Of Duct Tape, Dreams and a Guy in Walpole

Dante Bellini, director of Ken Burns: Here & There, on how the documentary icon helped him make a late-career leap to filmmaking.

At the age of 61, I decided I had enough of the world of advertising and public relations.

I was tired of constant worry and making everyone else happy. Tired of the grind and the “push, push, push.” Tired of the rejection of deeper ideas in the age of TikTok and Twitter.

Mostly, I felt I was running out of the mental duct tape I’d so long used for keeping my business and my sanity together. I wanted to create, instead of manage.

So I left the only job I’d ever had. My partners wished me well, and I went off into the world of documentary filmmaking full of hope.

Dante Bellini at 18.

I know, everyone thinks they’re a director. But I couldn’t let that stop me. From studying classic films in college, getting a part-time job as an usher at the famous Avon Repertory Theater and watching some of the classics and cult favorites shown there hundreds of times, to my early days in the ad business convincing clients to let me make videos for their businesses, I’d spent too many years, decades, dreaming of directing; now it was time to actually do it. Or at least try.

Why this? Well, I love movies, and the craft of making them – especially documentaries. And I think I can tell a story.

But there was a problem. I’m not rich. Or connected. Through my old job, I’d done plenty of film and video production, but still, who is going to give an aging ad guy, new to the film world, a chance? Then those nagging doubts slowly started to seep in. And I wondered: What have I done?! Did I make a mistake leaving a secure job with bonuses and a personal bathroom?

Was I out of my fucking mind?

Dante Bellini with Ken Burns.

That’s when this guy in the small town of Walpole, New Hampshire said something over lunch one day that spoke to me. “None of us get out of here alive.” In other words – aside from ephemeral stuff – what do you have to lose? The name of that guy was Ken Burns. Yes, that Ken Burns.

I’ve known Ken a long time. I was a fan who became a friend. That friendship manifested in lunches at Burdick’s in Walpole going back 15 years. I met him through my old job, but Ken is that rare celebrity open to connecting with regular folks. That’s because, at heart, he still is one. It may be the gift behind the wonder in his work.

But Ken had actually given me a dose of wisdom even earlier, when I told him I was thinking of leaving my job at the agency. “I’ve run out of duct tape,” I said. He knew what I meant. I’ll never forget what he said. “Dream up some more. We all need duct tape.” He was right – and the secret of sustaining it is how you use it. Without Ken realizing it, he helped to open me up to that next step that I’d been avoiding. And he would loom large in my life in another way, too.

Armed with cautious optimism and the support of my wife, family and friends, I dove headfirst into the world of documentary filmmaking. The first subject? A film about, you guessed it, Ken Burns, but with a focus on how this man unexpectedly draws his sense of self from the small town of Walpole. It’s a town he found decades ago as a place to escape, then embraced as home. His “mythic home,” as he would say – one that gives him peace, perspective and his best self. I’d asked him many times over the years to let me make a film about him. The answer was invariably “no,” until one day in 2018 it was “yes” and I nearly needed CPR.

Dante Bellini behind the camera.

Over the year that I made my film Ken Burns – Here & There, Walpole turned into the center of my universe too. And something magical happened. It became the place where the first step of my own dream, late in life, was realized. As it had done for Ken, four decades earlier, when he edited his early work there, Walpole gave me the courage to abandon one world and embrace another. In making that film, I learned as much about myself as about Ken. I’d found what I was meant to do.

Now, at 63, my new career remains daunting. Pitching studios and investors. The rebuffs. The fear of not being good enough. Yet if 40 years in the ad business left me with anything, it’s the ability to soldier on through rejection. And I’ve learned an equally important lesson in my short time in documentaries: It’s OK if it’s hard. Aren’t all things that are worth having hard?

As for those times when it seems too hard, well, that’s when I remind myself of the advice of a wise friend. If you run out of duct tape, dream up more. You might be surprised to find there’s enough in there for another act.

Dante Bellini, Jr. is a former principal of the RDW Group communications firm with offices in Providence, Rhode Island, and Boston, Massachusetts. Over nearly 40 years, Dante has represented and been the creative and production force behind hundreds of projects, brand spots and campaigns. While retired from agency life, Dante has put the majority of his energy into documentary filmmaking – catalyzed by his long association with Ken Burns. As such, and not without a bit of irony, his first feature documentary is based on that history, and is now airing on PBS. Ken Burns, Here & There is an intimate and exclusive look at the life of the iconic filmmaker.