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Ken Burns talks to Fortune about his latest project: a history of cancer

March 29, 2015, 10:01 PM UTC
Ken Burns
FILE - In this July 22, 2014 file photo, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns speaks during the “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History ” panel at the the PBS 2014 Summer TCA in Beverly Hills, Calif. Burns details the connections between two distantly related American presidents in his new documentary series. The 14-hour series unfolds over seven days on PBS, starting Sunday. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)
Photograph by Richard Shotwell — Invision/AP

Cancer is the fastest growing disease on Earth. It plagues nearly 1.7 million Americans each year, and over the next two years it’s expected that more people will die from the disease than were killed in combat in all the wars the U.S. has fought — combined.

These facts set the stage for the six-hour documentary “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” which was executive produced by acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns and directed by Barak Goodman, and premieres on PBS Monday evening. The three-part series chronicles the comprehensive story of cancer, from its earliest description in an Egyptian scroll to the latest advancements in immunotherapy.

“Make no mistake this is one of the most significant human challenges in our history,” Siddhartha Mukerjee, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on which the documentary is based, says in the series’ introduction. “To imagine that we will find a simple solution to this doesn’t do service to the true complexity of the problem. Cancer is part of our genetic inheritance. We will always have cancer amidst us, within us, amongst us.”

That sums up the daunting task that we currently face in the ongoing fight against cancer — one that the documentary seeks to explain.

Fortune spoke with Ken Burns about his latest project, a deeply personal one, and what he hopes viewers will take away from it. The discussion has been edited for clarity and length.

Fortune: The idea for the documentary started with Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin and WETA President and CEO Sharon Percy Rockefeller, who both fought cancer themselves. Rockefeller then reached out to you. What initially attracted you to the project?

Burns: She [Rockefeller] had really suffered for many, many years, and was finally on the road to recovery when she read Siddhartha’s book. She then called me up and said, “You have to do this.” I said, “Sharon, you know better than anyone how busy I am: six or seven projects underway in various stages of completion.” She responded, “Read the book.” So I read it, and I said I just have to do this.

My own mom died when I was 11 years old. I had watched her die from metastatic breast cancer. It was not a particularly cheery household that I grew up in. You and I wouldn’t be talking if that hadn’t happened — I became who I am as a result of that crucible.

If you look at what I do for a living, I wake the dead. I made Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson come alive. I had a psychologist once ask me who I am really trying to wake up. So I felt like I could continue a conversation that’s been interrupted for almost 50 years with my mom; sort of honor that, and go against all the superstitions that relate to this sort of thing.
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I knew I couldn’t do it day to day; I couldn’t be the producer and the director, but I could co-write, which I did with my longtime collaborator Geoffrey Ward and my best friend David Blistein. I needed to find a good filmmaker, and I found one in Barak Goodman who is amazingly accomplished.

We both embarked on this very long, complicated journey. It was outside of our comfort zone, not just because of the subject matter — which I think we made human and palatable, and relatable — but also because it’s a combination of history, an amazing detective story over decades, and complex science, made understandable for the lay person, and these incredibly poignant human stories that are the glue that holds it all together. That’s a very complicated set of things that we had to master.

I’m just happy to say that after four-plus years of me working on it that we’ve mastered it. And I’m very proud of what we’ve done, and very proud of Barak and his team for having handled it so beautifully and so artistically.

I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s moments in the documentary that are truly heartbreaking— I know there were moments that made me tear up.

They are, and, you know, we spent a good deal of our efforts calibrating that. It was important for us not to be Pollyanna-ish. We didn’t want to whitewash this. This is the emperor of all maladies.

We made a very conscious decision to show the story of Lucas, which was unexpected for us, unexpected for his family, and even unexpected for his doctors. They did not realize that the treatment would kill him. That the original disease would have killed him earlier, but the treatment also killed him. And that is a reality. But I think we feel the film is ultimately hopeful.

We stand on the threshold of a new era in cancer treatment and research, and we want to shout that as loudly as we can. But we also want to be honest about how difficult and complicated that history has been; how incredibly merciless cancer has been to human beings from every walk of life, and there have been some false optimisms in the past. We wanted to recognize that this is really an important moment.

