Paid Advertisement
Historynet/feed historynet feedback facebook link Weider History Group RSS feed Weider Subscriptions Historynet Home page

We Shall Remain - Interview with Ric Burns and Chris Eyre

By Jay Wertz 
Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: May 04, 2009 
Print Friendly
1 comment FONT +  FONT -

We were committed to a style that was as cinematic as possible, in the sense that every conceivable visual element was leaving enough mystery in the frame so the audience's aesthetic interest is engaged.

We Shall Remain, the ambitious five-part American Experience series on PBS that began April 13 with "About the Mayflower" and concludes May 11 with "Wounded Knee," is a collaboration of a number of people and organizations. The producing entity for American Experience, WGBH, sought out a host of scholars and creative artists to work on the project. Two of them are Ric Burns and Chris Eyre. Ric is an award-winning documentary producer, director and writer (The Way West, Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film) and long-time contributor to American Experience. He wrote and directed "Tecumseh's Vision". Chris is one of the most sought-after Native American filmmakers. He has directed Smoke Signals, a landmark Native American film that won many awards, and other film and television projects. Chris directed three programs, "After the Mayflower," "Tecumseh's Vision" (with Ric Burns) and "Trail of Tears." Though they had not collaborated before, Ric and Chris met on the project and hit it off immediately. In this Historynet.com interview they sit down together to talk with Jay Wertz about the series, its production, and how to place it in the body of visual literature of American history.

Subscribe Today

Subscribe to American History magazine

Directors Chris Eyre (left) and Ric Burns discuss a scene during the filming of 'Tecumseh's Vision.' Photo by Larry Gus.
Directors Chris Eyre (left) and Ric Burns discuss a scene during the filming of 'Tecumseh's Vision.' Photo by Larry Gus.
HistoryNet.com: This is the most ambitious television history ever done on North American Native Americans. Why has it taken until now to get something like this accomplished?

Ric Burns: You have history where passions are still very much alive; it's not just a cliché to say the struggle goes on. The dust is still settling on what it means. I feel in just 15 years we've moved into yet a new phase of a very complicated, four-century relationship between European Americans and the people who inhabited the continent for thousands of years before. I think we now see in Native American history a kind of image of American history – we don't see it as a marginal thing any longer. We see it as part of the mainstream to the degree that if you don't know it, you don't know your own history. And that would be as true for a non-Native American as for a Native American.

Chris Eyre: Historically when traumas happen, as in the Native American experience, it takes some distance for people to truly reflect in a way that's truthful. I think Native people are progressing and healing, and I think we're looking back in a progressive way at a major trauma that happened over generations, and audiences are more accepting of that than they've ever been.

RB: I think there's a really strong way in which, to some degree, we're all Native Americans now …

CE: Yeah.

RB: We're much more conscious that we live, all of us, on a fragile, finite planet, and we need to husband resources and understand our relationship and bearing to other people, other life forms, and to the planet itself. It is, in a way, poetically inevitable. We find ourselves as a people and as a nation and as a species having to understand the modes of accommodation and mutuality and reciprocity that were the heart-blood of many Native American cultures. That gives relevance, optimism and hopefulness to a very dark history.

CE: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the book, that was a mile marker, everybody said, "Oh, it was so horrible." The next huge mile marker was Dances with Wolves where everybody celebrated the Indians, and I think We Shall Remain is kind of a denominator in that it's neither of those things; it's a very complicated human story, dark and triumphant, of the tenacious past of Americans that forged the America we know.

HN: These stories required different treatments, yet a common theme had to be established for the series in We Shall Remain. What would you say this common thread is?

RB: There was an attempt to do two things. One, to not just tell the story as it's been told before, but to tell of Native Americans as human beings struggling in real places and real times. They put their pants on one leg at a time and had flaws and conflicts and struggled. And that is complicated history. For example, when you have a slave-holding, plantation-owning Christian Cherokee leader (John Ridge) being murdered by members of his own tribe at a key point in time, you know you've got a very complicated story. Tecumseh's complicated as well. He was considered a renegade in his own tribe. If we present him as a real person then Chris and I have done our job.

CE: The thread for me, the thing that binds the five (programs) together is that we know we weren't told the whole truth in public school, we know there's more. Ric and I were fortunate to be able to scratch the surface and then dig deeper and learn things ourselves and actually bring people like Tecumseh to life, even if it's just for a couple of minutes on screen. What that master of politics and leadership must have been like! That's a gift that we get to participate in, to respect what Tecumseh was and (to do the same for) all the leaders.

HN: It seems to me stylistically the programs use an unusual photographic style – muted tones, natural vistas, perhaps used symbolically, as well as tight close ups, wandering camera shots and soft focus at times. What about this?

