Yankee Tells Story of America's West
Director of 'The West,' Stephen Ives, says it was no easy task to chronicle the vast frontier. He likens it to painting a huge canvas with details.
BOSTON — 'I certainly am a child of public television," says Stephen Ives, whose evocative and epic documentary, "The West" is now airing on PBS.
" 'Masterpiece Theatre' was almost a religious experience in our household," says Mr. Ives, whose father, David Ives, was president of Boston's public TV station, WGBH, from 1970-1984.
Programs like "Alistair Cooke's America" and "Vietnam: a Television History" piqued the director's interest in history at a young age, and helped lead him eventually into documentary filmmaking and his fruitful collaboration with producer Ken Burns. The two worked together on several projects prior to "The West," including Burns's two most celebrated TV series, "The Civil War" and "Baseball."
The eight-part, 12-1/2-hour series on the settling of the American frontier owes an obvious debt to the gritty, yet dreamlike Burns style that made his earlier films so well-known - and so often copied.
It weaves a broad vision of history from a myriad of powerful details through the use of old photographs, artwork, and memorabilia.
Voiceovers from well-known actors such as John Lithgow, Jimmy Smits, and Ossie Davis narrate the flow of images, and comments are heard from many sources, including descendants of Anglo, Mexican, and native Americans.
Use of modern music
But "The West" is also markedly different from precursors like "The Civil War."
The soundtrack, for instance. "It is not the way Ken would have done it," Ives says. "We did a much more modern score, with synthesizers and string arrangements. Ken is very minimal in his use of music. It works very effectively, but in this case we had many diverse styles, from medieval Spanish music to native-American chanting and flute to traditional American folk music. We needed something to unify it."
Innumerable challenges inevitably face the producers of so vast and complex a subject as the American West.
"The hardest thing of all," notes Ives, "was figuring out which stories to tell out of the multitude we could have chosen. Then fashioning each episode, so each one was compelling, but also added up to a larger picture."
He likens the production to a huge canvas whose details have to be painted in to form an overall vision. "As you fill in all the parts, the outlines of a larger story do come into focus," he says.
Tonight's final installment brings viewers from 1887 to 1914, tracing the transition of the "Wild West" to the industrial era. The program chronicles the Oklahoma land rush and native Americans' struggle to retain their heritage.
Ives met Burns through author-historian David McCullough, host of the PBS series "The American Experience," who had served as a narrator for one of Ives's films. Mr. McCullough was also the voice on Burns's earlier films on the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty.
After graduating from Harvard University, Ives had worked first as a writer and later as a documentary filmmaker at public-TV station KERA in Dallas. Eventually he created his own production company, New York-based Insignia Films.
In 1989, Ives and Burns co-produced a history of the United States called, simply, "The Congress." Later, Ives worked as consulting producer on "The Civil War" and "Baseball."
"I was sort of a hired gun," recalls Ives, "and I was driven to do my own films. I left 'The Civil War' early to make my film about Charles Lindbergh." This film later became a noted edition of "The American Experience."
And in 1990, Ives left "Baseball" early in its production cycle to begin "The West" - this time, with Burns as executive producer and creative consultant.
"Ken and I had talked about it for a long time as the next big thing," says Ives. "There was a lot of interest in it after 'The Civil War' came out."
And now, Ives says, rather emphatically, "I'm going to take a break from historical documentaries."
What's next for Ives
His departure takes the form of a film about the Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater Company, which he calls "one of America's most interesting theatrical ensembles.
"I shot the film in 1991 and am editing it right now. They did classic plays in tiny towns out in the heartland of America."
Ives, who will be both producer and director of the film, expects it to air on PBS at some point. "It's going to be a year before it's done," he says.
And "everybody in this film is alive," he adds with a laugh - and with a tone of relief after many years of dealing with historical figures. "It's very much about today, about the power of theater to make a difference."
* The final installment of 'The West' airs tonight from 8 to 10 p.m. Times vary, so check local listings for this broadcast time as well as upcoming repeats.