sometimes we’d have to re-write things and we’d have to get Peter back in to narrate things again and that was fun.

Lynn: I almost can’t remember what I thought at the beginning. It was such a transformational experience. If I were to go back to what I thought at the beginning, it was fairly simplistic, I thought I knew a lot about it. But over time, what I came to appreciate over an emotional visceral level, was the scale of the tragedy and the cost. I’m afraid to say the word pointlessness, but there is a sense of pointlessness looking back. Appreciating the way that the war did not turn out the way that America wanted it to. Even though the North Vietnamese won the war, there’s a lot of turmoil about whether it was worth it because of the tremendous cost they paid and I don’t think I appreciated any of those things at the beginning, the way that I do now.

The most disturbing, distressing and relenting aspect of this for me is, having studied it the way that we have, appreciating the failure of leadership on all three sides and the amoral and immoral behavior of the leaders and the callous disregard of the human cost of their own people and the other people is hard to take.

Talk about editing and you’re getting those changes such as the regiment example Ken used.

Lynn: Even though, all of us understand intellectually that history is not a thick set of facts. We can make sense of the past by excavating the information and organize it. We could have a set of books and they’d each have a different statistic for a particular event and you realize how ephemeral some of the information is.

David, our producer did the fact-checking. He’d say, “In the script, it says there are three regiments, and I’ve checked four sources and no one agrees.” I thought he was going to have a breakdown. I think at first, he was afraid to tell us we had something wrong, but we were so grateful by the end. We’d have to not be definitive sometimes because some of the things are hard to pin down. Also, some of the facts are in dispute so embracing that as opposed to take a stand was a great exercise in humility.

There’s also so much pop culture in there, talk about that.

Ken: Too often, the soundtrack is often an amplifier, you know, the British romantic comedies of the last fifteen years which add American RNB and pop soundtrack to it and it’s meant to make it faster paced. You realize, they’re appropriating the value of the music.

The foundation of the music is, in fact, three hours of original material that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed for us. The extraordinary sessions we had with Yo-Yo Ma that gave us Vietnamese music. We gave them folk songs that every Vietnamese would have known. They did it in their extraordinary artistry to which we added 120 pieces of music.

We didn’t want to use to inflate something. That’s why we could get reasonable prices from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and all the people who agreed because their music was being organically. We promised we wouldn’t use a piece of music if it wasn’t in terms of our chronology available to be heard. It was the music of the moment that a soldier could be heard on armed forces radio or on their transistor radio.

We wanted to be faithful to the music. Ohio by Crosby, Stills and Nash has never been licensed before and we got it. It’s one of the most dramatic moments in the film, the end credits for Episode eight.

There’s sometimes a reluctance on the interview subject front when it comes to opening up, did you get that with this?

Ken: I would say there are operating things. There’s a huge linguistic and cultural difference between us and I think we were able to bridge that with the help of our Vietnamese producer and translator.

Human beings are human beings. What most of the soldiers said to us was, how curious they were about the other side, the people they were trying to kill and the people that were trying to kill them, and how similar they were to their own feelings.

There’s an interesting phenomenon, the communist regime, that’s who won. For them, the victory for them is a singular victory of the Capital P people.

I’m a filmmaker interested, from the very beginning, in emotional archeology. They were being asked questions that their system didn’t really suggest people would be interested in such as “How did you feel?” and “Who did you leave behind?” and “Were you scared?” All of the things Americans would say, “Yeah, it’s about me.” What we had was North Vietnamese soldiers breaking down on camera because they were being asked and remembering things.

Remember this was available for free in Vietnam. They have never seen their own dead. They have never seen the fact that the truth is not what their government told them and it’s incredibly liberating to suddenly have dimension to a war that had a kind of one or two-dimensionality to it, the victors over the imperialists, all of that dissolves when you realize it’s a lot messier than that.

What an impact to have on someone.

Ken: Three people stopped me along the way to a meeting and it happens every day I’m out in the world. “My husband. My uncle. My brother. My son. Whoever it is, was there and they’ve never talked about it, but we all watched your series and now he’s talking.” I can tell you, it’s great to have a review from The New York Times. It’s great to have a great rating success, but when you have great stories like that day after day.

I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker when I was 12 and I feel like I’ve found the thing I was meant to be doing. When you have that feedback, it makes you feel good.

Lynn, how did you find your subjects, especially in Vietnam and how did you know they were the right people? How do you filter that part out?

That’s such a good question. No one has asked that. That’s a hugely important piece of it. It’s intuitive and doing your homework. I will first say that, Sarah Botstein, the producer, and I took the lead on the Vietnamese aspect of the project. I made four trips to Vietnam and Sarah made two and over that time, we got to know a wonderful man who became our producer there and he was Ho Dang Hoa. Without him, we would not have had any of the interviews that you see in the film because we don’t speak Vietnamese. I thought about learning it but it’s way too hard of a language to learn in a year. We were really dependent on having a colleague there to help us. We explained over time and over those trips, exactly what we were looking for. We were looking for people who were open and honest to tell their story. We wanted people to go beyond the party line narrative that is often told when Western journalists come.

A lot of our success came from his ability to understand what we were looking for and explain it to people in a way they could understand. We’d explain to Hoa what we’d want to explain to our subjects and they would relax and open up. Part of it, is a simple act of showing up. We’d go into their homes, meet people, and eat their food and look at their photos. We’d try walking in their shoes and that went a long way.

We wanted to talk about the Ho Chi Minh trail but before we started the project, we didn’t fully understand how important it was to the Communist side and what a mythical place it was for people who fought on it or in it. We spent a lot of time talking to people who worked on the trail, we kept it open and surviving under the bombing. We were able to do a lot of research to understand their story and context. When you speak to someone and you know about what they’ve gone through because you’ve done your homework, that helps a lot.

PBS

What’s the greatest compliment you received?

Lynn: After we made the film, we did an event in Kansas City with John Musgrave who prominently features in the film. I met him in 201 and he’s disabled from his war injuries. He had not seen the entire film until a month before the broadcast. Sarah and I went to his home and watched it with him and his family. We went to this highlight reel screening and someone asked him what he had learned about the war that he had lived through and sacrificed so much for through watching the film and He said, “For the first time in my life, I understood the humanity of the man I was trying to kill.” What more could I possibly say? Coming from him that meant an enormous amount. I was surprised in a way because he never believed that until he saw the film. It was such a profound experience for him and it made me feel like we had done something worthwhile.

We were also doing screenings in Vietnam and Nguyen Noc had fought the French and Americans. He’d become really decorated after the war. He’s a beloved teacher in Vietnam. He got a screener and said at the screening that he was one of the first to watch the film in the country and he was really proud of that. He said, “I think it’s a very important film for our country because it shows us a lot of things about ourselves that we didn’t know.” For him, he thought the anti-war movement was a sign of weakness, but he now thinks it’s about great strength and that people could question the government and protest. He hoped his own people could look at their history critically, the way we as filmmakers do that.