Family Portrait: Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

PBS’ new documentary series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, premieres on September 14, with the first of seven two-hour episodes set to air on consecutive evenings. The 14-hour documentary takes audiences on a 100-plus year journey with Theodore, Eleanor, and Franklin Roosevelt.

“We called this documentary an intimate history, because we don’t want to mislead people into thinking that it is about social, political, and military issues,” producer-director Ken Burns says. “It’s about the lives of  the Roosevelts, from the birth of  Theodore in 1858 until Eleanor’s death in 1962. They were extraordinary human beings who shared a passionate belief that America is strongest when everyone has an equal chance.”

Burns integrates still and moving images, narration of words spoken and written by and about the Roosevelts, and observations made by 15 historians, to take audiences on a journey to the past. Members of  the Roosevelt family migrated to the United States during the 16th  century. Seven generations were born in Manhattan. Theodore joined the U.S. volunteer cavalry regiment known as the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War in Cuba in 1898. The documentary features images of  around 1,000 Rough Riders, led by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, landing in Cuba.

Theodore was elected vice president in 1900 on a ticket led by William McKinley. He became president on September 14, 1901 after McKinley was assassinated. Theodore was elected president in 1904. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for negotiating a peaceful settlement of  the Russo-Japanese war. That same year, Theodore championed the Food and Drugs Act, requiring the government to inspect meat and drugs to ensure public safety. He was a “trust buster” who fought corruption in the railroad, oil, and other industries. Theodore also established more than 125 million acres of  national forests with wildlife refuges.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, aka FDR, was Theodore’s second cousin. Eleanor was an orphan. She and Franklin were married in 1905. He was stricken with polio in 1921. FDR walked with crutches and, later, with rigid braces on his legs for the rest of  his life. There is footage of Doris Kearns Goodwin, observing that his battle with polio taught FDR that he could overcome adversity. He was elected president in 1928. FDR subsequently guided the nation through the Depression and the Second World War. (Historical footage in this film includes a picture of  the Big Three, FDR, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, meeting and forming an alliance during the early day of  World War II.) Vice President, Harry Truman, stepped into the breach after FDR died in 1945. He asked Eleanor to be the U.S. delegate at the first United Nations meeting.

Jon Meacham interview for "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," November 2009 Ken Burns, producer/director Photo Credit: Daniel J. White, Florentine Films

Burns at work on The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

Burns says that his interest in filmmaking was sparked by watching movies on late night television during his boyhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A talent for story-telling is in his genes: One of his ancestors was the legendary 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns.

“I enrolled at Hampshire College in Amherst, Maine with a naive belief  that I would become the next Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, or John Ford,” Burns recalls. “My teachers, Jerome Liebling and Elaine Mayes, taught me there could be more drama in history than fiction.”

He worked as a freelance cinematographer for several years after graduating. He then decided to produce, direct, and shoot a documentary after reading a book about the Brooklyn Bridge. Brooklyn Bridge, the ensuing film, earned an Oscar nomination in 1981.

“I gave up shooting when I realized that I needed to look into the eyes of  people I was interviewing,” he says.

Burns has produced and directed 27 documentaries so far. His films have earned two Oscar nominations, five Emmy awards, and several other awards.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History was a work in process for between six and seven years. Scriptwriter Geoffrey Ward, co-producer/supervising-editor Paul Barnes, cinematographer Buddy Squires, ASC and program advisors Dayton Duncan and Lynn Novick have collaborated with Burns since the dawn of  their careers.

“Geoffrey and I began talking about producing a documentary about Franklin during the early 1980s,” Burns says. “He had written two books about the Roosevelts. After a while, we realized no one had ever put Theodore and Eleanor together with Franklin in a documentary. It took years for us to research how their complicated, intertwined relationships influenced them.”

Burns searched archives and other sources for still pictures, drawings, newsreels, and other motion pictures of  the Roosevelts and their times. He found around 25,000 photographs.

“Approximately 10 percent of the photographs were used in the film,” Burns says. “They aren’t just pictures of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor. They also show what the places where they lived and served in government looked like.”

Burns and his collaborators also found newsreels, other motion pictures, speeches, letters, and other documents written by and about the Roosevelts that shed light on their characters and feelings about issues facing the American public and the world. He asked Meryl Streep, Edward Herrmann and Paul Giametti to augment images by narrating words written by Eleanor, Franklin, and Theodore.

Voice over recording session with Paul Giamatti for "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," September 2010 l-r: Ken Burns, producer/director; Paul Giamatti Photo Credit: Daniel J. White, Florentine Films

Voice-over recording session with Ken Burns and Paul Giamatti for The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

“I watched Geoffery Ward’s eyes fill with tears the first time Meryl read words written by Eleanor,” Burns recalls.

