Nowhere is that more evident than at the end of Lewis and Clark, when Duncan, speaking on-camera, describes the mental breakdown and final days of Meriwether Lewis. When Duncan finally says, eyes brimming, “and then he shot himself,” it’s an extraordinarily moving moment.
“With the death of Meriwether Lewis, I was talking about the suicide of a guy who is a friend of mine,” he says. “I don’t want to sound too Twilight Zone here, but I got to know him pretty well over the long course of studying him, and went to all the places that he did. And I can put myself there at Grinder’s Stand, and can feel the isolation that he felt, of things crowding in around him—and understand his desire for his best friend, William Clark, to be there at that hour of need, and realize that he wasn’t going to. And it’s a very emotional thing.”
Duncan recently declined an invitation from the Lewis and Clark Trail Foundation to speak at Grinder’s Stand on the 200th anniversary of Lewis’ death. “I just can’t,” he says simply. “Maybe I got to know him too well, or something. But he is a friend, and when he dies, he’s taking part of me with him.”
“Dayton is the Yellowstone National Park of human beings—things bubble up from the surface all the time,” says Burns. “He feels these stories very intensely, and this is a story he knew and loved for more than a decade. But there were many other times in the film where he began to tear up, and we just kept that off-camera—as we’ve done now in The National Parks. And you’ll see there are some incredibly moving parts as well.”
Every now and then, when Duncan and a Florentine Films crew had been up until midnight for the fourth long summer day in a row, shooting in some wild corner of Montana or Alaska, knowing that they had to get up again a few hours later and wait for the sunrise, he would light his pipe and say quietly: “Does anybody have to remind the rest of us that we’re actually being paid to be here?”
“My job requires me to take a topic that I’m already interested in, and learn everything I can about it,” he says. “Read everything about it. Meet the people who know the most about it. Go to the places that are important to those stories, then do research, and then return with a film crew. And my job requires me as a writer to write.
“And then my job requires me to work with a talented team of editors and my best friend, who just happens to be the best documentary filmmaker in America. So I have the best job in America—I truly believe that. And on this one it was particularly true, because my job required me to go to all 58 of the national parks—and many of them many different times in different seasons.”
Over a six-year span they shot 800 rolls—146 hours—of film, collected some 13,000 still images from a vast array of archival sources, and conducted 50 interviews. Since Duncan is the producer on this film as well as the writer, he’s responsible for a lot more than just the words.
“As a producer, what makes up for the headaches is the fact that you get to make a lot of decisions that, if you were just the writer, you wouldn’t get to make,” he says. “So I do get involved in music; I do get involved in who we are interviewing; I do get involved with the film trips, of where we go, of being able to tell the camera crew, ‘Let’s not concentrate on this; over here is where we want to be.’
“But it would be hard for me to produce a film I didn’t write, because ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ as the Bible says. And in the films that Ken makes, that we make together, the Word gets a lot more attention than in many other films.”
That very deliberate, Word-driven style, he acknowledges, isn’t for everybody.
“We get accused sometimes of being fuddy-duddy and slow, because we don’t have a lot of quick edits and such,” he acknowledges. “We believe that by having that extra time, if you’re looking at an image while you’re listening to John Muir, you’re more likely to absorb what this guy’s got to say to you than if you’d carved that shot into 25 shots.”
In Burns’ view, it’s not so much that he and Duncan are on the same wavelength as it is a matter of complementary talents and sensibilities.
“I bring certain things, he brings other things, and they work really well” together, says Burns. “He’s an incredibly great writer and producer, and he’s dogged in his determination to get it right and do the right thing. That’s invaluable, particularly nowadays as I’ve moved to working on several things at once. To know that there’s somebody like Dayton on the ground, on a particular project, is to be able to sleep at night.”