Anthony Bourdain, host of the Peabody Award-winning program Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN, spoke with us about how creating his shows and finding interesting stories has challenged him professionally, as well as personally.
- Interviewer: Matt Shedd
- Interviewee: Anthony Bourdain
Welcome to Stories That Matter, a Peabody Awards production. I'm your host, Matt Shedd. In each episode of this show I talk to writers, creators and producers about what goes into making a Peabody-winning program. Today's conversation is with Anthony Bourdain. His current show Parts Unknown won a Peabody for episodes that aired in 2013, during its first season on CNN.
We discuss the amount of work it takes to make one of these episodes; the politics involved in filming and traveling to these far away places, and why he doesn't see it as a news program, even though he's on one of the world's most recognizable news networks.
Here's my conversation with Anthony Bourdain.
The first thing I wanted to talk to you about was, the Peabody Awards are given out to what the board of jurors believes unanimously are stories that matter. What are your thoughts about why they saw Parts Unknown as telling stories that matter?
Wow, I don't know. I mean, I don't, it's something I really assiduously try to avoid thinking about. I can't tell you how flattered I am that I was even considered for a Peabody, that I'd be mentioned in the same sentence or paragraph or even pantheon and winners like David Simon, but I try really hard to never think about what people might like about the stories I'm telling. I see that as sort of the road to madness and as an impediment to good storytelling. You know, you tell the story, the best story you know how, as creatively as possible, in as true or manipulative of a fashion as you choose to, and you hope blindly that people like it. This is sort of a formula that works for me. If I start thinking about what worked yesterday or what people liked or appreciated or took out of it, that would be terrifying to me and intimidating.
Well then to rephrase the question, what are some of the stories that you've told on Parts Unknown in specific that have really mattered, that stand out as mattering to you? I imagine they all matter to you on some level since you put the time in to produce and host and write for all of them.
I mean, look, there are stories, there are a number of different types of episodes of Parts Unknown. Some of them are driven by food, some of them are driven by individuals. Some are driven by issues or just things that bother me or things I want to talk about. So there are certain episodes that I'm particularly happy that I got the opportunity to show people aspects of places that I've been, or tell particular stories. So the stories that I've told that matter to me were the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That was an episode that I tried for many, many years to set up and hadn't been able to for security reasons. This is the historical story of a place that is little known: the Belgian colonization years. This was a historical obsession that had been something of a dream; I wanted people to know, and I wanted people to get angry about this huge resource rich country that is in such terrible, terrible, terrible shape.
[clip of Parts Unknown Congo episode]
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.
That seems to be a unique aspect of the show, that we get to see these ordinary people talking about their ordinary lives. I've heard you mention that in the past. You know, these are usually regions where we only see dead bodies and catastrophes.
Yeah and I think it's... I may be on a news network, but it is decidedly not a news show. What it's turning out to be, though, I think, is, I hope, a useful adjunct to the news, meaning, when something happens in Gaza, now you can put a face to who we're talking about, what are they like. You know a little bit about them. You've seen them across the table. You've seen them with their kids. You've heard maybe a little bit of their perspective. What you decide, what you take away from that, that's certainly up to you, but I think it matters any time you let people talk, anytime you give people an opportunity to imagine what it's like to be another person. Surely that's a good thing.
Just going off of what you just said, I saw this quote recently from Jeff Zucker, who, I guess, your boss, right?
I think this was in the Hollywood Reporter. "Some people were initially skeptical of having this TV food personality on the air, but he's shown everyone that you can learn as much from an episode of Parts Unknown as you can from any of our field reports, and that's an incredible thing."
I'm really grateful to him. I think it took a lot of courage to put us on the air, and we've handed them some difficult stories as well that really didn't fit in with anything they'd done before and they've stuck by us and given us the opportunity to pretty much do anything I want anywhere I'd like to do it. So, you know, I have the opportunity to tell the stories I want anywhere I want with whoever I want in the style that I'd like to tell them, and that's a real privilege and a joy.
Can you talk a little bit more about that relationship between more traditional news that we get on CNN for instance and what you provide?
Well, it's not a conscious thing. It's I've just found, sort of after the fact, that ... You know, I'm curious about places in the world like Libya, like Iran, Myanmar, places where the history's interesting to me and often there is or has been conflict. When I go, I'm not looking for a story, I'm just asking very simple questions about things like food and what makes you happy. But those questions, the answers to those questions provide some context, some background, often some historical background to current events. I didn't intend for it to be that way, but often places we go, things happen after the fact. I mean, we did a Russian show a while back, last season, I had dinner with Boris Nemtsov. I asked what seemed to be fairly casual questions.