RB: Chris and I and our really brilliant director of photography Paul Goldsmith went out to Indiana to try and figure out how to follow through on what executive producers Mark Samels and Sharon Grimberg wanted the series to be, which was to be different but not just different for its own sake – to somehow to push past the clichés of reenactment on the one hand and the clichés of historic documentary films on the other.

We were so fortunate to draw as our cameraman Paul Goldsmith. There was kind of a natural synergy that took place between the three of us. The camera too often discloses too much, gives the audience too much – you see it all and there's nothing left to the imagination. We were committed to a style that was as cinematic as possible, in the sense that every conceivable visual element – rack focus, atmospherics, aerial photography – was leaving enough mystery in the frame so the audience's aesthetic interest is engaged in making sense of the story. And once we got it, we were like kids in a candy store. Chris, was that your experience?

CE: I have to say, in looking back, I feel like it would be presumptuous of Ric and I and everybody else to think that we could reenact the Trail of Tears, which was an incredible event of human tenacity. To sit there and say we are going to articulate visually what Tecumseh must have been doing – that's a huge responsibility to be placed on anybody. You think of Crazy Horse, who never had his picture taken. As filmmakers, I think it would be a little irresponsible to think we could show everything and ask people to believe it. It's really about the things you don't see that allow these characters to live.

RB: It's the worst idea in the world to take two strong-willed directors and put them in charge of the same project, but it just worked out like gangbusters. It's been a kind of complete mutuality every step along the way. I have to say this has been one of the most delightful working relationships I've had.

HN: Given the incursions of civilization on Indian Country over many years, how hard was it to find these pristine vistas and natural settings?

RB: That's such a brilliant point, especially (for scenes) east of the Mississippi. In every conceivable way, real and metaphorical, the culture of the United States clear-cut the geography east of the Mississippi. What it must have been like to be in those old growth forests in the early 19th century! But down they came and by the mid-19th century they were gone.

We weren't able to find anything but memories of that geography in the first three episodes because that's all that's left. When we found a haunted piece of land north of Lafayette, Indiana, along the Wabash (River) where the Battle of Tippecanoe was fought in the fall of 1811 – once we found that, it became our holy ground. Even though you could look off to the edge and see cornrows, that land has a feel.

CE: I remember standing in a field in Indiana and at the same time Ric and I spotted a tree that was probably 200 years old and we said, that's some of the ground of the history that we're telling. We literally had to go and find elements of memory that were still around. We shot at the actual physical location of where Prophetstown was and that was a tree that was probably there at that time.

HN: This was a five-year project. What were the most difficult aspects of preparation, production and editing, and what took the most time to accomplish?

RB: For me I think it was finding our way to a filming style that didn't push people away but drew them in. And that was a process that began before any real footage was shot. It began with the conviction that Mark and Sharon had, that led to Skip bleaching the negative so that it had that muted look that you were talking about, Jay. From wardrobe to make-up we were absolutely committed to making everything as anthropologically and historically accurate as possible. At every level, the desire was to create high impact, and that took a long time, a lot of research, a lot of commitment, and some fits and starts. Every movie is really made in the editing room – that's where ultimately it always feels like the high-wire act of filmmaking takes place – and once we got great material then it was a really humbling process going over the same ground again and again and again in the editing room, to try to make it work.

This is not something that you'll see anywhere else, a seven-and-a-half hour film with this kind of commitment to the complexity of the story, to getting it right, off-camera as well as on, to get a full buy-in and participation of Native American groups from all across the country. What I think you can feel in every frame of this film is the commitment to try to get it right.

HN: You don't distinguish in subtitle between Native and non-Native scholars. Was this intentional?

RB: Yes. I'm a firm believer that the human imagination is such that we can reach out and understand each other. And that's why John Sugden, a Yorkshire lad now in his sixties from the north of England with an accent that sounds like he's the fifth Beatle, turns out to be the greatest biographer Tecumseh ever had. And when he talks, you want to be sure he's being identified by his vocation and not his nationality.

CE: There's this curious notion that there should be this utopian movie where it's all Native: the historians are Native and the crew's Native and the actors are Native and somehow that would make it a better movie. But then you get people like John Sugden. You would never expect he would be the expert. But it takes that kind of people. That's the utopia, putting all those people together and shaking it up and out comes this great movie.

HN: There are other historic periods, tribes and personalities among Native Americans with stories just as important as these. Do you think the proper and sensitive telling of these stories will be achievable on television or film based on the trail forged by We Shall Remain?

RB: No. If those films work, it'll be because people have put in every once of what they have to try to make that kind of transformation take place. I hope people are inspired by the work (we've) done on this series. I hope they're inspired to look back into the American past, but I also know that it's tough to do.

CE: I feel that we helped audiences hopefully touch Tecumseh and the Prophet. That's what it is for me. That's I want to do, is to be able to touch these historic figures.

RB: I hope it plants seeds, not so much blazes a trail. I hope it lights a spark and makes people want to know more and want to reach out further with their own hearts and minds. If that happens, then that's fantastic.

