How do you make a documentary about Ken Burns?

Making a short documentary about the iconic documentary filmmaker is a tall order in itself. Sarah Klein and Tom Mason sit down with the Atlantic to discuss how they approached the form and how they found b-roll for lofty ideas such as “1+1=3″.

The documentary of Ken Burns:

The Atlantic: What inspired you to explore storytelling as a topic for this film?

Sarah Klein and Tom Mason: Everyone loves a great story. Stories teach us things, move us emotionally, and form the basis of the way we understand the world. As filmmakers, we’ve been telling stories for a while now — but at a certain point we realized that it’s actually really hard to explain what makes a good story. We know it when we see it, but the recipe always proves elusive. Ken Burns has been telling incredible stories for decades, and we thought that if anyone would have a thoughtful perspective on this, it’d be him. So this project started as our own exploration to figure out what that magic dust is that brings his stories to life.

It takes guts to make a documentary about one of documentary cinema’s most iconic filmmakers. How did you approach it?

We were definitely nervous about it. Ken Burns has defined documentary for our whole lives. We both remember sitting with our families watching The Civil War series in awe. We came to this project with a lot of questions and very little idea where they’d lead. He was incredibly patient, and brought his own curiosity and open mind to the conversation about how he tells stories and why. The first time we sent him a cut, we both poured a couple glasses of bourbon and crossed our fingers. Luckily, he liked it.

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