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Ken Burns Looks Back on Student Film ‘Working in Rural New England’

Since garnering an Oscar nomination in 1981 for his first documentary feature, “Brooklyn Bridge,” Ken Burns has chronicled events and influential figures in American history. His films seek to examine situations from all perspectives, and in doing so he has made American history a riveting narrative fit for all audiences.

After the success of 1990’s “The Civil War,” Burns became a PBS mainstay, making docu series “Jazz” (2001), “The War” (2007) and “The Dust Bowl” (2012). His latest project, “The Vietnam War” was released in 2017, and is an Emmy contender this year. The 10-part, 18-hour film, co-directed with Lynn Novick, is Burns’ second longest endeavor. (His 1994 series “Baseball” was 18½ hours.)

Burns received his first mention in Variety on May 10, 1976, when he was nominated for the American Society of Cinematographers’ student-film competition award, for his 27-minute film “Working in Rural New England,” which Burns made as an undergraduate at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.

What’s it like to look back at this?

It’s bittersweet to talk about because the co-producer on “Working in Rural New England,” [Oscar winner] Kirk Simon, recently passed away of a heart attack. I have so many memories of my early-morning drives to production with Kirk.

What is “Working in Rural New England” about?

It’s about Old Sturbridge Village, which is a living history museum in Massachusetts. They wanted a film that would describe what their village did, which was re-creating life in rural New England from 1790 through the 1830s — basically right up to the point when New England started to get industrialized. So the film is about how people lived and farmed back then.

How long did it take to make?

It was my senior thesis and took two and a half years.

Did this inform your later work?

Yes. I learned a lot about myself while making this film. I learned how to write a proposal. I learned how to write, make and keep a budget. I learned how to shoot as a cinematographer. I learned how to pitch and do presentations. I learned how to edit. All of the skills that I needed to be a filmmaker were tested on this project.

Did any Hampshire professors make an impression on you?

I worked with a professor named Jerome Liebling, who was my mentor on “Working in Rural New England.” I’ll always remember in the middle of editing we got to one point when he was reviewing a cut, and he thought I should [edit] it a certain way, and I felt strongly I should [edit] it another way. So he pushed back, and then I pushed back, and then he let go. It was one of the most amazing moments in my life. I suddenly realized, “Oh, my God. I’m on my own.” He had let me go. Cut the ropes, so to speak. I remember that vividly.

Did you win the ASC student award?

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I don’t remember. It’s not even on my résumé anymore because in the beginning [of my career), it was a big deal of course, but then I made “Brooklyn Bridge.” After that I pressed the reset button and decided to say that “Brooklyn Bridge” was my first film.

Did this film make it possible to create “Brooklyn Bridge”?

When I went out looking for funding to make “Brooklyn Bridge” I was 22, but I looked about 12. I think in large measure the fact that I had shown promise in my true first film, “Working in Rural New England” is the reason why I was given bits of money from various people and organizations to make “Brooklyn Bridge.”

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