THE VIETNAM WAR on PBS: Q&A with Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

July 26, 2017

Updated March 25, 2019

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick tell the story behind their most ambitious film to date: The Vietnam War, a 10-part, 18-hour documentary film series premiering on PBS stations Sunday, September 17, 2017 at 8/9c. An immersive 360-degree narrative, the series tells the epic story of the Vietnam War as it has never before been told on film. The Vietnam War features testimony from nearly 80 witnesses, including many Americans who fought in the war and others who opposed it, as well as Vietnamese combatants and civilians from both the winning and losing sides. Co-directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick share the experience of creating the series in this Q&A. Watch episodes of The Vietnam War through June 1, 2019 with the member benefit THIRTEEN Passport.

Q: Why was it important for you to tell the story of Vietnam?

Film director Ken Burns.

Film director Ken Burns. Photo: Rahoul Ghose/PBS

Ken: I think the Vietnam War is arguably the most important event of the second half of the 20th century. It’s a defining moment.

Lynn: It’s an extraordinarily important period in history and it is very much unresolved. It is extremely painful and divisive in our culture and it is very poorly understood. We felt it was important to take a look at the story of the war, what happened and why. And perhaps most important – why is it such a difficult subject for us to talk about as a country? Mission one for us was to honor the service and sacrifice of the people who served and died. Give them their due respect as part of the larger story of what our country went through and also what this experience meant for the Vietnamese people.

Q: How do you tell the story of the most divisive period within our nation during the 20th century?

Film director Lynn Novick.

Film director Lynn Novick. Rahoul Ghose/PBS

Ken: I think you want to tell a complete story so we’ve taken 10 episodes and 18 hours to do it. We’ve worked on this story for 10 years. The film represents 45 years of scholarship that adds on to the experiences of the service members. Obviously, war is human beings at its worst but it also paradoxically brings out the best and we’ve not neglected to point out those positive aspects, those heroic aspects, at the same time we delve into a war that many Americans would rather ignore.

Lynn: We set out to take a fresh look at this very complicated and divisive story through the eyes of the people who lived through it and to hear from as many different people with as many different experiences and perspectives that we could practically embrace. We interviewed close to 100 people. One of the tragedies of the Vietnam War is that America got involved in a conflict in a country far away that we didn’t really understand. We didn’t understand our allies or our enemies. We as filmmakers did not want to make that same mistake. I spent a lot of time in Vietnam getting to know people who lived through the war there and hearing from civilians and soldiers. And also speaking to Vietnamese-Americans who fled Vietnam after the war. What we found was that the war is as complicated and unresolved and as difficult to talk about for them on all sides as it is for us.

Q: How do you think the Vietnam era changed our country?

demonstration at Kent State University. Ohio, May 4, 1970.

Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University. Ohio, May 4, 1970. Photo courtesy of John Filo/Getty Images

Ken: I think it really split it down the middle and in some ways the divisions that we experience today had their seeds in the Vietnam War. Of course the Civil War ripped huge divisions that are still with us too but I think Vietnam began to have people become cemented in their place and blinded by their particular ideology. I think it’s important to try to step back and see the larger picture. I think Vietnam is a hugely important, watershed moment in American history.

New York, 1970. “Hard-Hats” demonstrate in favor of the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

Lynn: I think it’s impossible to look at our country today and not trace back many of the things that concern us back to the Vietnam era. It really split the country down the middle and we’ve never moved on from that. It ties into how the soldiers felt disrespected and this question of blaming the warrior for the war. That I really think is the one lesson we learned as a country and that we’ll never make that mistake again.

Q: Why does Vietnam still matter?

U.S. Navy personnel push a helicopter into the sea to make room for more evacuation flights from Saigon. April 29, 1975. Photo courtesy of AP/Jacques Tonnaire

Ken: Just think about it. You want to understand Wiki leaks? Let’s go back to the Pentagon papers. You want to understand about meddling in foreign affairs, about political parties reaching out to foreign powers that’s right now in the news? That’s in the story of Vietnam. You want to find out about the disconnect between the generals who make the plans and the service members who do the fighting and dying? Vietnam reveals this. To understand Vietnam is to arm yourself in the best sort of way for how to deal with our present incredibly fraught moments. It couldn’t be more relevant than it is today.

