Witness to War
Lynn Novick mined memories and archives for The Vietnam War, her PBS colossus with Ken Burns.
While interviewing veterans for The Vietnam War, the documentary she and Ken Burns completed last spring, Lynn Novick did not always press them to recount what they’d witnessed.
Roger Harris, for instance, a black soldier Novick considers a great American hero — who returned home from his tour of duty to find that no airport cabbie would pick him up — could not bring himself to describe a devastating ambush of his unit in the demilitarized zone.
“He says, ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ and shakes his head,” Novick recalls. “And I remember thinking at that moment, ‘Oh, I wish he would tell us more of what happened.’ But actually, it’s very powerful when someone tells you they don’t want to talk about an experience that they had. It’s a very deep moment. You can imagine what it is that they don’t want to talk about. And that’s all you need to know.”
During her almost 30-year career at Florentine Films, the documentary consortium Burns co-founded in 1976, Novick has become finely attuned to the art of interviewing. But never had she sat down with such an abundance of subjects as she did for this 10-part opus, which launched on PBS last September and reached 39 million viewers across its premiere and encore telecasts.
She and Burns — who both served as producer-directors during the decade it took them to make the series — interviewed more than 1,000 U.S. and Vietnamese witnesses. They sifted through nearly 100,000 photos and examined more than 5,000 hours of archival film and video footage, all to achieve their moving and visually feverish retelling of this seminal event.
“We do tend to go in deep,” Novick says. “I think we’ll cop to that.” Warm and open, Novick is seated at the dining room table in her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The holidays are well over, but the table is still fully extended, because she hasn’t paused long enough to reduce it to a more compact length. Perhaps that’s because she’s already wrapping her arms around a new documentary about Ernest Hemingway.
She’s also in the thick of College Behind Bars, a documentary that explores the educational opportunities that do and don’t exist in prisons. Produced by Sarah Botstein (also a producer of The Vietnam War), it marks the first time that Novick is solo-directing, taking responsibility “in a way I haven’t had an opportunity before.”
Her popular PBS collaborations with Burns — which include Jazz, Baseball, Prohibition, Frank Lloyd Wright and The War — have brought them Emmy Awards, Emmy nominations, Peabody Awards and other acclaim.
Burns, a prodigious filmmaker who cemented his reputation with his masterpiece, The Civil War, is regarded as synonymous with their projects. Novick’s name, though, doesn’t ring a bell for many Americans. An internet search of their films almost inevitably results in his name bubbling up. Hers, not so much.
“As it happens, Ken is a brand. He lives very large in our culture. He’s earned that,” Novick says. She appreciates the opportunities he’s given her. At the same time, it’s not unreasonable to want the press to recognize her contribution. “I feel like it’s shifting a little bit,” she says, “which I’m grateful for because I feel lucky to work with Ken, and I think he feels the same way.”
Novick began at Florentine in 1989 as a neophyte filmmaker. Her television experience at that point included a yearlong internship at WNET, the public television station for metropolitan New York. As a researcher and then an associate producer on A World of Ideas with Bill Moyers, she helped compile dossiers on the leading thinkers Moyers interviewed each week.
Later, she’d watch in awe as he’d stride onto the set with just a few notes jotted down and launch into deep exchanges with personalities like Noam Chomsky and Isaac Asimov.
“He’s a master,” Novick says. “I was always marveling at how it was a conversation. I learned so much from Bill.” After that, she “rattled around” for a bit, freelancing for different producers, until she landed an interview with Burns. He was putting the finishing touches on The Civil War and needed an associate producer to wrap up some administrative matters. Novick snagged the position.
Once it ended, Burns asked her to step up to producer for his next series, Baseball. “I gulped really hard,” she says, both at the advancement and because she didn’t know much about the sport. “I think that’s one of Ken’s talents,” she says, “to give people an enormous amount of responsibility and trust them to figure it out. Or be willing to let you fail a little bit, too.”
Her main task was to find the stills to realize his vision. The National Baseball Hall of Fame was her starting gate. Newspapers were another obvious repository. Harder to ferret out were the hidden gems. That required shoe-leather reporting skills. She’d unearth picture books on baseball and determine who owned the rights to promising photos. She’d track down private collectors and other small caches.
“You follow the trail of breadcrumbs,” she says. “One of the most important things is to be open to what you weren’t looking for.”
It was on Baseball that Novick conducted her first interview, with an elderly reporter who’d helped to integrate Major League Baseball. But the interview didn’t go as she’d hoped. “He was sort of halting,” she says.
Burns suggested she chalk it up and move on to the next person, who turned out to be better than expected. Buck O’Neil, the first African-American MLB coach, demonstrated such a riveting on-camera presence that his cameo mushroomed. “He really became the star of the film,” Novick says. She was on her way to becoming an ace interviewer.