In some ways it charged us to do an executive summary of Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-prize winning book [“The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer”]: Where have we been, where are we now with the current science, and the horizon that we can see. This is a phenomenal story and, of course, of utmost interest to everybody because one out of every two men and one out of three women will get cancer in their lifetime.

What moment in the series stands out to you the most?

The moment when Bishop and Varmus discover the oncogene is a really great story in episode two. It’s really the beginning of when people start to understand the mechanism that causes the disease.

And there’s the overwhelming emotion that comes from the personal stories.

I can’t think of anything that’s more poignant than when Lori Wilson, the cancer doctor at Howard University who specializes in breast cancer, gets two different kinds of breast cancer herself, one aggressive and one less aggressive that’s already spread. It’s an “oh my god” kind of moment, and then we follow her down that terrifying journey. Her story is just amazing. We had a premiere in Washington, D.C., last Friday night, and Lori and her husband were there. I just burst into tears when I saw her. I had never met her because it was Barak’s crews that were embedded there at Johns Hopkins for so long and followed her story. But it was as if I had known her for years. We just hugged and cried and rejoiced at her being there.

I feel so lucky that we could record these families’ stories. It’s tough enough to have the disease, but to also have a documentary film crew watching you at these most intimate moments of bad news and good news, and the disfigurement of surgery, all of that we feel is a gift to us. They made the decision, all the families. Whatever privacy they wanted to preserve was trumped by the knowledge that their stories could help other people.

How did working on this documentary as an executive producer differ from your past projects?

All the past projects, with the exception of one, I’ve been an active day-to-day producer, director, cinematographer, and music director. I had to let go of this, but I was the senior creative consultant. The buck stopped with me in terms of the ultimate creative decision. I was the executive producer, and I was also a co-writer. I feel an ownership of it, but I do want to say this is Barak’s film. I am so glad that I picked him, and we’re looking forward to collaborating again in the future.

I’ve got six or seven projects that I’m working on right now, but I’m also realizing that I’m at that point in my life when I can begin to mentor younger filmmakers with films that wouldn’t get made without my input, and help other projects from some established filmmakers go forward because of my involvement — and, hopefully, my thoughts and artistic contributions can make these films better.

What did you learn — not only from the history of cancer itself, but also about the cancer research process, and how it has evolved?

Most of the work I’ve done has been political, social, and biographical. This project is rooted in science. I’m not unfamiliar with that, a lot of my relatives are scientists. But, every day there was a revelation.

I don’t think I’ve had a film with so many intelligent people in it, including Nobel Prize winners. There’s one statement that stood out: One of the doctors said being a cancer researcher is like being a manic-depressive. You’re failing ninety-nine times out of a hundred.

You begin to have an enormous respect for the patience and the discipline of science. These clinical trials can sometimes feel to us so patently unfair, a sort of Russian roulette. But they are so absolutely necessary to make sure that we don’t delude ourselves with false hope, to which the scientists admit they’re susceptible as well. That, to me, is the main takeaway: The heroic people who labor in the research lab every day to pursue false leads and make sudden, accidental discoveries.

What do you hope people take away after seeing the series?

Sid [Mukherjee] said a funny thing the other night. He said, “I want everybody to become a cancer researcher.” By that he meant he wants everybody to take in the science and understand it. I take it to mean if one little girl says I want to contribute to the cure for cancer, that would be terrific. It would lead to a lot of people working in their communities, supporting family members or friends, or the community of cancer patients, to help take the stigma away.

We live in a media culture. We’re deluged with a tsunami of information. Some of it about it cancer, and as I said before, most of it is disorganized. What if we could begin to have a sense of what this disease is, take our head out of the sand of fear and superstition?

I think it will reward us all if we can be that advocate for cancer funding, for the research that’s been neglected by our partisan Congress, for understanding the dimensions of this problem and our role in it. None of us — not you, not me, not anyone — is disconnected from the cancer story.

Ken Burns’ “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” will be shown on PBS on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week. It will also be available to stream on, and on the PBS app.