“I do two things really well,” says legendary, but generally modest filmmaker Ken Burns. “I’m a pretty good filmmaker and I’m a pretty good dad.”
Talk to the guy for a few minutes and it becomes clear that he’s slightly prouder of his latter expertise. But it also becomes clear that both the way he parents and the way he directs are deeply informed by the way he sees the world: in extreme and almost overwhelming detail. Burns is a naturally vigilant person, not in the helicopter parenting sense but in the sense of not missing a beat and demanding accountability. The dude is interested in values and the ways in which they change, or don’t. That’s why he loves thinking about America and why he loves talking to his kids about how to be in the world.
“Children need two things,” he explains. “They need love and they need some sort of consistency. Are you spoiling your kids? Be consistent about it. Are you strict with your kids? Just be consistent about it. But don’t waiver.”
What is your name?
Kenneth Lauren Burns. There’s a McLauren in my family, but my parents loved Lauren Bacall. The “Mc” went off and I’m Kenneth Lauren Burns. Lots of explaining to do to four daughters.
How old are your children?
35 in a couple weeks, 31 in a month, 12 and 7 tomorrow.
What are their names?
Sarah Lucille, Anna Lily, Olivia Grace, and Willa Jane.
Are they named after anyone in particular?
Lucille is my grandmother’s name. Lily I just love. We don’t call her Anna. My wife freaked out when she thought that Lily might be a little frivolous so we added a more serious Anna, which nobody ever uses. Olivia Grace is just a name my wife and I both love. Willa Jane is named after her great-grandmother who passed away at 100.
Do you have any cute nicknames for your children?
Sarah, for a while, was Sarry and I’m surprised that her mom still calls her that sometimes because I don’t. She’s just Sarah. I have to call her Sarah Burns and her friends think that’s weird. They’ll pull her aside and say, ‘Your father calls you Sarah Burns. Why does he call you Sarah Burns?’ So, in that way, it’s a nickname.
What do they call you?
The greatest moment was when Lily was three and a half. It was just after [my project] The Civil War came out. We were walking down from the Coliseum Bookstore in New York. Up ahead, thirty or forty feet away, some people had stopped and they recognized me. Just in the two weeks since the broadcast, she is now realizing this is a whole new world for our family. So she squeezes my hand in warning and says, ‘Look, Dada, they want Kenburns.’ It was such a beautiful warning. To her I’m ‘Dada.’ To me, I’m me. But she knew that there was this other thing called “Kenburns.”
How often do you see them?
Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon, and I work on films together. I live in New Hampshire and they live in Brooklyn, as does, apparently, a quarter of the world. Recently, my little girls live in Brooklyn, too and commute to Manhattan when it’s my time with them. So it’s a rare day that I don’t talk to at least 3, if not 4, of my daughters every single day.
Describe yourself as father in three words.
Loving, protective, insistent.
Describe your father as a father in three words.
Smart, scared, trying. My father was an anthropologist. He was the smartest person I know, but he was a Maserati without a clutch. He knew everything, but didn’t have the way, the tools, the chemistry, whatever you want to call it to put that stuff into gear. I feel very compassionate about him and love him tremendously and miss him.
What are your weaknesses as a father?
I’ve noticed with the second bunch that I’m a little bit more impatient, and I think I’m manipulative. I think that whatever smartness I might have can get in your way when you try to control outcomes.
What heirloom did your father give to you if any?
He gave me photographs. His avocation was as a still photographer. He also gave me jazz records that, at the time, didn’t interest me. Then I devoted a good deal of my professional life to understanding jazz. Without being snobbish about it, jazz has kept me connected me to him.
What heirloom do you want to leave for your daughters?
I know only one thing that’s true. One equation, the equation of the universe. This was told to me by a woman I called my French mother. Her name was Marielle Bancou. She was the wife of William Segal, a great painter. She said to me and my wife, ‘Love multiplies.’ I don’t know of anything truer than that. Love multiplies.
Describe the dad special for dinner.
Dad’s special involves grilling and it involves this secret recipe that I stole from a friend and completely appropriated: boneless chicken thighs with maple syrup. My kids think its candy — and I don’t mean my little kids. My big kids too. And I’m a rockstar at that moment, for the nanosecond, it takes them to say, ‘Wow, Dad, this is really good.’
Are you religious, and are you raising your children in that tradition?
I am not religious in the agreed upon, acceptable thing. We don’t go to church. We don’t have catechisms. We don’t do things. But I believe in a higher power, and I have communicated that to my kids, some of whom, grown, accept or don’t accept that. I fundamentally believe that one plus one in the rational world always equals 2. But the thing that actually interests us is where one and one equals three, and it comes from art, it comes from sex, it comes from relationships, it comes from love, particularly of children, and it comes from faith.
Besides saying it how do you let your children know that you love them?
The first and obvious one is touch. We’re pretty touchy-feely. We call it ‘hudging and mudging’ in my family. We’re just always touching and holding each other and things like that and there’s a kind of intimacy. When they were little, after every dinner my big girls would get out of their seats and sit on my lap until it was really kind of hard to juggle these two girls, preteens and teenagers on my lap, one on each leg. That’s heaven to me.