[Clip from conversation with Nemtsov]
I think that's an episode worth rewatching given what's happened. But it was certainly not a calculated thing. I mean, I'm having dinner with an interesting guy who's well suited to give us a perspective on life in Russia today. I never anticipated that it would be anything other than an interesting dinner with an interesting guy who was telling us things from a unique and important perspective. I didn't expect to be called out in the news and talking about Boris Nemtsov a year later. I just didn't anticipate it. When we were in Gaza, I certainly didn't anticipate what happened a year later. When I was in Libya, meeting all of these kids who were in many ways protecting us from harm, I didn't anticipate what happened to them and what happened to their country. I just don't plan those things. I show up and I ask simple things. I'm not a Middle East expert, I'm not an Africa expert, I don't pretend to be. I'm asking what would seem to be the easy questions, but they're the questions that people are seldom asked, and people, I think, often enjoy the opportunity to answer. Also, food, what's on your plate, is an indication of your whole history and character in a lot of ways. An Egyptian chef once told me that the history of the world is on your plate. So what people are eating, or what they're not eating in any particular given situation, tells you a lot about them, and you give the people the opportunity to talk about their food, particularly their sort of cherished specialties, their national specialties, that's often a long and tragic and bloody story.
I'm glad you brought up Boris Nemtsov because I, of course, read about it in the news, and then as I was doing research for this interview, I came across that episode and I watched it, and then I watched your interview on Anderson Cooper  and I was just curious if you could reflect, I mean, you, because of this show and your role now as this host who gets to travel around and meet all these interesting people, how does that affect you personally when you touch a tragedy like that so closely. How did that news, the news that he [Nemtsov] had been shot and killed, how did that affect you?
Shock, dismay, I mean I was sort of incredulous that he wasn't worried during our meal. It seemed to me that he had plenty of reason to be concerned. He was not. I was very, very, and still am, dismayed and heartbroken over Jason Rezaian and his wife and what's happened to them in Iran. Something we have to think about, and something I think about a lot on the show: the people who we leave behind. Now I can go to Russia or China or Iran and I can say anything I want–maybe not when I'm there, but I can certainly go back and make a show with a voice over or an edit that reflects my opinion about things. What I have to consider, and what I do consider all the time, is what about the people who helped in those countries while I was there, and how might my comments reflect back on them or impact them.
So in Iran, for instance, we were very, very, very careful to not say anything in the show that was going to implicate or endanger or embarrass the people who really took a leap of faith within Iran and were kind to us. And, you know, it's a very paranoid culture over there–perfectly innocent people, as we saw with Jason, can be accused of things at any time. So if I'm up in Yunnan province in China making a show, as happened, I'm probably not going to be talking angrily about Tibet and the Dali Lama. It's not cause I don't have an opinion on those things or that they're not worth talking about, they certainly are. It's just I have to think about the ordinary people who were seen on camera with me and who were looking after me who might be viewed with suspicion after the fact.
So does that affect the ... So you're obviously thinking about that while you're talking to them.
Absolutely. If I'm in a place like Cuba or China or any place where they've got aggressive and, you know, suspicious security services, I'm not going to put some restaurant owner or side kick, you know, in the soup. You know, I don't feel the necessity, you know, I'm not Edward R. Murrow, I'm not there to give you the whole story. I'm there to give you a slice of what I saw and what I choose to tell you. That's it. I'm not looking to lie, I'm not looking to misrepresent, but if talking about Tibet while in China is going to endanger the people around me, that's not my agenda. I'm not there to do that story. I'm there to talk about food and culture. And in talking about food and culture, people reveal a lot about themselves. A nation reveals a lot about itself anyways, so I'll leave those stories to others.
I mean, Putin, I had no problem attacking Putin head on in the show. It was a very ... that was a very angry, let's call it what it was, anti-Putin show. We tried to make him look dangerous and ridiculous at the same time. Nemtsov was certainly fully on board there. He spent much of his life as a loud, proud public advocate for, you know, voting Putin out of office at very least. But I think, so you know, I had no problem having an agenda driven show in Russia. But there are places where I've been very, very careful. You know, Boris Nemtsov was fully aware of the risks and chose to take them far more courageously than I ever would or ever did.
Do you find people unlike Nemtsov who are maybe just not as consciously trying to be provocateurs but are just sitting and talking and opening up about their beliefs and their country and their culture? Do you find that sometimes they overshare or say things that you have to go back and edit before producing the episode in interest of protecting [them]?
