Paul Barnes, a freelance film editor living in Manhattan in the 1980s, loved visiting the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
When he heard that a filmmaker was planning a documentary about Lady Liberty, Barnes thought, “Oh, my God, I’ve got to do this film.” The prospect was even more alluring when he learned that the filmmaker was Ken Burns, already famous for a 1982 documentary on another landmark — Brooklyn Bridge, his first film for PBS, was an Academy Award nominee.
“No one does historical documentaries like he does,” Barnes said, and “I kind of hounded his office to get an interview.”
He sent Burns a copy of his own film, No Maps on My Taps, about three African American tap dancers, and met with Burns’ producer, Buddy Squires, with whom he “hit it off.”
He finally got a call from Burns inviting him to work on Statue of Liberty.
“From day one, we just connected,” Barnes said. Having worked with some inexperienced directors in his career, he thought, “Whoa, I’m working with the real deal.”
That was the beginning of their 30-year relationship in film. Barnes worked on award-winning Burns documentaries including The Civil War; Baseball; Thomas Jefferson; Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery; Jazz; The War and The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
He is now the lead producer and supervising film editor on the latest collaboration: a seven-part, 14-hour series called The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which PBS will air on consecutive nights beginning Sept. 14.
Barnes, who lives part of the year in Santa Fe and plans to retire here, also will be at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Wednesday for a free special preview screening. He’s selected about 75 minutes of clips from the new series and will participate in a panel discussion following the screening.
Burns’ documentary series are now highly anticipated events. Families often gather around the TV set to watch them together. People play them over and over again. Teachers use them in their classrooms. They win Emmys and other awards.
All that is very gratifying to the filmmakers. The Civil War was the first to catch on in a big way. “It was actually mind-boggling to us,” Barnes said. “The success of that series and the number of people who watched and their response was overwhelming. We never expected anything like that to happen.” He said they thought they had a high-quality documentary, and they had a lot of fun making it, “but the fact that it became a phenomenon threw us for a loop.”
After 30 years, Barnes is very familiar with Burns’ likes and dislikes, and they’re “very simpatico,” he said.
“I know what kind of music he likes, the images he gravitates to.” In the editing room, Barnes said, Burns will be looking at a rough cut and say something like, “That interview in the middle, it should start the first scene.” Or he’ll take five sentences out and replace them with two. He is constantly reshaping the narrative, Barnes said.
Burns’ subjects are always big, and each documentary takes years to produce.
In the case of The Roosevelts, which spans the birth of Theodore in 1858 to the death of Eleanor in 1962, the first pre-production meetings were back in 2008.
For more than a decade, scriptwriter Geoffrey C. Ward had been urging Burns to take on the project. Ward had written two biographies of Franklin but never finished the story in book form. And nobody had previously done all three Roosevelts together.
Ward knew the family inside out and his first draft, Barnes said, was “so damn good” that he and Burns were “bowled over.”
In 2009, Barnes and co-producer Pam Tubridy Baucom began to visit historic sights and research where they might film. They developed a list of archives for stock footage and archival photographs. They constantly reported back to Burns.
Barnes calls this the “hunting and gathering” process, a key element of every project.
The majority of FDR’s papers and photos are at the library at his home in Hyde Park, N.Y. The library is run by the National Archives, so filmmakers like Burns don’t have to pay any rights for using them. The materials are in the public domain, and the only costs are for reproduction.
For Theodore, the main source was the Houghton Library at Harvard University. But each of the historic sites associated with the key figures also maintain collections.
The first shots were filmed at Campobello, the Roosevelt summer home in Canada, in August 2009, even before the first scripts were ready.
The crew also filmed at Warm Springs, where FDR was treated for polio, Eleanor’s home at Val-Kill, Theodore’s birthplace on East 20th Street in Manhattan and his family home at Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, Long Island.
Burns signed some well-known actors — at union minimum — to be the voices of the principal characters. Paul Giamatti’s agent called back within 20 minutes of the initial contact. Turns out that ever since he dressed as Theodore for Halloween when he was 7 years old, Giamatti’s been “dying” to play the former president.
Meryl Streep signed on to play Eleanor. “Part of the challenge is to mix [Eleanor’s] real voice with an actor reading Eleanor, so we decided to go for the master of accents,” Barnes said.
Edward Herrmann reads the role of Franklin.
The film was cut over a two-year period, luxurious by Hollywood filmmaking standards.
The script is constantly being revised and scrupulously fact-checked by those who know the Roosevelt story.
Two mistakes turned up, Barnes said. The archivist for the FDR library in Hyde Park pointed out that FDR died on a Thursday rather than a Friday. And a member of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s staff pointed out a sentence that might have suggested that the House of Representatives allows filibusters. The film editors lifted the word Senate from another spot in the film and fixed the problem.
Revelations on Roosevelts
What surprised Barnes as he worked on the documentary was “how much an influence Theodore was on Franklin.”
“Many of [FDR’s] progressive political polices,” he said, “were an outgrowth of Theodore’s ideas when he became a Progressive,” the party he formed after his split with Republican William Howard Taft. “Theodore really recognized the problems the country was entering in and thought things had to become much more equitable if this country were to survive as the democracy it was created as.”
The 26th president, Barnes said, was the first to settle a labor dispute, opposed child labor, passed the Food and Drug Act and even proposed a national health care system.
The extent of Franklin’s disabilities was another “big eye-opener” for him, Barnes said, and gave him greater respect for a man who pulled the country through the Depression and World War II but couldn’t walk unaided.
The series also explores the president’s problematic marriage to Eleanor. The union started off well, but Franklin’s affair with his wife’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer, broke her heart, Barnes said, and she never trusted him again, although she agreed to stay married. In the end, however, “She turned something tragic into something very positive and pursued her own identity as a woman in politics.”
Eleanor, he said, “was woman ahead of her time. Race, poverty, women’s rights — she was at the forefront of progressive thinking in the 20th century, yet she was really reviled. A lot of people hated her because she talked about birth control, she visited African American schools. She even lobbied for anti-lynching bills.”
One of the ideas to emerge from this series, Barnes said, is that “government is good,” or can be. In a day when many Americans have lost trust in their leaders, the new documentary reminds them of a time when people believed in their presidents and felt the country was in “really good hands.”
‘I dreamed of living here’
Barnes first visited the Southwest in the 1970s, particularly the Four Corners area. “When I first saw Santa Fe, I fell in love with it,” he said. “I dreamed of one day living here.”
About five years ago, Barnes and his husband, Vernon James, bought a house in Oshara Village, on the city’s south side.
He likes to hike and watch old movies at the Lensic, and he is a huge fan and donor to the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. He and James bought an Acoma pot to add to their Native art collect at Indian Market last month.
He currently divides his time between New Mexico and New Hampshire, where Burns’ film company is located. But his Santa Fe home is equipped with an AVID editing system so he can work here. He transfers material to a hard drive and takes it to Walpole, N.H., for screenings.
Currently, he is working on a multipart series on the Vietnam War set for broadcast on PBS in 2017. When that is finished, Barnes plans to retire and live here full time.
Meanwhile, he said, “I love filmmaking and I’m sitting in the catbird seat.”
Contact Anne Constable @986-3022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.