Q. Does this film feel like a departure for you?
A. There’s no narration. What film of mine do you know without narration? There’s a different editing dynamic, and that’s really Dave and Sarah. This could have easily been a four-hour film, a two-part thing. They were like, “No, let’s make it two hours.” It meant a lot of stuff was sacrificed, a lot of stuff didn’t get in. But it’s a better film for that. At the same time, what’s at its heart is what’s at the heart of “Statue of Liberty” and “The Civil War” and “Baseball” and “Jazz” . . . and even “The National Parks” and “Prohibition”: race. So I didn’t feel I was outside my comfort zone. “Branding” is the contemporary word, but style is the authentic application of technique. That is to say, each film represents hundreds, if not thousands of problems. And you solve them by the application of technique. If you do it authentically, organically — just as you can recognize a Cezanne, you can recognize, “Oh, that’s a Ken Burns film.” This film is me, too.
Q. Why a theatrical release?
A. Sarah and Dave were committed to that from the beginning. And I had a theatrical release with “Huey Long,” a 90-minute film, back in ’85. I hitched my wagon to public television, without any degree of hesitation, and, looking back, without any second thoughts. On the film festival circuit, a few thousand people see it, and we’ve been to the best. When it’s theatrical, you get tens of thousands, if you’re lucky. I get tens of millions of people, and we will get tens of millions of people when this is broadcast on PBS, in April. So to us it was just another way to remember we’re filmmakers, that I believe in the sacred communion of strangers in dark rooms — not the half-lit living room with 1.4 people watching TV. Now maybe it’s .9 [laughter], though I’m not quite sure how that demographic works. Multitasking?
Q. You’ve been making documentaries now for more than 30 years. How has the field changed and not changed?
A. Documentaries have gone from something that was threaded up in eighth grade and permitted you to sleep to this form that seems much wider than Hollywood. Right now you look at Hollywood and go, “You gotta deliver so much bells-and-whistles to that same-old, same-old plot,” of which there are maybe four or five that they use. Whereas documentaries seem infinite with possibilities. And the variety between say, Fred Wiseman, with cinema-verite, for five decades; Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore, with advocacy; the highly stylized, rigorously intellectual pursuits of Errol Morris —
Q. There are a couple of moments in the movie where I found myself thinking of “The Thin Blue Line.”
Q. I have to assume that wasn’t conscious.
A. Not at all. But since we had no footage of the interrogations, we needed to vamp, in a way. So we re-created two different interrogation rooms. But it works, it works, and I love that.
Q. As regards to documentary as a field —
A. We’ve seen huge changes. The acceptance of it, the technological revolution — though I always add an asterisk. People still have to know how to tell a story. It’s like the hunter-gatherers. Somebody still has to cook that food when you bring it back.
Interview was edited andcondensed. Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.