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Why Ken Burns Does What He Does

Q&A with the filmmaker who brought us 'The Civil War' and is now documenting 'The Dust Bowl' for PBS

Watch Uncovering the Dust Bowl on PBS. See more from The Dust Bowl.

Q: You are known for your documentaries about our history. Would you say you're more interested in the past than the present?

A: Well, you know in our media culture, we focus only on young and hip boldface names. I'm 59, I don't recognize three-quarters of the boldfaced names I see in newspapers and magazines. I just don't know who they are. But our boldface names in American history are older people, retired people who have experience, who have memories that we need to know.

Q: What's next for you?

A: We are releasing a film called The Central Park Five in theaters the day after Thanksgiving, which will be broadcast on PBS in April 2013. This is a story of the five black and Hispanic kids who were charged and went to jail, served out their full terms for the infamous [1989] Central Park Jogger [rape] case, and they didn't do it. We made a film about their lives. I codirected it with the filmmaker David McMahon and my daughter Sarah Burns [who's married to McMahon]. It was wonderful working with Sarah.

And we're doing the sound editing on a seven-part, 14-hour series on the history of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt that will be out in 2014 on PBS.

Q: And after that?

A: In 2015 we have a two-part biography of Jackie Robinson, the first African American in baseball, and we are more than two-thirds of the way finished shooting a massive, seven-part, 14-hour history of the war in Vietnam, which will come out in 2016. Right now we're also writing and researching a multipart series on the history of country music for 2018, and plotting a biography of Ernest Hemingway for 2019. And I don't mean these are just ideas, we're working on them now.

Q: You're planned through the rest of the decade! Do you have a dream project?

A: I want to do a biography of Martin Luther King before I hang up my boots.

Q: What about retiring?

A: Never [laughs]. I like working.

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