Jay Wertz frequently writes on history in film, television, music and other forms of popular culture for the GreatHistory Website.


One Response to “We Shall Remain - Interview with Ric Burns and Chris Eyre”


  1. 1
    Antonio Pantanelli says:

    I wrote (in my poor English) to the Pres. Barack Obama about a new interpretation to give to Tecumseh's history and his Correspondence Team answered appreciating hearing from me. "The Pres. has promised the most transparent administration in history, and we are committed to listening to and responding you…so we encourage you to resubmit your message" to a new link they gave me because the former receives "millions of electronic messages". The matter of my work is: "Why did not USA recognize Tecumseh's right to form a native, independent nation ?" He said to Harrison that "the US had set him the example of forming a strict union amongst all the fires that compose their confederacy…the Indians did not complain of it – nor should his white brothers complain of him doing the same with regard to the Indian tribes…they really meant nothing but peace"
    He alone had expanded a political program upon two simple principles which were very baneful for Jefferson, Madison, Harrison, Jackson…Reagan, Bush: 1) He wanted all the Indian tribes join together in order to form their confederation and to stop the American encroachments 2) the Indian land was not to be owned by a single tribe but it could be sold to USA only if all the tribes agreed: that is never more.
    If US had peaceflly agreed, recognized Indians' rights and stop any more invasion or encroachment upon their land, was there any reason to a war between them? Harrison said: "(The Indians) will never have recourse to arms unless riven to it by a series of injustice and oppression."
    But he after having drawn Tecumseh as "One of the uncommon geniouses which springs up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things" (the order of things the US wanted establish on the Indians, like as the Relocation west of Mississipi – to be read 'an Ethnic Cleansing') he wrote also the next words to the War Department.
    "If it not were for the vicinity of the US he would perhaps be the founder of an empire that rival in glory Mexico and Peru…He is now upon the last round to put a finishing stroke to his work. I hope however before his return that that part of work which he considered complete will be demolished and even its founadtion rooted up."
    "Before his return". Harrison knew very well that Tecumseh alone was and had the political structure of Tippecanoe: the Governor crossed up the line North of which the Indians owned their legal land just because he relied on the provoked honor of the tribesmen to obtain on Nov. 11, 1811 the kind of answer the Shawnee chief had strongly forbidden them from giving.
    Why a sculptured portrait of Tecumseh is among other portraits of men who made great the US in one of the Power Palaces in Washington D.C.? Why the brochure given at the Tippecanoe Memorial says of him "as both a great Indian and a great American"? Not only he fought the US all over his life for the Indian freedom, but the US fought him and his free, united native Nation till to their death. The brochure: "The Americans fought for a dream…of a great land of free men. The Indian fought for the same land, his happy hunting ground on earth'…'Tippecanoe Monument…righty honors the brave soldiers and Indians that died here. Today freedom prevails in America…the heritage of all that fought here'…'Jefferson wanted the Indian lands for America, he planned to buy land from whichever tribe owned it…he would train the braves to farm and be content without the vast land they had neede as hunters."
    So the Indians were so savages that were not able to fight for their freedom: only the Americans could do it; and the freedom for the Indians was to be deported more and more to West: Alexis de Tocqueville (an admirer of the newborn Republic) nevertheless wrote that the Americans would have joined the Indians where they be gone into 'ten years'.
    But did not the Declaration of Independence proclaim these words which are immortal and applicable to each man, to each people: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all the men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…Life, Liberty, pursuit of Happiness…"?
    Words written a few years before Tippecanoe…



Leave a Reply

Human Verification: In order to verify that you are a human and not a spam bot, please enter the answer into the following box below based on the instructions contained in the graphic.


Related Articles


History Net Images Spacer
Paid Advertisement
Paid Advertisement
History Net Daily Activities
History net Spacer
History net Spacer
Historynet Spacer
HISTORYNET READERS' POLL

Which of these wars resulted in the most surprising underdog upset?

View Results | See previous polls

Loading ... Loading ...
History net Spacer
STAY CONNECTED WITH US
RSS Feed Daily Email Update
History net Spacer History net Spacer
Paid Advertisement

Paid Advertisement
What is HistoryNet?

The HistoryNet.com is brought to you by Weider History, the world's largest publisher of history magazines. HistoryNet.com contains daily features, photo galleries and over 5,000 articles originally published in our various magazines.

If you are interested in a specific history subject, try searching our archives, you are bound to find something to pique your interest.

From Our Magazines
Weider History

Weider History Network:  HistoryNet | Armchair General | Achtung Panzer! | StreamHistory.com
Today in History | Ask Mr. History | Picture of the Day | Daily History Quiz | Contact Us

Copyright © 2014 Weider History. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Advertise With Us | Subscription Help | Privacy Policy