Editor’s note: This story originally ran on June 6. Beginning their collaboration with 1990’s The Civil War, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have since co-directed projects including The War, Baseball and Prohibition. Their latest series, The Vietnam War, was recognized with Emmy nominations in four Documentary/Nonfiction categories, including Outstanding Directing, Writing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing.
With their 10-part, 18-hour documentary miniseries The Vietnam War, co-directors Ken Burns & Lynn Novick have told among the most comprehensive stories ever seen, which deals not just with the endless war that tore America apart, but with the French occupation of the country and the fear of communism which tracked back to the seeds sewn by Harry S. Truman’s administration of the ’40s and ’50s. Burns and Novick chose an objective track, interviewing mostly those who fought the war from all three sides. But they came away with their own opinions about the challenges, and the relevance of what they found to current events. They shared them with Deadline.
The Vietnam War For Your Emmy ® Consideration
You previously covered the Civil War in 10 hours, and World War II in 14. What made Vietnam worthy of 18 hours, culled from a decade’s worth of work?
Lynn Novick: We didn’t know how long the film would be when we set out, but everyone on our team understood it was such a defining, watershed event in American history, and extraordinarily important to understand our country now and our sense of ourselves in the world since World War II. It is painful subject matter, something we’ve avoided investigating in a deep way. The combination of its importance and the lack of general knowledge about the actual facts of what happened. On top of that there was the sense that Americans never had really availed ourselves of the opportunity to find out what the war meant for the Vietnamese, and you can’t understand the war, what happened and why, without knowing what they were thinking and doing. For those three reasons we felt it was worth taking a serious look at it.
Ken Burns: When we decided to do it we weren’t certain it was going to be 18 hours. We thought would be more like our World War II documentary; probably seven parts. Then the material spoke to us, and it suggested the 10 episodes. What happened is, whether it’s the Civil War or WWII, you get a very close-up glimpse of human nature—exaggerated, and sometimes at its worst, but also at its best. It leaves you hungry for that experience.
When we said in 2006 we were going to Vietnam next, it was a war that seemed beset by people not interested in what actually happened, but with their arguments about what happened. “If only we’d taken our pitcher out in the sixth inning instead of the seventh, we would’ve won that game.” But 43 years since the fall of Saigon has produced an extraordinary amount of scholarship. There have been some Hollywood movies, a very excellent PBS documentary early on, but nobody attempted to put their arms around the whole thing, from the French arrival in the mid-19th Century up to today.
And no one had yet said what the Vietnamese thought, and made it equally as important. So we were interviewing South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers. And Viet Cong guerrillas, and North Vietnamese soldiers, and North Vietnamese civilians. You make a film like this because you’re curious and desperate to find things that can transcend the arguments, the conventional wisdom, the superficial knowledge that just about all of us have.
I grew up during this period. I was on a college campus. I had a high draft number. I thought I knew something. And every day, there was a kind of humiliation, learning what I didn’t know, but also this great release of creative energy that comes from having to jettison not only everyone else’s baggage, but your own.
What was your biggest misnomer? We always heard the LBJ line, that once Walter Cronkite was against the war, he’d lost the support of Middle America, for instance…
Burns: Well, just that; even that people hang onto something as flimsy as Cronkite. Cronkite’s moment is important. But going back to the Truman administration in the early ’50s, they knew that any involvement was unwinnable. So did the Eisenhower administration, the Kennedy administration, the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The Pentagon Papers showed it had been a mistake, that everyone had known, and had gone the opposite direction for domestic political considerations. It was devastating to find that out when the Pentagon Papers were released, and devastating to find out almost 50 years later what was going on. The war was unwinnable.
Wars generate profits for munitions makers, create jobs and drive economies. In the five presidential administrations you mentioned, how much of the futility in Vietnam was motivated by fervent fear of the Communist scourge versus economic reasons?
Burns: At the heart of it, I don’t think you can separate them. They’re all intertwined like a vine going up a tree. In a post-WWII world, Communism and the fervor of anti-Communism has its own seductive siren song that plays well domestically. If you’re soft on the Commies, that was political death. Truman was being accused of having lost China. Eisenhower was a victor of World War II, and didn’t want to let the Communists in the front door. Kennedy said, “I have to draw a line in South Vietnam, otherwise I won’t get reelected,” and we know the kinds of political decisions that governed both LBJ and Nixon, based on that public perception.
