Geoffrey C. Ward | Screenwriter

Geoff Ward has worked with Ken Burns for over ten years, writing scripts for The Civil War, Baseball, and The West. He is also known for his highly regarded books on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Before the Trumpet, A First-Class Temperament, and Closest Companion.
 

GEOFFREY C. WARD

Seth Resnick / © Corbis

“Ken Burns is very interested in words. I mean he's really very interested in them and he's not afraid of large numbers of them if they help tell the story.”

  What does the screenwriter bring to the filmmaking process?
I think the writer brings different things to different filmmakers. Ken Burns is very interested in words. I mean he's really very interested in them and he's not afraid of large numbers of them if they help tell the story. And so he and I, I think, work rather more closely than most producers and writers do.

  With Thomas Jefferson , where did you start and where did you end up?
Well, each film is different. But on Jefferson, I knew Ken was very interested in doing him and we talked a lot about the complexities of him and his sort of opaque surface which makes him a very challenging and interesting person to write about. Camilla Rockwell, who was the coproducer on the show, did an enormous amount of research, gathering quotes about Jefferson and by Jefferson, and arranging them so that I could you know pick and choose as I went along. And then I started to string out the life as best I could, using transcripts of some of the interviews that Ken and Camilla had done, and then adding in more of those as they did more. It's a collaborative process, really, from the first. I try to do an outline, always much longer than the film ends up being and more complicated than the film ends up being. And then it's a process of sort of hacking and hewing to find the parts you can't do without.

  Do you decide with Ken the arc of the story?
Well, Ken and I talk about the overall structure before we begin. Then I go off and write something.

Meanwhile other people—in this case Camilla Rockwell and some others—gather great numbers of pictures and things. And then we try to bring them together. I guess I do the preliminary overall arc just because I'm working on it first. But certainly after the first draft is handed in, then Ken and I go over it and scenes get dropped and other ones get emphasized and it alters slightly. I must say it doesn't alter terribly much in the overall sense. I think because we've been working together a long time and we both share an interest in the ambiguities of these people we do.

[Jefferson]…really does resist personal probing. He was a very reserved person and he was a sort of secretive person, and he didn't want people to get at him, and the result is that you're always dancing around the edges trying to see around the curtain.

  Talk about how this project differed from others that you have done together.
Jefferson is different from the others, I think, because since it's basically a pre-photographic story, dependent on a very, very small number of paintings of Jefferson, great numbers of artifacts, and Monticello, which is a sort of portrait of Jefferson in architecture. We had to approach it a little more differently. Also, he really does resist personal probing. He was a very reserved person and he was a sort of secretive person, and he didn't want people to get at him, and the result is that you're always dancing around the edges trying to see around the curtain. And I think that made him both more difficult and more fascinating than a lot of the people we've done.

  It strikes me that this film, compared to others that you and Ken have done together, is principally a film about ideas. Do you think that's true? Did it pose special difficulties in writing the script?
I think Jefferson is, in some ways, a more intellectually complicated story than some of the other ones we've done. He's so important in our history and yet he's so difficult to get at that almost everything about him is arguable. And so I hope we made an advantage of that by having running arguments all through the film about Jefferson and slavery, Jefferson and freedom, Jefferson and government. And I think those are all continuing debates in the United States which he at least half invented, so it, it's a wonderfully American story that way. It was fun to do something which had as much debate as this one. I enjoyed seeing how all those arguments play out.

I think race is the great unsettled problem in the United States.

  This also seems to be very much a film about race, an issue that Ken seems to have been probing in his last several films. Is that an interest you share?
Yes. I think race is the great unsettled problem in the United States. It's always been there, it continues to be there, we continue to argue about it, we continue to be sensitive on the subject and worry about it, and that current debate has very solid roots back in Jefferson's time when some things might have gone some other way. I think it is a thread that's run through all of Ken's shows and it will be present in Jazz, which is coming up too.

  How did your view of Jefferson evolve over writing the script for this film?
Jefferson's era is not one that I've spent a lot of time in, and so I knew about Jefferson not very much when I began. And I found him absolutely fascinating. One thing I had not realized, I'm embarrassed to say, was how eloquent he was, that his words are wonderful to work with. And I knew that he was multi-talented and so on—I sort of knew the things most people know—but I hadn't realized the depths of the complexity of him and the extraordinarily contradictory nature that just seems to flow all through that life. That was great fun to try to encompass; you can't possibly do justice to all of it in the film, but you can try to sort of embrace it all.