Yes. All the time. All the time. Like we look at it and say "Wow, they were really indiscreet with us. And this is going to come back and hurt them." And a lot of times even the security people, the people who are supposedly there to help us but are, in fact, also there in fact to report back on our behavior in some of these more repressive countries, they are often very frank with us off camera. We're conscious of the fact that if we give them an unfriendly edit or we're really mean in a particular segment that, since it was their job to keep us away from certain things, we don't want to hurt them. We try to find a balance there. You know, there are very, very real consequences in some of these countries. And it's just something we have to think about, that we choose to think about. If I was a reporter, if I was a hard news reporter, it would be a different question. I'm there to get the story period, you know, I have a responsibility. The consequences to the people who talk to me... thankfully those are the kinds of decisions I don't have to make.
Is that the main distinction that you would make between your show as an entertainment show, I think is the word you use, versus a news show?
I know I'm not a news show. That's for sure. I'm a storyteller. When you tell stories–and I come out of writing novels and memoirs and essays–filmmaking, making television, video, is necessarily and fundamentally a very manipulative process. That's part of the joy of it. You know, you can make your viewer feel the way you felt. I can go to Congo, look out the side of the boat as it passes by, feel a certain way and then later, back in the editing room, make sure that through the careful use of cutting, of editing, camera movement, and most importantly, music, I can make the audience feel the way I want them to feel. That's a very manipulative process. Even in hard news, I mean that music is kind of telling you how you should feel about something, you know, in the news magazine shows. So, I don't know, I just see myself as coming out of the storytelling tradition. I'm not there to misrepresent, I'm there to tell you honestly how it felt to me at the time. The story's almost always the same: I go someplace, I eat a bunch of food, I meet some people and I come back and tell you how I felt about that experience.
And you've talked about how you've, you look at these as short films, I think you said that in the post-Peabody Awards interview, and that you're very informed by the history of film and something of a film aficionado. What's the process, you know, you go and get a bunch of good tape in Libya, how do you decide what story you want to tell about Libya?
Any number of different ways. I spend a lot of time, I am really a huge film nerd and I make sure to surround myself with people who are as enthusiastic about cinematography, editing, the history of film. Some shows we go out and shoot the best we can with a look in mind and then put it together after. More often than not, we think about where we might go to have the opportunity to get a certain look. 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. So we just, 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."
You've been at this for a long time, travel shows. I want to kind of go back to after Kitchen Confidential was a big hit and that moment, you described this in Medium Raw, where the success of the book finds you getting a TV deal with the Food Network, who you hadn't been exactly easy on in Kitchen Confidential. And so you find yourself in this position of now you're a TV host, producer, whatever your role was in that show. Can you walk me a little bit through that transition, and tell me about what the hardest part of that learning curve was.
Well, I'd sold a book. I mean I'd come to realize pretty quickly that this Kitchen Confidential book was doing very well, and that I had enough juice with my publisher, maybe, to quickly, before they found me out, sell another book. So I sold them the book anyone would try to sell a credulous publisher who feels good will towards them. The concept was I travel around the world to all of the places I never dreamed I would be able to see, and eat and drink, and they pay for it, and then I write about it.
And then some producers walked into my restaurant and said they wanted to make television with me and I said, "Well, I'm about to do this book." And they said, "Okay." And they pitched it to Food Network, and we ended up building a series concept around me traveling around the world ostensibly to write this book and they would follow me with cameras.
Now first day of filming, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or how to make television, and I remember the first time the producer, camera people asked me to turn to the camera and say and talking to camera, say as they put it, where are we, why are we here, and what do we expect to find, I was stunned. I had no clue. And frankly, I didn't then, nor do I now get any pleasure from being on camera, per say. It's sort of an odious task. The process of making television, however, that appeals to me.
So the first few episodes are really painful and awkward, but at one point in Vietnam, I'm shooting with Chris [Collins] and Lydia [Tenaglia], my partners and head of Zero Point Zero Production, the people I have been making television with ever since, and I was in a hotel room, not feeling particularly good and I was looking, in Vietnam, and I'm looking up at the ceiling and there's a ceiling fan going around slowly and I thought about that first scene in Apocalypse Now, and I said "Hey, you know, we should start the show with, you know, basically we should do the first scene of Martin Sheen in the hotel room and get some chopper noise and riff on Apocalypse Now." And they got excited by that idea, and we started to do that. And suddenly, I sorta saw the light. You know, it wasn't about me. It wasn't about me talking to camera. It wasn't about face time. It wasn't about that at all. It was the opportunity to tell sort of these messed up, goofy, self-indulgent stories and have a lot of fun. You know, the camera is, you know... television has many strange and terrible powers, and it was that moment, staring at that ceiling fan and thinking about "Hey, we can make our own, you know, cheap version of Apocalypse Now here." That's when we held out the possibility that television might be fun instead of this intrusive and sort of degrading, ego-driven venture.
