Ken Burns opens up on ‘Benjamin Franklin’ – and why he wants to make an Obama documentary

Ken Burns says Benjamin Franklin is even more complicated than the hulking figure kids learn in school.

A Founding Father who helped draft the Declaration of Independence, Franklin helped shape the world’s understanding of electricity, he is credited with inventing bifocal glasses and his first name became synonymous with money with his splattered image on $100 bills, but America’s most famous documentary filmmaker says there’s a lot more to the story.

“Franklin is a funny person who kind of invents what we consider dry American humor,” Burns told ITK. “He’s a printer. He’s an editor. He’s a postmaster. He’s a scientist who invents life-saving inventions and basically unlocks the mystery of electricity.

“He really is the embodiment of the American dream and aspiration. He’s not on the $100 bill for nothing,” the famed filmmaker added. and shared them with everyone. So it’s both a libertarian’s dream of advancement, but it’s also tied to the idea of ​​helping each other out.

Burns addresses the contradictions of the “greatest diplomat in American history” in his new PBS documentary “Benjamin Franklin,” which premieres April 4. The two-part series features “Homeland” star Mandy Patinkin as the voice of Franklin, as well as interviews with some of the world’s foremost scholars of American history.

As the film’s executive producer and director, Burns says he discovered how “shallow” his own understanding of Franklin was.

“I don’t make movies about things I know,” he says, “I make movies about things and then tell you what you need to know.”

“We just wanted to dive as deep as we could,” says Burns, 68.

Part of that includes a focus on Franklin’s “many, many flaws,” Burns says, such as “the obvious and blatant of enslaving other people.”

Burns and his longtime television partner PBS have been accused of a lack of diversity in the network’s projects – nearly 140 creatives wrote a letter last year calling out the public broadcaster for its “overreliance on a white filmmaker”. But he denies there was a conscious effort to include more black voices or perspectives in the telling of Franklin’s story.

“We haven’t changed the way we do things,” he says, praising PBS as being “ahead of everyone on all of this – diversity, equity and inclusion.”

“I could count the fingers on one hand, and I still have a few fingers left, the number of movies that aren’t about race.”

Many themes from Franklin’s life in the 18th century – he died in 1790 at the age of 84 – touched on topics that might have been ripped from today’s headlines: international diplomacy, pandemics and vaccination and the world experiencing societal and political tidal waves.

Although a proponent of inoculation during a smallpox epidemic in the 1730s, Franklin’s 4-year-old son Francis contracted the virus. Burns explains that “it wasn’t an anti-vax thing”, rather that Franklin postponed the procedure until Francis recovered from a severe cold.

“Son gets smallpox and dies, which is one of the worst ways to die and something he’s never forgiven himself for.”

Burns, based in New Hampshire, is known for working on several projects at once – he quickly launches several future films on the PBS docket, including one slated for September called “The United States and the Holocaust”, another on the story of the buffalo and others focusing on Leonardo Da Vinci and the mental health of young people.

But the documentary he “very, very, very” wants to make is a documentary about old president obamaBarack Hussein ObamaFossilized vampire squid named after Biden Voters think Putin wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine under Trump. Logic agrees for Biden to phone family of American detained in Russia MORE.

“He represents such an interesting story. Just the climb itself is so interesting,” Burns says of the 44th Commander-in-Chief. However, an Obama film, which he says the ex-president would ideally participate in, will probably have to wait: “The passage of time allows us to get it right and to be considered and thought about it.”

Burns says he’s less interested in making a movie about Obama’s successor.

“I want to take 15, 20, 25 years off the subject and then think back on it if I was going to do it,” he says of potentially making a documentary about former President TrumpDonald TrumpWhite House praises new South Korea president, citing ‘ironclad’ alliance RNC pursues Salesforce January 6 panel subpoena Russia’s war on Ukraine upends nuclear talks with Iran MORE. A filmmaker should “consider what in the Obama years enabled Trump,” Burns says. “Because I don’t think you get Trump if you don’t get Obama.”

He would also like to “get far enough away” from last year’s deadly Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill by Trump supporters before detailing it in his signature documentary style.

“You don’t know what happens midway through and more importantly what happens in [2024].”

A Trump critic – without naming him in a 2016 Stanford University commencement speech, he called the then-Republican nominee ‘obviously unqualified’ and a ‘terrifying Orwellian statesman’ – Burns says he still expires now that President BidenJoe BidenHouse passes bill banning Russian oil imports and allowing sanctions White House praises new South Korean president, citing ‘ironclad’ alliance is in office.

“Can you imagine what last week would be like if Trump was still here? Saint Toledo,” Burns exclaims, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There’s an “adult” in the office with Biden, Burns says. “He’s not an anxious kid.”

Despite his own opinions, Burns insists, “I don’t put any of my political stuff in the movies.”

“In public television, we bend over backwards to be fair and speak to everyone. And the last thing I want to do is talk to converts. But I’m still a citizen and I still have opinions.

When asked how he predicts history will judge Biden, Burns replies, “Boy, historians make poor prognosticators.”

“Let’s also remember that history is a malleable thing,” he says. “People have to understand that you need perspective.”

“The person who seemed utterly terrible, suddenly turns out to be rather principled. You have people in the story who are rehabilitated, and then it changes all the time. People are also forgotten.

So what would Burns name a documentary about this current, politically fractured moment in American history?

“I don’t know,” he pauses, before letting out a laugh. “In PBS, we are not allowed to use obscenities.”

—Updated at 10:03 a.m.

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