Episode 327: Ken Burns Documentary with Producer David Schmidt

How do we know what we know about Benjamin Franklin?

We know historians, museum curators, and archivists rely on historical documents and objects to find and learn information about the past. But how does a documentary filmmaker present what they know about history through video?

David Schmidt works as a senior producer at Florentine Films where he worked alongside Ken Burns to produce a 2-episode documentary about the life of Benjamin Franklin. The documentary is called Benjamin Franklin and Schmidt joins us for a behind-the-scenes tour of documentary filmmaking and to investigate some of the lesser-known details of Ben Franklin’s life.

This episode is supported by an American Rescue Plan grant to the Omohundro Institute from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

About the Show

Ben Franklin’s World is a podcast about early American history.

It is a show for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our present-day world.

Ben Franklin’s World is a production of the Omohundro Institute.

Episode Summary

David Schmidt, a senior producer at Florentine Films and a senior producer on Ken Burn’s Benjamin Franklin, joins us to investigate documentary filmmaking and the life of Benjamin Franklin.

During our conversation, David reveals why Ken Burns decided to make a documentary film about the life of Benjamin Franklin; How David and his teammates went from film idea to a finished film; And details about Benjamin Franklin’s printing business, his relationships with his son William and his wife Deborah, and his experiments with electricity.

What You’ll Discover

  • How David became a film documentarian
  • Why make a documentary about Benjamin Franklin
  • Franklin’s life and involvement in eighteenth-century America
  • Franklin’s capacity to admit when he was wrong and change his mind
  • Surprising aspects of Benjamin Franklin’s life
  • Franklin’s relationship with his son William
  • Details about William Franklin
  • The process from film idea to final film
  • Benjamin Franklin as a complicated individual
  • How to portray Franklin in a film about a man who lived before film
  • Mandy Patinkin as the voice of Benjamin Franklin
  • Details about Franklin’s printing business
  • How Ken Burns and his team chose what aspects to feature about Franklin’s life
  • The role ads for enslaved people played in Franklin’s printing business
  • Deborah Read Franklin and her role in Ben Franklin’s life and business
  • Franklin’s interest in electricity
  • How Franklin’s experiments with electricity made him internationally famous

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Time Warp PlainTime Warp Question


In your opinion, if the ability to record film had existed in the 18th century, what video footage would you have liked to include in your documentary, Benjamin Franklin?

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