Director Lynn Novick and Senior Producer Sarah Botstein on the Hemingway Documentary (UPDATED 5/24)
tags: documentaries,literature,Ernest Hemingway,Ken Burns,Lynn Novick
Director Lynn Novick (l) and Senior Producer Sarah Botstein (r)
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). When his name is mentioned, this iconic twentieth century American writer may be more readily recalled as a two-fisted, hypermasculine deep-sea fisher, big game hunter, war vet, brawler, and womanizer, rather than as a Nobel Prize-winning and groundbreaking author of genius.
In Hemingway, their new, unprecedented six-hour documentary series for PBS, co-directors Lynn Novick and Ken Burns and senior producer Sarah Botstein have created a revelatory and nuanced portrait of the writer. The film explores the myths about the author as it examines each stage of his life as a writer as well as his celebrity and his loves, his childhood, his wars, his marriages (times four), his children (three sons), his physical and psychic wounds, his mental illness, his suicide, and more.
The film is based on extensive research into Hemingway’s letters, diaries, and notes as well as books and papers of friends, family members, and colleagues, significant academic monographs, and a fascinating trove of rare photographic and film resources, many of which were only recently discovered by the Burns-Novick team.
The documentary frames scenes from Hemingway’s life with commentary from leading literary scholars and historians as well as prominent authors including Edna O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, Tim O’Brien, Mario Vargas Llosa, and others. In addition, several acclaimed actors lend their voices to the film, such as Jeff Daniels who delivers the words of Hemingway, and Meryl Streep who gives voice to Martha Gellhorn, the brilliant journalist and author—and Hemingway’s third wife.
Director Ms. Novick and Senior Producer Ms. Botstein generously discussed their widely anticipated documentary Hemingway by Zoom.
Lynn Novick is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker. She has been co-director with Ken Burns for more than 25 years, and together they have created the most critically acclaimed documentary films that have aired on PBS including Prohibition (2011); The Tenth Inning (2010); The War (2007); Jazz (2001); Frank Lloyd Wright (1994); and Baseball (1994). Ms. Novick came to Florentine Films in 1989 to work on Burns’s landmark 1990 series, The Civil War, as associate producer for post-production. She previously served as researcher and associate producer for Bill Moyers on two PBS series: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth and A World of Ideas with Bill Moyers.
Sarah Botstein, the lead producer on Hemingway, has worked for Florentine Films for more than two decades and has produced acclaimed PBS documentaries with directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, including The Vietnam War (2017), Prohibition (2011), The War (2007), and Jazz (2001).
Recently, Ms. Novick directed and Ms. Botstein was the senior producer of the groundbreaking docuseries College Behind Bars, a film that revealed the transformative power of education in a pioneering prison education program in New York State. That series was nominated for two Emmy awards.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Ms. Novick and Ms. Botstein on your illuminating documentary on the life of Ernest Hemingway. You both have created a remarkable study of this complicated and troubled literary giant. In the popular mind, Hemingway is recalled as this brawling, hyper-masculine big game hunter, war veteran, alcoholic, and womanizer. You present a more nuanced portrait, but wasn't Hemingway complicit in creating this myth? Did he not want people to see him as a disciplined and sensitive writer?
Lynn Novick: You probably just said it. He was absolutely complicit. This myth was his creation and he played into it. We see it from photos of him and from his author bios and articles about him that this was the way he presented himself to the world.
Maybe it goes without saying, but he wanted success. He was extremely ambitious. He wanted to be famous for being a great writer, but he also recognized that he wanted to sell books and make a living as a writer. On some level, whether it was conscious or unconscious, he knew he had to build a brand, and the brand was him as this character that you just described. And then he wrote characters that had some characteristics of that same type of person. And he himself did a lot of the things in front of cameras and wrote about them to perform that whole role. So he's at the center of it.
You almost can't separate the man from the myth because the myth is part of him. It wasn't imposed on him from without. He certainly embraced it. It was uncanny, but he had gifts for publicity, promotion, and branding--all these things that we talk about now, he knew how to do for better or for worse.
Sarah Botstein: I would stress his ambition. He didn't go to college and was self-made and read voraciously and had some intellectual discipline, and that ambition masked that whole aspect of his life. Then the myth of the man and who's going where and who’s taking turns is fascinating to unpack.
Robin Lindley: You devote six hours to your complex and deeply researched PBS film on the life of Hemingway. Can you talk about the evolution of the project? What sparked the series?
Lynn Novick: The project was a long time in gestation and we’ve been thinking about him and why he matters for decades. It was on a list of possible future projects that might happen on iconic American subjects.
