How Ken Burns Used His Science Gene and a Vacuum Cleaner to Make a Cancer Documentary

'The Emperor of All Maladies' tells the history of the deadly disease

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Emperor of all Maladies. (photo: PBS)

When renowned filmmaker Ken Burns speaks about his latest project, the PBS documentary The Emperor of All Maladies, he fully admits that this was not an endeavor that he sought out.

“Sharon Rockefeller, my producing partner for 35 years, who is a cancer survivor, handed me the book and demanded that I read it. I did and I was in,” explains Burns.

Once he settled into the idea, Burns realized that he actually had a calling to do this. “My mom died of cancer when I was 11. There was not a moment when I was growing up that I wasn’t aware that she was desperately ill. I didn’t really have a childhood and look what I do for a living; I wake the dead, go into the past, and tell stories. In a way, this is a conversation with my mom.”

Burns, whose many films range from The Civil War to The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is the executive producer, creative consultant and co-writer of the three-part, six-hour TV film that delves into the disease that kills approximately eight million people globally every year.

Directed by Barak Goodman (Scottsboro: An American Tragedy) and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Indian-born American scientist Siddhartha Mukherjee, the documentary begins airing on PBS on Monday.

The series chronicles the history of cancer, early experimental treatments, profiles pioneers in various therapies, and covers advances in immunotherapy.

“I found the book to be a marvelous detective piece,” says Burns.” But, book to film translations are always a bit tricky and with this one we had to figure out ways to simplify the story.  Now, having said that, we didn’t ‘dumb it down’ in any way. We felt we had a great template to work from and whenever we got lost we just used the manuscript as a guide.”

Burns was challenged by the task of wrangling the massive amount of material into a cohesive piece. “There is probably no film that has a greater wattage of intelligence than this film. There are so many people with so much knowledge that it was a bit overwhelming. In every film project, it’s knowing what to cut, what to leave in, and how to tell a good story. This one was no different in terms of putting it together.”

Given the heavy subject matter, some viewers might be tempted to shy away from watching the piece, to which Burns responds, “The great absurdity of life is that none of us get out alive. We’re obligated to know this stuff. Think about this – the study of this disease really started with this guy, who takes a disease — childhood leukemia — which at that time was 100% fatal and says ‘let’s poison them.’ That’s so counterintuitive and yet now that disease is not 100% fatal, it’s now 90% curable. Then he joins with an extraordinary woman named Mary Lasker and she says ‘we have to get cancer out of the attic and start talking about it.’ At that time people literally put their sick relatives away in the attic. They didn’t talk about it.  We’re talking about it now and we have to continue to do that every day. This piece is a primer for people to understand where we’ve been with this disease and where we need to go. You can’t just look away because it makes you emotional. That’s one of the main reasons you should watch.”

Adding to the poignancy of the film are the contemporary stories of individuals and families dealing with cancer that are woven into the piece. “We knew that we would have to provide our own cases studies,” explains Burns. “Barak and I had to embed ourselves and earn the trust of the families that we show and show those families getting good news and, sadly, getting bad news as well. We know that there’s a very delicate calibration here in how much we can give people to handle but we had to include it all, even the tough stuff.”

While Burns had his specific vision and a roadmap with which to craft the piece, he was surprised by a few personal revelations that occurred during the production process. “I’m an outlier in my family. My mother was a biologist, as were my grandparents and my uncles, so it seems like there was some sort of science gene running through my family that I didn’t get or that I chose not to engage in order to become a filmmaker, but whatever the reason, this project, for me, meant familiarizing myself with science and understanding how incredibly complex all of this is.  I also really came to realize that this is really the wily beast of illness in that it’s not like heart disease where if you eat right and exercise it won’t happen. It’s something that we need to figure out a way to outsmart and I’m happy to use maybe a part of that gene that runs through my family to make this happen.”

Burns might seem extremely confident about the film now, but he admits that he did have moments of trepidation as he worked on the project. “Here’s the thing; when my daughter Lilly was about two she was absolutely terrified of the vacuum cleaner. One day when the monster was roaring in the room, she walked right up to it and just sat down right on top of the vacuum. In our family when we talk about facing fears and moving toward the stuff that makes you uncomfortable we call it ‘Sitting on the Vacuum Cleaner.’ So in a way, with this film, I’m having a conversation with my mom and like my daughter I’m sitting on the vacuum cleaner.”

In an extremely sad twist of fate, two driving forces behind Emperor succumbed to cancer before the film was completed. “It’s part of the merciless calculus of this disease,” says Burns. “We lost Lauren Ziskin, who was the guiding spirit behind this, just as we started production.  She started the Stand Up to Cancer movement and she acquired the book and worked with us. Then, we lost Edward Hermann, who so beautifully narrated the series, just as we were finishing the film. “

Herman, who succumbed to brain cancer on Dec. 31, 2014, told Burns of his condition just as the two started working together. “He pulled me aside and said, ‘you know I’m dying of brain cancer,’ to which I said, ’are you sure you want to do this,’ and without hesitation he said, ‘I have to do this.’ There were times when he was really fatigued and he still worked hard. These people – Ziskin and Hermann – did all of this for something they felt was bigger than themselves. We should all be extremely grateful for their service.”

Making a final plea for viewers to not only tune into the series, but to take action, Burns says with unmistakable passion, “I think for too long we’ve avoided this subject. It’s really time to stop looking away and continue to push. We’re at an important moment – we need to keep funding and research gong for this. If this disease really is The Emperor of All Maladies then you and I are obligated to join the resistance movement in whatever way we see fit. That might be by doing a 5k run, or by writing a check or by writing a personal article. Maybe it’s giving a megaphone to this film so that some young girl or boy watches and says, ‘I’m going to become a cancer researcher.’ If we all work together and do these things, we stand a chance of breaking the back of this insidious disease.”

The Emperor of All Maladies begins Monday on PBS. Check your local listings for specific times in your area.