Filmmaker Ken Burns may not have lived the robust life of Ernest Hemingway but he found plenty to relate to while making “Hemingway,” a six-hour documentary on the celebrated author.
“It’s not identification,” he says. “It is something much more important and serious than identification.”
Co-director Lynn Novick says the connection edges closer to creativity. “For us, it’s how do we make this movie? How do we tell this really complicated story?” Hemingway dealt with the blank page and the desire to write “one true sentence.” Similarly, they had to distill all of the author’s years into one production.
For actor Jeff Daniels, who voices the adventurer in “Hemingway,” it was possible to feel the man’s mood just by reading his works. “You get pulled into his darkness. He’s searching for something and maybe it’s more than just the last two paragraphs of a novel.”
Adds Burns: “He constructed a mask that was false – the mask of the big-game hunter, et cetera – but he was also questing for a kind of truth about things. He is getting out essential things about how human beings are. That means, as he is confronting those demons, he’s coming back with news for us.”
“Hemingway” doesn’t avoid some of the more brow-raising incidents in the Nobel Prize-winner’s life. It discusses his “very complicated and evolving sexuality,” as Burns says, and his “curiosity about role changes. His wives cut their hair short to look like boys. He wants them to call him ‘Katherine’ and he calls them ‘Pete’ in the bedroom. There’s some very interesting stuff.”
The public persona became a burden for him, Novick says during a Zoom interview. “It becomes kind of exhausting, someone said in the film, to be Hemingway after a while. Trying to live up to the image he created for himself really was tragic.”
Novick first became interested in digging into his life when she visited Key West more than 20 years ago. While the filmmakers were doing “Vietnam,” they realized if they wanted to do something about American icons they better get interviews before it was too late. They started with Hemingway’s son, Patrick, “then went full speed ahead after that.”
During the “Vietnam” series, Burns interviewed Le Minh Khue who, as a young girl, volunteered to help repair damage done by U.S. planes on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. She brought “For Whom the Bell Tolls” with her. “She said she stayed alive because of the way Hemingway kind of taught her how to survive,” Burns says. “So here you have literature of the highest order that isn’t some abstract metaphysical thing but something really direct.”
Burns says he initially only knew the macho exterior Hemingway projected. “As I confronted all of this negative stuff, it became evident that the art transcended it and, basically, didn’t excuse it. And we do not excuse him. We hold his feet to the fire in dozens of ways. As we often find with great artists, there is this terrible price to pay among those closest to that person and among the outer circle and, most notably, to one’s self.”
Before the research began, Novick felt pretty clearly that she didn’t like Hemingway the man. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel spending six hours with him as a viewer. He was really unkind and hurtful to people and self-centered.” And yet, at the end of the project, “I felt a lot more compassion for him and his struggles and his demons.
“And then, there’s the work. It became much more important seeing the different drafts, seeing the manuscript pages, seeing how hard he worked and seeing how seriously he took it all the way through. Even when he wasn’t always creating, not every word he wrote is pure genius. But when it is, there’s nothing better. So, for me, it was like a full circle to appreciate his humanity.”
“Hemingway” begins April 5 on PBS.