tv The David Rubenstein Show Peer to Peer Conversations Bloomberg October 23, 2021 1:00pm-1:30pm EDT
david: this is my kitchen table and also my filing system. over much of the past three decades, i've been an investor. the highest calling of mankind, i've often thought, was private equity. [laughter] then i started interviewing. i watched your interviews, so i know how to do some interviewing. [laughter] i've learned from doing my interviews how leaders make it to the top. >> i asked how much he wanted, he said 250, i did not negotiate. i did no due diligence. david: i have something i would
like to sell. [laughter] and how they stay there. you don't feel inadequate now because you are only the second wealthiest man in the world, is that right? [laughter] more than a quarter of a century ago, ken burns came into the consciousness of every american with his compelling nine part series on the civil war. since that time, ken has continued to make an enormous number of documentaries about american history. i share his love of american history and have come to know him as a friend and a supporter. i recently sat down with him to discuss our mutual interest about this country's history. you are, i assume, in new hampshire where you do most of your work. walpole, new hampshire is not known as a media center. [laughter] so i am curious how come you happen to do all of your there. -- your work there. ken: i moved here in 1979, 42 years ago, when i realized that becoming a documentary filmmaker focusing in american history was taking a vow of anonymity and poverty. though my first film was
nominated for an oscar and everyone assumed i would come back to the city or go to l.a., i stayed here because of the labor-intensive nature of what i do, the fact it is all grant funded philanthropic projects and that they are very time-consuming. so i keep my overhead very low here, and it is quite beautiful in southern new hampshire. david: i assume you are walpole, new hampshire's most famous resident. ken: oh gosh, i don't think so. i always thought that if my great great, great grandchildren , kept their heads low, they might be able to be a member of the volunteer fire department. there is a different hierarchy here where any notoriety plus $.50 gets you a cup of coffee. david: let's talk about the most recent film you have had on television, which is the four part series on muhammad ali. [video clip] >> he is 22 years old. and he is standing up. -- and he is standing up to the whole establishment. david: why did you decide to
focus on muhammad ali? what was your interest in him? ken: he is one of the most compelling figures in american history. he intersects with all the major issues of the last half of the 20th century. the role of sports in society, the role of the black athlete in sports, definitions of black manhood, black masculinity, the civil rights movement, not as a fixed thing but as an ongoing developing thing. the story of politics, of race. the central american question. freedom. it is also about faith and religion and islam and sex and all these things because human nature does not change. when you have a larger-than-life mythic figure like muhammad ali, he just lights a page after page of history. he is in a way irresistible and is a way to communicate some pretty complex undertones about not just the u.s. but who we are. david: how long did it take you to do that series? ken: we said yes to this in
2013. we began work in 2014. real earnest production and shooting of most of the stuff began in 2016, the year he died. so you could say that it took eight years or seven years but there is fundraising involved, there are other projects you're giving your attention to. what we need is that time to do the deep dive on the research in order to do the deep dive on the archives and to be able to come up and say we think we really got him, or at least that we have materials that show the kind of dynamics and the dimensions, the contradictions, even the controversies, the flaws of a character and not have it merely be a resuscitation of conventional wisdom. david: so when muhammad ali -- did you initially seek his approval or his family's approval or not? ken: no, we never operate that way. we cannot operate that way on
pbs because it is so completely -- we have to have a separation of church and state. we did have cooperation from family members in that they gave the photographs, they gave us access. we were able to interview two of his ex-wives. we interviewed two of his daughters, his brother, friends, families hangers on, scholars. ,all of that sort of stuff, the triangulation we want to do. david: when you see professional boxers today, they seem bulked up. they have gigantic muscles, maybe because of stimulants they are taking or they have better training, but he did not seem like an overly muscular person. what was his strength as a fighter? rosie faster than anybody else or what made him a great boxer? it was not because he was so strong, was a echo ken: he trained -- was it? ken: he was very disciplined most of his life.
he trained. usually lost when he had not been disciplined. he did have great bulk but not in the kind of way we see today. he is so generous in every way. when summary throws a punch at you, you're supposed to duck. he would lean back, which is supposed to be the recipe for disaster. he fortunately got a good trainer who realized he was really generous and he would have to just strengthen these things. he moved around, he was very quick, he is an amazing boxer. i made a film on jack johnson, the first african-american heavyweight champion in the first decade of the 20th century. they share similar traits. the difference was jack johnson was just for himself. muhammad ali seemed to be for everybody. he seemed to want to carry everyone with him and to love everybody. in the end, it is a hard thing to talk about. this is a film about freedom. which is a classic american theme. it is about courage, which is also true not just in the ring but also in the stance with vietnam. but also about love. this guy died five years ago the most beloved and known person on the planet.
