Ken Burns opens up on 'Benjamin Franklin' — and why he wants to make an Obama doc

Ken Burns takes part in a panel discussion during the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in 2019
Ken Burns takes part in a panel discussion during the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in 2019
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Ken Burns says Benjamin Franklin is even more complicated than the towering figure kids learn about in school.

A Founding Father who helped draft the Declaration of Independence, Franklin helped shape the world's understanding of electricity, he's credited with inventing bifocals and his first name has become synonymous with cash with his image splashed across $100 bills, but America's most famous documentarian says there's a lot more to the story.

"Franklin is a funny person who kind of invents what we think of as American dry humor," Burns tells ITK. "He's a printer. He's a publisher. He's a postmaster. He's a scientist who invents life-saving inventions and essentially unlocks the mystery of electricity."

"He's very much the epitome of the American dream and striving. He's not on the $100 bill for nothing," the famed filmmaker added. "And yet this person also held all of his inventions without patents and shared them with everybody. So, he's both a Libertarian's dream of advancement, but he's also bound to the idea of helping each other."

Burns tackles the contradictions of the "greatest diplomat in all of American history" in his new PBS documentary "Benjamin Franklin," premiering April 4. The two-part series features "Homeland" star Mandy Patinkin as the voice of Franklin, along with interviews with some of the world's leading American history scholars.

As the film's executive producer and director, Burns says he discovered just how "superficial" his own understanding of Franklin was.

"I don't make films about stuff I know about," he says, "I make films about stuff and then tell you what you should know."

"We wanted to just dive as deep as we could," Burns, 68, says.

Some of that includes a focus on Franklin's "many, many failings," says Burns, such as "the obvious, glaring one of enslaving other people."

Burns and his longtime TV partner PBS have faced accusations of a lack of diversity in the network's projects - nearly 140 creatives penned a letter last year calling out the public broadcaster for its "over-reliance on one white male filmmaker." But he denies that there was a conscious effort to include more Black voices or perspectives in telling Franklin's story.

"We haven't changed how we've done it," he says, praising PBS as "ahead of everybody else on all of this - diversity, equity and inclusion."

"I could count the fingers on one hand, and still have some fingers left over, the number of films that don't deal with race."

Many of the themes of Franklin's 18th-century life - he died in 1790 at age 84 - hit on topics that could've been ripped from today's headlines: international diplomacy, pandemics and vaccination and the world experiencing societal and political tidal waves.

Although a proponent of inoculation during a smallpox outbreak in the 1730s, Franklin's 4-year-old son, Francis, contracted the virus. Burns explains it "wasn't an anti-vax thing," but rather that Franklin postponed the procedure while waiting for Francis to recover from a severe cold.

"The son attracts smallpox and dies, which is one of the worst ways to die and something he never forgave himself for."

New Hampshire-based Burns is known to work on several projects at once - he rapidly rattles off several future films on the docket for PBS, including one slated for September called "The U.S. and the Holocaust," another on the history of the buffalo and others focusing on Leonardo Da Vinci and youth mental health.

But the documentary he "very, very, very much" wants to do is one on former President Obama.

"He represents such an interesting story. Just the rise itself is so interesting," Burns says of the 44th commander in chief. However, an Obama film, which he says ideally the ex-president would participate in, will likely have to wait: "The passage of time permits us to do it right and to be considered about it and thoughtful about it."

Burns says he's less interested in making a film about Obama's successor.

"I want to get 15, 20, 25 years away from the subject and then look back on it if I was going to do it," he says of potentially crafting a documentary on former President Trump. A filmmaker would have to "consider what it was in the Obama years that permitted Trump," Burns says. "Because I don't think you get Trump if you don't have Obama."

He'd also want to "get pretty far away" from last year's deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol by Trump supporters before detailing it in his signature documentary style.

"You don't know what happens in the midterms and, more importantly, what happens in [2024]."

A critic of Trump - without naming him in a 2016 Stanford University commencement speech, he called out the then-Republican presidential nominee as "glaringly not qualified" and a "terrifying Orwellian statesman" - Burns says he's still exhaling now that President Biden is in office.

"Can you imagine what the last week would be like if Trump were still there? Holy Toledo," Burns exclaims, referring to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. There's an "adult" in office with Biden, Burns says. "He's not an insecure child."

Despite his own views, Burns insists, "I don't put any of my political stuff into the films."

"In public television, we're bending over backwards to be fair and to speak to everybody. And the last thing I want to do is speak to the converted. But I'm still a citizen and I still have opinions."

Asked how he predicts history will judge Biden, Burns replies, "Boy, historians make lousy prognosticators."

"Let's also remember that history is a malleable thing," he says. "People have to understand you need the perspective."

"The person who seemed just like completely terrible, all of a sudden turns out to be rather principled. You get people in history that get rehabilitated, and then it changes all the time. People get forgotten, too."

So what would Burns name a documentary about this current, politically fractured moment in American history?

"I don't know," he pauses, before letting out a laugh. "In PBS we're not allowed to use obscenities."

-Updated at 10:03 a.m.