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Ken Burns on new documentary, ‘Hemingway,’ and question of diversity

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Making a documentary series about Ernest Hemingway, the American writer who famously developed a reputation for being almost stereotypically masculine, might seem an odd choice of subject for Ken Burns. But in a virtual press event this week, the filmmaker known for exploring such complex subjects as the Vietnam War, World War II and the Civil War, told reporters that he was inspired to dig deeper into the man behind the image.

“I think we were drawn to trying to get at a real Hemingway,” said Burns, who appeared in a Zoom session with his co-director, Lynn Novick, and actor Jeff Daniels, who provides the voice for Hemingway in the three-part, six-hour film.

“I think the persona of the wild man, the drunk, the bar guy, the big-game hunter, the big-sea fisherman is sort of what we inherit,” Burns said, “the baggage we carry.”

The more Burns, Novick and writer Geoffrey Ward learned about Hemingway, Burns said, the more they found the real person was far more complicated than the legend. There was pleasure, Burns said, in learning about how much Hemingway was “struggling every day” to maintain his writing discipline, “to touch those moments common to us all that are universal, but also wrestling with a whole set of demons, a whole set of problems that begin to betray the mask of the he‑man that he built for himself.”

The old stereoype is, Burns said, “sort of boring after a while. I don’t think Hemingway would survive if that’s all he was, just that bar‑room guy. But he had that great discipline every single day to write, and he had also all of these other competing things under the surface. And I think we were drawn inexorably to that.”

Novick, who has collaborated with Burns on such films as “The War,” “Prohibition” and “The Vietnam War,” agreed.

“Yes, I think the public persona, like Ken was saying, became such a burden for him,” Novick said. “And it becomes kind of exhausting, someone said in the film, to be Hemingway after a while. So, it was especially wonderful to discover him young, before he became that stereotype or iconic figure, when he was a young man at the beginning of his life and his career, the kind of energy and discipline that he had that he tried to carry through. And how difficult it became as he got older and trying to live up to the image he created for himself really was tragic, and that’s where the trajectory of his life takes us.”

In addition to Daniels providing the voice for the author, “Hemingway” also features Meryl Streep as the voice of Martha Gellhorn, with Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson voicing Hemingway’s other wives.

While Hemingway is known for such works as “A Farewell to Arms,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea,” elements of his personal life are less familiar. Admirers of his work may know about Hemingway’s death by suicide in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961. But Hemingway’s struggles with mental illness, and what Burns called the writer’s “very complicated and evolving sexuality,” are less discussed.

“He has a curiosity about role changes,” Burns said of Hemingway. “His wives cut their hair short then to look like boys. He wants them to call him ‘Katherine,’ and he calls them ‘Pete’ in the bedroom. There’s some very interesting stuff”

But the point isn’t to be sensational, Burns said. “This is a man whose life ends very tragically by his own hand. And people have expounded on all sorts of different rays: the genetics, the madness that existed in his family, his own father’s suicide, the ideation that that produced in him. I think something very new that we are discussing are the traumatic brain injuries that he suffered all throughout his life. Very serious things that we now know cause the kind of things, the alcoholism, and the drug addictions that can add to madness and mania that he clearly had. All of these things we just put out there, that I think help reverse the kind of sense that we know who he is, a conventional wisdom about Hemingway. And we are not going to be bold enough to say that this is the one thing that did it, that pulled the trigger, literally and figuratively, but that it is a whole complex set of things.”

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Daniels said, “Just in reading the work and reading his letters, you get pulled into his darkness. He’s sharing something. And maybe he doesn’t even know what he’s sharing or he’s searching for that, I mean, rewriting an ending 47 times. I mean, he’s searching for something, and maybe it is more than just the last two paragraphs of a novel.”

In working on the film, Novick said she overcame some initial preconceptions about Hemingway.

“I think that in starting the project, I felt pretty clear that I didn’t like Hemingway the man, and that I wasn’t sure how I am going to feel spending six hours with him as a viewer,” Novick said. And the film, she said, doesn’t downplay the writer’s flaws.

“He was so terrible to so many of the great friends he had,” Novick said. “And he had a talent for becoming alienated from people who cared about him, a pretty impressive talent, and hurting people in the way he betrayed them in his work. And yet at the end, I think having really spent the time we have tried to do to get under his skin… I felt a lot more compassion for him and his struggles, and his demons that Jeff was referring to, than I did at the beginning.”

During the virtual discussion, a journalist asked Burns and Novick how they choose which subjects deserve to be the focus of biographical documentaries, noting that past works by Burns feature several “white politicians and artists,” with only three — films about boxing champ Jack Johnson, baseball trailblazer Jackie Robinson, and an upcoming portrait of Muhammad Ali — focused on Black individuals, all of them athletes.

The question recalled one asked in an earlier PBS virtual press day session, with PBS CEO and President Paula Kerger, which referenced an essay by filmmaker Grace Lee, who argued that PBS’ support of Burns prioritizes a white male filmmaker and shortchanges Black, Indigenous and persons of color filmmakers.

“The decades-long interdependence of PBS decision-makers, philanthropists, and corporate funders with one white, male filmmaker highlights the racial and cultural inequities perpetuated by this system,” Lee wrote. “The amount of broadcast hours, financial support (from viewers like who?), and marketing muscle devoted to one man’s lens on America has severed PBS from its very roots. Wasn’t the initial goal to break down inequality?”

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In response to the question posed during the “Hemingway” session, Novick said, “We pick subjects. They pick us. It is a very organic process. And we focus on people from a whole wide diverse array of American characters and important figures in our history. So, I think we don’t really want to think about parsing our work into these kind of categories. I think that’s what I would say. We are pretty expansive in what we have taken on, what we’re interested in.”

Burns went on to say that biography has been “one constituent building block of a larger series. And it is not about qualifying out because you’ve done something. I mean, I think that Louis Armstrong deserved a 10‑hour series by us, and just was the central part of the ‘Jazz’ series. So too we could have done a biography of Frederick Douglass out of ‘The Civil War,’” in addition to “many other people who aren’t getting the full treatment, that are constituent parts of these other things.”

Burns agreed with Novick’s comment that subject “choose us,” adding, “It has to be done with your gut… And it has to just be a good story. And there’s thousands of good stories.”

Projects that are coming up, Burn said, are “incredibly diverse in every sense of the meaning of the world.”

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