don't want to be in private equity, i don't want to be in hedge funds, important things like that? [laughter] you said you wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. what propelled you toward that and where did you grow up? ken: i grew up the son of an anthropologist and biologist mother who died very young of cancer after a 10 year battle of cancer when i was 11. i remember, after my mom died, i saw my dad cry for the first time and he cried at a movie. i said that is it, i want to become a moviemaker. that meant howard hawks or alfred hitchcock. big directors of the i ended up 1960's. going to hampshire college, a brand-new experimental school that opened in the fall of 1970. i went in the fall of 1971. all of my teachers were social documentary still photographers and filmmakers who reminded me quite correctly there is as much if not more drama in what is and what was then anything the human imagination can dream up. often, the human imagination dreams up things based on
historical fact or impossibilities of historical stories as you know as well. i emerged a documentary filmmaker and had the kind of hampshire-inspired chutzpah to decide i would just not go to new york an apprentice. i would start my own company, florentine films. the first film we made, which took 5.5 years to make because i looked like i was 12 years old, and i was trying to sell to people on the brooklyn bridge -- the story of the brca 1 -- the story of brooklyn bridge that was nominated for an academy award. it was in that space i moved from amherst, massachusetts to new york and then up here to walpole, new hampshire are all the films that have been if not physically made, then directed. david: was it easier to raise money for the brooklyn bridge? two people say you are trying to sell me the brooklyn bridge? ken: all the time. it was the baby face. i'm 68 now. i know that i don't look like i am 68. you can imagine what i looked like at 23 and 24 when i was beginning to work on it, 25.
they would say this child is trying to sell me the brooklyn bridge. for a long while, i had two or three ring binders on my desk. each those three to four inch wide big expandable affairs with all of the letters of rejection, which i kept for a decade on my desk just to remind me of how incredibly hard -- and it is still hard to raise the money to do these things, but the independence is worth it. the idea of being able to present to you a film on muhammad ali that i am not apologizing for. it is a director's cut. if you don't like it, it is all my fault. you know what i mean? i don't want to not say the executive producer would not let me hire this person. the budget did not allow me to do that thing. you know, it is just, we get to do it in the time it takes to do it, however long. 10 .5 years for the vietnam war, six or seven for this one on
olley -- on muhammad ali. some of them, the national parks project, was a 10 year project. david: after the brooklyn bridge, you did a number of other documentaries. i think another six or so. ken: yes. david: before you decided to do the epic civil war series, which took how many years to do and how long did it take to get all the work done, the research done and how long did it take to raise the money for that? ken: we were raising the money up until the very end. it is never easy. it took us five and half years from the moment i decided to do it, which was christmas day 1984 where i was visiting my father with my brand-new daughter and my wife. i just said i know what my next project is. he said, what? i said, the civil war. he said, what part? i said, all of it. he shook his head and walked out of the room like, "my idiot son." five and half years later, we came out with something i always felt even as early as the brooklyn bridge, i said i was not interested in excavating the dry dates and facts and events
of the past, but the only thing that could hold those shards together, the glue that could hold that was an emotional archaeology. not sentimentality and nostalgia, which is the enemy of good anything. it is the higher emotions our founders like a bee released if people were given the chance to govern themselves. and so we are interested in what those higher emotions are that we tend to avoid. we would prefer things to be one and one equals two. we prefer not to talk about the four letter word the fcc allows me to say when talking about muhammad ali, "love," and yet our lives are compelled by the things where one and one equals three, not two. the arts, the relationships and the love we have for other people and that is what i pursue in my little tiny niche. all these nearly 50 years of doing this. david: people were mesmerized by it. were you shocked at how it kind of transformed culture in many ways?
