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.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 …
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.