The thing that I learned that surprised me most was how passionate he was.

  What surprised you most about him?
The thing that I learned that surprised me most was how passionate he was. And at the same time, how carefully he kept that all under control and how he obviously worried about keeping it under control all his life. I find people are interesting who have a sort of surface persona, and then have a lot of things boiling underneath. That's true of a lot of the people that I've gotten interested in.

  You spent so much time exploring Franklin Roosevelt's life. How would you compare and contrast him with Jefferson?
Roosevelt enormously admired Jefferson, and also I think was a little bit envious of him. I think FDR saw himself as a sort of renaissance man, sometimes. But no one could be as authentic a Renaissance man as Jefferson was. Jefferson was a very unlikely politician, or at least on the surface. He, he was actually pretty good at back room stuff, but stiff in public. He didn't like speaking, he didn't like shaking hands with the voters, he didn't like slapping hands. Roosevelt loved all that, and so it was interesting to write about a politician so completely different. Jefferson was so reserved that he was a dreadful public speaker.

  Talk about your history with Ken. What was the first project and how has it gone from then?
The first thing I ever worked on with Ken was his film that he made on the Shakers. I was called in as a consultant, and as I've often said, it was the easiest $250 I ever made. I told him I thought it was terrific, which it was. And we started talking about history. And one of the things that Ken has that I think is an enormous advantage over a lot of other filmmakers who have made documentaries in the history field, is that he genuinely believes history is absolutely fascinating. A lot of people who try their hands at documentaries have to convince themselves as they go along —they're so used to working with footage of current things —they have to sort of constantly reassure themselves that people will be interested in something that happened a long time ago that doesn't have much footage. And Ken from the first was completely convinced that you could make something terribly compelling and emotional and powerful out of archival material. Since that's something I have always believed in as editor of American Heritage and writer and so on, we really sort of hit it off.

And he asked me to write a film on Huey Long, which I did. I had never written a film, I had never read a film script that I can remember. But I thought I'd try, and I did Huey Long and we had a wonderful time working on it together. We've been working off and on ever since.

  What's the highlight of your collaboration with Ken?
It's hard to pick one thing as the highlight. I really have liked working on all the films. I suppose the reaction to The Civil War was a highlight. That was a wonderfully satisfying feeling to know that that many people were watching something that we thought was that important. That was terrific.

The actual act of writing for television is its own discipline. It's a little like writing haiku ....

  How would you compare the process of working in film to writing a books or for a magazine, which you've also done?
I don't think there's anything in filmmaking for me that is quite as exciting as finding something brand new, doing historical research, finding a diary or a letter that explains something people have always wondered about. That's the ultimate thrill, I think. But, filmmaking has its own filmwriting has its own wonderful rewards. It is wonderful to reach as many people as you can reach on television. That's a terrific feeling to know that you know millions of people are watching American history and staying with it. You can have enormous emotional impact with film, which is much harder to do on the written page. You can't go into the kind of depth that you would like to, and you have to just realize that and not endlessly agonize over it.

The actual act of writing for television is its own discipline. It's a little like writing haiku, you're trying to say a lot with the fewest possible syllables, and you want to be transparent, you don't want people to notice you. If you do your job well people are not saying, "Boy was that beautifully written," because if they're saying that they're not hearing the story. And so that's an interesting, special kind of humility that you have to work up for doing film scripts.

I think the only thing you can do is try to tell the story as honestly as you can.

  How do you deal with the notion of objective truth versus subjective truth when you're creating these films?
I think the only thing you can do is try to tell the story as honestly as you can. And you will never tell the whole story and it will inevitably be subjective in ways you don't understand no matter how carefully objective you're trying to be. But I think that's true of written history as well. It's more important to write history and do the best you can than to agonize over questions like that, I think.

  You've mentioned Jefferson's writing. And words play an awfully important role in this program. Talk about the writings of his that you were most moved by or impressed by.
Jefferson was a marvelous writer, and the most obvious thing he wrote, of course, is the Declaration of Independence whose beginning is who we are. And we spent a lot of time analyzing what those famous words mean. And I think that's a very important thing for Americans to see that we debate over all of those words still. I mean, it's like Shakespeare, in that there is no objective analysis of exactly what a given, great piece of literature means. I think there are lots of possibilities and that's what's so interesting.

