Interview with “Parts Unknown” Host Anthony Bourdain
Matt Shedd - 3/20/2015
Anthony Bourdain won’t be attending your state fair, barbecue cook-off, or pony ride any time soon.
With his shows A Cook’s Tour for the Food Network and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on the Travel Channel the author-turned-traveling storyteller established himself early on as a delightfully curmudgeonly travel guide to places most of us will never visit.
Beginning in April of 2013, his show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown began airing its first season on CNN, going on to win a Peabody for episodes airing that year. Despite its reputation as a “culinary travelogue,” the Peabody Board of Jurors noted that the shorthand “doesn’t do the series justice,” and cite his ability to challenge those he meets into revealing “more about their hometowns or homelands than a traditional reporter could hope to document.”
On Creating Individual Episodes
The Iran show was important to me because Iran’s so confusing, and again an aspect of a country and a culture that doesn’t fit in with the narrative, and makes you think. Gaza and the West Bank were a satisfying story for me because we told, it was a very small series of stories. We basically showed Palestinians as humans beings who do ordinary things like cooking dinner for their kids, and, you know, having fun, and this is an aspect, unfortunately, of Palestinian lives that are rarely shown on television. It seems like a very small and unambitious thing, but I got a lot of feedback from people who were really, remarkably appreciative of just this really, what one would think, was a very small, insignificant thing. I hit a lot of these places that, you know… I tried to not have an agenda. I go in, I try to talk to people about ordinary thing, and in doing that, they often say extraordinary things back to me.
The Shanghai show last year, I’d been looking for an opportunity to get a particular type of cinematographies. I’d fallen in love with Kar-Wai’s films and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, and I wanted to go someplace and make a beautiful hour of television that looked a lot like that. So that sort of drove where we went and the story we told was this impulse to make something that was beautiful in a certain kind of a way. We’d been talking for years amongst ourselves about when might we have the opportunity to tell an entire story backwards, like begin at the end and tell the thing like the film Memento in reverse order. I think the season opener of this coming season is a shot in Korea, and it starts at the end of a long karaoke and booze-fueled bar hopping scene, so I basically start the show hideously drunk and become more sober as the show progresses.
So a lot of shows are driven by that impulse to make a movie or to reflect on something that I’ve seen in films that excite me and inspire me creatively. But I think the driving engine of the series in general is that whatever we do, whatever we do, that it’s different, that we try as hard as we can, to make the show look and sound as different as possible from the show the previous week and anything we’ve ever done before. Even if it fails spectacularly. We just don’t want to do the same thing, we don’t want to repeat ourselves. We just want to keep pushing ourselves and make interesting work, even if it fails, even if it doesn’t work, we want to make stuff that’s interesting, that’s different from what other people are doing, that, you know, shows the courage to risk failure and, as important, we want to have fun. All of us–the camera people, the editors, the post-production, the sound designers, everybody–we want to go home feeling “Man we’re doing good work out there. Or we died trying.”
On the Beirut Episode of No Reservations
Well, I was very proud of that show because it was such a grim ending and I was just wasn’t going to give in and do a hopeful ... anything. I was angry, I was very sad, I really ... that period had really changed how I looked at the world. And I’m proud that I was able to say that on television. That I just didn’t ... there was not going to be any corny element of hope there at the end. You know, we’re all going to end up ground under the wheel. I wish I could say that I feel differently than that clip. For me, there was making television or there was life, there was travel before Beirut, and there’s making television and life after. If anything, those feelings have been reinforced by what I’ve seen in Libya and Gaza.
I see really awful, awful things happen to nice people all the time. I meet really nice people who’ve done awful, awful things. I’ve seen and been in many situations where everything is fine until it’s not, suddenly. So this notion–at random even–that just terrible things can be visited on perfectly innocent people, well I’ve come to learn that happens all the time. A common love for barbecue or an ability to sit around with a political adversary at table and enjoy each other’s company, while surely a good thing, I don’t whether it’s exactly a recipe for world peace. It can’t hurt, that’s for sure. We’re going to need the ability to do that before things get better. But am I more hopeful about the world, about things working out? Do I feel any differently than that clip there? No, I don’t, I’m afraid. I’m more tolerant of people on a person-to-person basis, but hopeful for the world ... I don’t see a lot of reason for optimism, frankly.
On His Pre-Production Process
It’s sort of an audition process. We’ll reach out to either professional fixers who do these things for film crews sometimes. Other times food bloggers, somebody who I’ve met through the chef mafia, a friend of a friend. You know, it’s a pretty long pre-production process finding that special person who will help us select a menu, basically, of possible scenes and things we may or may not want to do. Or to find us the things I decided already I want to do.