When I came to work with Ken Burns, I started thinking about the iconic American subjects that we could do. I went to Key West, not to come up with a film idea but just on a vacation and went to Hemingway’s house. I went to the room where he worked and saw his typewriter and books. They didn't have a ton of stuff that belonged to him, but there was some, and I felt his presence in a different way. I thought how could we not do Hemingway if we're looking for epic American subjects.
After my vacation, I talked to Ken and Geoffrey Ward, our writer. This was before Sarah began working with us in 1997. Another big epic series came up that we needed to deal with, but about ten years ago, we decided we were going to definitely make a Hemingway film.
Sarah Botstein: We ended up talking to the Hemingway family and did the first of the two interviews with Patrick Hemingway [Hemingway’s son] in 2013.
Robin Lindley: What was your research process for the film? I realize you worked with a team of scholars and acclaimed writers who talk about Hemingway's life and influence in the film. When did you get to the point of working with scholars and other writers as advisors?
Sarah Botstein: That’s definitely one of the top two or three favorite things that we do. And I get to do that as a job.
We start that in a remarkably similar way regardless of the subject. We try to figure out who the interesting academic scholars, writers, thinkers in the country who focus on a subject from a variety of perspectives. And then we make contact with them and meet them and read their writing and get to know them. And, some of them end up being advisors at certain stages of the project. Some become advisors through the entire series, and some of them end up on camera, some of them end up just behind the camera.
For Hemingway, Lynn and I spent a lot of plane rides and train rides and car rides, traveling around, meeting people, thinking about how to handle visually representing his writing and share conversations about his writing. I don't want to speak for Lynn, but finding the writers, from around the world who were interested in really diving deep and trying to understand both the man and the writer was the most fun and rewarding part of this job.
Many older biographers had died by the time we started writing, so we found younger, less expected biographers. It’s always fun to find who’s kicking up the dust around a famous person and what they have to say. And if the biographers are arguing, even if some are dead and some are alive, that's fun. The writers surfaced for us and they are the most illuminating, fascinating, generous, wonderful cast of characters. They were amazing and make the film what it is.
Lynn Novick: Another thing that has been happening since before we started the project and is ongoing is the Hemingway Letters Project, and that is an adventure. It’s a massive undertaking by Cambridge University Press. They have received grants and they are determined to publish a series of volumes of every letter Hemingway wrote with exact copies of the letters. And if he didn't have a carbon copy, a lot of people would save his letters. So, they have been amassing his letters, and now there's something like 6,000 letters, or may even be more. They started off thinking it was going to be ten volumes and now it’s up to 29. When we started the project, I think two of volumes had come out and now they’re up to six.
And some of the scholars who've been working on this incredible research project are determining who each letter is to, and annotating the references. They look at what Hemingway is talking about. These are often ongoing conversations about things that are happening in his life. It's like eavesdropping on Hemingway. It's incredible. You have him writing home from Kansas City to his parents about his new job [as a reporter for the Kansas City Star]. He also writes home during World War One when he's in the hospital. He writes love letters. Carlos Baker did publish some selected letters.
We could call up the head of the Letters Project at Penn State and ask what Hemingway said about some topic, and she would send us letters to choose from and things that hadn't yet been published.
Robin Lindley: What a great resource. I just learned about JFK Library collection of papers.
Lynn Novick; That’s the JFK Hemingway collection. We recently learned that the collection ended up there because Mary Hemingway and Jacqueline Kennedy met and basically agreed that his work belonged to the nation. They built a room for the Hemingway collection. They've been archiving and preserving the material for the last 50 years, and it is available to scholars.
Robin Lindley: You share some marvelous photos and film clips in the Hemingway documentary. And I know you do a great job of matching the visual elements to the narrative in the documentary.
Sarah Botstein: Well, we have an amazing team of co-producers and associate producers and researchers and interns who are brilliant. They never take no for an answer. They are charming and funny and, determined.
Lynn and I both come at the archival material. We both love to do that research. We both have very visual brains and love the still photograph and moving images and unearthing stuff people haven't seen before and thinking about different ways to the story.
One day our co-producer Lucas Frank said, I think I see Hemingway in this piece of footage. It was a great piece of footage from after World War One that we slowed down. It looked like Ernest Hemingway in a hospital after the war turning his head to the camera.
Ernest Hemingway loved the still camera. There are thousands and thousands of pictures of him. He's unbelievably handsome, certainly as a young man, but he ages so rapidly that it's sort of disorienting.