Peter Coyote narrated the script and 17 other actors and actresses, including Patricia Clarkson, Ed Harris, John Lithgow, Amy Madigan, Billy Bob Thornton, and Eli Wallach, provided voices of people who are woven into the fabric of  the documentary.

“We filmed Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lynn Novick, and 13 other insightful people talking about the Roosevelts and how they influenced history,” Burns says. “They were filmed in places relevant to the story, where we would have peace and quiet. Everything you hear is extemporaneous. Images were recorded on Super 16 film for aesthetic reasons and because it is an archival medium.”

Locations included Theodore’s birthplace and home in Sagamore Hill in Long Island, a huge family compound in Hyde Park called Springwood, and Theodore and Franklin’s summer home on Campobello Island, which is near the Maine border with Canada.

The documentary also covers how Franklin used the relatively new medium of radio to conduct 35 “fireside chats” in order to keep American citizens informed about what the federal government was doing, why, and with what results. Viewers also get a look at the role Eleanor played in helping to keep the public informed and inspired so that they could deal with the issues facing the nation.

“We filmed interviews in the room in Springwood where FDR heard voting results for his first election and in the woods on Campobello Island where he was stricken with polio,” Burns says. “There are no reenactors playing the part of  Franklin laying in bed. You can feel the historical residue in that bedroom. They are places where history lives.”

Squires did approximately 80 percent of  the cinematography. He first collaborated with Burns while they were students at Hampshire College. Squires has been the principal cinematographer on all of the documentaries produced and directed by Burns. Additional cinematography was done by Allen Moore, who is also a frequent collaborator.

Edna Gurewitsch interview for "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," November 2009 l-r: Ken Burns, producer/director; Buddy Squires, cinematographer  Photo Credit: Daniel J. White, Florentine Films

Ken Burns and Buddy Squires, cinematographer

“I was thrilled when Ken told me that Eleanor was going to have her story told with just as much attention to the details of  her life as Theodore and Franklin,” Squires says. “It was an inspiring experience learning  how Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt used their ingenuity and humanity to tackle daunting challenges. It was a wonderfully exciting challenge to try to bring the story of the Roosevelts into people’s homes in a way that captures their incredible energy, warmth, humanity, and wisdom.”

Burns stresses that he and Squires rarely talk while they are shooting: “We just look at each other, and the look says everything. I can sleep well at night when Buddy is shooting my films.”

“There are textural moments where a film look is right for sensory reasons,” Squires observes. “We shot with my trusty Aaton camera that I’ve been using for years. I had great help from gaffer, Ned Hallick, in finding ways to light people and places. He was a real asset.”

Squires has earned an Oscar nomination, an Emmy award, and 10 other nominations for non-fiction films. He recently became the first documentary cameraman invited to become a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, which was founded in 1919.

Burns put final touches on the edited film with longtime collaborator John Dowdell at Goldcrest Post Production in Manhattan.

Burns calculated that out of all the people who participated in the initial discussions, the 15 historians whose comments are in the film and others he invited to the editing room, the film pooled together more than 1,350 years of post-graduate experience about the history of one or more of the Roosevelts.

New York City interviews for "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," November 2009 l-r: Pam Baucom, producer; Paul Barnes, producer; Ken Burns, producer/director; Anthony Savini, assistant cameraman; Buddy Squires, cinematographer; Mark Roy, sound recording Photo Credit: Daniel J. White, Florentine Films

l-r: Pam Baucom, producer; Paul Barnes, producer; Ken Burns, producer/director; Anthony Savini, assistant cameraman; Buddy Squires, cinematographer; Mark Roy, sound recording

PBS will broadcast two hour episodes of  The Roosevelts: An Intimate History at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. for seven consecutive days, beginning on September 14. It will subsequently re-air as a weekly series. The documentary will also be broadcast by the PBS network in England. It will subsequently be made available to school libraries and the public in DVD format.

Burns is doing what is necessary to assure The Roosevelts: An Intimate History will be there for future generations. Preserving films isn’t a new concept for him.

“I am well aware of the two Digital Dilemma reports by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, comparing film and digital archiving of narrative films and documentaries,” Burns says. “Film is the only proven medium for preserving images for future generations. We archive several film masters of the final cut and out-takes of all of our documentaries in environmentally controlled vaults, so they are there for tomorrow’s audiences.”

The Civil War, which is a 24-year-old series, is still popular with teachers and students,” he says. “Some of our oldest series are still being shown at schools in America.” MM

The first two episodes of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History will air on PBS, September 14, 2014 at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET. All pictures in this article by Daniel J. White and courtesy of Florentine Films.

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