Right around this time, and it'd already happened and you'd already commented on it in Kitchen Confidential, but there's this rise of the cooking show phenomenon on TV and celebrity chefs, and I guess I'm curious to hear what your thoughts are on that in general and why we seem to be inundated now with these shows about cooking.
I think my career arc has been completely different. I think, clearly, I benefited from an increased interest in food. My show was about me traveling around the world eating interesting stuff. I like to think that we told interesting stories and we tell interesting stories in an interesting way. I think a lot of the other chef shows are very personality driven. You spend time with these people, like Emeril [Lagasse] or Mario [Batali] or any of them because they were interesting people whose personality you like, you want to spend time with them. I don't know that that was...
But wouldn't you say people feel that way about your personality as well?
Um, I don't know. 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.
So, your path to where you are getting now would be totally different than say, some of these celebrity chef personalities? It seems to me more like the path of a filmmaker who has to star in his own show kind of begrudgingly.
Look. The network has never kind of come to me and said, "Look, we'd like another one of our stars on your show. Put him in the show. Put him in the episode." I'm not doing that if I don't want. Network's never come to me and said "We need more barbecue. It's really big with the male demo 24 to 36." I'm not going to do that. I'd rather not make television. Everybody understands that now. Most people would happily make that accommodation to still be on TV. It's helpful when everybody understands that you don't care that much about being on TV, that you're willing to walk away rather than to do what everybody else does. I would if I could. I just can't. It's not integrity or anything.
It remind me ... My first interview was with David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, for this show, and he said exactly the same thing, that he knew that if he gave the audience what they wanted, then the audience wouldn't really end up liking it anyways. And that he was ready to walk away at any moment. And that's what allowed him to do...
Yeah, my hero is David Simon, who he has a certain period of time in mind to tell a story and he tells a story. And he takes as long as he feels he needs. And if people are complaining along the way, tough. You know, I just, I really admire that and I think, you know, if you look at the number of people who saw The Wire when it was first aired, and then you look at how many people have seen it and love it and feel as I do that it's the greatest thing that's ever been on television, I think his decisions were borne out, validated.
Let's stick on David Simon for a while. You wrote for Treme. What was your role in that?
I was given a character and a story arc, and I worked on that story arc.
Was it the chef story arc?
Yes. Basically from the end of season one on, if it had anything to do with the chef or chefs or food, I was writing it. Either contributing or writing.
What was that relationship like working with one of your writing heroes?
Well, when he first called up, I mean 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.
Nice people, but he seems to have a similarly kind of cranky disposition that you ascribe to yourself in terms of...
Yeah, okay, he'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.
And it comes through in the work.
I think so. The guy believes in stuff. He has values and principles. It's extraordinary.
I'm a big fan as well. I wanted to talk about one episode of No Reservations, a short clip from the end of the Beirut episode because I've heard you talk about that as a turning point for you.
[clip from the end of the Beirut episode of No Reservations]
So that's a really powerful, I mean one of the most powerful episodes to me. I just, I guess I want to hear your thoughts, hearing that. I mean that was in 2006. Is that correct?
Hearing your thoughts nine years later. I mean how has your view of humanity and also making television changed?
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. You know, 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.
So how does that change how you make TV?
Look, I'm a romantic. You know, I'm for the underdog. If someone's railing against tilting at windmills, and I like them, I'm not going to portray them as a fool. Or maybe I will as a fool who I admire. You know, I'm clear-eyed, or I like to think I am, but I hope I haven't let cynicism poison my appreciation of a world that's pretty awesome. You know if the immediate future doesn't look so bright right now, that doesn't mean that this isn't a world worth living in and waking up every day and doing the best you can. I mean I'm raising a 7-year-old girl. I'm hopeful that she will have a better life than me. That she will have a good life and that she will live in a world that's worth living in. And I believe that to be true or I wouldn't have had a child. You know, we face... it's a big world. There are a lot of really awful, terrible, terrible things in it, but there are also many wonderful things. You know, life doesn't lend itself to all encompassing, sort of happy platitudes, unfortunately.
Did you feel any shift... I mean that's a standout episode for me of No Reservations. Did you feel a shift overall in the show in general when you moved to CNN?
Just more freedom. I mean we were continuing what we did, but with a lot more freedom as far as where we could go and a looser rein as far as the stories we told. I didn't feel any... I feel no obligation now... I could be as food-centric as possible or have no food at all. The focus of the show can be a very tight focus looking at a place like Lyon through one person's eyes as we did with the Daniel Boulud Lyon show that recently or, you know, sort of a wide, historical overview of an entire country and its history as we tried to do in Congo. They've just given us a lot more freedom as far as scope of the story and, of course, where we can physically go. I mean CNN is a world-wide news organization with experience on the ground in places like Libya and Congo. That's not something Travel Channel would have been able to do for us.
