Lynn Novick is a director and producer of documentaries. After graduating from Yale with a degree in American Studies, she got her start as an associate producer on Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.” Now, she and Burns are creative partners and have collaborated on numerous PBS projects like the World War II miniseries “The War,” the film “Prohibition” and their forthcoming television series on the Vietnam War. Novick is currently working on a project entitled “College Behind Bars” about people in prison seeking education, which she spoke about at Yale’s Civic Leadership Conference on Jan. 30. WKND sat down with her to chat about her career trajectory, the creative process and the future of documentary. The following conversation has been condensed.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Oh, my goodness. I don’t have a typical day. Every day is different, which is one of the wonderful things about my job. I’m working on multiple projects that are in different stages of production, research, editing, promotion, et cetera. It really depends [on] what is on the docket for that day. So, I might be doing post-production on our Vietnam War series that I’m directing with Ken Burns; I might be planning a shoot [at] one of the prisons that we’ve been filming for our “College Behind Bars” project; I might be meeting with a historian about Ernest Hemingway because we’re working on a film about [him]. I just kind of schedule when things can fit in. There’s no rhyme or reason, really.
I know you started working with Ken Burns as an associate producer for his Civil War series. How has your work and, ultimately, partnership with him evolved over time?
When I first came to work with Ken, I was very much behind the scenes, helping sort of administratively with a project that was already creatively finished. Then he asked me to produce this big series on the history of baseball, so I went from being associate producer to a producer, and I took on a lot of responsibilities. I worked with Ken and the editors and our writer Geoff Ward to craft the film. It was very much that the film was directed by Ken, and it was about realizing his vision for what it would be.
Since then, we’ve evolved into — as I have learned more and developed my own ideas — creative collaborators. It’s just been really wonderful. So we’ve now been co-directing films since we made the film about Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s really the same things I did, but — I hope — at a higher level. There’s much more trading ideas and coming up with solutions to the creative problems we face in making these films.
Did you originally come to documentary-making from the side of the historian or from the side of the filmmaker?
I think I really came to it from both, frankly. I was an American Studies major here [at Yale], and I really loved the idea that history, or that the past, wasn’t just a timeline of dates and names and famous people who did things but rather the integral understanding of film, culture, politics, literature, art and what we traditionally think of as history. I got really interested in the idea that maybe there’s a way to present some of the themes in the history that I learned in American Studies in film. I didn’t know how to do it, but I was interested in stories that would hit a bigger audience and that could have resonance with more people. I gravitated towards documentary as a way to present narratives about the past through film, in a way that would viscerally connect an audience to those stories. It’s just not the same as reading a book.
How is it different, as a documentarian, working on a purely historical project about a time period or war, versus about a specific issue?
The process is probably pretty much the same, and we’re all interested in stories that matter and the human experience and human condition, understanding who we are and why we are the way we are. In reality, when we’re making historical films, a lot of the work that we actually do is essentially hunting and gathering for archival material — we have to excavate raw materials from the past, sort of like being an archaeologist, so that we can tell the story. And then, as a parallel to that, finding the people who can come on camera and bring it to life. Sometimes it’s people who lived through a time period, and [sometimes] people who have studied it or have thought about it or have creatively imagined it. I have found myself drawn more recently to stories where there are living witnesses, rather than historians to help us connect with that narrative.
[We try not to] go into any of these projects with a preconceived idea of the issue we want to address. It’s a very open process of discovery, so we don’t know what the story is going to be, as much as it might seem that way when you see the finished film — we have no roadmap, usually. Some documentarians are really making advocacy pieces to convince you of something, and it’s very overt. But we’re just interested in telling stories that open people’s minds, including our own. We don’t go in with an agenda, and we very much want to hear from people with different points of view. Film is an incredible way that you can curate a conversation that can’t happen in real life.
You’re here for the Yale Civic Leadership Conference. How does documentary-making fit into civic leadership?
True, authentic, well-told stories can galvanize people — if nothing else, to feel something for people not like themselves and perhaps to do something. I guess that also depends on how you define leadership. Leaders are not just politicians who make decisions, but the people who help us understand ourselves or show ourselves to ourselves. Putting a frame around something, saying this story is worthy of being told, that is an act of leadership, I suppose — helping our very fractured society cohere and to take responsibility for some of the epically tragic problems that we have.
Is the “College Behind Bars” project a particularly important example of that?
Talking about prisoners trying to get an education like the education I received here, that feels important to me in a way. And I never want to self-aggrandize at all — because I feel very humbled to have the chance to tell this story — but I hope that maybe by seeing some of the footage we’re going to show it’ll inspire the students to think about all of our obligations to each other. What we’ve seen so far with this film, which is still in production, is that when we show people footage, it really opens [their] eyes to a lot of things in America — like what is prison for and who has access to education and who belongs in a place like this. Who deserves to be educated? Who doesn’t? Who won the lottery? Who didn’t? It’s disarming. If we can at least think about the way the stories we tell can help us understand our obligations to each other, that’s profound.
Where do you see documentary-making headed?
That’s an amazingly interesting question. I think we’re at such a transitional moment in the way media is produced and consumed. I have been in the PBS, an old-media model, but I’m very open to the reality that that model is great and reaches enormous numbers of people. I mean, the films Ken and I have made have been seen by millions and millions of people. We don’t know how many people watch Netflix, because they’re not telling us. It could be 10, it could be 10,000, it could be 10 million. We actually don’t know. But that seems to be the way things are headed, ultimately, [with] traditional broadcast outlets and then so many other ways that people are going to have access and want access and demand access. So we have to be nimble and try to take advantage of that. I think it’s an opportunity. I also think that we have an embarrassment of riches in terms of the amount of different kinds of documentary that are in the world — it’s exciting. [But] I wonder if, with so much content and so many places to look, we lose the sense of national conversation. When everyone’s on their own device, perfectly [tailored] to them, that worries me a little bit.
How does your work address that challenge?
I think every once in a while something pushes through and reaches a lot of people, and we do aim for that. And the film that [writer] Sarah Botstein and I are making about prison education will be shown on PBS, but we’re very committed to making sure this film reaches many more places than the traditional PBS audience. It’s also such a moving target. I mean, when I started in this world 30 years ago, you had to either know how to run a 16mm camera and edit film or pay people to do that. Those are pretty sophisticated technical skills that took people a lifetime to learn. There were no laptops or iMovie or Final Cut Pro, so the means of production have been incredibly democratized. A 7-year-old can make a documentary — it’s amazing.
But that doesn’t mean all those documentaries are worth watching or worth making. I think it’s exciting — a proliferation of new talent and new ideas and new ways of talking and sharing material, that’s great. And I think there’s still room for films made with high production values and professional editors and people who are at the very top of this profession, who bring a certain deep lifetime of understanding of the power of an image, of the way to make an edit in a certain way, of what kind of stories resonate and how to tell them. There’s a craft that enhances the story, and I feel really privileged that I’ve gotten to work with some of the most talented people out there. There’s room for all different modes of expression here, but I think there will always be an audience for that — I hope.