Novick, Burns team up for dream list project

Photo from PBS

Producer and director Lynn Novick speaks of the Vietnam War as most of us do, in a measured and reverent tone. She and Ken Burns have worked for the last 10 years developing the 18-hour PBS series, "The Vietnam War," now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.  Novick describes the war as "a festering wound of which most of us understand too little and misunderstand too much." The PBS series is their method of taking on this narrative with the care, concern and necessary perspective.

Novick says that for as long as she and Burns have been working together, The Vietnam War has been high on the dream list of projects. "Through baseball, jazz and Prohibition, we have talked about how to tackle this war. When we finally decided it was time to take on the task, we spent the last 10 years collecting information, correspondence and more than 200 interviews."

While there have been many Vietnam War series, the Burns’ series may be the first to go all the way back to the 19th century to trace its beginnings. "With the first episode, ‘Deja Vu,’ we tried our best to find a new chapter to begin this history,” he said. “Some say the war officially began in 1965 with the first battalions of our soldiers on the ground. Others say it was in 1945 when we offered to help Ho Chi Minh defeat the French. Still a different set of scholars say it even goes back to when Minh petitioned President Woodrow Wilson in 1919. With so many differing viewpoints, we decided to go all the way back to when the seeds of our involvement were sown – the French takeover of that territory in 1858.

"From this starting point, we move forward looking specifically at the parallels," Novick continues. "We meticulously examine how the French fought to regain the land and looked at problems like torture and how the homefront turned against them in what they referred to as 'the dirty war.' We also carefully study the use of public opinion as a weapon of war."

During the last 30 years of Burns' histories, viewers have learned the importance of their painstaking capture of great interviews. Using his lengthy narrative as their guide to the 1986 award-winning miniseries, The Civil War, Burns elevated Mississippi historian Shelby Foote to national prominence. Several TV critics have already pointed out the poignant but brutally honest stories from Vietnam veteran John Musgrave as the most effective.

"The interviews we obtain are both challenges and privileges,” Burns said. “We traveled the world and found around 500 people we wanted to use. Then 100 were selected to interview. Unlike the other documentaries, we worked the hardest here to find ordinary people with stories to tell."

Seeking to find a new perspective on The Vietnam War series for Burns and Novick also meant finding new voices to "unearth the untold stories."

"As we found soldiers, medics, nurses, Pentagon employees, protesters, military families and more, it became evident that we should skip prominent political figures and those often seen as synonymous with this time."

Out of the 100 interviews collected for the series, 79 were used in some part over the 18 hours. "Everyone we spoke to left us humbled and awestruck. There is a woman who lost her son. She tells a story that her reading books and plays to him like Shakespeare's ‘Henry V’ inspired him to be a soldier. When she reads from that same play for the camera today, it left us in tears."

A large part of the Vietnam era was the music. The producers worked hard to assemble just the right soundtrack for their documentary. Novick regards this music as "the glue that held American soldiers overseas and Americans back home together." As you hear familiar songs from Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and more threaded into the stories, note that “most of these artists and their estates graciously provided their music to this project out of importance," Novick said, noting that most of them gave their rights without royalty payments.

The score is a haunting series of compositions that Novick hopes "add dimension and make the viewer feel the film as deep human expression."  After seeing the film, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Novick was taken with the ability of the score to create a sense of dread and anxiety using music and natural sound. She and Burns contacted its composers, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Atticus Ross to score "The Vietnam War." Reznor and Ross jumped at the chance and spent the next 3-4 years collaborating with the filmmakers. "Because of the scope and the amount of footage, this score was not composed to picture," Novick explains, "We simply gave them raw footage and short scenes and asked them draw out the human experience we were after."

Also contributing to the score are Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. While they were used in the previous films, Novick says working with traditional Vietnamese songs and instruments, the documentary's music resonates even more with viewers.

Upon the first screenings of the film, Novick reports many viewers have said 18 hours is just not long enough. As the documentary comes to DVD and Blu-Ray, there are extras that simply cannot be missed.

 "So much of our filmmaking here is used to build an arc and tell this story that a lot of great footage wound up on the cutting room floor,” Novick said. “My favorite extras include John Musgrave, so generous in telling his story, speaking for about 20 minutes with a group of Veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Watching their conversation with each other was both devastating and inspiring. In addition, we separately interviewed the highest ranking North Vietnamese spy and a CIA interrogator on the methods they used to get information."

In the end, Novick hopes that the 18 hours will "start a conversation." She and Burns simply ask that all viewers come with an open mind and know that they worked the hardest on making certain that the film takes no sides and is made so we "can move toward reconciliation and simply understand each other better through this use of art. As Tolstoy said, 'Art is the transference of emotion from one to another.'"