and people were talking about all the time. did you anticipate that? ken: no. in fact, i did the press tour and people said this is terrific but no one is going to watch it, because the tv had a new police procedural that was a musical and nobody would watch this. everybody seemed to watch it. it had 40 million viewers the first time. dvd, blank dvd tapes -- not dvd but cassette tapes were what ran out in washington, d.c. i got invited to the white house. i was on "the tonight show." it was flabbergasting. what was really helpful to me, david, was staying here in walpole, because the pressure to leave again, hollywood presumed that just documentary was a step wrong on some career path that would inevitably lead to making feature films. i said no, i like my day job and being here and insulated by the
people who are -- i think they are proud of what i have done. but it matters with the content of my characters. david: why did you not go the route of becoming the next george lucas or steven spielberg? make an enormous amount of money and after the amount of money, go back to doing what you were doing before? ken: i don't know. it was not for me. i liked the idea of public broadcasting. pbs is public, but the "s" is not system, it is service. i like that idea. pbs has one foot tentatively in the marketplace and the other proudly out of it. lots of what is best about this country is not necessarily in the marketplace, which is, of course, one of the best things in this country as well. so it is not making the other wrong. it is saying if i had gone to a premium channel or gone to a streaming service, it might have been easier to get the money but then they would own it. i own my films. they would also not permit me 10 and a half years to do the vietnam.
they would want it in a couple years. the kind of corner that would be cut in the process with -- process was nothing i wanted to do. i also was aware even with the success of the civil war series, people would come and ask me what i was working on from other places. when i would say baseball, they would say, great, that would sell. they would say, how long is it? i would say 18 and a half hours. they would walk away. after baseball had an even bigger audience than the civil war, they would say, what are you doing? i would say jazz. they would say, african-american stuff does not sell. you realize that sometimes you had to pick these projects, all of them, based on your gut. not only on focus groups, not on some marketing panel but on what you want to do. david: how many projects do you have in the works now? can you say what some of the ones are? ken: yeah. i don't know why people make this stuff secret. we are about to mix the first of two episodes on a four part, two two hours on benjamin franklin.
the same day as muhammad ali and one of the most compelling figures of the 18th century. i have been editing all last weekend all this week. as soon as we are done, we are going to dive into the editing on -- editing today on the history of the u.s. and holocaust. what we knew and what we did not know. but we did and what we did not do and what we should have done. a very complicated story that needs to be told. we are doing a history of the buffalo. it is a biography of not an animal but a biography of people who use the animal, who brought the animal to the brink of extinction, and the very same people who nearly killed it to bring it back from extinction. it is a parable of d extinction -- de-extinction you might say. we are doing a history of the american revolution. not just 50 white guys with powdered wigs in washington but a bottom-up story of a court or of the country remain loyal to
great britain. this was the civil war. our civil war was not a civil war. it was a sectional war. north against south. david: do you consider yourself an historian, filmmaker, an educator, or a public figure that is well known and recognized by everybody? ken: the biggest thing is i am a filmmaker and the way painter may choose to work in oil as opposed to watercolors, i choose to work in history. ♪
david: do you feel, as a public figure, you have the obligation to speak out on public issues beyond just the ones you are making films about or do you feel that is not appropriate for you or people like you? ken: you know, i have read the constitution and the bill of rights, as i'm sure you have, and the first amendment is about freedom of speech. i would never say you should not. i have always driven in my professional life and not do that, to go out of the way to not be partisan. i am a citizen of my town and my state and my country and i vote. i try to support candidates whose positions i agree with. i have spoken out on a couple of occasions quite forcefully about it and taken some grief but also gotten support. i just try to make sure that i keep a kosher kitchen. the films are tough. they may reveal sympathies. of course, how could they not? but at the same time, i think they are fair and balanced for people who are interested in what is going on and not just a reaffirmation of their own set of beliefs however fraudulent that might be. but at times, i think it is incumbent upon citizens and i would say ceos and even people in private equity to speak out and say, i think this is a fraught time in american history. it's future is very challenged right now and it is going to require those of us who care about its institutions and its meaning to work hard and sometimes that is saying out loud unpleasant things we would rather keep our head down and not say. david: at this point in your career, do you consider yourself a filmmaker, a historian, an educator or a public figure that is well known and recognized by everybody? ken: the biggest thing is i am a filmmaker and that means i tell stories. the way painter might choose to work in oil as opposed to watercolors, i choose to work in history, american history, with the exception of the upcoming leonardo da vinci. they have all been in american
