Speaking at the PBS Winter Press Tour session Tuesday, Burns said the film deconstructs Hemingway’s image as a “hyper-masculine” archetype. “We were drawn at trying to get at a real Hemingway and I think the persona of the wild man, the drunk, the bar guy, the big game hunter, the big sea fisherman is sort of what we inherit, the baggage we carry. But almost immediately we began to see how thin and frail that was, not just for him but in fact.”
“The public persona…became such a burden for him, Novick noted. “And it becomes kind of exhausting, someone said in the film, to be Hemingway after a while. So it was especially wonderful to discover him young before he became that stereotype or iconic figure.”
The filmmakers lined up some impressive vocal talent for Hemingway, including Meryl Streep as Martha Gellhorn, one of Hemingway’s four wives. Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson provide the voices of the writer’s other spouses. Jeff Daniels embodies the voice of Hemingway, reading not only from his fiction and nonfiction but his letters.
“There’s such a brevity and simplicity [to Hemingway’s work] that it just boils down to him telling you the truth. And there’s no adornment,” Daniels observed. The actor joked, “Since doing the reading for Ken and Lynn I’ve ceased using adjectives and adverbs.”
This July will mark the 60th anniversary of Hemingway’s death, which came by suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. Hemingway, which will run on three consecutive nights beginning April 5, delves into what Novick and Daniels termed his “demons” and reveals possible contributing factors to his mental illness.
“I think something very new that we’re discussing [in the film] are the traumatic brain injuries that he suffered all throughout his life, very serious things that we now [know]…the alcoholism and the drug addictions that can add to a madness and mania that he clearly had,” Burns said. “All of these things we just put out there that I think reverse a kind of sense that we know who he is, a conventional wisdom about Hemingway.”
Burns said it’s not his goal to “break news” in his documentaries, but viewers may find it eye-opening to learn Hemingway was not quite the “he-man” he presented himself to be in public. Burns labeled the author’s sexuality “very complicated and evolving,” conjecturing, “Maybe it was born when his mother twinned him, putting him in dresses and his sister in pants so that they could be alike. Maybe it’s born of some other thing, but he has a curiosity about role changes. His wives cut their hair short for him to look like boys. They dye their hair. He wants them to call him Catherine and he calls them Pete in the bedroom. There’s some interesting stuff.”
“Together with producer Sarah Botstein and writer Geoffrey Ward, Ken and Lynn have struck gold with their new film about the legendary writer,” PBS programming chief Sylvia Bugg said as she introduced today’s panel, “perhaps the greatest writer of the last century.”
Bugg announced a companion virtual event series, Conversations with Hemingway, will debut later this month “and continue every Tuesday and Thursday through March 18th and will feature hour-long conversations with the filmmakers and special guests.”
The virtual series and the Hemingway film are the latest in a remarkable collaboration between the public broadcaster and Burns that goes back 40 years now. They have memorably teamed up on the miniseries The Civil War (1990), Jazz (2001), The Vietnam War (2017), among many other projects.
Recently filmmaker Grace Lee, a producer on the 2020 PBS series Asian Americans, published a commentary for a Ford Foundation online forum that criticized PBS for its tight embrace of Burns. Lee wrote, “The amount of broadcast hours, financial support (from viewers like who?), and marketing muscle devoted to one man’s lens on America has severed PBS from its very roots.” She urged the network to, “Fund seasoned BIPOC filmmakers at the same level that PBS has supported Ken Burns for the past 40 years.”
Deadline asked PBS CEO Paula Kerger about the criticism.
“I read Grace’s piece. I respectfully disagree,” Kerger commented. “I think that it is incorrect to look at Ken and then compare that to others. We are committed to a rich pipeline with lots of voices and we will continue to look for ways we can bring even more people forward and that’s part of a vibrant public television system.”
In her press tour remarks, Kerger highlighted upcoming collaborations with filmmakers of color, including Medical Racism, a film by Stanley Nelson for Nova, and a two-part series from executive producer Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song.
Kerger offered a full-throated endorsement of Burns, saying she felt “very privileged” to work with him. In addition to Hemingway, Burns and Novick have another documentary coming to PBS later this year, on Muhammad Ali.
Burns admitted during the virtual press tour panel that that’s where his mind is at present.
“All I care about right now, to be frank to all of you, is Muhammad Ali,” he shared. “That’s what I’m locking now is a four-hour series on Muhammad Ali that’ll be out in September…We just locked it, we just mixed it.”