‘Hemingway will last forever’: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick discuss their latest documentary subject

Boorish. Adventurous. Violent. Virile. Manly.

You don’t need to have read a word of Ernest Hemingway since high school to feel like you know the man. The Nobel laureate’s brash public persona, so pervasive and enduring, was immortalized in works like “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms.” Love him or hate him, Hemingway feels familiar, known.

That’s a problem, actually, and one that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick seek to rectify in “Hemingway,” an engrossing six-hour PBS documentary that airs Monday through Wednesday (8 EDT/PDT, check local listings).  The longtime collaborators (“The Vietnam War,” “Prohibition” and “The War”) pull back the mask of myth Hemingway hid behind and get to the heart of the man.

Ernest Hemingway at his home in Cuba, circa 1950 (Photo: E. Hotchner)

Yes, their Hemingway is still boorish and violent (and racist and sexist). He hit his wives, failed his sons and drank to staggering excess. He also idealized love, was scared to sleep alone, experimented with gender fluidity in the bedroom, and suffered mental illness and profound head trauma that made the latter years of his life unbearable until he died by suicide at 61. Burns and Novick don’t seek to forgive the bad bits, but to create a full and nuanced understanding of the man and his art.

“Hemingway” took about seven years to make. When the project started, the world hadn’t yet seen the rise of the #MeToo movement or taken a magnifying glass to the ravages of “toxic masculinity” in popular culture.

“If you back up to 2014, when we did our first interview, we didn’t know where we’d be in 2021,” Burns says in a joint interview with Novick. “Our process for our films is always the same, but we always are confident that when we finish the project, whatever age we lift our heads up in, it’s going to be resonating in some way.”

Here’s what else the filmmakers had to say about releasing a Hemingway documentary in a post-#MeToo world, and getting to know the man behind the myth.

Filmmaker Ken Burns. (Photo: Evan Barlow)

Question: Let’s start with the most obvious question: Why Hemingway?

Ken Burns: He’s just a good subject, whatever age you’re in. He’s complicated, there are contradictory aspects to (him), there’s the edifice of his image, the mythology that he helped create – and that the world helped to support – that masked deep insecurities and vulnerabilities.

Q: Did you come into the project with opinions about Hemingway already?

Burns:Our job is to check our baggage. Our baggage is meaningless. We know what we’re going to learn is so new. It’s super important for us to check that so we’re not telling you what you should know; we’re sharing with you a process of discovery. There’s a big difference in that. The former is homework, and the latter is just that – kind of a process of discovery. You’re learning what we learned over many years.

You know the myth of Hemingway. Now meet the man – in all his complexity. @LynnNovick and I are looking forward to sharing our new three-part series on @PBS April 5-7. #HemingwayPBSpic.twitter.com/WZ8L8DIzfW

Q: It’s fascinating that you started this project long before the MeToo movement took off, and now a life like Hemingway’s feels so relevant and ripe for discussion.

Burns:I’ve been doing this for 40-plus years, and every time we finish a film, people say, “I can’t believe you did it for right now.” I just think it’s history, because human nature doesn’t change. If you go into a moment in the past that’s now dispassionate, you’re separated from all of the heat of the contemporary arguments, and if you do a good job in excavating that moment, it’s going to be about human nature. And that’s going to rhyme, as Mark Twin supposedly said, with the present. It’s not any kind of great design or ESP on our part.

Lynn Novick: If I go back to when we started the project, certainly when we started talking about making a film about Hemingway, which was more than 25 years ago, the word “toxic masculinity” was not in my vocabulary. I could have described what it is, but I wouldn’t have had that label, or gender fluidity, and even talking about the stigma and shame of mental illness and addiction. Our understanding of the human condition has evolved: the condition is the same, but we see it differently.

Q: The other day, I saw Hemingway in a meme that was a list of “dating red flags”: If a man has Hemingway on his bookshelf, run. It’s shallow, but do you think such discourse will harm his long-term legacy?

Burns:Get off the internet and read more books! Hemingway will last forever. He’ll have ups and downs and he’ll be rejected, and understandably so, for all of these reasons or others that may be artistic or literary, but he’ll endure because the writing’s so great.

Novick: If I were dating a guy who said he wanted to be like Ernest Hemingway, that might be a red flag. But if he said he loved reading “Up in Michigan” or “Hills Like White Elephants,” I would be super interested… I agree with Ken, the way we decide yes or no, thumbs up or thumbs down on people in social media and in our culture is very problematic, because it is all nuance. And if anything, Hemingway’s work itself is very nuanced. Not all of it. Some of his work is troubling and problematic also, but that’s OK.

Q: You’ve got a killer cast of voice actors reading the works and letters of Hemingway and his wives: Jeff Daniels, Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson. What goes into your casting?

Burns: We go after great actors. That’s what we wanted… the whole idea is that they inhabit the words. (Daniels) had this incredibly difficult task of being young Hemingway, and middle-aged Hemingway, and later Hemingway, and angry Hemingway, and letter Hemingway, and nonfiction Hemingway and fiction Hemingway. And he just got it, because the actor’s craft is making music out of words, which is what Hemingway did.

Filmmaker Lynn Novick. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Q: I honestly thought sometimes I was listening to archival recordings. I didn’t even realize I was listening to Streep as Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn. 

Burns: She is so fantastically good, a great human being. We’re friends, and I just adore her. We made a film on the Roosevelts, and she was, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt. We brought our consultants – all our critics and stuff like that, historians – into this barn downstairs, big screening over a week. At one point, almost every single one of the historians whipped around because they were going, “How did he get a recording of that?” And they suddenly realized, “Oh, it’s an actor reading Eleanor’s voice.” We did have Eleanor in the film, and (Streep) so perfectly did it, they thought we had had some scholarly coup of getting this particular letter from somewhere.

Q: After all your research on Hemingway, what are your favorite works of his?

Burns:For me, it’s the short stories. I’ve got them collected at the end of my bed, where I’ve got a chest and I keep the books piled up. I like “Indian Camp,” I think it’s beautiful. I like “Hills Like White Elephants,” I like “The Killers”… I can just go and take something out – even now, the film’s long done for us – and read it, and it is just heaven for me.

Novick: There are a few books I have reread multiple times, and “A Farewell to Arms” is one of them. It just has everything… It’s just an extraordinary accomplishment. It’s a masterpiece to me.

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