Ken Burns has made more than 20 documentaries for PBS, including such iconic ones as “Baseball” and “The Civil War.”
Yet he calls his latest project, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” maybe the most satisfying one he has done. The 14-hour series, which premieres Sept. 14, weaves the personal histories of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the way their personal experience helped shape their political philosophies and, in turn, the United States.
“This is a fairly complex narrative that takes three people, and by extension several dozen people beyond them, and moves them through 140 years of not familiar American history, but certainly history in which most of us have an opinion or a thought about,” Burns says at the summer TV press tour. “… For us, it was unwrapping something — we focus on presidents and wars and generals as our narrative in history, but we’re asking questions — What’s the role of government? What can a citizen expect of that government? What is the nature of leadership? How does character inform leadership? How is character itself formed by adversity in life? …
“The balance of all of that is the reason why these things take many, many years. This is a fine calibration on the part of a writer and filmmakers just trying to get at that balance. It was a huge challenge, but I don’t know that’s been more satisfying to me.”
Burns says he and historian Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote the documentary, had a “huge debate” over how to balance the “Intimate” and the “History” parts of the documentary. They didn’t want to lean too far into the “tabloid” parts of the Roosevelts’ lives, as Burns puts it, but really wanted to see how their personal experiences fed their public careers.
“The ‘Intimate’ part of our story and our title has to do with trying to understand this from the inside out rather than from the top down,” Burns says.
“The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” premieres Sunday, Sept. 14 and will air for seven consecutive nights. The full series will be available on digital platforms starting Sept. 15.