Robin Lindley: You’re masters of finding forgotten and overlooked material.
Lynn Novick: And we are lucky that the family, and not just Hemingway, but his mother and his sisters, saved everything. It's an unusual family archive. There's material at a library in Michigan and there’s a collection at Princeton and many other places.
I wouldn't say that there are many never before seen images, but before we were working on the film, a cache of photographs was discovered with long-lost rolls of film taken by renowned photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro in the Spanish Civil War. Magnum Photos has taken a deep dive into the representation of the Spanish Civil War and our team was able to go deep into that collection
Robin Lindley: You share very moving photos from the Spanish Civil War in your film. I’m interested in your location shooting and it seems you had access to Hemingway's beloved house in Cuba, the Finca Vigia.
Lynn Novick: Yes. We were able to make connections there through the Finca Vigia Foundation in Boston that was founded by the late Jennie Phillips and her husband Frank Phillips (former bureau chief at the Mass. Statehouse for the Boston Globe). She was the granddaughter of Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway's editor at Scribners. Bob Vila, the host of This Old House, introduced us to the foundation. He was born in Miami to Cuban parents who immigrated in the 1940s and has a great affinity for Hemingway. The foundation helped us make contacts in Cuba with the curators of the house and also government officials. So, we got permission and our associate producer, Vanessa Gonzales Block, did yeoman's work in figuring out how we were going to film in Cuba. We were there at a time with travel restrictions and everything was very complicated, very difficult, but we had an incredible Cuban crew and they made it happen.
We were able to film in the house at all hours of the day and night. If you're a visitor who can't go inside, but they let us work inside the house and obviously around the grounds. I urge anyone who gets to Cuba to visit the house. It's an archive in and of itself. Everything Hemingway owned then is in that house.
Robin Lindley: And you show so much of Hemingway’s personal effects and his writing desk and books at the house.
Lynn Novick: It’s as if I went to the grocery store and someone filmed just after I left the house.
Sarah Botstein: The Idaho house is also very moving. Lynn and I both spent time in Idaho and filmed at the house. It's not quite the same because Mary Hemingway lived there afterwards [following Hemingway’s death there in 1961] and it's turned into a little bit more of one of those classic home museum places. It’s on this beautiful cliff and you get a sense of some of the big sky country that he loved, where he fished, and experienced that landscape. He's buried there and the cemetery is moving in a peculiar way.
Robin Lindley: Many people now may not understand how groundbreaking Hemingway’s writing was about a century ago. He was seen as a literary Colossus bestriding the Victorian Age and the modern era. It seems two strong influences affected his writing: his first job was as a journalist with the Kansas City Star and also what he witnessed as an ambulance driver in a major episode of mass, industrialized slaughter: World War One. Why was his writing seen as so groundbreaking, so different than what other writers were doing at the time?
Sarah Botstein: This is a great period to look at the art and listen to the music. And this generation, the young people coming out of World War One, were interested in breaking traditions, and Hemingway was certainly one of them.
Lynn said some really smart things about him. He was in Paris, surrounded by all these extraordinary writers that we've heard of [Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, for example]. They were people from around the world with a European sensibility after World War One. And he broke from Victorian ideas, both in the way he was living his life and how he wrote. Yet in Paris he wrote about being a young boy in Michigan,
There was a big discussion even then of his writing and his craft. Steve Cushman, one of the wonderful scholars in our film, talks about Hemingway’s apparent simplicity. Modernist music and modernist painting and modernist writing are often seen as simplified, but it's actually extremely complicated to make something simple.
And, because Hemingway kept everything, we see his endless obsession with a comma or a semi-colon. As Lynn also often says, it's like being in our editing room, and the viewer can't see it, but we will spend half a day arguing about a sentence.
Lynn Novick: One thing interesting is that modernism predates World War One as a stylistic innovation breaking with the past and shattering the Victorian ways of doing things. It sees the world in fragments or in the way I think about cubism. It began about 1910, so it's before the war, but then the war is an acceleration. There was an urge to deconstruct and to overthrow and to reject the past and to make all things a new.
I am not a literary expert here, but Hemingway seems influenced by the pre-war art and by World War One. He was living in Paris after the war around Picasso and Gertrude Stein and E. E. Cummings and Ezra Pound. He is influenced by all of them, yet his response is to do his own thing. He wasn’t doing what they were doing, but he's taking pieces of what everybody else is doing and he's synthesizing and creating something new. There's a radical difference in both his subject matter and his style. As Sarah was saying. he writes about ordinary life of regular people in Michigan but in situations that are taboo.