At the same time, at the end of the 1950s, Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex. He was not warning of a phenomenon that had started last Thursday. He was talking about a military-industrial complex that was at its height, at the end of the Second World War, and then all of a sudden, that war was over. There is of course an appetite for profits, but it was not just evil people who want war to go on. It was people who want factories to be employing people and not see them on public assistance. All that has momentum. Combine that with an anti-Communist fervor, a sensibility that you’re in a nuclear age, and nobody wants to have the next world war that involves the nuclear exchange. So you have these limited or proxy wars, as they were called, in Vietnam. We were supposedly helping the South Vietnamese to fight the Viet Cong, but really, it was a proxy war in which we were fighting the Soviets and the Communist Chinese.
Your documentary gave us the candid conversations of Presidents Johnson and Nixon talking with advisors about the war. What surprised you about how those presidents factored in the human loss in the waging of what proved an unwinnable war?
Burns: You can clearly hear that Johnson was wracked with guilt and worry and concern, but he still went right ahead with it, spending those men. Nixon is perhaps the most cynical, because he knows going in that the war’s unwinnable and has to end. And yet, he drags it on for four more years in order not to be tagged as the president who lost the war, and so engaged in these machinations that cost tens of thousands of American lives, and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives.
That’s a bitter pill to swallow. Johnson’s a very tragic, Shakespearian figure and you can hear the agony of his early comments to friends on tape about it. And yet, there’s no letting him off the hook for having put the boots on the ground after Kennedy had escalated significantly from several hundred advisors to 17,000 or 18,000 advisors. So Kennedy’s [legacy is] not without its own concerns.
Hearing LBJ’s conversations when he was told the Republican candidate Nixon encouraged the South Vietnamese leader to not show for peace talks because it would’ve boosted his rival Hubert Humphrey—who campaigned on a get out of Vietnam platform—seems treasonous. How did you feel when you uncovered all that? We hear Nixon’s phony denial to LBJ, who knows he is lying. Why didn’t LBJ expose this when Humphrey clearly would have ended the war sooner?
Burns: We don’t really know what happened. We think that Humphrey may have been given the information. Humphrey was catching up to Nixon, and probably if he’d had another week he would have overtaken him. He was worried that if he called out Nixon, it would have looked like he had backed into the presidency. That’s one theory.
It was Johnson who called it treason to Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader in the Senate, and Dirksen said, “Yes, it is.” We’re not really pussyfooting around with terminology. It was treason, and what makes the echoes to today so interesting is that we have the accusations, again, that a political campaign reached out to a foreign power at the time of a national election to help influence that election.
And the more it goes on, the more it proves what Mark Twain is supposed to have said, that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. There are mass demonstrations taking place all across the country against the current administration; illegal, big document drops of stolen classified information into the public sphere that destabilizes the political conversation. From a White House in disarray and obsessed with leaks, to a president certain the press is lying about him, to asymmetrical warfare. All of these things are going on now.
So, there’s a funny way in which, whatever historical subject you take, if you focus on just getting it right, when you lift up, you will see all its correspondence with the present.
You showed the Viet Cong fighter famously executed by gunshot from the South Vietnamese police chief who’d watched his own men get killed. Carnage was brought into American living rooms on TV news. Surely there is no shortage of horrible footage. How did you decide what to include?
Novick: This is an important question and it’s the issue we wrestled with every day in editing. We collected everything we could find and there were horrific images. The ones most disturbing to us were eviscerations, body parts, dismemberment, just viscera of what’s inside and what comes out when your body is broken. It’s just so deeply disturbing, it offends our sense of order and what we can bear to see, and you can’t ever un-see what you’ve seen.
But we didn’t want to sugarcoat the war and so you have to show what it really does to people, and to the human body. It’s very hard to find that fine line. In our first pass of editing, the film was much longer, probably 22 or 23 hours. Our editors put in everything—the most graphic footage—and over the process of a year or so we would extract something as being too much, and then we would feel we took out too much, and we’d put something back in because we never wanted to lose sight of how terrible the war was. But we didn’t want to have shown you something that was so awful that you didn’t remember anything that happened for the next 10 minutes, or you turned off the TV.
At our first screening we had some of the most gory, repulsive, and just horrific footage in. A lot of which was never shown to the American public because the networks had a sense of decorum to some degree, for the same reasons that we’re talking about. Tim O’Brien, the writer and veteran, was there, and he said he was concerned with the first pass that the film, in showing the horrors of war, was too much.
Was he specific?