In Congo, for instance, we got a lot of research and the benefit of some previous experiences, but somebody found us a filmmaker who’d been living in Goma for years making an independent film, and they had connections on the ground as far as guides and translators. We work with people like that–fixers–all the time and that’s a long process sort of making sure that they understand who we are and what we’re like and what we’re looking for, and as importantly, what we’re not looking for. We don’t want a fixer on the ground who’s looking to show us a particular place in a ... we don’t want them to have an agenda. We don’t want them to try to show us the top 10 things that every American should know about a particular country.
We’re looking for someone with a sense of humor, real experience, who understands the show, they understands me, that ideally I’m looking to learn what it’s like to live in that country, what people who’ve lived there their whole lives like, what gives them pleasure at 2 o’clock in the morning after they’ve had a few drinks. The details. The typical things. Not the sites, not necessarily the most important things.
On Walking Away from Television
I feel in some ways I benefit from the “I’m just not the other guys.” I think I get the people who don’t want to spend time with [a] friendly, comfortable television friend. I think the fact that I’m cranky is refreshing to some people. I have the enormous privilege of telling the truth on TV. Like I don’t have to say I feel good all the time. I’m not always smiling and happy. I don’t pretend that I like everybody, or that I’m enjoying making television, or that I enjoy everything I eat. I like to think that’s a refreshing change.
Most people, unfortunately, you know, most of the people in food television have to pretend they’re happy. They’ve been in media training. They’ve been told “Smile all the time. Keep hitting certain points. Be careful not to offend anyone. Don’t say this, don’t say that.” You know, that’s all I do. I don’t care about those things. The television business is filled with people who are to one degree to another, frightened. What they’re frightened of is that they won’t be on TV anymore. I never really cared about that. And as soon as they started asking me to do those sort of things that keep you on television and make you more successful on television, like pony rides and state fairs and barbecue cook-offs and all of that sort of nonsense, I said “No. I’m just not going to do it. I can’t do it. You know, I’ll hang myself in the shower stall if I do that for a week. And I’d rather not make television.” And pretty much that’s what happened. I was in very short order, not making television.
On Writing for Treme
My hero is David Simon, who he has a certain period of time in mind to tell a story and he tells a story… I was given a character and a story arc, and I worked on that story arc… Basically from the end of [Treme] season one on, if it had anything to do with the chef or chefs or food, I was either contributing or writing.
When [Simon] first called up, I nearly soiled myself with excitement. I think I called my agent immediately and said “Look. David Simon’s gonna be calling. Just say yes. I mean whatever it is, don’t dare even bring up money. Just say yes.” It was like ... you know, you’re a little kid who looks up to Joe DiMaggio and suddenly Joe DiMaggio calls and says he’d like you to join the team. It was like that. And it was the most fun I’ve ever had really working. It was just really, really fun and easy and thrilling and I was very, very, very, very, very proud to do it. And everyone who worked on that show is not only great to work with and really, really smart, but really nice. Everyone. It’s extraordinary.
Everyone David Simon surrounds himself with, it seems, from producers, writers, actors ... I don’t know if they were nice people before. but they’re all nice people now… [Simon’s] prickly and opinionated, but he’s a mensch. You know, if he says he’s going to show up and do it, then he’s going to do it. He’s a stand up guy, and so he’s surrounded by stand up people, and that’s a rare and beautiful thing in any industry, but especially [in] television.
On the Libya Episode of Parts Unknown
One of the guys who we worked with in security, a British guy who’s sort of in and out of public service, shall we say. Sometimes he’s helping film crews, other times he’s suddenly vacationing in Libya during the run up to the revolution. He was sending me emails saying, “Oh it’s awesome here. The kids are great. There’s like a Libyan anti-Gaddafi rap scene. It’s a really hopeful awesome place. You should totally come here.” So from that point on we were looking ... you know we heard about all these kids returning home, making rocket launchers out of hair dryers and PVC pipe. It was an inspiring story and there seemed to be a clear bad guy. I mean who liked Gaddafi?
So we went… we started to set up the show pre-Benghazi during a period when it looked very, very, very hopeful. One of those rare occasions where it seemed the good guys won. Of course, it was a much more complicated picture and things have been going very badly for Libya since, but we were there during a very interesting window where people were still sort of walking around on a volunteer basis, ad hoc basis, directing traffic, doing public services. Walking around sort of blinking in the light of, for a lack of a better word, what seemed to be at the time, freedom. And trying to figure out what to do next. So I went there for that. And quickly, even while we were there, it was clear that the situation was much more complicated and a lot sketchier and more unpredictable than we’d anticipated.
Stories that Matter Podcast: Anthony Bourdain (download .mp3 | subscribe with iTunes | full text transcript)