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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Q&A with Ken Burns and Julie Dunfey ’80: ‘The American Buffalo’

The Dartmouth interviewed the director and producer of the documentary series “The American Buffalo,” coming out Oct. 16.

ken burns.heic

Courtesy of Steve Holmes.

In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, Ken Burns and Julie Dunfey ’80 directed and produced a two-part documentary series covering the near extinction and resurrection of the American buffalo. Just south of Hanover, in Walpole, New Hampshire, the film’s production team set up shop researching and editing over 10,000 years of American history. Their finished product, “The American Buffalo,” premieres in theaters October 16. The Dartmouth sat down with Burns and Dunfey to discuss the film’s production, story and message.

Why did you choose to center your latest documentary series around the buffalo? 

KB: The glib answer is that the project chose us. We have been thinking for more than 30 years about what it would be like to do a biography of an animal. What is it like to save a species from extinction once you brought it to the brink?

JD: I was attracted to the story of the buffalo because it’s not a nature documentary, it’s a way of looking at Indigenous history in this country. And that’s something we had only probably touched on here and there in previous projects. It’s a way of looking at westward expansion and our relationship to the land and how we use it. As Ken would say, it’s a way of looking at uppercase us, the United States, and lowercase us — who are we Americans? The buffalo was a new way of understanding this very complicated and often messy experiment we call the United States.

How did the lens of an animal compare to past topics as a grounding, thematic vessel for storytelling?

KB: Stories are stories are stories, and they obey certain laws. In a way, we’ve made the same film over and over again. Each one asks the deceptively simple question: who are we? Who are these strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans? And what does an investigation of the past tell us about not only where we’ve been, but where we are? And more importantly, where we may be going?

How, if at all, did producing “The American Buffalo” nuance your understanding of American history?

JD: At its core, this film is a morality tale about a relationship to the land, and it’s devastating. But I also feel like there’s hope there that we can make up our minds to reverse course and not destroy this land that we live on, and the animals that live in it. Bison have endured, Indigenous people have endured, and I think there’s a message of resilience there. There are people we can rely on who have thousands of years of knowledge, not just about this animal, but about the land we inhabit. And maybe we should be turning to them as we move forward with solutions to climate change. 

How did you approach the process of finding sources for the film?

JD: Since we’re based in New Hampshire, we like to say that it’s a little bit like making maple syrup: It’s about a 40 to one ratio of what you’ve collected and what actually winds up in the film. We do a lot of research, try to get a sense of the shape of the story, and then start thinking about interview subjects. It’s a real combination of professionals and historians, sometimes writers and descendants of subjects; we have an ethnobotanist in this film as well. You just get out there and pound the pavement, so to speak; wear out your shoes until you find what you’re looking for.

Were there any production challenges unique to the American Buffalo? 

KB: There was a great deal of multi-season filming over a few years. You can’t direct buffalo with a bullhorn. You’ve got to be there at dawn to get good light and also hope that they’ll do the things that you can’t direct them to do. 

JD: The most unique production challenge was the pandemic. By the time we were vaccinated in May of 2021, we were so far behind we wound up doing 18 months of production work in six months. Once we hit the road, we were on the road. 

Do you have any memorable anecdotes from your time out West?

JD: In Yellowstone, this $100,000 camera was all set up with a bison standing right next to it and my whole crew in the road setting up. We spent 15 minutes watching this bison circle the camera and lick it. I kept saying, if the bison destroys the camera, that’s why we have insurance. 

How, if at all, did observing the buffalo in person impact your attachment to the story?

JD: I became particularly attached to the maternity and nursery herds because bison are such incredible mothers. The mothers stay together with what are called red dogs — new calves — which have this brighter red color before they turn brown for several months. The calves behave just as humans would. You got to see their personalities. A number of the mothers would form like a blockade downstream; should one of the calves start drifting, it would be caught against this wall of enormous mothers. It’s amazing to watch how ferocious they are in defending their calves. I became almost hypnotized, watching these maternity nursery herds drift across the landscape of wherever we happen to be. 

How do you organize a project of this scope, while still allowing the narrative leeway to take natural form?

KB: Your hope is to make a good sauce on the back burner that’s getting flavor as it boils down. Most productions have a set research period, out of which there’s a set writing period. We never stopped researching, and we never stopped writing. We just go and interview people. And then wherever you see them in a film is a happy accident. The important thing is to remain open. We’re constantly changing the writing. The materials should be speaking to you and dictating to you at the same time that you’re dictating to the material. 

How do you whittle down a project of this scale in the editing room?

KB: There is serendipity. The cutting room floor is never filled with bad stuff. It’s always filled with good stuff that just didn’t fit, and that is the nature of storytelling. When somebody asks you ‘How is your day,’ you edit your experience and get to a point. I call it the negative space of creation, the other 39 gallons that disappear. As a filmmaker you have to honor not just what you’re presenting but also what you’ve left out, and that’s the negative space of creation.

During a Q&A in July, you stated that when all art forms die, they hope to become music at the gates of heaven. Could you speak to the role of music in “The American Buffalo?”

KB: Wynton Marsalis said that music is the art of the invisible. Music is heard and not seen, and that’s an amazing thing. There’s a purity to it that is so spectacular. You realize the extent to which music is such a large force that we all aspire to. And that’s why we, as documentary filmmakers, have done things sort of backwards as we’ve been working, which is, we record the music before we start editing early on. So that music dictates the pace and rhythm of scenes.

What do you hope viewers will take away from the series?

KB: The novelist Richard Powers said the best arguments in the world won’t change a single person’s point of view — the only thing that can do that is a good story. Telling a story doesn’t involve manipulating the viewer’s reaction to having some somatic thing issue out of it. It’s much more subtle. So if you’re engaged in trying to tell good stories, you don’t have anything that you want your audience to do. You just want them to take it once you’ve finished it. 

JD: This is really a three act play. And we have only produced the first two, we’ve done the history. And so we feel like we’re handing it off to the viewers and saying, ‘Okay, what’s the third act going to be?’ Are we going to rewild this animal? Are we going to restore its habitat? What’s going to happen today, given what you’ve watched? 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.