Novick: Too much combat, too much shooting, and too much graphic violence. He said, “I don’t know if my wife would watch this; she hates war movies, but I want her to watch it.” We all looked at each other, Ken and I, our writer Geoffrey Ward, and our producer Sarah Botstein. We asked him, “What’s your wife’s name?” It was Meredith. OK, we’re making the film for Meredith. Meredith O’Brien, we want you to watch. And so whenever we were in the edit room for the next two years we would think about how much is too much and tried to calibrate it so that we never lost sight of it, but also didn’t overdo it.
The images are haunting but they don’t take you out of the narrative flow.
Novick: We’re working on a film right now about Ernest Hemingway, and the reason I bring it up is because I’m interviewing a writer named Elliot Ackerman, who’s also a combat veteran. As he and I were talking, he said when he was in Afghanistan, his soldiers were all watching Full Metal Jacket. It’s an anti-war movie, but he said they loved the violence of it. He referred to it as war pornography, and that there’s this sort of deep, hardwired thing in us that we are drawn to these violent images and to the carnage. So it’s a paradox. Even when you are trying to show how terrible war is, you sort of glorify it at the same time in this very strange way. Any of us who deal with anything to do with war has to be very mindful of that. And we were while making this film as well. It’s complicated.
Maybe it’s because the wounds are fresher or the footage is in color, but the Vietnam imagery seems more upsetting than what you showed in your WWII documentary. Why?
Novick: I don’t have the answer. In making the film about WWII we did come across a lot of grotesque images. Some were in the film. Maybe not as much, as there wasn’t quite as much available. Camera crews were not free to roam around the way they were in Vietnam. It was a more controlled process for the media, and there were censorships. We found the censored photos in archives. Back then, if you could see a young man who had been killed lying peacefully in a field, that’s one thing. If his head is blown off, that’s a whole different thing.
Those images didn’t see the light of day during WWII and they did to some degree in Vietnam. In that sense we felt we had to show more because it reflected what the public saw. But I also think in Vietnam you have the deeper question: what are we fighting for? In WWII we had a willingness to sacrifice. Some 400,000 Americans were killed in WWII, and a much larger percentage of the population of smaller countries were killed and wounded.
We tolerated that as a country; we felt it was the price to pay for freedom. But by the end of Vietnam, a lot of people felt we didn’t accomplish anything and people died, for what? So every wound, every death is so much harder to take. Not to take anything away from the sense of loss if you are a family who lost someone. It’s tragic, horrible, inescapable. But I do think as a country we were willing to sustain and tolerate the carnage of WWII, probably because we felt it was for a good cause.
It was fascinating to watch how Cronkite and the war correspondents were viewed by America back then, and how media came of age in that war, as well as the way cynicism and skepticism of government grew organically. Can you compare the role of the media in that war to the polarized way that media works now, where people in this country get completely different views of the Trump administration and politics depending on which cable channel they watch?
Burns: Well, you’ve just said what it is. We have a very, very similar situation, but we have the proliferation of a new kind of media that’s so divided up, and so disinterested in so many of its parts, that a lie goes around the world three times before the truth gets started.
At that time, we weren’t free of fake news and accusations by politicians that the news media were behaving treasonously and all that sort of stuff. There were concerns about leaks. Most Americans digested the information they could get about Vietnam from three different networks, and national newspapers or local papers picking up the wire service stories from AP and UPI. That’s it. Those three networks are still there, doing more or less the same kind of excellent job. But then you’ve got the proliferation of cable channels, three of them in particular. Two of which are attempting some kind of objectivity, and one that is just like Pravda, a kind of house organ.
You have millions of other outlets for news, and social media that doesn’t have the kind of journalistic filter that those journalists did back then, or that the journalists in the traditional media today have, and that we had as we were working on this.
Watching your depiction of the suffering endured by Senator John McCain when the POW whose father was in charge of the war refused to be released as a propaganda ploy brings back the harsh things President Trump said about the Senator. Describe your feelings on this, and why didn’t McCain tell his story on camera for you?
Burns: The first meetings we took were with John Kerry and John McCain. We said, “We’re going to do this, we need your help, but we’re not going to interview you.” We were going to interview no one, and I would add Jane Fonda and Henry Kissinger, who was still alive and might have wanted to polish their own images with regard to Vietnam. Most of the people that populate our film are not well-known, and it seemed best to receive your information from the sincerity of new people. Neil Sheehan is there, but we didn’t have ten Neil Sheehans and we didn’t interview Daniel Ellsberg for the same reason. We just felt these are people who are alive, they have an interest in spinning their story in the best possible way, presenting their story in the best possible way, and McCain and Kerry got it immediately, and they said, “How can we help?”
