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Ken Burns celebrates the life of his wife and longtime collaborator Amy Stechler

 Amy Stechler looks into the camera. She was known for her work with Ken Burns and her Emmy-nominated film "The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo."
Courtesy
/
Sarah and Lilly Burns
Amy Stechler was known for her work with Ken Burns and her Emmy-nominated film "The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo."

Acclaimed documentarian and longtime New Hampshire resident Amy Stechler died earlier this month. She was well known for her Emmy nominated film "The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo," as well as her work alongside filmmaker Ken Burns, to whom she was married for over a decade.

All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa spoke with Burns about their work and life together, much of which was spent in Walpole. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Julia Furukawa: Ken, during your time together, you and Amy collaborated on several projects. She worked on "The Brooklyn Bridge," she was a consultant for "The Civil War" series. What did Amy bring to the table as a filmmaker and as a collaborator?

Ken Burns: Well, first and foremost, she's a really good filmmaker on her own. She made, on her own, a beautiful film in the aughts on Frida Kahlo. When she finally, after our two daughters were grown, felt she could get back into filmmaking, we worked together on "Brooklyn Bridge." She was primarily the editor, but also a writer on it and brought a kind of solidity and a kind of calm. It was my first real foray out. We were kind of inventing, if you will, a wheel of historical films of this sort that use first person voices in addition to third person narration that energetically explores, with a kind of roving camera eye, the surface of photographs, not just holding them at arm's length, adding complex sound effects. And so she was my full partner on that project as we were doing it, and a kind of courageous rock that would see problems and figure out how how to solve them. I think I was more reactive and mercurial and anxious, and it was grounding to have that kind of presence there.

And then we started a family and we made a film on the Shakers together. She edited a film I made on Huey Long, the turbulent southern demagogue, and then sort of decided to retire in favor of being, as she said, the thing she wanted to be was a professional mom. I had begged her to stay in filmmaking. And so she ended up advising the films we made, like on "The Statue of Liberty" or the "The Civil War," as you mentioned, she was always there. I think it was probably the fact that after "The Civil War" my life so dramatically changed and took me away, that probably, combined with other things, spelled the end of our marriage. But we remained friends to the very end. In fact, when she passed away, she was not a mile away from where I live.

Julia Furukawa: Ken, you mentioned Amy's acclaimed documentary "The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo." How would you describe her personal style as a filmmaker, on her own, and what made a film like this stand out?

Ken Burns: She had this wonderful combination of grace. She was a person of few words, but she was ferocious at the same time. And so I think when tackling somebody as complex as Frida Kahlo, she first got her as an artist and as a human being. And as a woman in a man's profession, at least then, [Amy] was able to understand it from the inside out rather than just from the outside in.

Julia Furukawa: Your studio is Florentine Films. And as I was reading up on Amy, I saw that your friend Buddy Squires told The New York Times that Amy was instrumental in developing the signature Florentine style. So what was Amy's role in bringing Florentine to life?

Ken Burns: Buddy is absolutely right. She was central to developing all of that because I think she had a good B.S. meter that knew, 'No, that's not going to work. But this might.'

Julia Furukawa: A good B.S. meter is so important.

Ken Burns: It is indeed. It is indeed. And that was very much like her. I mean, she was kind of grace personified for a lot of reasons. She is the best mother I've ever met. And my daughters, our daughters, are two shining examples of what good parenting is. I'm the vermouth in a very dry martini, and she's the rest. What she did, the consistency, the love... Our household was a very, very happy one when it came to just... I don't think we disagreed ever about our children. And it was just great. And they're, I think, exhibit A and B of how great Amy was as a human being. Grace is behind that. But she also didn't suffer fools, had strong opinions. And it was this interesting balance, the ferociousness and the grace together made, I think, a really, really spectacular combination.

Julia Furukawa: Ken, is there a piece of advice or creative insight that Amy gave to you that has stuck with you throughout your career?

Ken Burns: The grace provided her with a little bit of distance to see things that I couldn't always see. And once I was in a particularly tough, tough, horrific situation and she just sang "Let It Be" to me and I knew the song, The Beatles song, the famous Beatles song written by Paul McCartney. It's a beautiful, beautiful tune. I've used it in our film on Vietnam later on in kind of a tribute, but I don't think I'd ever heard the lyrics in quite the way as her just singing it. And it was like all of a sudden things fell away, the scales from my eyes at least.

Julia Furukawa: How should we celebrate Amy's life?

Ken Burns: Oh, it should definitely be a celebration. We tend to measure it by years when we need to measure it by life lived, and somebody who lived their life fully was Amy Stechler.

Julia Furukawa: Ken, is there anything I didn't ask you about that you would like to share?

Ken Burns: You know what, I will tell you one other thing is that we live together in a fifth floor walkup on West 25th Street near Eighth Avenue in New York City. When in the spring of 1979, the landlord said he was going to raise our rent from $275 a month to $325, which meant I had to get a real job or we had to do something else. And we both decided to move to New Hampshire and she said, 'I'll go up.'

She walked through and said to the guy who was going to rent it to us, 'I'll take it,' like in one second. And he loved it so much, he was not intending to rent it and was going to turn her down, but said, 'OK.' Both of our children were born in the house, in our bed. I was able to buy the house, and I still live in that house and I still sleep in the bedroom where my two daughters were born. And it came from her just saying, 'This is it. I'll take it.' Just one tiny second.

And we moved here so that we knew we would live in poverty. That being documentary filmmakers, strike one, in American history, strike two, on PBS, strike three, that we had just consigned ourselves to a life of anonymity and poverty. And if that was going to happen, it was going to happen in Walpole, New Hampshire. And while it didn't happen and everybody assumed that we would come back once the first film, "Brooklyn Bridge" film, was nominated for an Academy Award, the best decision we ever made was to stay. She spent the rest of her life in Walpole, as have I.

Amy Stechler smiles at the camera wearing a heavy jacket.
Courtesy
/
Sarah and Lilly Burns
Amy Stechler pictured during her work on the Florentine Films documentary "Brooklyn Bridge" in June 1980.

Editors Note: This story has been updated to correct the title of "Brooklyn Bridge."

Julia Furukawa joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing All Things Considered after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.