Ken Burns on Positive Manipulation in Storytelling

“The common story is one plus one equals two. We get it. But all the real, genuine stories are really about one and one equaling three. That’s what I’m interested in. We live in a rational world where we’re absolutely certain that one and one equals two, and it does. But the things that matter most to us – some people call it love, some people call it god, some people call it reason – are that other thing, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s the three. Great stories are everywhere. There are millions of them. Abraham Lincoln wins the civil war, and then he decides he’s got enough time to go to the theater. That’s a good story. When Thomas Jefferson said, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ he owned a hundred human beings, and never saw the hypocrisy – never saw the contradiction – and, more importantly, never saw fit in his lifetime to free any one of them. That’s a good story. The stories I like to tell are always interesting because the good guys have really serious flaws, and the villains are very compelling. My interest is always in complicating things. Jean-Luc Godard said, ‘The cinema is truth 24 times a second.’ Maybe. It’s lying 24 times a second too. All the time. All story is manipulation. Is there acceptable manipulation? You bet. People say, ‘Oh, boy, I was so moved to tears by your film,’ as if that’s a good thing. I manipulated that. That’s part of storytelling. I didn’t do it disgenuinely. I did it sincerely. I am moved by that too. That’s manipulation. Truth is – we hope – a byproduct of the best of our stories. And yet, there are many many different kinds of truths. And an emotional truth is something that you need to build. I made a film about baseball once, and it seemed to me there was a dilemma among the racists of what to do about Jackie Robinson. If you were a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and you were a racist, what do you do when he arrives? You can quit baseball, altogether. You can change teams. Or, you can … change. And I think the kind of narrative that I subscribe to trusts in the possibility that people can change.”