Lynn: It was all-consuming to try to figure out the story we’re telling and to tell it well. I started off thinking I knew a fair amount about the Vietnam War. The reason that I wanted to make the film was because I had always been fascinated by it. I thought I knew a lot. The more I worked on the film, the more I knew I didn’t know so much after all. It’s a very difficult subject to understand. I don’t think we can understand who we are as a country without understanding what happened during Vietnam.

Q: What did you learn from making this film?

Marines marching in Danang

Marines marching in Danang. March 15, 1965. Photo courtesy of Associated Press

Ken: I grew up in the war. I had a high draft number, I didn’t go. I was completely aware that I came of age watching it. I felt like I knew something about it. I knew nothing about it – nothing. And so to me – It was this shear positive humiliation of suddenly just realizing I know nothing and that I had to really build back from the beginning. The film is this deep, deep dive into the things that I thought I knew and in some case I came to the understanding that not only I, but most of us, have just a conventional wisdom about it, kind of a superficial knowledge.

Vietnamese Rangers rush children to a helicopter

Vietnamese Rangers rush children to a helicopter for evacuation from the Duc Hue base camp, about 35 miles northwest of Saigon, early April 1974. Photo courtesy of AP/The Horst Faas Estate, Michael Ebert, Magdeburg, Germany

Lynn: One thing that I learned that I will carry with me is that history is a lot more complicated than we give it credit for. There is no story that I’ve tried to tell that is more complicated than this. With any one aspect that we tried to tell – there were at least three points of view or more. It was a constant exercise in compassion. To try to understand how you could look at this particular battle from this point of view vs. this point of view. It’s important to be open to considering that things are not as simple as they seem.

Q: What impact do you think The Wall [The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC] has had on our country?

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Polished black granite walls are engraved with the names of more than 58,000 men and women who served in the war and were killed, or remain missing. Photo: Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr.

Ken: Our scene of The Wall in our last episode is one of the most powerful scenes in the entire film. We reference The Wall without saying anything about in almost every episode. In our 10th episode, we tell the story of the competition, of the controversy, of the building and then its response in which suddenly in the presence of that gash in the ground – it’s as if it just asked people to say “shh, shh, shh, be quiet, stop talking, you don’t need to argue – just come here.” It is beyond effective. It’s one of the greatest works of art that I know.

Lynn: I think what it did was it gave a place to go to collectively mourn and to honor the dead and to contemplate the true cost of war and the sacrifice that people made. It gave people a physical place to do that. It’s a gift to our country. It transcends the Vietnam War. It’s evolved into this place where people can come together and contemplate the human condition. I think that’s why so many people come there and leave things. They contemplate what it means to be alive.

About the Filmmakers

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are long-time professional filmmaking partners.

Ken Burns

Ken Burns has been making documentary films for almost 40 years. Since the Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, Burns has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, including The Civil War; Baseball; Jazz; The Statue of Liberty; Huey Long; Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery; Frank Lloyd Wright; Mark Twain; Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson; The War; The National Parks: America’s Best Idea; The Roosevelts: An Intimate History; Jackie Robinson; and, most recently, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.

Lynn Novick

Lynn Novick is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker. For nearly 30 years, she has been producing and directing films about American history and culture, among them some of the most acclaimed and top-rated documentaries to have aired on PBS. Her films include Prohibition, Baseball, Jazz, Frank Lloyd Wright and The War, a seven part, 15-hour exploration of ordinary Americans’ experiences in World War II.

Novick is currently working on a two-part biography of Ernest Hemingway, co-directed by Ken Burns and slated for completion in 2020, and College Behind Bars (w.t.), a feature length documentary produced by Sarah Botstein, about a group of men and women imprisoned in New York State for serious crimes, struggling to earn degrees in a rigorous liberal arts college program – the Bard Prison Initiative. College Behind Bars asks several essential questions: What is prison for? Who in America has access to educational opportunity? Can we have justice without redemption? The film will air on PBS in 2018.