Ken Burns on His National Parks Documentary

Without the National Parks Program, Yellowstone would be an amusement destination called Geyserland. At least, that's what famous documentary director Ken Burns (The Civil War) told thousands of people in Central Park Wednesday night, where he premiered footage of his new documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea. The 12-hour film, which begins airing Sunday on PBS, took Burns and writer Dayton Duncan 10 years to make, and spans both time and geographical space—the camera dwells equally on bears catching salmon in the 2000s and photos of John Muir from the 1870s. The award-winning documentarian sat down with NEWSWEEK's Sarah Ball to talk about what he calls "the application of the Declaration of Independence to the landscape," or why the heck he loves the parks so much. Excerpts: (Article continued below...)

What's your first memory of visiting a national park?
In 1959, when I was 6 years old, my dad took me to Shenandoah National Park. My mother was dying of cancer, and our household was a grim and demoralizing place. My father was a very distracted dad. He never played catch. He never went to ball games. But one day he scooped me up and took me on this glorious weekend. And it wasn't a repressed memory, it was just forgotten in all the tragedy. My mother died a few years later, and my father died way too soon. But it was a great gift: going to Yosemite had reminded me of this time as a boy.

Do you think most people have such a strong connection?
You wake up in the parks. Everybody [we spoke with] had their molecules rearranged in the parks. Everybody that we interviewed to help tell this story had the same experience, and I think most of us who worked on the film had that same kind of life-changing experience. There's a paradox: you see these places and you feel your insignificance, and yet that makes you feel bigger. Just as the egotist in our midst is diminished by his or her self-regard. It's sort of corny, but it was a privilege.

It took you 10 years to make this film. Was it a difficult task?
This was by far my most ambitious project: how do you film from the gates of the Arctic in northern Alaska to the Dry Tortugas off the Keys, to Acadia in Maine, to Hawaiian volcanoes? And this is not a travelogue. This is not a nature film. This is not a recommendation of which lodge or inn to stay at. It's a history of ideas and individuals. We then had to figure out how to calibrate the evolution of those ideas, and how to intertwine the 50-plus lives that we introduce to you in a way that is dramatic, and still nonetheless does justice to the arc of the national parks. The easy way of saying it is that it's like a Russian novel, but instead of being set against the backdrop of an epic war, we're set against the backdrop of some pretty spectacular scenery.

How did you get the idea to make the film?
It's right in our wheelhouse, and I want to stress "our." In the formal sense, [writer and longtime collaborator Duncan] came to me 10 years ago and said, "Let's do the national parks," and it took me a nanosecond to say, "Of course." About that same time, 10 years ago, we were in the middle of producing our film together on Mark Twain, and we were talking to the novelist Russell Banks about Huckleberry Finn. Banks was saying—and we certainly agreed ourselves—that this was Twain's greatest work. And then he said, "It's our Illiad and our Odyssey." He went on, "Though most of us share a common European ancestry with those who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, we Americans were grappling with two new themes that Twain alone, among writers—but also among politicians and philosophers and artists of the 19th century—was willing to deal with honestly and openly. And those twin themes were race and space." Those are all I've been focused on for the last 30-plus years.

What is it that you love so much about the parks?
They could've only been invented in America, where people were free, and it isn't just a political freedom—this is where I think we get all tangled up in knots all the time. The original impulse of the national parks is spiritual. In the United States, the first tangible manifestations of this is the transcendental movement, and later the Hudson River/Rocky Mountain School of Art: it's saying that you could find God in nature more easily than through a dogmatic devotion that required you to find God in a cathedral built by the hands of man.

And that makes America special.
Yes. We suffer from some sort of inferiority complex, because the Europeans were constantly reminding us of our shortcomings: "Where are your cathedrals? Where are your palaces? Where are your castles?" We would look and say, "But the continent is the Garden of Eden." And therefore you begin to evolve a kind of democratic relationship to God. The parks came out of us saying, "Oh, my goodness, we may lose these places. We may lose the magnificent animals and plants that are part of these places. What if we set them aside?" And that's not an impulse you can have unless you're a free people. It's the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape, in a very practical way.

Debate rages in Congress and among Americans about whether our parks should be treated as places primarily for recreation, or preserved in as pristine a condition as possible. Do you come down with the usage group or the strict conservation group?
Democracy is a paradox. And we struggle with it today, as we debate health [care] or whatever things we debate: how will we be? The whole history of the United States is that tension that's manifest in the parks: Do we love them to death, or do we protect them? Do they become sanctuaries for the few, or the many? My feeling is that in the postwar period, during the '50s, '60, '70s, '80s, and early '90s, attendance at the parks soared, and the budget didn't keep up with that. There was real worry that we were loving our places to death. If you've ever been in a traffic jam at Yellowstone, you know what I'm talking about ... But I'm looking to democratic solutions, rather than coming down on one side or the other. As we know, in democracy, it's always the politics of the half-loaf.

Do you think people will flock to the parks because of this film?
We're now at an existential crisis with regard to the national parks. If existentialism is a tension between being and doing, the virtual world that so many of us—particularly our children—inhabit is neither. And so we talk about "nature deficit disorder"—there's a real sense that it's much harder to get people into nature. The suburban kids that grew up in developments used to pile out the door, and come back at lunch and at dinner, as they played in the woods. Now they spend the whole day inside. Parks need constituents, and they need active and dedicated constituents. And you don't get it if you're just at home playing the lastest videogame, or texting your friend, or watching TV, or surfing the Net, or attending to your Facebook [page].

What was your most memorable visit?
The first park I visited on this project was Yosemite. [When I saw it,] I looked like I had been slapped in the face—like I'd lost my virginity. I looked like when my oldest daughter was born—like, "Oh, this is a brand-new world!"