Josh Goodstein, Class of 2015
Florentine Films, New York
“Basic Training” at Florentine Films: Out of “The Bush” and Into the Office
by Josh Goodstein, Class of 2015
As the 4 train pulled into Herald Square station on the morning of July 10th, I did not quite know what was in store for me at Ken Burns’s film production company Florentine Films. I walked out of the station, went three blocks in the wrong direction, cursed under my breath, and finally sat down in a small park outside the office with a large iced coffee and The New York Times. As the time was inching closer to 10am, my expected arrival time on my first day, I wiped the sweat from my forehead. The day was sweltering with July heat and humidity. I walked into 875 Sixth Avenue, up the elevator to the eleventh floor and paused outside the glass doors reading FLORENTINE FILMS. With a deep breath, I knocked and prepared myself for whatever was behind it.
Posters of Dizzy Gillespie playing his trumpet, mug shots of Al Capone during Prohibition, and Mark McGwire hitting his Roger Maris-record breaking sixty-second home run at Busch Stadium graced the walls of the tiny office. Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, Mr. Burns’s co-producers and co-directors on many of his films, sat at the head of the conference room table with friendly smiles. Alongside them sat two researchers, a photojournalist, and my supervisor.
Lynn re-introduced herself and described a little bit about the project, where they were in the pre-production stages, and where the next few years would take them. The film would take five years. Although there have been several documentaries covering the impact of the Vietnam War on the home front, the anti-war movement, the plight of Veterans, President Johnson, and The Cold War, Lynn described how their documentary would differentiate itself from others in its pursuit of telling a part of its story from the perspective of the Viet Cong. Lynn and Sarah had already conducted fifty-five interviews, the most for any of their films. They had interviewed ex-Marines, veterans, nurses, hospital workers, photographers, journalists, POWs, mothers, fathers, anti-war protestors, North Vietnamese soldiers and their leaders. They had tens of thousands of articles, books, photographs and interviews from every database, library, book, memoir and archive once could imagine. It is Florentine’s mission “to tell a story.” But here, the question was where to begin when approaching the Vietnam War, where would they go with the plot, what story they were seeking to tell, and where would it end. Lynn asked me to keep this in the back of my head as I approached the material.
After our talk, Lynn asked me to watch a few interviews they had conducted on their monitors before I went to examine microfilm in the New York Public Library, and grab coffee for the office on my way back. I flipped through the interviews with the anti-war protestors and journalists until I came to an interview with a prisoner of war from Danville, Virginia I’ll call ‘John Howard.’
Before I worked at Florentine, I had some exposure to Vietnam literature and film. I read numerous memoirs, The Things They Carried and If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box me Up And Ship Me Home by Tim O’Brien in particular, and saw several films about the era, by Coppola, Cimino, Stone, and Kubrick to name a few. Both of my grandfathers had served in the Second World War, and my father had been drafted in 1970, before being declared 4F months before he would be sent to basic training. On my sixteenth birthday, my grandfather gave me his dog tags from WWII. For him, it was the ultimate sign of becoming a man, and he was proud to let his only grandson wear his tags. I vividly remember him taking me up to see West Point with him when I was younger. Patriotism and service was an element of my family history. I always felt an intimacy and respect for “men in arms.”However, as I began to watch the interviews with Dr. ‘Howard’ and others who were strongly molded by the War, I soon began to realize how strongly I underestimated the titanic influences of ‘Nam on this generation of Americans.
‘John Howard’ was a doctor by training. His father served in WWII and he strongly believed that serving his country and fighting the communists was his destiny. However, much changed when his helicopter was shot down over the jungle of South Vietnam. After his entire crew was killed, and he barely survived the crash, he limped to a nearby village for some assistance from “hopefully friendly” locals. After a farmer helped him bandage his wounds, a Viet Cong battalion came into the house, knocked him unconscious and took him to a nearby prison camp. He spent the next four years in conditions my writing cannot properly describe. He experienced horrors beyond imagination. He described terrible sickness, torture, little food and death throughout his four years there. When asked how he survived, he said that every night before he would try and sleep, he told himself “that when he closed his eyes, he would be there the following morning.”
When the camp was evacuated and the Americans made an exchange for his release, ‘Howard’ had lost eighty pounds, his teeth, his immune system, but not his resolve. He describes, in a choked voice, the scene of his release. American and Vietnamese officials sat on either side of him. A female reporter stood next to a chopper wearing a short mini-skirt; both the woman and her mini-skirt were foreign to ‘Howard’ after years in the darkness of his prison cell. Dr. ‘Howard’ and the other survivors, emaciated and destroyed, walked towards the American boats. A U.S. Marine in Class A uniform stood before him. ‘Howard’ describes the Marine having large muscles, shiny hair and “breadth,” privileges that the camp’s prison guards had stripped of ‘Howard’ and his companions. ‘Howard’ walked up to the Marine, rotten teeth, “straw hair and all,” and saluted the Marine in Class A Uniform. The Marine saluted him back, walked closer to him, tears streamed down his face, embraced him, and said, “welcome home soldier.”
