The Good General
Entrepreneur|September 2017

With his latest opus due out this month and a half-dozen more films on the way, the director and historian Ken Burns has learned a lot about how to manage big teams through even bigger projects.

Dan Bova

A ward-winning filmmaker Ken Burns is responsible for such genre-defining and genredefying documentary seriesas The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, to name a few. As he and collaborator Lynn Novick prepare to debut their new 10-part documentary film series The Vietnam War on September 17 on PBS stations nationwide, we spoke with the tireless documentarian about leadership, productivity, managing gigantic projects, and how to achieve immortality through storytelling.

So you just finished this incredible documentary about Vietnam. Are you already thinking of the next three documentaries down the road? 

Sorry to say, in a kind of admission of foolishness, I’m thinking usually about 13 or 14 films ahead. I’m now working on six or seven at the same time, which is insane. A lot of that has to do with the economies of scale that these labor-intensive historical projects require. The Vietnam War was more than 10 years in the making.

How do you choose your subjects? 

It is not based on any market research; it’s a gut feeling. It’s the chemistry that happens between friends. You’ve got a lot of ideas—60, 70 film ideas—but then every once in a while, one drops from your head to your heart and you go, “Gotta do that one.” You sort of add that to the queue, and then it just becomes a matter of finding the bandwidth and figuring out who the collaborators are.

Your projects are massive undertakings. How do you keep your focus?

I feel comfortable. A lot of that has to do with [the patronage of] public television, and a lot has to do with my stubbornness. So many people ask me, “Ten years? Don’t you get bored?” But for me, each day it gets better and better. Plus I don’t live in Los Angeles or New York City. I live in a tiny village in New Hampshire, which permits us to do the deep dives, to do the necessary research, and keep the sanity in the course of a 10-plus-year project.

Can you give people a picture of the Ken Burns industrial complex? How do these films come together? 

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