To get back to your original question about McCain: he’s just an unvarnished hero of the kind our draft-deferred current president could never be, because courage and heroism involve sacrifice in the name of something bigger, and in the service of others, and this president doesn’t do anything that isn’t for himself, and has no real concept of the other.
When you spend a decade soaking up this history, it’s understandable to have opinions like that one which might steer a narrative to depict what you believe. What are the challenges in presenting history in documentaries that are publicly-funded, and consumed by audiences accustomed to an increasingly polarized media? What are your rules?
Burns: Just tell the truth. The Battle of Gettysburg can only happen in July of 1863. Just remember, we finished this film, the essential locking of it, before the Iowa caucuses. We didn’t make this film knowing that Donald Trump would be president. We just made this film. That’s all we do, and we do a good job. We’re trusted across the aisle; just look at our funding bed. We have people from the far right, people from the far left, and more importantly, lots of people in between. It is so important for us not to put our thumb on the scale, even though there’s a wonderful, honorable tradition of documentaries advocating certain political points of view.
Sometimes you bite your tongue to let the facts speak?
Burns: We check our baggage. Look, art is a very complicated thing. There’s no objectivity. You go by feel, in the way we select things, and where we might be going. There are times when we stop and give Nixon his due, out loud. We’re totally happy to give people their due, and to make sure that we don’t turn the so-called villains into villains and the so-called heroes into heroes. Those heroes often have deep, complicated flaws, as our Roosevelt series showed. And the simplistic-villain thing is just bankrupt. Villains have sometimes very positive character aspects, and Nixon certainly does, if people presumed that he’s a villain. We just want to tell a complicated story. It’s very interesting that our North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas sound exactly like our American GIs.
You did convey the feeling of some mutual respect. It was like they were warriors on opposite sides.
Burns: I had an opportunity to show John McCain some parts of the film. He didn’t want to see any of the American stuff. He wanted to hear from the Vietnamese. He was just fascinated with the people that he was trying to kill. Who were they, these people who were trying to kill him? It was a very interesting and wonderful moment.
These soldiers are still alive and many carry with them physical and psychological wounds and not everyone’s going to be happy with what they saw. What criticism stung the most?
Burns: I heard some really stupid trolls from the far left and right, but they essentially exhibit the cowardice of what trolling is: the inability to have a civil conversation. The rest of it has been terrific. Every day that I am out in the world, somebody comes up and says a variation of, “My husband, my dad, my uncle, my grandfather, my brother was there, and he hadn’t talked about it, but we all watched your series together, and now he’s talking.” That’s all you want. You don’t have to agree with everything.
But what is there to disagree with, though, right? Because we didn’t editorialize, we just said, “This is what happened.” We’ve had criticism from the far, far left that we’re some conservative force. And from the far, far right saying that we’re some liberal, pinko commies. And you just go, “Great, we must have done a good job,” because let’s just say the most important thing is that there were 39 million broadcast viewers and 13 million streams. That’s 52 million who watched, in something like 50 countries around the world.
We’ve always been told that soldiers don’t like to talk about their experiences. You not only got them to talk, but to share they were either complicit in atrocities, or that they turned their heads as they happened. How do you do that as an interviewer?
Burns: By not being in a combative “gotcha” state. We understand, and it’s very important that your readers understand that all these things happen in all wars.
Vietnam had its own special circumstances. There are more sufferers of PTSD from WWII than there are from Vietnam, just by sheer demographic numbers. And you can show this massacre of German soldiers, after a massacre of Belgian civilians and American soldiers that took place, and it’s what happens in war all the time. I think when [the subjects] realize that we’re not there as prosecutors, but as human beings asking people to exchange their experience…there are many people who are very wounded in our film, and there are many people who saw bad things, and did bad things. That’s what war is.
We try to think you can have a good war, as we now call WWII, but that is flabbergasting to me. Because WWII is the worst war ever. How can 60 million people die, and some people call it “the good war”? I know why, but come on. Bear with me for a second. This stuff happened; we killed more Japanese and German civilians with our bombs than died in all of the Vietnam War, on all sides. And as William Westmoreland said in Errol Morris’s great film Fog of War, he said, “If we’d lost, I would’ve have been hung.” He and his boss, Curtis LeMay, were plotting the bombing runs of Japan. And he said, “I would’ve been hung as a war criminal.” The Fog of War is one of the great films about war.
