A two-part PBS documentary airing Nov. 17 and 18, The Dust Bowl is a mesmerizing, eye-opening look at the devastation wrought when human folly — millions of acres of the Great Plains were planted with wheat in place of sturdy native grasses — and nature combine to apocalyptic repercussions. The 1930s photos and movie footage Burns and his team have unearthed are stunning, making the farm families' fear and bewilderment palpable.
Burns talks with AARP about The Dust Bowl, as well as his new projects and whether he'll ever retire.
Courtesy Cable Risdon/Florentine Films
Q: You've focused on so many different subjects over the years. Why the Dust Bowl?
A: Well, the glib answer all these years has been, they choose us. What I mean is that we're always drawn to a good story, and we're always drawn to stories that explode what our own conventional wisdom suggests. When you say "Dust Bowl" to most people, they think, "Oh, some storms and the photographs of Dorothea Lange and John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath." But when you dig deeper, it's so much more complicated, so much more interesting.
This 10-year apocalypse was the worst man-made ecological disaster in the history of America, if not the world. You can't imagine that [a dust storm] is 200 or 300 miles wide, and a mile and a half high. How is this possible? And it's bearing down, and it's blocking out the sun at noon, and not only kills your crops, but it kills your cattle and, more importantly, your children. That's what sucked us in. It's an amazing story, but at the heart of it, it's these people.
Q: Did you feel a sense of urgency in capturing those firsthand accounts before it's too late?
A: Absolutely. We realized that soon there may not be anyone left. This is the last chance. What you're looking at [in the film], with all these people in their late 80s and 90s, are children. Their memories are the memories of teenagers and children — no less accurate, just filled with all of the terror [of their childhoods]. There are two brothers, Floyd and Dale Coen, who break down [while describing] the death of their sister, who was less than 2-1/2 when she died in early 1935. You are reminded that memory is not distant — memory is present, it's on our hard drive. They didn't expect to cry like that. They started telling it and the doors to the memories opened up, and they were present, and so are we.
Q: Is there a modern-day lesson to take away from this film?
A: It's very fashionable to say that government is bad these days, but when push comes to shove, on the shore of New Jersey or Manhattan [after Superstorm Sandy], you really want government to help you. That's one of the obvious lessons: We need each other. And the United States government is the manifestation of each other.
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  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.