Filmmakers document Twain's life on the Mississippi


Steamboats washed a cadence of gently rolling waves against the shore of a Mississippi River town.

A young boy spent his childhood enthralled by the river's dignity, while his later life was consumed by travel and adventure. Through these experiences, some of America's most treasured literature was spawned.

Transplanting his family from Virginia to advance westward, John Clemens moved his wife and children to Missouri. The sixth-eldest child, Samuel, flourished in the environment, garnering life experiences that provided material for a prolific career.

Dayton Duncan braved the sweltering July heat to scan the river and surrounding countryside to capture the essence of Samuel Clemens. Duncan, who is co-producing a Mark Twain documentary with filmmaker Ken Burns, arrived in Hannibal to document the life of one of America's favorite sons.

"Mark Twain" was completed in July 2001. The documentary will debut across the nation when PBS airs the four-hour film in two parts on Jan. 14 and 15.

Duncan entered the historic city with a clean slate, leaving any perceptions of Twain at his Walpole, N.H., studio.

"We start every project trying not to have a pre-conceived notion of what the story is, other than we knew that Mark Twain is not only America's best-known, and probably most-beloved writer, but also one of its greatest writers," Duncan said.

After finishing advanced scouting for the project, Duncan arrived later in 1999 with two camera operators. The crew spent the next week in Hannibal, shooting color film of the Mark Twain Riverboat, the Delta Queen, Twain's boyhood home and other attractions symbolic of Twain's childhood.

Duncan praised Hannibal residents and organizations for their assistance and hospitality, but "being a Midwesterner, I wasn't surprised by that, but we were very gratified by it," he said.

In addition to Hannibal, the crew devoted time to Elmira, N.Y., and Connecticut, but Duncan said Hannibal is ground-zero for learning what made Twain click. Noting that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn drew upon his childhood, Duncan said Twain's experiences in Hannibal heavily populated his novels.

"He transformed every experience that he had into literature," he said, "but particularly those early years of growing up in Hannibal became the raw material for some of his greatest works."

Twain became a printer's apprentice in Hannibal, which introduced him to the world of words. Duncan said, in agreement with Ernest Hemingway, that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn marked the beginning of distinctly American literature.

Burns, regarded as one the nation's foremost documentary filmmakers, said the fusion of Twain's location in middle America and the Mississippi River set the stage for his literature. He said Hannibal sheds light on Twain's life and provides background for his greatest works.

"Any journey to learn about Mark Twain begins in Hannibal and its immediate area," Burns said in a written statement. "He was born and brought up there, on the border between North and South, East and West, and on the banks of the mighty river that would become so crucial to his life. Young Sam Clemens' experiences in Hannibal stayed with him the rest of his life, and he transformed them into some of our nation's and the world's greatest literature."

The Twain documentary is the last of Burns' five films about significant Americans.

Duncan said he encountered few unforeseen obstacles during filming, although problems arose on the cutting-room floor. Growing up in the age of photography, Twain was a regular in front of the camera. Duncan said many photos were axed after the the crew discovered an "embarrassment of riches" of great photographs.

He said several great quotes and photos couldn't be encompassed into the film.

"The hardest thing in this film was making the hard decisions that we have to make in every film, which is what things are you going to cut out," Duncan said. "He is endlessly fascinating and has endless, wonderful things to tell us himself, through his writings. The hardest thing was deciding, 'well, that's a great quote, but we don't have room for it.'"

Scholars who study Twain's work are expected to make room for the four-hour series.

Tom Quirk, professor of English at The University of Missouri, said Twain scholars around the nation will be glued to the television to watch Burns' next film. He said although he has no definite expectations for "Mark Twain," it likely will be the first film biography of the writer.

"There has been plenty of Twain's writings put on film and lots of essays re-tracing his steps, but as far as I know, there hasn't been a full biographical account," he said.

Quirk said Twain's image was enhanced in the mid-19th century as he became increasingly well-known for his contributions to American literature and cultural history. His early prediction is that Burns' film will capitalize on that image that became synonymous with Twain.

Quirk said Hannibal was vital to Twain's literature and shines through much of his work.

"Most people think that Hannibal is the foundation for what he became," he said. "He kept coming back to his home place, and even late in life he was casting back to those earlier times. It was absolutely fundamental."

Like so many of Burns' films that preceded "Mark Twain," race is once again a component in this film. Earlier documentaries regarding the Civil War, baseball and jazz revolved around race, and Duncan said Twain was outspoken about race and imperialisms.

"Race is the central fault line of American history," he said. "If you look into almost any aspect of American history, the issue of race emerges."

Duncan noted that Twain was raised before the Civil War in a slave-owning family.

"It probably took a southerner like Twain to write a novel like Huckleberry Finn that is an incredible attack on slavery and racism, though it's done in a way that is sort of subversive by doing it through the voice and the eyes of this teenage, runaway, illiterate river-rat," he said.

From their New England studio, Burns and Duncan have created some of the nation's most-viewed documentaries. About 40 million people watched as "The Civil War" made its premiere on PBS in September 1990. The 10-hour film set a ratings record for American public television and earned more than 40 major film and television awards.

Duncan said he doesn't let the public's high expectations seep into a project. He said he hopes the crew's reputation for high-quality films will pull an audience to each documentary, although success isn't measured by the pairs of eyes cast on the tube.

High expectations likely will have Quirk and other Twain scholars in front of the television. Quirk said he is familiar with the filmmaker's previous work and is interested to see the crew's perspective on an American icon.

"I'm definitely going to watch it and I'll probably tape it," he said.

Duncan said the crew strives to make interesting and entertaining films, while believing in the educational component of public television.

Airing on a commercial-free station allows the crew to develop scenes at varying lengths. Duncan said PBS offers freedom to tell stories, because "We don't have to live by these arbitrary breaks of story-telling."

"If we were doing these films for network television, or for any commercial-type television, we would have to artificially construe the narrative so that every seven or eight minutes you have to come to some sort of crescendo and stop your film so that they can sell the products they've got to sell," he said.

The next project for Burns and his crew will follow the first automobile trip across the United States. One hundred years after Merriweather Lewis left Washington, D.C., to become the first person to traverse the continent, a two-cylinder, 20 horsepower vehicle left San Francisco, heralding America into the automobile age.

The crew will re-trace the route and obtain footage of landscapes along the way, similar to Burns' highly successful Lewis and Clark documentary. The film will premiere on PBS in 2003 the centennial of the automobile trip and bi-centennial of Lewis and Clark's expedition.

Duncan said he hopes the documentaries generate an interest in history and prompt viewers to dive deeper into the subject matter.

"In order to know who we are now, it's important to know our own past," Duncan said. "That arms us for the present and the future, if we have a greater understanding of our own history."

Duncan said although most Americans are aware of Twain's most famous works, the documentary reveals surprises about his life. He said the film brings home the idea of a small-town kid who traveled the world, although his roots were firmly established in Hannibal.

"One of the things that struck me the most was when we were filming there at his birthplace, that in this two-room shack was born a boy, who by the end of his life, had become friends with presidents and kings, had gotten an honorary degree from Oxford University," he said. "It's an incredible story to go from that kind of backwoods, humble birth, to the fame and genius that he had."

Dayton Duncan talks about Twain documentary

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