history. and history is mostly made up of the word "story" plus "hi." all of the other stuff that comes -- i am pleased these films live in schools, that they have an educational dimension. i am pleased people will respect the work, which means if you know who i am, it means you have seen a film of mine and that means at least these stories are reaching some group of us. as much as i want to reach every single person, it is at least exciting. you know, i'm walking in new york city and a fireman goes by and says, you are the guy that made the civil war. or somebody walks up to me to complain what i left out of baseball, which i love. baseball is 18 and a half hours and if they tell you what you left out, i am not an encyclopedia. i am a dictionary. i'm a storyteller. you have to leave stuff out. if they think i have left something out of 18 and a half hours, that means they did not find it boring, they wanted the
59 white sox that they happen to grow up loving and did not have time, room, or space to do. so i have these conversations with people all the time about who we are and what it means to be an american at lots of levels and lots of different people trust us -- and i want to emphasize us, to tell the complicated and truthful story at a time where the truth seems questionable, where we always accuse each other a fake news, it is important to have a space and i think pbs provides that. where you can get an accurate, balanced view of what has taken place. it does not sugarcoat and at the same time is not just invested entirely in revisionism. david: why should people want to watch history about things that happened 100 or 200 years ago? what relevance is it would you say? ken: you know, i think it is hugely relevant. history gives you that ability to have a kind of perspective to
see where the precedents are for all the dangerous things that we find ourselves in today. there are precedents. yet, there is, in its totality, obviously unprecedented dangers and threats to the united states. i think it would be incumbent upon americans who are often blind to their history to understand exactly how their government works, what the constitution is actually about, what it says, what the nature of our government is. we don't teach civics anymore and a lot of the reasons we feel like we have lost a cohesion is because we have forgotten the glue that has held us together. not just in the patriotic ways. not just in the emotional ways but in the functional ways of how you get things done. that is what civics is. it is not just 100 senators and 435 representatives and three branches of government. it is how human beings together get things done and compromise and see there is a shared common good. so history becomes a way -- it
is a table around which i think we can all have a shared discussion of what we want and how we might continue to cohere and how we can let the better angels perhaps reassert themselves. that's what i'm about and i think people want that. i think the divisions are huge and massive and threatening and has exposed the fragility of our institutions, indeed our democracy and future, but i also think, deep down, people, if they are made aware of the fact they share common everything -- i mean, one of the fallacies of the holocaust is the myth of race. biologically, it does not exist. we are the same. i said to you i have made films for almost 50 years about the u.s. but i have also made films about us. that is to say the lowercase two letter plural pronoun.
i am addressing these films to everybody, regardless of their political persuasion or where they come from or their sex or their wealth or their race. whatever it might be, i want to reach everybody to remind them of the us. all the intimacy of this, the majesty, the complexity, the contradiction and the controversy of the u.s. it is all there. and we don't need to say "we have got to limit our history and teach it only this way and teach only the good stuff. it is morning in america again." need to have a rich history that pulls back the camera and reveals all the startling and, at times, contradictory and not so pleasant things. david: many people recognize you because you have a very famous hairdo that i have asked you about before. [laughter] to some people, they say where did that hairdo come from and where has it gone? right now it seems different than what i saw before. ken: it is growing out a little bit, david, but covid, i ended up with hair going back down to my shoulder and i finally realized one of the things i had
to do -- i am a very loyal person and i used have hair down to my waist in my college and hippy days before that in ann arbor, michigan. i had it cut off in the summer of 1975. i have gone to the same person, now a grandmother, many times over, who was a young gal cutting hair in amherst, massachusetts. i still seek her out. i finally said to her, covid is enough of a change i would like -- change i ought to be able to do something new. i am ending up with shorter hair. tom brokaw, who has been a mentor, when i turned 68 years, said it is time for a big boy haircut. i said wait, i thought you said 70. i guess, two years short of 70 i am getting a big boy haircut. david: ken, i want to thank you for a very interesting conversation. you may have not realized that your dog was in part of the conversation. ken: this is my executive producer. you know, what they say in washington and i think of it applies to filmmaking too -- if
you want a friend, get a dog. call my executive producer. he has never barked once and every once in a while, he will pass through, either he has are the stuff before or is sick of hearing my voice or something but he is curled up over there and is happily snoozing away because i put him to sleep. ♪ [ sigh ] not gonna happen.
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kailey: this week -- >> i think each of us has an obligation to do what we can. each of us has a footprint of some sort. >> when people ask you, people say i want to buy sustainable products but it's mainly because people are asking, you want to show that you are that kind of person but you might not actually be as sustainable as you say you are. kailey: power to the people. from recycling to staying off planes, we get to the heart of green consumerism and how important it is for the planet. vincent: and then we go to a product level, which is pretty unique, where we collect a whole lot of information about everything on a product that is listed on dayrize. the material it's made of, where these materials are sourced,