That would be Ken Burns, head of Florentine Films, arguably the nation’s most successful documentary filmmaking outfit. It’s not hard to schedule a meeting when you both live in Walpole, New Hampshire, especially when you’ve been close friends and professional collaborators since the 1980s. They had already made one very successful film—Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)—from a Duncan script, and another on the American West (1996) for which Duncan was co-writer and a consulting producer. (Duncan, the author of 10 books, also served as a consultant on Burns’ The Civil War, Jazz, and Baseball.) By 1998, the time of his national-parks epiphany, they were knee-deep in the filming of Mark Twain. But since it had taken 10 years to sell Burns on Horatio’s Drive—an entertaining romp of a tale about the first automobile road trip across the country that was still in the Florentine Films on-deck circle—he knew he had to make his best pitch.
He was certain that the story of the parks had all the elements for a classic Ken Burns film. For one thing, the national parks were a uniquely American invention; for another, their history was rife with outsized characters and unpredictable plot twists—and issues that still resonate today. That fall he decided to broach the idea.
“I wanted to come in fully loaded, with ideas and an argument for it,” Duncan recalls. “It always helps to reference things that we’ve done before. So I said, ‘We need to do a series that’s on a uniquely American idea and invention, like baseball and jazz. It springs from a democratic notion, just like All men are created equal, written by Thomas Jefferson.’ So I’ve already referenced three films now.
“Then I said, ‘The first tentative expression was in 1864 during the midst of the Civil War, and’—and I think it was right around the and that he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ So it took less than a minute. Because he got it, right from the start, and because it is right in line with some of these other major series that we’ve done.”
On the other side of Walpole, in his second-floor office in the converted barn that is Florentine Films’ headquarters, the boyish, quietly high-revving Burns concurs.
“This was right in my wheelhouse,” he says. “It is really very much about what our friendship has been about—exploring the wild spaces of America. It’s what my whole life’s work has been about, trying to understand who we are. It’s very much an American institution, and as he said, born during the Civil War. By the time you say Abraham Lincoln, you’ve got me.”
“You know, I’m very parochial,” Duncan is saying, sitting in the old clapboard house in Walpole that serves as his studio. “In the sense that the Fourth of July is, to me, the most sacred holiday on my yearly calendar. My kids got tired at an early age of listening to me read the entire Declaration of Independence on Independence Day. I believe that this is an experiment, here on this continent, that somehow came from us as a people—that we have been struggling to move forward a little bit to make it better.
“I’m also fascinated by this continent that we inhabit, and what an incredibly varied, beautiful, and huge land it is,” he adds. “Most of my adult life has been spent either exploring that notion of this experiment, or exploring the land that we inhabit—and oftentimes combining both. And [The National Parks] is an exploration of these wonderful landscapes—but it’s also an exploration of a very democratic idea expressed on the landscape.”
Duncan himself comes across as a pretty democratic expression of Iowa, where he was raised, and New Hampshire, where he has spent most of his working life. There’s a Midwestern openness about him that makes him a comfortable and heartfelt interview, both on- and off-camera, and a writerly thought process that’s been honed by political campaigns, both small-town and big-time.
“I don’t get up on a soapbox, but I have a point of view, and it often seeps through,” he allows. “And I think my involvement in politics not only ignited but informs my understanding of history.”
His first real taste of politics came after graduating from Penn, where he had majored in the unlikely field of German literature. At The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire he earned his stripes as a reporter and editor, sharpening his edge in a column called “Wooden Nickels” that was picked up by a string of New England papers.
“We had a right-wing, somewhat lunatic governor [the late Meldrim Thomson Jr.], who would do things like call for the National Guard to be armed with nuclear weapons, or lower the flag to half-staff on Good Friday,” Duncan recalls. “Made it easy to be a political satirist.”
Thomson was defeated in the 1979 election by Hugh Gallen, who promptly called Duncan and asked him if he would consider being his press secretary.
“At first I didn’t want to, because I thought the purity of my journalism would be forever soiled,” says Duncan dryly. But he quickly realized that it would be pretty interesting to work in the State House, “trying to undo and rectify a lot of things I didn’t believe in, with a guy who believed in the things that I believed in.” Within a year he had become Gallen’s chief of staff—and a certified political junkie.
“I love politics,” he says. “I mean, I love the purpose of it. I believe in it. I like campaigns because they’re exhilarating, as well as important.”