Lynn Novick Talks About Collaborating with Ken Burns and Speaking to Families Of Soldiers Killed In The Vietnam War.
It is a ten-part, eighteen-hour documentary, and one of the most comprehensive documentaries to date of The Vietnam War. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick went to Vietnam, speaking to former soldiers, American soldiers, politicians and the families to get all sides of the story here. It’s an immersive, gripping and brutal look at the war.
The Vietnam War is nominated in four Emmy categories including Outstanding Writing and Outstanding Directing. I caught up with Director Lynn Novick to talk about her working relationship and collaboration with Burns and meeting the families of soldiers who died in combat.
On her working relationship with Ken Burns
When I came to work with Ken, I didn’t have as much experience, he had already made a number of films and was finishing up The Civil War. I was an Associate Producer and as he was finishing that up, he asked if I could stay on and produce the series he was going to do on the history of baseball and for me, that was a quantum leap. I had done many different pieces but I had never really been a producer in charge. It was huge. When that was over, I had learned a lot and working on that film with him, I was bringing everything I could to help him realize his vision. Subsequently, we’d been working together and realizing more of our shared vision and the collaboration has evolved. He’s worked with many other epople and developed many other ways of filmmaking and I too have come into my own.
On the interview with Crocker’s Sister and mother.
This gives me a welcome opportunity to say our names are above the line, but these films are not made by the two of us.
There is a team, and The most essential people are Geoffrey Ward our writer and Sarah Botstein, our producer.Sarah and I have worked so closely together, especially on The War and this in cultivating the people that we interview.
The Crockers are a great example. I interviewed Mrs. Crocker, Jean Marie. Sarah interviewed Carol. We were both there for both interviews and this is where Sarah and I have a great collaboration also. I think the two of us together, working with the Crocker family were able to build trust with them over time and to be able to ask them those very painful questions. They felt comfortable speaking to us. It was a profound experience to hear those stories.
Sarah is just so talented and doesn’t get the recognition she gets by far.
On how they found The Crockers
We were looking for a Gold Star family. We wanted to find one family where the parents were still alive. Mrs. Crocker had written a beautiful memoir of her grief and loss that she worked on after Denton died. It was beautifully written and well researched. She had deposited it in the Library of Congress. I had called them and asked if they had anything to do with Vietnam and this librarian remembered her and that’s how we found her. She had gone through the process of writing down and trying to make sense of what happened. That memoir was written 25-years-ago. He contacted her and asked if she could contact her and she said OK. We had several tentative phone calls explaining who we were, asking if we could read the book and asking if we could come and see her. Sarah and I went up to Saratoga and talked about her life and family and what her life has been like. A lot of it was in the book, we got to know her and talked about ourselves and the film we had hoped to make. She’s a very thoughtful person. She wanted other families to hear about what they went through and maybe it would help other people. We spent the whole day with her and then we sat down with her. She said later that her daughter might want to speak to us.
Sarah is responsible for that because Carol was very reluctant and nervous. Even on the day, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to do it. Sarah convinced her to do it.
On John Musgrave:
I’ve never really had an experience quite like that where someone was open and brave in telling their own story. It was excruciating to be present and to be the person who he was looking at while he was describing the dehumanizing of the enemy, the rage and the confusion and all the things he went through. The pain of coming home and being alone and all those things he went through. Even though he’s spoken quite a bit about his experiences, I do think there’s something different about speaking to the world. That’s what the camera means. He’s very sophisticated and he understands what that represents. IN a way, sitting with the camera, it’s intimate, but the camera is there. His inner turmoil is seeing him wrestle with that was painful to watch. There’s a moment where he talks about his unit after seeing his friends be taken to be killed and mutilated. He says, “I don’t know how to explain it to you to make any sense.” It’s one of the bravest moments I’ve seen on film.
After doing that interview, I had to lie down and couldn’t talk for the whole day. It really affected me enormously. I feel humbled, priveledges and honored to be able to be there and to listen.