Was there some great “get”? An interview or access to documents that made now the right time to spring Vietnam?
Burns: We originally planned for the fall of 2016, but realized we could not make that deadline. And we also didn’t want to go out during a national election, not when debates or scandals or breaking news distracts a good number of our viewers when we’re showing something over the course of, as it turned out, ten straight nights over two weeks.
Looking back at the film and what’s in it, I felt that our interview with John Musgrave, a Marine from Missouri who now lives in Kansas, is kind of the beating heart and soul of it. Not to take away from any of the other extraordinary people. But I always joked that if some evil god came and said, “We’re taking away all your interviews but one,” I’d say, “Let us have John Musgrave, and we’ll make a new film called ‘The Education of John Musgrave.’” In some ways, he’s what the old Negro Leaguer Buck O’Neil was in our Baseball series, or Shelby Foote was in The Civil War, or Wynton Marsalis was in Jazz. He emerged as that kind of powerful voice.
The minute I say that, I think about the other 78 voices in the film that are no less powerful. But there was something about John, the arc of his story, his honesty and his extraordinary presentation and modesty. You’re there when he gung-ho signs up. You’re there when he’s fighting in the worst possible conditions. You’re there when he’s so horribly wounded that he’s triaged three times before he’s finally on the fourth time given to a doctor to be saved. You’re there when he’s putting a gun up to his head to blow his brains out, because he’s suffering from PTSD, and you’re there when he joins the Vietnam veterans against the war who are protesting, and you’re there with him in the present moment as he’s trying to digest all of the things that he’s just now shared. He just sort of poured his heart and soul out to us.
Novick: The power of his testimony was life altering for me. He goes from the incredible idealism and youthful naiveté and patriotism of a young man wanting to be a soldier like his dad, to throwing his medals away and contemplating suicide. I mean, his whole story encapsulates so much of the American experience and the war in one person’s life. To hear him tell us that story, sitting opposite him and asking him the questions and listening to what he had to say…I was overwhelmed, and to be honest, unable to speak for about a day. I’d never had that experience before. I actually had to go lie down and I couldn’t talk to anyone for a while. I’ve done hundreds of interviews; this was a kind of almost sacred experience, some kind of connection that happens very rarely in life and every once in a while happens when you’re making a film like this.
What was the big surprise in getting American, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese soldiers to reflect?
Novick: Just being in Vietnam was overwhelming. It was surprising, sitting down with people there, to see how their recollections went against the grain of what the Communist party’s official narrative of the war is, to sense how conflicted people were about what their country went through. It was a different kind of conflict than we have here in that there’s a lot of pride in having won the war, but a great deal of bitterness and sadness and just loss and grief.
It exacerbated the question, was it really worth it? Was the sacrifice worth what we got in the end, especially in the years right after the war, which were so terrible when they tried to become this Stalinist economy that totally failed if we’re starving. People told us the time after the war was much harder than the war itself, and that was surprising. People were open about how soldiers’ morale suffered, the effects of PTSD, how people were deserting, what attrition like that did to a small country in a long war. They mostly wanted to liberate the country and unify it, but the price they paid was so huge that the sense of unease about that was always right below the surface.
Why were they so willing to tell their stories to American filmmakers? How as an interviewer do you gain trust?
Novick: One of my central of articles of faith is preparation, and being fully present and open. Cultivating a sense of listening without judgment and letting the person tell you their story the way they want to tell it, and not trying to shape it the way you think it should be. I think that when it comes to some of the really difficult taboo things that people spoke to us about in Vietnam, especially about the massacre at Hue, there was a bit of letting it off your chest. Carrying around a secret so long is hard. It’s a relief to feel you’re not the only one who knows something like that, and particularly with the massacre at Hue, most people in Vietnam do not know about it. It’s like it never happened. And I suspect that for the two veterans that talked to us about it, they did not want it to be forgotten. Not because they feel responsible per se but just that their country has to face that there were atrocities on all sides. That’s a very humane thing for them to want to communicate.
What feedback did you hear after, including them getting in trouble for speaking candidly?
