If you’ve ever caught a documentary on PBS, you’re probably already familiar with the work of Ken Burns. For more than 30 years, the filmmaker has tackled topics ranging from the Civil War to baseball to jazz, earning multiple Emmy and Oscar nominations along the way. His most recent film, Prohibition, takes on the temperance movement, and with stunning archival footage and the voices of actors like Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson and Patricia Clarkson, Burns breathes new life into the era. Here he chats with us about what he was most surprised to learn about the time period, whether or not he thinks he would have been tempted to tipple, and what he sees as Prohibition’s most lasting impact on society today. Be sure to tune into PBS October 2-4 to catch the three-part series.
Imbibe: You’ve made films about everything from wars to the national parks—what inspired you to tackle the topic of Prohibition?
Ken Burns: I’m always looking for a good story, and I think this is one hell of a good story. It’s sexy. Violent. Dangerous. Dramatic. It’s deeply revealing of us, and it seems to be as contemporary as today’s news. It’s about single-issue politics, unintended consequences, the demonization of immigrants, smear tactics in presidential elections, unfunded congressional mandates, the role of governments in our lives, warrantless wiretaps and the decline of a civil discourse. And it’s about a whole group of people who feel like they’ve lost control of their country and want to take it back by any means possible.
Imbibe: What are you most hoping viewers will take away from the documentary?
Ken Burns: I’m not one to point signs and say “Doesn’t this mean this?” and “Shouldn’t we be doing that?” I want viewers to say, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” I never make films about something I already know about; I make films about things I want to know about. And even though I’ve passed through the '20s on many other documentaries that I’ve worked on before and others that I’m working on now, this angle was so amazingly revealing.
Imbibe: What were you most surprised to learn about the era?
Ken Burns: We look at textbooks and see one paragraph and think Prohibition is this isolated thing, but it was the century of action prior that really reveals our political circumstance leading up to it. The power of the anti-saloon league is something I’d never heard of. I’d never heard of Wayne B. Wheeler—they make the NRA look like amateurs compared to the effectiveness of their campaign. It’s really an amazing story. Amazing characters like Mabel Walker Willebrandt charged with prosecuting prohibition cases when it seemed like everyone around her was on the take. Pauline Sabin, the rich heiress who found it finally in the end so hypocritical that she had to launch a popular movement every bit almost as effective as the anti-saloon league but this time for repeal. It’s a story. To add dimension to Frances Willard who was one of the great reformers of the 19th century. To see the unusual coalition that came together. It was the Ku Klux Klan as well as the NAACP. It was progressives as well as conservatives. It was industrialists as well as their workers—all hoping that prohibition would cure society’s ills. And, in fact, it didn’t do that—it created more ills, like organized crime. We’ve got Al Capone and the gangsters, but what’s really important is to know that millions and millions of ordinary Americans are breaking the law, too. We get distracted by the ferocity of the gangster culture, but it’s the magazine writer and the filmmaker and the judge and the doctor and the banker and the guy on the corner and the working man who are making booze and selling it to their neighbors and breaking the law. What is it about this law—we don’t go out and murder each other—what was it about this law that gave people permission to break it in such fashion?
Imbibe: If you'd been an adult during Prohibition do you think you would have been tempted to drink alcohol?
Ken Burns: Oh, most definitely. Of course. And I might have just done it even if I didn’t drink. Just to say, “Who are you to tell me how to live my life?”
Imbibe: So what would you say was Prohibition's most significant and/or lasting cultural impact on America?
Ken Burns: Definitely organized crime. We wouldn’t have organized crime in this country had we not experimented with what was called the “Noble Experiment,” aka Prohibition. There’s nothing noble about that unintended consequence. Female alcoholism, which was a relatively negligible social phenomenon, also became huge. Woman never drank in the saloons and then they drank freely in the speakeasies. Suddenly women entered the drinking culture in a way that only men and prostitutes had before. There was some female alcoholism in the “mother’s little helpers” in the 19th century—vegetable compounds with significant alcohol content that women would take. Women only in the highest upper class might have a glass of wine for dinner, but it was not a social problem, but that’s what we got. I think what we got positively was a democracy that worked. It worked in this way: that many, many people for real and legitimate and sincere reasons felt that alcohol was an evil and got rid of it. When Americans woke up and saw that [Prohibition] wasn’t working and had only made matters worse, they got rid of it even faster. And more importantly, this is a cautionary tale. That every time you think there is some magic-bullet amendment that’s going to fix everything—and you see that in the current political cycle (“Oh, if only you’d passed the blanket-y-blank amendment”)—everything would be all right. And what we know from Prohibition and why we’re healthfully suspicious of the stuff is that it doesn’t work.
Imbibe: Did you discover any striking parallels between the social and political climate of the Prohibition era and that of today?
Ken Burns: I think the whole group of people feeling like they’d lost control of their country. The small-town Americans wanting to take it back. This was always going to be prohibition for someone else. Our opening quote from Mark Twain is so instructive—“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” That speaks to something today as we see groups of people who think they’ve got to go back to a simpler time in America, which never existed. You see it in the lack of civil discourse, something we complain about today—that broke down completely then. People talked at each other and over each other and not with each other. The righteousness of it all—the self-righteousness of it all. The fact that people were absolutely certain they were right. They wouldn’t compromise. That kind of absolute certainty we see in our politics all the time.
Imbibe: You pulled in some big-name talent to give voice to the era—Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Patricia Clarkson, Samuel L. Jackson, etc. Was there a method behind the types of people you chose to give voice to the film?
Ken Burns: You say big names; I say good names. I’m not interested in celebrities; I’m interested in people who are really good at what they do. And all the people there are awesome. This is a terrific cast, but they're not there so they can light up the marquee; they're there because they’re so good at what they do that you stop wondering, “Who is that?” and you just listen to what they have to say.
Imbibe: The archival footage and photos used throughout the documentary are amazing—did any of this come from unexpected sources?
Ken Burns: Oh, yeah! This is at the heart of what we do—it’s detective work. It’s following leads, putting ads in the paper, identifying people, finding a private collection, finding somebody that’s got this, realizing that there’s an anti-saloon collection in Westerville, Ohio, in the public library, and to get some of their pamphlets and posters and literature. It’s wonderful—I love this part of the job.
Imbibe: In each of your films you bring life to the different characters—is there one person in particular from Prohibition you found yourself particularly intrigued by?
Ken Burns: I don’t know. I like a lot of people good and bad. The people who seem villainous like Wayne B. Wheeler I find really, impressively organized. Mabel Walker Willebrandt is so complicated. I love Pauline Sabin—she’s great. But I think its really ordinary people being unordinary. Breaking the law, perhaps, but also being entrepreneurial, inventive, improvisatory, trying to figure out how to live with this thing. The humor of this era is so interesting. So ironic and modern in its way. If you read Lois Long, who is just a little girl in a way, writing for the New Yorker about the speakeasy life it’s riotously funny. Riotously funny.
Imbibe: Are you much of a drinker yourself?
Ken Burns: I go through periods. I work really hard six days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day, and that can get in the way. But my vice the last few years has been prosecco—at the end of the day I like a nice glass of prosecco.