Ken Burns and Lynn Novick talk about tackling Hemingway in their new documentary series
The three-part documentary Hemingway (premiering April 5 on PBS) details the life and career of the Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway. The series uncovers a more nuanced character than the heavy-drinking, bullfight-attending, man's man of repute, with co-directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick exploring, for example, Hemingway's interest in gender fluidity. "The macho facade is superficial," says Burns, who previously collaborated with Novick on 1994's Baseball and 2017's The Vietnam War, among other projects. "I think this is one of the reasons why you can't just say, 'Oh, dead white male, goodbye.' It's as complex a biography as we've ever worked on."
Jeff Daniels recites Hemingway's letters and prose, while the author's four wives are voiced by Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker, Patricia Clarkson, and Meryl Streep. The latter performed her role of Hemingway's third spouse, writer Martha Gellhorn, following the start of the pandemic. "We planned to record Meryl Streep on March 24 of last year and had to cancel, but her son had a recording studio in his home," says Novick. "She and Ken were in touch about pronunciation questions, but basically this was a gift from Meryl Streep."
"I just want to add that I think she's going places, she's really got a future," says Burns, with a laugh. "No, she's fabulous."
The filmmakers gathered an impressive array of onscreen Hemingway experts including writers Edna O'Brien and Mario Vargas Llosa as well as the late Republican politician John McCain, who had a deep love for Hemingway's 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. "It was one of the last on-camera interviews he did," says Novick. "He was obsessed with Hemingway. Often times with public figures, you have to get them ready to sit down and talk about whatever it is. This was something that was very much on his hard drive and it came from the heart. It was really moving."
Novick admits that she and Burns struggled to fit all of Hemingway's life into the three-part show. "You know, people will laugh at me for saying so, but yes," she says. "There are interviews that didn't make it in that were great and there were long passages of his writing that we couldn't get in. Finding the right length is always a challenge, but we also had to be mindful of our time, our budget, what would be the right length that people would want to watch. We're happy with what we landed on. But the hope is that people who watch the film, or even part of it, will be intrigued and want to go and read some Hemingway, which would be a great thing."
Watch the trailer for Hemingway above.