Joe Posnanski: Ken, the film is terrific. In a way, this film felt even more complete than the original Baseball.
Ken Burns: I think it has to do with the energy and structural complexity of the period we had to deal with. It required us to keep the complexity of the situation. We couldn’t just play lip service to this notion that baseball is a mirror of who we are in the larger society, good and bad. And we in essence made the film by the seat of our pants because there was always new information emerging. It kept us on our toes. It was an exciting and powerful production.
Posnanski: Having lived through it all, and written so much about it, it was interesting to see how you went through the period.
Burns: A good history requires you always to be immersed in it, to present a narrative dynamic that keeps people on the edge of their seats, even though they know how it will turn out. Someone once said to me, “A good history makes people think that it might not turn out the way you know it did.” You can go to the Ford Theater and maybe, maybe this time Booth won’t pull the trigger. Of course he always does.
Posnanski: How did you recapture the energy of 1996 and 2004, of the home run chase, when we all know we will be disappointed?
Burns: The simple answer, not to be glib, Joe, is time. What elements of hindsight can we bring into this? What have we learned in the intervening years that add dimension and complexity? I live in New Hampshire, and we make maple syrup. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. That model is true for documentary films. We start off with so much more we need to distill. We start evaporating the superfluous. I think that’s what it’s about. And that takes time.
Even though I can rattle off the statistics of the last 18 years, as I could have when I began the subject, we just force ourselves to learn more and then ever more about the dynamics. I am as interested in that negative space of creation—what is left on the sculptor’s floor.
Posnanski: One of the things that you do in all of your documentaries is to find these incredible important voices—Buck O’Neil in the original Baseball, and Joseph Early and Howard Bryant in this piece.
Burns: Every talking head in our films is a happy accident of trial and error and placement. What we do are open-ended interviews. (Co-director) Lynn (Novick) did Howard, and we together selected elements out of the transcript. All of this becomes the grist for the mill. “Where would this fit in?” You put him up against six other commentators
That’s why Buck O’Neil became the star of the original series, because his heart was there and suddenly find yourself saying, “What did Buck say about this?” And you go back into the transcript and you say, “God, he commented on that too.” Tom Boswell helps to explain the more complex, tragic, almost Shakespearean dimensions to the narrative. Marcus Breton and Mike Barnacle, because of his devotion to the Red Sox, own the emotional pieces of the film.
But I couldn’t have told you that a month ago, before the film was locked. Who would emerge, who seemed to be emerging?
Posnanski: The open-endedness interests me. Does that make it harder to make the film?
Burns: Yes, it is much, much harder, but there is no other way that I could do it. You can’t tell Buck how he serves your film. You have to say, “What is it you have to say, Buck?” And allow him to shape the film. That’s what happened. We write unconcerned with whether we know there are images that illustrate what we’re talking about. We go out and shoot unconcerned with whether we’re filling in some chapter in a developing script. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Of course, that makes it more complex. There is no template. Instead, what you have is a conditioned openness that permits the film to take new and unexpected directions.
Posnanski: You made the choice—and I 100 percent agree—of Barry Bonds as quintessential player of this era. You delve into an obviously complicated individual who does not get discussed in very complicated ways.
Burns: Too often we have seen Barry Bonds swept under the rug. Barry Bonds is the most important baseball player of that era and probably the best and maybe the very best ever. He deserves a much more nuanced treatment. Our contemporary media culture pounces on something and argues whether it good or bad. To dismiss Bonds, as Boswell says, is to miss the nuances and, I would suggest, even the pleasures of his story. Bonds is a Shakespearean character. He needs our very complicated and nuanced judgment.
Boswell says another thing. It’s very helpful that these players aren’t perfect anymore. That allows us to see them in the same complicated way we see our friends and our family members. They of course are not perfect and we have to live with that imperfection. There’s an abstraction of course to the baseball world. We don’t have to live with Barry Bonds. But if he loses his mythic qualities, as Boswell says, it permits us to understand him in a human way. To me, Bonds can’t be excused, but he has to be understood. There is a big difference between excusing him by either saying, “Everyone did it and we’re all doing it,” or condemning him and trying to understand him on a much deeper level.
Posnanski: Was this sequel something you had planned to do? If not, when did it become clear to you that there needed to be another inning?
Burns: Initially I vowed I would never do a sequel—not to the Civil War, not to Baseball. I wasn’t even going to do another war again. And then I had to do The War about World War II because we’re losing a thousand veterans a day. And kids thought we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the Second World War.
When my Red Sox won in 2004, it was such an emotional and powerful event for me after all those years—1975 and 1978, 1986 and 2003, with Aaron “Bleeping’” Boone’s home run. It was powerful. I suddenly realized two years later in 2006, as the steroid issue was just exploding, we had to go back. There was no question about it.
A national columnist and writer for Sports Illustrated, Joe Posnanski is the author of the recent book The Machine: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds and The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.