So is CNN at the top of where you would like to work? I mean would you rather have a show on HBO or something like that?
I can't think of anybody in the world who has people on the ground and experience and experts in places like, you know, right now working in Beirut, Congo, Libya–it's been an enormous asset for us. I frankly have never been supported as ferociously, steadfastly as I have at CNN. I've had nothing but smart conversations with smart people who've done exactly all along what they promised what that they would do from the beginning. So, I'm pretty happy.
You mentioned that you have these experts on the ground and guides and people who can plug you in. Can you describe a little bit of how you pull that all together?
Well 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.
I'm a big believer in atmospherics and somebody who can give us, provide us the access to the things we need to give our viewers a sense of the atmosphere. What it feels like, smells like, sounds like to walk down the street in Bangkok or Tripoli. That's who we want to work with.
So is that how you pick who you talk to, the people that can do that for you?
Oh well 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.
A lot of it comes down to you saying yes or no?
All of it. We're either doing it ... yeah ... I'm not showing up and saying, "So what am I doing next?" I mean, we hope to have a pretty good idea of what we're doing before we set out. Now that's not always possible. In Libya, for instance, it's an ever-changing situation. We were pretty much winging it full time. For security reasons, restaurants couldn't know we were coming until we arrived, and we could only spend about 30 minutes in any location at one time before we provided, what our security guys were saying, was a target of opportunity. And there are some countries where it's just difficult and where things go wrong and we try to adapt, let things happen. But we try to be reasonably organized.
How big is your crew?
We leave the country with me and two camera people, a producer and a director basically. So four people. And then we pick up local drivers, translators, a couple of camera assistants these days. So there'll be another six or six to 10 local people joining us when we land.
I know we're coming to near the end of our time here, but I was wondering if we had time to listen to one more short clip.
It's a clip from the Libya show.
[clip from the Libya episode of Parts Unknown]
I picked that clip because it seems to be a really good example of what we get from your show as a kind of supplement to the reports that we hear about Libya and the unrest there. We actually get to see this guy who's a normal guy, a travel agent, who just takes up arms. Is that part of what you're looking for when you go to a place like that?
Well it's nice when it happens. Often you hold your breath when somebody opens up to you like that over a meal. And of course, with the passage of time, I could look back on that and say, "Where is he now? What is he doing now? Which side is he on now? Which militia may he ... is he still alive? Who's he with? Who was he in a turbulent post-revolution Libya? Now more and more every day with the ISIS problem, which side is he on? What became of him?" I don't know.
And you have no way of getting in touch with him?
I think I could find out. I know we ... actually we have been following a number of the people in the show, some of whom are no longer with us. Some of whom who went on to be what we would call adversaries. So it's very ... not unusual. It's complicated.
So why did you decide to go to Libya when you did?
Well, it seemed like a very hopeful time. I mean, for exactly stories like that. Actually, 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.
Would you go back there now?
Now? As a responsible parent, probably not. I don't think I'd be safe. When we arrived in Libya a couple years ago, our security guys almost immediately said, "Look if we'd known then, before we left, what we know now on the ground, we would have advised you not to come." And the situation, of course, has gotten much, much, much more dangerous and uncertain.
Does that happen quite often for you where people advise you not to go to places you would like to go?
Well, I've been trying to do a show in Yemen for a few years and we have been told that's not a good idea right now. I've looked at Afghanistan at various times hoping for a window of opportunity there. So yeah, there are places where they've ... you know, I've been advised ... we just ... it's beyond the threshold of good sense. And you know, all of us are very close on the show, and the camera people, the producers, the directors, we're a family. We go way back. I'm not going to put my crew in jeopardy either just for an hour of ... so that I can make a good show. That's something to consider as well.
That's it for this installment of Stories That Matter. Our theme song was written by Tim Hill and performed by the band Bobby London. Our executive producer is Dr. Nate Kohn. Our editor and sound engineer is Wes Unruh. Associate producers include Ele Ellis, Noel Holston, and Wes Unruh. Production assistance for this episode was provided by Jana French. Special thanks go to WUGA-FM in Athens, Georgia, for letting us their studio space. You can visit our website at PeabodyAwards.com to find even more original content. Also follow us on Twitter at @PeabodyAwards
, and look for us on Facebook. I'm Matt Shedd, and thanks again for listening to Stories That Matter.