Though Burns tends to create very serious films about very serious (always American) subjects, he is anything but serious in real life. He is nothing like what you may imagine a historian to be: perhaps a stiff professor type? Or a recluse of scholastic proportions? He’s actually one heck of a personable and funny guy, in love with life the way only a 55-year-old father of a toddler can be. “It’s a badge of courage,” he says of three-year-old Olivia, a product of his second marriage and the bookend of an 18-year gap between his children. “I’m changing diapers again. It keeps me young.”
Burns says things like, “What’s up, sister?” to his wife, Julia, and cries out “Rental!” when we smack a pothole while driving in Glacier National Park. He uses an iPhone, and Apple has even named an editing effect after him in its popular iMovie software. When he mock-relieves himself on a fire hydrant near Swiftcurrent Lake, his longtime collaborator and coproducer Dayton Duncan calls him “shameless.” In short, Burns is one of the boys, thoroughly humbled by his place in this world. When his fans recognize him (and yes, he is routinely recognized as a celebrity), he gives them all the time they need. “If they know who I am, it means they have watched 18 and a half hours of Baseball, 15 hours of The War, 19 hours of Jazz -- it’s not like they are reading about me in People magazine. I can give them all the time they want.”
Burns’s favorite holiday is the Fourth of July. He reads the Declaration of Independence to his children, whereas you and I got Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs. He even honeymooned in Yellowstone. In the end, though, all of that makes sense -- Burns is an all-American guy attempting to chronicle all of America. On tap after The National Parks are documentaries on Prohibition, Vietnam, and the Dust Bowl, dual biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a sequel to Baseball that’s tentatively titled The 10th Inning, among others. On all of them, Burns will wear several hats: writer, editor, music supervisor, cinematographer, director, and producer. Daunting is the only word that comes to mind, but Burns sees it otherwise.
“It may be naive foolishness on my part that doesn’t appreciate how incredibly complicated these projects will be, but I’m drawn to it. And [as] that initial ignorance and enthusiasm for getting to know the subject takes over, and as its complexity develops, I’m humbled by what’s going on, and I want to learn more and more,” he says. “By the end, I realize how little I knew before. So, instead of me telling what I know already, I share with the audience a process of discovery.”
All of this begs an obvious question: What are the criteria for a subject to be Burns-worthy? After all, his catalog of work is extensive and impressive, but there are more topics than several lifetimes could cover (Thomas Edison, Muhammad Ali, apple pie, etc). How to pick? “Someone asked me once how I choose a subject, but I would turn it around and say that my subjects choose me,” he says. “I think what we are is not historians interested in the dry dates and facts of the past but emotional archaeologists. For me, the ultimate decision of whether or not to go with a project is that it’s begun to stir me in my heart as much as it’s stimulated my mind because of the themes that are engaged in American history. In the end, it’s always about feeling.”