Today's post is the last in a three-part series of interviews with filmmaker Ken Burns. His 15-hour documentary, "The War," looked at life on the battlefield and homefront during WWII. Excerpts:
S.H.: What was it like living with the images of war for six years during the making of the film?
BURNS: It was very very tough. I mean we like to say, and it’s a dishonor to anyone within the sound of my voice who’s actually experienced combat, to say we used to have kind of our own minor versions of PTSD because we had to look at horrible footage. We looked at thousands of hours of footage to get our 15 hours of film. We looked at tens of thousands of still photographs, some of the most gruesome carnage. And while our film is difficult to watch, and shows in an unmitigated, unmediated fashion the horror of war, nonetheless it isn’t the worst we’ve seen.
We didn’t want to gratuitously shock anybody. There are difficult images, but we left the most difficult images of children, of women, of soldiers deeply maimed, guts spilling out on the battlefield, of the worst kind of depravity that takes place in war, out of our film. But we ourselves had to find out what it was like. And we’d often, many of us, recount the stories of in the editing process, the long solitary editing process, of going home at night and dreaming--finding ourselves not just filmmakers in the editing room trying to solve the problems of the Battle of Peleliu, for example, or the Battle of the Bulge, but finding ourselves in that battle. [We were] realizing, ‘wait a second, we’re filmmakers without guns--why are we here?’ And waking up in cold sweats with nightmares, coming in hollow-eyed with sleep and finding out the editor, or producer across the table had felt the same thing, or something similar in a different battle.
It was very difficult, but what kept us going, and I don’t mean to play up any real difficulties--we had the luxury of being at home, none of us were called up to do the actual fighting that takes place--is that we were compelled along, carried along, buoyed by the stories that we had collected. [From] the 40-odd people that we’d gotten to know intimately, people we’d said in our early boiler plate language paid lip service to the notion that these people would be like family members, somebody you might have had Thanksgiving with. By the end I can tell you that they do feel like family members. We lost Earl Burke. We lost Ray Leopold in the last few months. And we all felt a great deal of sadness as if someone really close to us had died. With Ray Leopold, from Waterbury, I actually broke down and cried, as if it had been my own grandfather.