He took his own life very seriously, and there are lots and lots of wonderful letters simply about things ranging from the flowers in his garden and the order in which they grow to what pass for love letters to Maria Cosway in Paris. All of which are real literature.

  What do you think of Jefferson's more mundane writing, where he's constantly calculating and figuring and estimating?
Well, that's one of the great mysteries of Jefferson is that here's this guy who does keep track of a number of bottles of wine in his cellar and the number of pounds of earth that need to be moved for a given project, and endlessly keeping the most frighteningly meticulous lists, who also is almost perpetually in debt. It's just one of the great mysteries.

  What was it like to write the section of the film where you quote the Notes on the State of Virginia, some of the most awkward and difficult writings of Jefferson's on race
Race remains a terribly important issue in America. And the only way you can deal with it, I think, is to be absolutely honest. Or as honest as one can be. Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia say some awful things about blacks. They're offered as theory, not truth, and he's careful to say that. We face the choice of pretending that wasn't there. Or having people talk about it. And we chose to have people talk about it, among them the historian John Hope Franklin, who is as repelled by them as anybody else would be, as any decent person would be in this century. But it's part of the Jefferson story and it shouldn't be left out.

  Did any part of your script that get cut, did anything that ended up on the editing room floor, that you're disappointed about?
Remarkably little was left on the editing room floor of this one. You know we were trying to limit it to Jefferson's life and therefore we didn't wander very far afield.

There are lines that I regret there not being in there, but they were always taken out for a good reason—there aren't any of them with which I disagree. You always write stuff that you particularly like, that's often the stuff that goes. And there's a perfectly good reason for that, and that is if it's a really good line it's probably over-written and will call attention to itself in the film.

The best part of making these films is sitting in the editing room with a lot of creative people.

  Talk about the editing of this film, and its evolution from its first assembly to finished film.
I do sit through a series of screenings at various times. First of all, I'm listening for the writing, and although I always think it's terrific when I give it to Ken, I always change a lot of it before we're through. And he also changes stuff, and then we have a creative conversation about how to make the changes. And I also act as a sort of warm body, somebody who comes in and hasn't been involved in moving this picture three frames earlier and having the music come in at point b. And I think I can offer some useful advice from that point of view as well.

But I do enough of that now so that I also have a credit as a senior creative consultant on these things. We've done them enough together that I sort of do more than I think most writers do. And enjoy all of it. I love being in the editing room, it's great fun. In fact, the best part of making these films is sitting in the editing room with a lot of creative people. Everybody trying to be more creative than the next person. The whole level of the script rises as everybody chimes in with suggestions, and we go back and forth and cut things and put them back. It's wonderful fun.

  Do you have heated debate and arguments about things or is it civil?
It's very civil. It's a lot of fun. In fact, it's often hilarious. Everybody takes it so seriously that you have to laugh a lot. I don't think we've ever had a real quarrel, but we've had plenty of debates.

  When you're in the editing process and you're actually seeing the pictures with your words for the first time, are there places where you want to pull back at that point and then get rid of some of the narration that you've crafted?
Oh sure. Yeah. All narration is expendable. That's what you have to learn or you can't do this business. I often suggest whole places where I say "Let's not hear the narrator now. Let's just watch this. Or let's just use that bit of an interview." Pages and pages of narration, of straight narration, make me very nervous.

I hope viewers will take away from this film what I hope they take away from all the films I have worked on, and that is the past is never simple.

  Is there one thing in particular you hope the viewers will take away from this film?
I hope viewers will take away from this film what I hope they take away from all the films I have worked on, and that is the past is never simple. And the human beings who people it are just as interesting as the people we know, and just as human.

  At the end of this process, what did you find yourself liking about Jefferson the most?
Oh, I think Jefferson is an irresistible human being, I mean for all his complexity. Anyone who tried to know as much as he tried to know, and tried to do as much as he tried to do is, is impossible to resist I think.

  Would you talk a little bit about what's going on with Jazz and what you're up to with that project.
Working on Ken's jazz project is absolutely the dream of a lifetime. I've been collecting jazz since I was 10 years old. And you know it's just a joy to be working on it. The only script I've ever worked on where I can sort of see roughly what I think something should look like. And I hope to be really very closely involved in the editing room on this one because I just love it so.