Hemingway was pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable, which is a modernist, post-World War One attitude. The older people can't be trusted. They hold no sway over how we should live.
If you look at In Our Time, his first short story collection, he frames the stories with vignettes. That's an extremely interesting modernist idea. It's not linear. Each short story is interspersed with a vignette, which he called chapters. And the vignettes are just little snapshots. The first time I read it and the second time I read it, I wasn’t really sure what to make of the vignettes and it was confusing. And very modernist. It’s post-World War One and it's radical. These are powerful images and scenes. By the end, you recognize that Nick Adams has been in the war and then wrote about it, if you follow the stories. It’s like a novel but he's breaking the form and he's reinventing it. He's drawing from everywhere. There's something I think Amanda Vaill says in the film that I really love, which is that, maybe not consciously, but he’s influenced by technology. Hemingway captures the way we understand the world by bringing the world to us in pieces as with a photograph perhaps and then hyper-focusing on that.
Robin Lindley: Those vignettes are like shocking and often gruesome and sardonic prose poems that don't relate to the Michigan stories that they bracket. His writing is ostensibly simple, but there’s this iceberg idea that the reader sees only one-eighth of the story on the surface and the other seven-eighths are submerged. That was his achievement. In that seeming simplicity, he's more complicated than a many other more wordy or scholarly writers.
Lynn Novick: Yes. That was his genius. That goes back to the myth that he wanted his work to be read by people who weren't literary scholars or readers of avant-garde literature. And, because of the kinds of stories he's telling and the language he's using, anyone could read them. People could take different things from them. So that's a kind of a genius of making his work accessible on many levels. And that is rare. I think that it contributes to his influence as well.
Robin Lindley: Do you have anything to add on your hopes for the documentary and what viewers take from it? I know you’ve both put a great deal of thought and work into the film. I appreciate your tremendous effort.
Sarah Botstein: It's been very interesting to make a film about somebody like Ernest Hemingway in the time that we're living in. We had an amazing team of women working on this film as well as men and we looked at Hemingway's relationship to women, to race, to antisemitism--to the more complicated things that our country is constantly thinking about, dealing with, and reexamining,
Hemingway is a fascinating lens through which to see those issues. I'm hoping that the film will spark conversations about not just his writing, but about the country we live in and how we represent the people who live in the country and the relationships between men and women and all of those complicated issues that are worth talking about that.
Lynn Novick: During this pandemic year that has been so trying and horrendous for so many people, and we all have different ways of getting through this. And for me personally, sometimes rereading Hemingway or reading other fiction has been rewarding.
I think a great literary work is such a gift because it gives you a chance to leave the world you're in and go someplace else for a little while. In our mediated world, most of us do that through television, through streaming, through watching something, but sitting down with a great book is such a solace, even if it's a book about difficult subjects, even reading about the difficulties of people in the past and the existential threats they faced. Whatever the theme, there’s something really profound that can happen, and I've been more aware of that because of what's gone on during the last year.
For all of his flaws and problematic aspects of his life, Hemingway left us with some beautiful, transcendent work. And, as Sarah just said, he’s a problematic figure and we very much understand that, but we're hoping that the film opens up a conversation not just about his work, but also reminds viewers of the power of written literature.
And one more point. The pandemic, I think, has made us all more aware of the dangers of addiction, mental health issues, isolation, and the worries that people have. And this film is ultimately a very sad and tragic story. Hemingway destroys himself in the end, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and ultimately takes his own life. It's very, very sad. That's another way that the film hopefully may help as we show the time he lived and the shame that people felt about mental illness and, when they needed help, they didn’t want to get help or didn’t know how to get help. I hope we're breaking down some of those barriers in this country and around the world now as well.
Robin Lindley: Thank you Ms. Novick and Ms. Botstein for sharing your thoughtful comments and insights on your illuminating new film on Ernest Hemingway that casts new light on the life and times of one of the iconic Americans of the twentieth century. Again, congratulations and best wishes on your future projects.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Re-Markings, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He also served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. King. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's Note: This interview as originally posted contained errors related to the history of Finca Vigia. It mistakenly attributed the founding of the Finca Vigia foundation to Bob Vila. The foundation was established by the late Jennie Phillips and her husband Frank Phillips (former bureau chief at the Massachusetts Statehouse for the Boston Globe). Ms. Phillips was the granddaughter of Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway's editor at Scribners. Also, the interview as originally published stated that Bob Vila was born in Cuba. He was in fact born in Miami to parents who emigrated from Cuba in the 1940s.
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