tv The David Rubenstein Show Peer to Peer Conversations Bloomberg October 24, 2021 10:00am-10:30am EDT
♪ david: this is my kitchen table and also my filing system. over much of the past three decades, i have been an investor. the highest calling of mankind, i've often thought was private equity. then i started interviewing. i watched your interviews so i know how to do some interviewing. i've learned from doing my interviews how leaders make it to the top. i asked how much he wanted. he said at hundred 50,000.
i did not negotiate. i did no due diligence. 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, he has continued to make in a 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. so i am curious how you come to happen to do all of york there. >> i moved here in 1979, 42 years ago, when i realized that becoming a documentary filmmaker focusing on american history was
taking a veil of an end and -- anonymity and poverty. there -- my first film was nominated for an oscar and everyone assumed i would come back to the city or go to l.a., i stay 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. david: i assume you are new hampshire's most famous resident. >> oh gosh. i don't think so. i always thought that if my great, great grandchildren cap to 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 it's -- gets you a cup of coffee. david: let's talk about the most recent film you have had on television which is a four-part
series on muhammad ali. >> he is one of the most imposing figures. it 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 athletes in sports, definitions of black manhood, lacked masculinity and that the civil rights movement. an ongoing at developing thing. the story of politics, of race. the central american question. if 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 likes a page after page of history. david: how long did it take you
to do that series? >> we said yes to this in 2013. we began work 2014. production and shooting of most of the stuff began 2016, the year he died. so you could say that it took eight years or seven years but there is fundraising involved. what we need is that time to do 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 the character and not have it be a resuscitation of conventional wisdom. david: when a muhammad ali, did you initially seek his approval or his family's approval or not? >> no, we never operate that
way. we can never operate that way on pbs because we have to have a separation of church and state. we did have cooperation from family members and what they gave the photographs, they give us access. we were able to interview two of his ex-wives. we interviewed two of his daughters, his brother, friends, hangers on, scholars. all of that sort of stuff, the translation we want to do. david: when you see professional bosket -- boxers today, they seem both up. maybe because of stimulants they are taking or they have that are training what he did not seem like an overly muscular person. what was his strength as a fighter? >> he was very disciplined most of his life. it usually lost when he had not been disciplined. he did have a great bulk but not in the kind of way we see today.
he is so generous in every way. when summary throat -- when somebody throws a punch at you, you are supposed adult. he would lean back, which is supposed to be the recipe for disaster. in a good trainer -- heat had a good trainer who realized he was really generous and he would just have to strengthen these things. he moved around, he was very quick. he is an amazing boxer. i made a film on jeh johnson, the first african-american heavyweight champion in the first decade of the 20th century and they share similar traits. the difference was that johnson wasn't just for himself and muhammad ali seemed to be for everybody. he seemed to want to carry everybody with him and to love everybody. it is a hard thing to talk about. this is a film about freedom. it is about courage, which is not just true in the ring but also in the stands with vietnam. it is also about love. at this guy dies five years ago
i don't want to be in hedge funds, important things like that? i want to be a documentary filmmaker. where did you grow up? >> i grew up the son of an interpol just 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 ride for the first time and he cried at a movie. i said that's it. i want to become a movie maker. i ended up going to hampshire college, a brand-new experimental school that opened in the fall of 70. i went in the fall of 1971. all of my teachers were social documentary still photographers are that still photographers and filmmakers who reminded me quite correctly there is as much if not more drama and what is and what was then anything the human imagination can dream up. often, the human imagination
dreams of things taste on historical fact where the impossibilities of historical stories as you know as well. i emerged a documentary filmmaker and had the kind of hampshire expired -- hampshire inspired jets but -- hampshire inspired chutzpah to i would just not go to new york and apprenticed. i would start my own company, florentine films. david: was it easier to raise money for the brooklyn bridge? >> i'm 68 now. i actually know that i don't look like i'm 68 and 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. all 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 say the executive producer without let me to hire this person. that budget would not allow me to do this thing. we get to do it in the time it takes to do it, however long. 10 and half years for the vietnam war. six or seven for this one.
some of them, the national parks was a 10 year project. david: after the brooklyn bridge, you did a number of other documentaries. i think another six or so. before you decided to do the epic civil war series, which took how many years to do and how much -- and how long did it take to get all the work done? >> it's 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. and i just said i know it might next project is and he said what and he goes what part and i said all of it. he just shook his head and walked out of the room. at five and a 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 dried dates and
facts and events, but the only thing that can hold those shards together, the glue that could hold that was an emotional archaeology. not nostalgia, which is the enemy of good anything. it is the higher emotions could be released if people were given a chance to govern themselves. and so we are interested in what those higher emotions are that we tend to avoid. we 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, love, and yet our lives are compelled by the things where one and one equals three. not to. --not two. the relationships and the love we have for other people and that is what i pursue in my little tiny niche.
