Ken Burns Gives Nantucket Film Festival Audiences a Glimpse of His Latest Doc ‘Leonardo da Vinci’

Ken Burns attended the 29th annual Nantucket Film Festival, which concludes Sunday, to give audiences a glimpse of his latest PBS documentary “Leonardo da Vinci.” The two-part, four-hour doc — directed by Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and his son-in-law David McMahon — explores the life and work of the 15th-century polymath. “Leonardo da Vinci,” which begins airing in November, marks the first project Burns has directed that unfolds entirely outside the continental United States.

Although his work on “Leonardo da Vinci” is done, Burns has projects lined up through 2029. Currently, the director is working on several documentaries, including ones on Lyndon B. Johnson, the American Revolution and Barack Obama.

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Variety spoke with Burns about making a doc not based in American history, his views on directing films about contemporary topics and why history never repeats itself.

Why did you decide to make Leonardo da Vinci the subject of your first doc that doesn’t explore the American experience?

I was working several years ago on a film about Benjamin Franklin, and among the people that we interviewed for that film was [author] Walter Isaacson. I was having dinner with Walter and all of the sudden, in the middle of dinner, he started pushing Leonardo, and I just went, “Come on.” He thought that Benjamin Franklin is arguably the great American artist in words of the 18th century and the greatest scientist of the age, and Leonardo was the greatest scientist of his age and arguably the greatest artist of the world at that time. He kept pushing it and pushing it, and finally I was like, “Come on, Walter. Just leave it alone.” So I walk out of the restaurant and I called my oldest daughter [Sarah Burns] and son-in-law [David McMahon]. At the time, we were in the midst of working on a big, massive four-part biography of Muhammad Ali, and I said, “Walter is just pushing Leonardo on me,” and they said, “We will do Leonardo.” So, the next morning I called Walter back and said, “We will do it.”

Do you think your da Vinci film speaks to what’s going on today?

Human nature doesn’t change. People think that history repeats itself. It never does. No event has happened twice. Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Every time we have worked on a film, we focus on the film and the story we are trying to tell. It has a million problems that we have to overcome and solve. When we finish, we lift our heads up and we go, “Wow. It’s so contemporary.” If I told you I was making a film about mass demonstrations taking place against the current administration all around the country; about a White House in disarray and obsessed with leaks; about asymmetrical warfare that confounded the mighty the U.S. military; about huge document drops of stolen classified material and accusations that a political party reached out to a foreign power to affect a national election — you would say that we are talking about now. Trump. But these are all true in 2006, when I decided to make “The Vietnam War.” So there has never been a film where when you talk about human nature, that it doesn’t speak to the present. That tells you what a powerful teacher history can be and the stories about the past can be, because they are always going to speak in a relatively dispassionate way about everything that’s going on now.

What do you think the biggest takeaway of the da Vinci will be?

So, Leonardo is this gay man born out of wedlock who is the greatest painter of all time in some people’s minds. He is certainly the greatest scientist of his age. He saw no difference between [art and science]. And when you say, “How many paintings does he have?” People go, “I don’t know. Hundreds?” It’s fewer than 20 and half of those were unfinished. He also has thousands and thousands of notebook pages that anticipate stuff that isn’t going to be discovered for 450 years. His description of the heart and how the heart valve works, they didn’t discover [what da Vinci knew about the heart valve] until the 1970s. It’s just incredibly impressive. So, like the United States, which I’ve been so focused on, however flawed, it creates aspiration. This guy was using 75% of his brain and we are using 10%. What would it take to use more? That question alone, if it animates even one second of your day for one day is better than not saying, “How could I be better? How could I be smarter? What could I see clearer?”

Do you plan on making more documentaries based outside the U.S.?

I can no longer say never, but I am stacked up with projects that are all underway through the end of this decade. They are all American subjects. The Leonardo film will come out this November and then the following November is my film on the American Revolution, which is an incredibly challenging project. There are no photographs or newsreels. It’s a subject that is bloody and really complicated.

You are working on a doc about Barack Obama. Is that your first film that covers contemporary American?

Well, no. With the Obama doc, it just needs to marinate. It’s like wine. History is like that. You understand it’s better when you get farther away and you have perspective and it’s no longer just journalistic. The closest [contemporary doc] we have ever done was “The Central Park Five.” But even that came out 23 years after the crime and 10 years after they were exonerated.

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