A Chat with Ken Burns

The famed filmmaker talks about his new documentary on Yosemite National Park

Apr 04, 2014 | By Brenda Iasevoli
PAUL BARNES

Filmmaker Ken Burns’ newest documentary, Yosemite: A Gathering of Spirit, celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Land Grant Act. President Abraham Lincoln signed the act into law in the middle of the Civil War. The law preserved Yosemite Valley with its 3,000-foot granite cliffs, and Mariposa Grove with its towering sequoias. This was the first time in our country’s history that wild land was set aside for protection. What’s more, the law inspired the birth of a great idea: our country’s national parks. Here, Burns talks to TFK about the process of making A Gathering of Spirit, and how Yosemite came to mean so much to him.

TFK:

What did you want to capture in the documentary, Yosemite: A Gathering of Spirit?

KEN BURNS:

We are trying to celebrate the birth of one of the best ideas human beings have ever come up with. It’s an idea that I think was only possible in the United States, a country that was living under a Declaration of Independence. Yosemite is the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape. For the first time in human history, land would be set aside, not for kings or royalty or for the very rich, but for everybody and for all time. The writer Wallace Stegner called this “America’s best idea.”

TFK:

Can you talk about Yosemite’s importance as a national symbol?

BURNS:

Yosemite is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The park is a symbol of our national willingness to share the most beautiful spots in our country with everyone. Think about what Yosemite would be like if it weren’t a national park. It would be a gated community, and only the wealthiest would be allowed inside.

TFK:

How do you create a story out of a place?

BURNS:

We’re interested in the idea of how the park came about. Who were the human beings who struggled, sometimes against tremendous odds, to enable this park to be set aside and protected? We’re also interested in those who struggled equally as hard to protect the park in the generations since. It’s a different story from the normal national park story that centers on where to stay, what wildlife there is to see, and what are the beautiful vistas. All of that is important. But we think the ideas and individuals behind Yosemite are central to the dramatic story we wanted to tell in this documentary.

TFK:

Did you find it difficult to convey in a film something that really needs to be experienced firsthand?

Director Ken Burns attends a National Parks celebration in New York City.
THOS ROBINSON—GETTY IMAGES FOR NPCA
Director Ken Burns attends a National Parks celebration in New York City.

BURNS:

There’s no substitute for real experience. But it’s also nice to have a sense of what’s out there awaiting you if you chose to click off the TV and get off the couch. This small film on Yosemite was born out of a much larger series that I produced on the national parks called The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. After its broadcast in the fall of 2009, attendance at the national parks increased significantly, by more than 10 million people. That tells you people watched the film, and then turned off the TV and traveled to places. That made us happy.

TFK:

What kind of research did you do before you made this documentary?

BURNS:

When we create any film, we do a great deal of research. We explore the archives: the photos, newsreels, and movies. We interview experts. What we accumulate is a lot of loose information. Then, like a student putting together a report, you begin to pick and choose. It’s not enough to look up those dry dates, facts and events for the report you’re writing. It’s when you weave those facts and events into a story that the project becomes much more satisfying.

TFK:

Did you have Ansel Adams in mind when you were shooting the documentary on Yosemite? (Ansel Adams is a photographer who became famous for his photos of Yosemite).

BURNS:

We had the beauty of the landscape in mind. When you’re standing in all the various places where Yosemite steals your breath, you feel connected to Ansel Adams, and before him to the painter Albert Bierstadt. President Lincoln created the Yosemite grant in 1864 in the middle of the Civil War. The only proof that Congress had the place existed was through the photographs of Carleton Watkins and the paintings of Albert Bierstadt. These artists came about a century before Ansel Adams started photographing Yosemite. 

TFK:

Why do some consider Yosemite to be the first national park?

BURNS:

It’s not technically the first national park because it was initially entrusted to care of the state of California. But it is the first space that was reserved by the federal government for everybody. So the idea of our national parks started with Yosemite. The honor of the first truly national park, however, went to Yellowstone in Wyoming. At the time, Yellowstone was located in a territory, so there was no entity to give it to. That’s why it became a federal national park.

TFK:

Is there a reason Yosemite is special to you?

BURNS:

Yosemite is connected with a childhood memory. When I went to Yosemite, I thought I had never been to a national park. I had two magical days of filming. There was a smile on my face and wonder in my eyes as if I were a new parent. The last night there I couldn’t sleep. I remembered that in 1959, my father had taken me to Shenandoah National Park. My mother was dying of cancer, and this was the only road trip he and I took together. We had a magical weekend. Those days filming in Yosemite brought this memory back to me. It was Yosemite that gave me that gift. And this is the important thing for everyone to understand as they visit any national park: it’s not just about the spectacular vistas. It matters very much who you see these sites with. That connection to each other is something the parks reinforce in a wonderful way.