For their next project, a two-part program on architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Novick and Burns began a genuine collaboration. Now codirecting and coproducing, they shaped it jointly, first by determining a distinctive tone, as they do for each documentary. While they used tracks by the Beatles, Dylan and other ’60s artists for The Vietnam War, they suffused Wright’s elegant biopic with the music of Beethoven.
“We decided early on that the grand classical mode would be how we would celebrate his work,” she explains. Novick always starts with curiosity, but she can’t predict just where a documentary will take her.
Approaching Prohibition, a series from 2011, she says, “We knew stuff like flappers, Al Capone, corruption, speakeasies.” What she didn’t know was the extent to which women — still largely excluded from the political process — facilitated the passage of the 18th Amendment, which established Prohibition, and of the 21st Amendment, which revoked it. “That was really, really fascinating,” she says.
They also lucked into finding an elderly man who vividly described his own father’s bootlegging enterprise. “It’s amazing,” Novick says, “when you can talk to someone who lived through the event and can put you back there.”
The Vietnam War was different in that regard. She and Burns were themselves growing up while the war was raging. Like other Americans, they recall their parents turning on the television in the evening for news of the rising death toll and updates on the growing protest movement against the war.
“It had a formative effect on our sense of ourselves,” Novick says. “It challenged our exceptionalism. It caused an enormous amount of cognitive dissonance in what it means to be an American. And we’ve never been the same.”
She and Burns decided to fully excavate that history, with a plan to cap their series at 14 hours. After conducting archival research in nearly 20 countries, though, the running time stretched to 18 hours. “One of the reasons that the film became significantly longer is because of all the Vietnamese perspectives that we included,” Novick says. She pushed hard for that, not realizing what she was getting into.
“It was overwhelming on every level,” she says. “How are you going to get testimony that has the same depth, authenticity and human dimensions if you’re not speaking the language and they don’t understand you?” She was also apprehensive about their reactions to a conflict that exacted a tremendous human toll: 58,220 U.S. service people died. Estimates of the number of Vietnamese killed vary; Novick and Burns chose the calculation of as many as 3 million.
However, with the assistance of Vietnamese-speaking producers and translators, she and Botstein, who also conducted interviews, pushed ahead. “We pretty much experienced every human emotion,” Novick says. “There is certainly anger toward the American government for the destruction, for Agent Orange, for the embargo, for civilian casualties, for the bombings. But not toward regular Americans. They don’t hold a grudge against us.”
Serendipity also intervened to help flesh out what transpired on the other side. A producer, for instance, stumbled across a notice in Vietnam publicizing a reunion for women soldiers who served as truck drivers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. No one on the production team had known about this military operation, which recruited women to drive arms and supplies south and then ferry wounded men north, all under constant threat of bombing.
Novick arranged to interview one of the drivers, who told her that while she was driving the truck, she had no idea that her fiancé — whom she didn’t hear from for nine years — was driving a bulldozer in another part of the trail to repair damage from bombings. They reunited after the war and have remained together, an upbeat addendum that didn’t make the cut but “was an amazing story,” Novick says.
Most soldiers, however, didn’t have happy endings to share. Fighters on both sides are still haunted by the terrible things they saw, experienced and did.
“It’s a very difficult thing, to ask people to tell you about the horrendous things that have happened to them,” Novick says. There is, however, something powerful about saying it aloud to another person. “You can’t make sense of it necessarily. You can’t necessarily have closure. But you don’t have to carry it inside yourself.”
Everyone who was interviewed was a witness in some manner. That included Jean-Marie Crocker, whose son, Denton, quit high school to enlist and was killed eight months into his tour of duty.
“Her life,” Novick says, “was never the same.” Crocker wrote a memoir to try to make sense of what had motivated Denton. She recalled reading him bedtime stories about heroes such as Henry V, whose Christmas Day speech inspired his troops to fight. Novick asked her to read the speech on camera but was herself overcome by emotions. “I had to say, ‘Can we cut for a minute?’ Something I’ve never done.”
The subjects Novick and Burns chose not to interview were just as important. They purposely left out Henry Kissinger, John McCain and Jane Fonda. “We felt early on, this is a very polarizing subject,” Novick explains. “We wanted to start a different kind of conversation.” Presenting unfamiliar faces, they thought, could inhibit viewers’ preconceptions. “You don’t know how someone’s story is going to turn out.”
After the documentary was cut — and before it streamed in Vietnam with subtitles — Novick traveled back to show it to her sources, who were likely unaware of the scale or scope of what they’d helped create. “The thing that kept coming up over and over was that they were gratified, and appreciated that the film felt honest and real, and that it showed the true nature of the suffering of the war.” She adds, “It was one of the highlights of this project for me.”
The Vietnam War is available on Blu-Ray and DVD at shopPBS.org; it will be streaming on Netflix this summer.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s series The Vietnam War was distributed to schools across the country in time for 2018-2019 school year. To date, 23,000 education packages that include the full 10-part series and education guides have been provided to high schools through support of $1 million gift from Lynda & Stewart Resnick.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 6, 2018
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