Lynn and Sarah told us on our first day that the material would be extremely “heavy,” and if anyone needed a day off to recover, they were entitled to do so. However, their warning did not quite quell the feeling I got in my gut when exposed to the Vietnam material. As tears flowed down my face after hearing Dr. ‘Howard’s’ story, I asked my supervisor if I could take a walk. I walked to the men’s bathroom and splashed some water on my face. In this interview, a man in a perfectly tailored suit and bow tie, articulate, successful and friendly relived his story in front of the camera for the very first time, forty years later. There were certain things ‘Howard’ refused to talk about, as many Ex-Marines chose not to share certain stories. However, he talked about his past with courage and grace. While I had tried to connect to the fear, courage and disillusionment illustrated by Coppola and Kubrick in their Vietnam films, ‘Howard’s’ authentic, firsthand account poignantly jolted me.
In my first four hours of working as an intern, Dr. ‘Howard’ opened my eyes and threw me into a world I would never understand. In my next few weeks, I would transcribe interviews with ex-Marines who suffered from PTSD, anti-war protestors who marched against the government, mothers who buried their sons, and photographers who traveled with both VC and South Vietnamese battalions who shared similarly crushing stories. Whether you were a hawk or a dove, old or young, connected or removed from this generation, these men and women’s stories were nothing short of mind-blowing. Exploring their worlds was a revelation this summer.
Rewinding back to my first day, I grabbed a quick sandwich in Herald Square, and walked up to the New York Public Library. I was asked to find video of a campaign speech of John F. Kennedy’s in Lexington, Kentucky in October of 1960. Trying to teach myself how to operate a microfilm machine was a complete disaster. After finally making copies of my work, I ran outside to phone my supervisor and ask her about information regarding her library card. When I returned, my bag and all of my work was gone. I sprinted around the library looking for it. On the verge of tears for the second time in three hours, I re-traced my steps and I realized that I left all my work in a bathroom stall.
The Library would become my source of humor for the next eight weeks. It would be a venue of countless mistakes. Among my moments of intern glory were unwittingly walking into the women’s bathroom, accidently leaving a book (written by an Australian journalist who later became a VC loyalist and ultimately a KGB promoter) in my bag as I walked through security and subsequently almost being arrested, and finally, spilling smuggled coffee on a very old, rare interview with Ho Chi Minh himself in front of hundreds of people in the Rose Reading Room.
I will fast-forward to my last day of work. After an early morning wake up-call, I ran to the office to watch Lynn and Sarah edit a few old interviews. I got a real kick every time they screamed profanities in frustration or asked for my input on a specific shot. They then sent me to grab breakfast for the crew and help them lift what felt like nine trillion pound cameras up to the set. I became a cross-country runner that day. Bouncing from Midtown to the Upper West Side and down to Chelsea, I felt as if I lived on the subway. My father later asked me if Walter Hill wanted me to play a role in a remake of The Warriors. I was not amused.
After getting the set ready for an interview Lynn and Sarah would be conducting later in the day, I sprinted to B&H in Times Square to pick up a replacement piece for a camera. I walked in and almost fell over with laughter. An entire colony of Orthodox Jews, dressed for the 19th century Polish shtetl, ran the six-level superstore. I later described it to a friend as Exodus meets Harry Potter. After attempting to thank the nice man helping me in Hebrew, which failed miserably for later I learned he probably spoke Yiddish, I sprinted into Times Square. Uptown I went, delivering a package to Mr. Geoffrey C. Ward, the writer on most of Mr. Burns’s films. Back to the set I ran, sweating profusely and looking more disheveled by the minute.
When the last interview and my internship came to a close, I received hugs from Sarah and Lynn, who asked me how I wanted my name in the film’s credits. I thought they were joking, but I later learned they were not. They asked me to deliver a package to Mr. Burns’s apartment with the rough footage before I went home. I smiled and said, “of course.”
Back on the subway I went, where I started my summer and spent so much of it. I walked out of the Station and into Soho to look for Mr. Burns’s apartment. I walked along the stores, the beautiful twenty-somethings jostling past, and the tourists looking for the next store window to gawk at. I could not help but smile and think of the past eight weeks as my very own “basic training.” I was extremely grateful that this training was not in “the bush” of Vietnam during the War, but rather a crash-course as an intern and research assistant in the Flatiron District.
I found Mr. Burns’s art deco condo and wrote him a brief note thanking him. I put my iPod headphones in, threw on some Country Joe & The Fish, a prize from studying the music of the War, and walked to the uptown subway stop to go home to a long-desired sandwich and a much needed shower.