Ken Burns (right) with longtime collaborator Geoffrey Ward discussing “The Roosevelts” at a media event this summer in Los Angeles. |Frederick Brown/Getty Images
Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns’ latest subject is an in-depth, seven-part, 14-hour documentary that takes the audience on a journey — intersecting the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the three most important and influential members of that family that has paid such a key role in the political life of America since the turn of the last century.
“The Roosevelts” will debut on PBS stations nationwide Sept. 14-20, and “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” will be released on DVD and Blu-ray Sept. 16.
Q: What was the genesis of this project for you?
A: My collaborator of many years, Geoffrey Ward, and I have been talking about this for quite some time. Amazingly nothing like this had ever been done before — treating the three of them, Eleanor, Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt, as part of the entire family. A lot has been done on TR. A lot has been done on Franklin. A lot has been done on Franklin and Eleanor, but nothing on all three of them together.
Q: Why the trinity of those three Roosevelts? Why was it important to tie them together?
A: It was important because it helps illustrate the complicated family that was the Roosevelts.
Q: Part of this is interesting, because you got some outstanding actors to do voiceovers in this project for you — including Meryl Streep who voices Eleanor Roosevelt.
A: We were so lucky. Meryl is amazing. She sounds exactly like Eleanor. So much so, that people hearing her in the film think they are actually listening to Eleanor Roosevelt herself — even though they know that can’t possibly be true!
We also were lucky to get the insights, observations and contributions of so many scholars who combined have more than 1,350 years of studying the Roosevelts.
Q: In America, we have these iconic families, like the Roosevelts — but also more recently the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Clintons and so forth. What is your take on these families that seem to continue the tradition of public service from generation to generation?
A: A lot of it is fairly understandable. The human inclination to trust what you know. When you have a name like Roosevelt or Kennedy you have that tradition in front of you from birth. Of course, I believe the Roosevelts are in a class by themselves. But all of those families were rich, to-the-manor born, and in their time politics was not seen the way it is today.
Back then, they were seen as traitors to their class for going into politics. I think that the Roosevelts simply took it as their calling. As we say in the film, because of that, more Americans have been touched by them, than by any other family in American history.
Q: What are your thoughts about how the Roosevelts public service interests took them out of politics and into areas such as conservation?
A: They were very aware there had to be a stewardship — not just of the land in our National Parks, for example, but really of the entire political process. I don’t want to say noblesse oblige, because that has kind of a patronizing aspect to it. But they felt, as T.R. said, ‘The government is us.’
They woke up in the morning feeling that was a great calling. Today the government is seen as the enemy and not as being something we all own. These people were not about big government, but about good government and they made government work. They had an enthusiasm for it all.
Q: Along those lines, do you think the Roosevelts — all three of them — would be appalled by what is going on in Washington these days?
A: They would be stunned. First of all, Theodore Roosevelt would be stunned that it has taken this long to get a federal health care program, something he promoted in 1912!
Q: I’m sure there were many challenges in undertaking such an enormous project like this. But what was the biggest challenge for you?
A: I think in trying to make sure that our history is balanced. That it doesn’t get swayed by one thing or another. These are three people, while incredibly talented, were also deeply flawed individuals. There is a very complicated dynamic there that we wanted to retain. We live today in an era where we don’t think there are any heroes anymore, and it’s simply because we have a modern media culture where heroism means perfection.
It’s not, and never has been. Heroism as the Greeks defined is a very complex war between a person’s obvious strengths and their perhaps not obvious weaknesses. It is a negotiation between those features that defines true heroism. Achilles had his heel.
This is what it is.
So the challenge for us was figuring out how to do justice to the positive things, without letting the negatives overwhelm the end result of their accomplishments.
Q: You have always focused on American themes. Ever think of doing something that’s not about America?
A: Nope. If I was given a thousand years to live, I wouldn’t run out of topics from American history. I understand that makes me provincial and parochial, but I’m willing to plead guilty to that. But I’m just curious about how my country ticks. I’m interesting to examining less Madison Avenue-sanitized versions of our past. False patriotism is a very dangerous thing. Genuine patriotism is essential — based on facts and facts alone. If we don’t know where we’ve been we can’t possibly know where we’re going.
And where we’ve been is what I do.