Ken Burns, Katie Couric Film PBS Special at GW

Filmmaker discusses his newest project, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” in front of live audience at the Milken Institute School of Public Health.

WETA-TV films a conversation between (from left) author and oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, WETA-TV President and CEO Sharon Percy Rockefeller, Filmmaker Ken Burns and journalist Katie Couric at the Milken Institute School of Public Health.
December 17, 2014

By Lauren Ingeno

“Here we go. Stand by please,” shouted a voice from the back of the dimly lit auditorium in the Milken Institute School of Public Health building.

On stage, broadcast veteran Katie Couric, who had been joking with the live audience just seconds earlier, tucked her hair behind her ear and directed her attention toward the teleprompter to her right.

“Every one of us has been touched by cancer, including the people on this stage right now,” said Ms. Couric, seated next to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee and Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president and CEO of WETA-TV, the Washington, D.C., public broadcasting station.

About 100 George Washington University students, faculty and staff snagged backstage passes last week to watch the filming of a PBS special that will air in spring 2015. The broadcast will serve as a preview for "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” a six-hour documentary produced by Mr. Burns and based on Dr. Mukherjee’s book of the same name. The first episode in the three-part documentary series, directed by Barak Goodman, will premier on March 30. 

The film is funded in part by Stand Up to Cancer, a charitable foundation co-founded by Ms. Couric, whose husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer in 1998. Stand Up to Cancer obtained the film rights to Dr. Mukherjee's book two years ago and agreed Mr. Burns was the best filmmaker for the subject, Ms. Couric said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Dr. Mukherjee, an oncologist and cancer researcher, calls his book a “biography” of cancer. It chronicles the history of the relentless disease that kills more than 7.5 million people each year from cancer’s earliest origins in ancient Egypt to modern-day searches for a cure.

“It’s almost as if cancer was this mysterious historical figure who no one really knew or understood,” Ms. Couric said to Dr. Mukherjee. “And it must have been fascinating to peel away the layers of the onion and look at when we first recognized this disease, and how it has morphed significantly and frequently throughout history.”

The physician said he felt compelled to explore the topic in this way when, during his oncology fellowship, he realized how little cancer doctors really understand about the complex disease they treat. The scientific community lacked an “executive summary” of the disease, he said, and that’s exactly what he wished to provide.

“We were 40, 50 years into the war on cancer, and we lacked a roadmap,” he said. “How can we even talk about the future when we don’t know about the past? How can we talk about where we are going when we don’t know where we are now?”

Lynn R. Goldman (right), dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, welcomed the audience to the the taping of the PBS special and answered on-air questions from Katie Couric about why it is difficult to link environmental factors to cancer. 

The book received critical acclaim after its release in 2010 and struck a chord with WETA President Ms. Rockefeller, who read it after she was successfully treated for colorectal cancer following a 2005 diagnosis.

“I wanted to understand what cancer was,” Ms. Rockefeller said. “I read about 20 books on cancer, and I didn’t like any one of them. Then I read this book and thought, ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for.’”

She urged Mr. Burns, who has his own personal connection to cancer, to bring the book to the screen. The filmmaker’s mother died from cancer when he was 11, and that event has profoundly influenced his work, he said. Mr. Burns said he felt obligated by his mother’s death and by the sobering worldwide cancer statistics to work on this documentary.  

All of my other projects have been about events in American history. This is a global story,” Mr. Burns said. “You have to ask the questions that we’ve never really asked.”

In addition to telling stories from the past, the documentary provides a look into where scientists and doctors are on the road toward developing new treatments and potentially a cure for cancer. While the documentary discusses the challenges cancer researchers face today, it also highlights the significant scientific breakthroughs that have been made in just the past five years.

The film project follows a dozen cancer patients and their families on their own intimate journeys toward recovery. Viewers will watch as families make crucial, impossibly difficult decisions—like parents who must decide whether to take their chances on a foreign treatment by assigning their sick child to a randomized clinical trial.

“The glue that held the science and the history together are these personalized case studies,” Mr. Burns said. “I hope that one of the benefits of the film is that you realize that we’re bound to each other, all of us, that these people become family members.”

For Daniel Wetter, a freshman studying political communication, these stories were all too familiar. Mr. Wetter, who attended last week’s filming, lost his mother to ovarian cancer this year. During her cancer battle, she was involved in supporting Stand Up to Cancer. After the taping of the show, Mr. Wetter had the opportunity to talk to Ms. Couric about her foundation.

“I wanted to thank her for her work. I told her about my mom,” he said. “You could tell she was really touched by it, and I’m honored that she took the time to talk to me.”

He said he was especially struck by Dr. Mukherjee’s optimism about the future of curing cancer. 

“He really believed we’re on the verge of something great,” he said.