Novick: We all worried about that, but we were reassured that after the film came out there were no repercussions. At one point in the film, [Viet Cong colonel] Ho Huu Lan says, “I’m going to tell you the truth; we don’t normally speak about this and I might get in trouble but I want to tell you what happened.” That was a very brave moment and we did worry, but he hasn’t gotten in trouble. I can’t speak for the Communist party and the government of Vietnam, but I think they’re focused on the present and the future. So I guess they can tolerate this thing that happened 50 years ago not being covered up any more.
On the North Vietnamese side, one woman stuck out to me, calmly relaying how, when an American would stand up, boom, she would shoot him. She wasn’t saying it with any pleasure, but somehow it hit hard, imagining this tiny woman killing trained American soldiers that way…
Novick: She has told her story a few times before and it was disturbing to see how matter-of-fact it was. But she was a child soldier basically and fighting for her life and her friends’ lives. Whether we agree or disagree with her motivation, everyone around her was doing that and she felt it was important for her to do to save her country. We were the enemy and she had to fight us. She was very clear about that and it was hard to think about some American boy over there, trying to do his job, same as her, and happened to get in her way.
It was very difficult to hear that story, but also important to try to see it through her eyes. One of the things she says is, “We had so many friends killed in the battle of Hue and we wanted to collect their bodies and we weren’t able to do it.” We had so much footage of enemy corpses sort of being dragged around and thrown around and just being disposed of, and in that moment you realize how very dehumanizing it is. It was important to be reminded: that was somebody’s son, or somebody’s friend or somebody’s comrade. On a human level, regardless of the policy, the war just used a lot of people up. I was grateful for her testimony for that reason.
But the Vietnamese veterans who really affected me tended to be more emotional than she was, and more sort of connected with the common humanity. There’s a guy named Lo Khac Tam, who gets very emotional describing things that happened. Like, when the war ended, he didn’t want to go out and celebrate the victory because all he could think about was all the men in his company who had died. He’s just so clearly wracked with survivor’s guilt and even to this day he gets calls from families of the men who were under his command who want to know where their son’s body is. And he has no idea because they have a million dead and 300,000 missing. His own brother is missing. So he’s obsessed with trying to find remains.
One time when I was in Vietnam he told me he’d just come back from South Vietnam, from the Mekong Delta where he’d been out in some battlefield looking at remains that were discovered. Hoping that one of them might be his brother. He’s a really deep thinker and a very humane veteran who understands loss and that no one has the market cornered on loss. He’s proud of being in the Army and having served his country and all that but he can’t ever escape the true cost of the war. His story really has stayed with me.
Your documentary includes most every signature rock song of the era. How did you manage that without going broke?
Burns: Well, first of all, the most important thing was the bass notes that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails gave us. Nearly three hours of original composition that we used over and over, throughout the film. We added Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, which took Vietnamese tunes we’d given them to run with, and bend them in extraordinary ways. We then added 120 pieces of music from the period, you know, several Beatles songs, several Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, you know, that sort of thing, Jimi Hendrix.
Burns: We went first to the Beatles and said, “We need to do this, we can’t afford even one tune, but we think that if you would agree to help us on the price, we would then be able to go to other artists.” We did the same thing simultaneously with Bob Dylan. The Beatles and Dylan said yes. That permitted us to go to the other groups. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had never before licensed Ohio, because they felt it wouldn’t be used correctly. We showed them how we would use it. We promised integrity and many have told us how honored and proud they were to be involved. And Trent and Atticus working on this soundtrack, was one of the most satisfying collaborations we’ve ever had.
Nothing about Nine Inch Nails screams background music. Yet their subtle contributions helped bring history to life with subtle emotional bursts. How did that work?
Burns: We met with them years before. We don’t score the way others do. We say, “Here’s the vibe. Here’s some talking heads. Just respond to these vibes, and you just do your stuff. We’ll cut our film to you.” So, we take their music early in editing, and we design whole scenes based on them.
Why did that work so well?
Burns: So, what they have is a very harsh, metallic sound that is, at first blush, able to contain and reflect these extraordinary moods of anxiety, of fear, of battle, of hatred, of worry and anticipation. At the same time, Trent and Atticus have these amazing abilities to be able to resolve it in a melodic way that also provides you with some human connection to it. That is what you look for.
You listen to the soldiers and you look for their honesty, and you want to verify their experiences. The music reflects it too, and we decided we were never going to play a piece of music unless you heard it at that time on your transistor radio in your car on the way to a demonstration, or on Armed Forces Radio. It’s got to be a song that was in the bloodstream of the country at that moment. That’s how we did it.
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