SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Another morning’s worth of interviews behind him, yet a whole afternoon and evening’s worth of personal appearances still ahead, Ken Burns turned away from the TV camera and smiled.
“That was my 657th interview for this,” the documentary filmmaker joked.
Safe to say, he’s underestimating a bit. After all, in the run-up to Sunday night’s start of “The War”—the seven-night, 14 ½-hour PBS documentary on World War II as filtered through four towns (including Sacramento)—Burns has talked up the film to anyone who’ll listen.
Just last week in Sacramento, for instance, he did everything short of stopping people on J Street to recite the lines, which he now knows by heart, explaining his motivation: How 1,000 veterans a day die ... How kids think we fought with the Germans against the Russians ... How this was not “The Good War,” but a “necessary” one ...
Still, Burns, 53, looked anything but weary or put out. The man has an almost evangelical zeal when speaking of “The War.” He said he’s spent much of the last eight months on the road, and the promotion won’t stop once the documentary goes on the air.
“It’ll probably be another eight months,” he said. “It’s the old high school corollary: If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to see it fall ... well, it’s the same for me. If you make a documentary that you really are proud of and no one’s there to watch it, did it really happen?
“So I don’t mind at all answering the same questions about it.”
As it turns out, Burns’ enthusiasm fits in well with PBS’ strategy to draw as many eyeballs as possible to the miniseries, which the network decided to air the same week as the start of network TV’s fall premieres.
But if you think PBS is not concerned about such petty things as ratings, think again. It, too, is going all out to promote “The War,” albeit in its public-television way. So you’ll see “The War” advertised at NASCAR events, on the sides of Budweiser cans and at ATMs.
Compare that to the publicity before Burns’ breakthrough documentary, “The Civil War,” which aired 17 years ago this week.
“I did a lot of phone interviews for it,” Burns said. “Nothing near this. In the past, I’ve been a trouper and done what I’ve needed for the films. But we really want people to watch this.”
Now, Burns has five rotating publicists assigned to him. (Heck, Burns’ main production team for “The War” numbers only 12.)
The goal: To extend Burns’ reach beyond the loyal, but relatively small, PBS viewer base.
He isn’t worried.
“It was interesting that, before `The Civil War,’ some people were saying we’d get swamped by `Cop Rock.’ Remember that show?” Burns asked. “Well, we were the highest-rated program.
“Still, I know there were 40 channels then and now there’s 400. So we’re just trying to reach out to everyone.”
“The War’s” West Coast publicist, Brian Moriarty, marveled at Burns’ stamina.
“I’m almost half Ken’s age, and I feel like such a wuss because I can’t keep up with him,” Moriarty said.
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, left, premieres Episode 1 of his latest film, The War, at the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco, September 14, 2007. The 15-hour, 7-part series starts on PBS on September 23, 2007. (Karl Mondon/Contra Costa Times/MCT)
In recent weeks, for example, Burns has appeared in Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Atlanta, New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. And, of course, the “World Premieres” in the four featured cities: tiny Luverne, Minn., on Sept. 7, when the sellout crowd in a school gym gave him repeated standing ovations; Mobile, Ala., on Sept. 8, when 3,000 people showed up to hear him at a local college, and Waterbury, Conn., where the town held a parade for Burns on Sept. 10.
In Sacramento, PBS geeks accorded him almost rock-star status.
At a signing at the Avid Reader for the companion book that goes with the series, a woman actually genuflected in front of Burns and gushed, “I just wanted to thank you on a number of levels for your body of work.” A man in a three-piece suit said: “Your work is like a diamond in an ocean of garbage.”
And Dennis Wright of Sacramento, a Vietnam vet, staked out the bookstore early for a front-row seat. “I just had to come down and be in his presence,” Wright enthused. “It’s a privilege to have a man of his status in Sacramento.”
Burns, short, slight and unassuming with his recognizable bowl haircut, seemed slightly embarrassed by the adulation, but was nothing if not gracious. He patiently chatted up fans on a number of issues.
If you kid him about being a “rock star,” though, he shakes his head.
“No, no, I can’t get away with that,” he said. “I live in a tiny village in New Hampshire, and if I ever acted like that, they’d never let me forget it.”
But isn’t he the most famous resident of Walpole, N.H.?
“Yeah, that and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee there,” he quipped.
Besides, wherever he goes, Burns tries to divert attention to the veterans—the real stars, he said. Often, to open his lectures, Burns will tell this anecdote:
“On my refrigerator, there’s a faded New Yorker cartoon of two men in hell, with flames licking at their feet. One guy says, `Apparently, my over 200 screen credits didn’t mean a damn thing.’”
He used that twice in Sacramento.
Both times, it got big laughs.