david: people were mesmerized by it. were you shocked by how it kind of transformed that culture in many ways? >> know, in fact i did oppress to hear -- oppress to her and people said this is terrifying -- i did operas 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. it dvd, not dvd but cassette tapes were what ran now in washington, d.c. i got invited to the white house. i was on the tonight show.
it was flabbergast in. what was really helpful to me, david, was staying here because the pressure to leave again, hollywood presumed that documentary was wrong on some career path that would inevitably lead to making feature films. david: why did you not go the route of becoming the next george lucas or steven spielberg? >> it was not for me. i liked the idea of public broadcasting. it is public but the s is not system. it is service. 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 market place, which is, of course, on of the best things in this country as well. it is not making the other wrong. it is saying if i had gone to a premium channel or owing to a
streaming service, it might have been easier to get the -- to get them money but then they would own it. iona my films. they would also not permit me to an end half years to do the vietnam. they would in a couple of years. the kind of corner that would be cut was nothing i wanted to do. i also was aware even with the success of the civil war series, people would come and asked me what i was working on from other places. and i would say baseball, they would say that will sell. they would say how long is it. i would say 18 and half hours. they would walk away. after baseball had an even bigger audience, they would say what you doing. i would say jazz. it would say african-american stuff does not sell. you realize that sometimes you have 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? >> i don't know why people make this stuff secret. we are about to mix the first of two episodes on a four-part, to our 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 week and this week. as soon as we are done, we are going to dive into the editing today on the history of the u.s. and holocaust. what we knew and what we did not know. what we did -- what 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 de-extinction. david: do you consider yourself a historian, filmmaker, educator, public figure that is well-known and recognized by everybody? >> the biggest thing is i am a film maker the way a 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 application to speak at on public issues beyond just the ones you are making films about or do you feel that it is not appropriate for you are people like you? >> 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 tried to make sure that i keep a kosher kitchen. the films are tough. they may reveal some of these. of course, how could they not? 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. at times, i think it is incumbent upon citizens and i would say ceo's and even people in private equity to speak out and say i think this is a fraught time in american history. its future is very challenged right now and it is going to require those of us who care about it to sheehan 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, historian, educator or a public figure that is well-known and recognized by everybody? >> the biggest thing is i am a filmmaker that means i tell stories. the way a 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 we are not of da vinci, they have all been in american history. and it history is mostly made up of the word story hi plus. i am pleased these films live in schools. 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 of -- as much as i want to reach a reasonable person, it is at least exciting. 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 that i left out a baseball -- what i left out of baseball, which i love. eight ball is 18 and half hours and they tell you what you left
out. i am not an encyclopedia. i am not a dictionary. i am a storyteller. you have to leave stuff out. if they think i have left something out of 18 and half hours, they did not find it boring. happen to grow up loving and we did not have time or room or space to do. 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. i want to emphasize us. trust us to tell a complicated and truthful story and at a time when the truth seems fungible, when we are always accusing the other of 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. >> why should people want to watch history about things that happened 100 or 200 years ago? >> history gives you that
ability to have that kind of perspective to see where the precedents are for all of the dangerous things that we find ourselves in today. there are precedents and yet there is and yet there is in its totality, obviously, unprecedented dangers and threats to the united states. and i think it would be incumbent among upon americans were often blinded to the 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 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. history becomes, it is a table around which i think we all have a shared discussion of what we want and how we might continue to -- continue and how we can let the better angels perhaps reassert themselves. that's what i'm about and i think people want. i think the divisions are huge and massive and threatening and was exposed -- and has exposed the fragility of our institutions, and future, but i also think deep down people, if they are made aware of the fact they sure common everything, i mean, one of the fallacies of the holocaust is the myth of race. logically, it does not exist. we are the same a biologically. it does not exist. i have made films for almost 50 years about the u.s., but i have
also made films about us. 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 u.s.. all intimacy plus 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 gods to limit our history and teach it only this way and teach only the good stuff. david: many people recognize you because you have a very famous hairdo that i've asked you about before. some people, they may say well where did that hairdo come from and where has it gone because right now it seems a little different from what i've seen before? >> i ended up with hair going
back down to my shoulder and i finally realized that one of the things i had to do, i am a very loyal person and i used to have hair down to my waist and my college and hippie days. i had it cut off in the summer of 1975. i've gone to the same person, now a grandmother, who was a young gal cutting hair. i still seek her out. i finally said to her, covid is -- covid is enough to change i would like to do something new. i am ending up with shorter hair. tom brokaw when i turned 68 years old and said it is time for a big boy haircut. i said wait, i thought you said 70. david: i want to thank you for a very interesting conversation. >> this is my dog.
kailey: this week. >> i think each of us has an obligation to do what we can. i mean, each of us has a footprint of some sort. >> when people ask you, you say ok, i want to buy sustainable products, but it's mainly because people are asking you wants 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. >>