how i get it done

How an Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Gets It Done

Photo: Photo-Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

Lynn Novick has been making Emmy Award–winning documentaries about American history for more than two decades. With her producing partners, Sarah Botstein and filmmaker Ken Burns, she’s tackled Prohibition, the Vietnam War, baseball, the Civil War, jazz music, and more. Now, she’s having her solo directorial debut with College Behind Bars, a film about the transformative power of higher education, which follows several incarcerated men and women as they matriculate through the Bard Prison Initiative and reenter society. She lives in New York with her partner. Here’s how she gets it done.

On a typical morning: 

When I’m working on a film, I usually wake up pretty early, around 6 a.m. Most mornings, if I’m healthy and able, I’ll work out. Right now I have a knee injury, but normally I’d go on a five- or six-mile run and then do some strength exercises a few times a week. That keeps me grounded and sane and burns off steam. And also I really enjoy it. A lot of people think I’m so disciplined, but it really makes me happy so it’s not really a chore.

Then I have coffee and look at the paper a little bit, maybe look at my email, which can be a black hole. And then go into the office. We’re always at different stages of the projects we’re working on, so it might be meetings or phone calls, it might be a shoot or planning for one, it might be digesting reel that we’ve already filmed or working with an editor on a cut.

On filming in a prison: 

During the phase where Sarah Botstein [our producer] and I were going into prisons a lot, those were really long days — four hours of driving plus the full day inside. Those days were intense and sometimes very draining, and often when we’d get back we were psychically overwhelmed by what we had experienced. It’s a very stressful environment. Even when we were having great conversations with the students and doing really productive work on our film, it’s inherently extremely stressful and physically overwhelming to be constantly aware of why people are [in prison] and what their situation is.

On interviewing subjects: 

I love being on a shoot and the intensity of having the camera crew here. If it’s a historical piece, we’ve done a lot of preparation to be able to sit in that chair and ask the right questions, but you never know how it’s going to happen. You put your phone aside and you are 100 percent focused on what you’re doing. You’re focused on what the person is saying and the way they’re saying it and how you can help them express themselves and get their point across. So it’s always thrilling, but it can be disappointing if I feel like I didn’t do a good job or somehow the chemistry wasn’t right.

On self-doubt:  

I wanted to make a film where I could say “I directed this” for a long time.  When this opportunity came up, I really jumped at the chance to direct on my own. But I did have many sleepless nights wondering if  I was up to the task — partly because it’s such a different kind of film. If we were doing a film about history, I would have felt more confident going in, having done that a lot. Directing on my own and doing a completely different kind of project —  all of it was really intimidating and terrifying and also exciting. But a little anxiety is a good thing. Too much confidence can be kind of blinding.

I will say that I think sometimes that was difficult for some of our colleagues to feel like I didn’t quite know what to do. And I often felt that way. You have to have the confidence to say “I don’t know if this is going to work, but this is what we’re going to try.”

On the collaborative nature of filmmaking:  

One of the great joys of the kind of work we do is that it’s so collaborative. You get in this creative space and you’re really operating on a different level than you thought you could. I couldn’t get there on my own, I know that. But when I’m working with really talented collaborators — working with Ken Burns on all the films we’ve done together — I find myself thinking of things I didn’t know I could think of, and listening to other people and reassuring them, or realizing that my idea wasn’t very good. It’s a very iterative process and when you’re done you look back and say, “Wow, everyone contributed to this.” You can’t remember what your little part was. If you create an environment where everybody feels ready to take risks and put themselves on the line and say what they think will work and be prepared to say, “I don’t like that, but maybe let’s try this other one,” something magical can happen.

On work-life balance:  

I have two amazing children. They’re in their mid- to late-20s and living fully independent lives. When they were younger, I didn’t work full time. I didn’t have a cell phone, I didn’t have constant work 24/7. When I was with them, I was focused on them, and when I was at work, I was at work. There were pretty clear boundaries. I felt like I was a very hands-on and attentive mother, who also worked pretty hard and traveled a fair amount. I had a very supportive husband who definitely held up more than his half of the bargain.

But I always wanted to find a way to be a good mother and have a career, and it has not been easy. It’s a really hard balance to strike, and it’s a constantly moving target as your kids are growing and need different things from you.  My mother went back to school and developed a very successful career when I was in middle school, and I was always frustrated with her that she never said it was going to be hard.

When my kids grew up and left home, I felt a terrible void, and was really depressed and unhappy with that loss. It took me a while, but I did fill that void to some degree with work. I do work longer hours, and I travel more, and I have more energy and focus to put into work, but I don’t think work should fill the entire void. I’m divorced, and I have a wonderful partner who I live with and our lives are shared. My life is not all work. I have friends, I love to cook, I have an extended family, I love to read. Sometimes work does take over to a degree that I do not think is healthy. And frankly that’s not the best for the work itself.

On ambition: 

I think this is very gendered. I think it’s hard for women to say, “Yes, I’m ambitious. I want to be successful. I want people to appreciate the work I do. I want it to make a difference.” I will say those things. I don’t know that I want to achieve some of the things that I think our society values most: a big paycheck or a fancy title or a lot of awards. The things that they put on your obituary. For me, it’s always been about doing something that makes a difference. I hope to keep being able to make documentary films that reach a lot of people and that help us see ourselves and our world with more nuance and more complexity. For me, [that means doing] films that challenge our conventional wisdom, the stories we tell ourselves, the myth of American exceptionalism — I really think we need to look deeper at some of the darker sides of our history and come to terms with them. And so if I can make a difference, those are the kind of stories I want to tell.

How an Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Gets It Done