“The city has whispered to people from all over the world, ‘Come here, everything is possible,'” says journalist Peter Hamill in the upcoming 12-hour series “New York: A Documentary Film.” “Now that’s a seductive whisper, and a lot of people failed at it — but a least the promise was there.”
It is this very sense of promise that drives Ric Burns and Lisa Ades’ comprehensive look at the history of Gotham, a project that requires a five-night (Nov. 14-18) commitment from PBS viewers. The sixth and final episode, which sweeps over the period between 1931 and 2000, will air in the spring.
However, as the filmmakers point out, the documentary is more than just a history lesson: It also turns a light on many of the issues and people who have played important roles in the American experience.
“Unlike Puritan Boston or Quaker Philadelphia, New York was founded in 1624 as a business proposition, not a religious colony,” Burns says. “Whether we like it or not, this is the place where the notion of America has been manufactured. The same love-hate relationship that people have with New York, they seem to have with all things that the future of this country has in store for them.”
Burns bridges that past with a rich collection of contemporary and archival visuals and interviews with a solid chorus of voices supplied by Gotham historians, artists, architects, writers, actors and politicians who have been inspired by the mecca: Martin Scorsese, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Fran Lebowitz, Donald Trump and E.L. Doctorow are some of the witnesses in Burns’ metropolis. Narrated by David Ogden Stiers, “New York” also uses the voice talents of thesps Blythe Danner, Eli Wallach, Joan Allen, Spalding Gray, Robert Sean Leonard and Joe Morton, to name a few.
“We were looking for good storytellers,” Ades notes. “In most cases, all we had to do was sit these people down and they’d light up like a thousand lights.”
Ades and Burns are no strangers to getting lively accounts of American history from talking heads. The pair previously collaborated on three award-winning “American Experience” documentaries, “Coney Island” (1991), “The Donner Party” (1992) and “The Way West” (1995). Indeed, it was during the filming of “Coney Island” that Burns first contemplated chronicling the history of Gotham.
“I was really bitten by the bug 15 years ago,” Burns clarifies. “I knew I wanted to tell a coherent story about New York, and the content would dictate the length of the project.”
Input from a distinguished panel of New York writers and experts helped the filmmakers shape each hour of the project. The biggest challenge, however, was distilling hundreds of hours of history and research into a few hours of TV.
“The toughest part of the job was finding a poetry that would help us say a lot in a compressed way and to allude to the things that are gone,” Burns notes. “In a sense, 12 hours is only a postage stamp.”
Thanks to their solid track records, Burns and Ades were able to foot the docu’s $9 million price by support from Chase Manhattan, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting Service and the Arthur Vining Foundation.
Burns, who also worked on his brother Ken’s epic documentary “The Civil War,” says each of the projects have taught him important lessons in filmmaking.
“Author Shelby Foote once told us, ‘Whenever you have any questions about a story, trust chronology. The arrow of time moves in one direction and things happen in a certain order because of the forces that make them happen.’
“When you’re doing 24 frames a second, it’s a lot like sailing on a fast-moving boat on a river. You’d better know where your boat is going.”