On vacation in Key West in 1995, filmmaker Lynn Novick happened upon Ernest Hemingway’s house, preserved as a museum.

“I saw the typewriter that he used to write Snows of Kilimanjaro and some of the objects that belonged to him.”

She’s wanted to make a film about him ever since.

Novick and longtime collaborator Ken Burns, directed the three-night Hemingway, which recently aired on GBH 2. Hemingway tracks the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the prolific and complex author who suffered from chronic alcoholism, traumatic brain injuries and serious mental illness.

Influential, infuriating, gender-bending, genius, adventurous, amorous—Hemingway was all those and much more.

“Seeing him as a vulnerable, anxious, sometimes depressed person who really wrestles with his legacy, his art, the relationships in his life—that all came out in the process of making the film,” Novick says.

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“Lucky for us, Hemingway not only lived larger-than-life, he also saved everything,” she says. She was able to view Hemingway’s papers and artifacts, which are held in an archive at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

“I hadn’t really known that much about him as a person,” says Novick. “I knew about Paris in the 1920s, I knew that he had died by suicide—that’s pretty much it,” she says.

The film interweaves his biography and excerpts from his iconic short stories, novels and nonfiction. Interviews with son Patrick Hemingway, authors Edna O’Brien, Abraham Verghese and Mario Vargas Llosa, among others, reveal the story of his writing process, his mental illness and his four marriages.

“One of the things we do in the film is try and understand and unpack his relationships not only to women but also to Blacks, Native Americans, Jews—how he describes different groups of people and writes about them,” said Sarah Botstein, producer.

“We wanted to make sure you heard from women talking about Hemingway,” says Botstein. “He was married to four very strong, very different women; his mother was strong, his sisters were strong. It’s peppered throughout the whole film.”

“I’m hoping that it spurs conversation about times people live in, choices people make and words people use,” she says.

To research the film, the team conducted 31 interviews and shot 5,000 unique pieces of footage. Approximately 17,000 still images from more than 100 sources were also collected—about 1,000 of the stills are used in the film. They sought the help of the staff at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, where the Ernest Hemingway Collection is housed.

Explore more about the film here.

Watch Hemingway on GBH 2 at 8pm on April 5, 6, 7.

Watch the PBS virtual event series Conversations on Hemingway.