Casual, candid and cool, Anthony Bourdain continues venturing into uncharted terrain on his “Parts Unknown” series, now in its 5th season on CNN. The show’s in-depth looks at exotic locales and its atypical approach to TV travel content have earned multiple awards while attracting (and occasionally alienating) viewers.
Bourdain has had considerable experience honing his TV credentials and craft on prior shows: “A Cook’s Tour” on the Food Network and both “The Layover” and “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel. His current show has raised his profile even higher, and destinations worldwide are eager to host Tony and his crew.
At a recent Paley Center for Media event in New York, moderator Elvis Mitchell interviewed Bourdain and his team from Zero Point Zero Production (ZPZ). The camaraderie was evident, and they share credit for the hit show. With Bourdain as the touring rock star, they serve as his multitalented, indispensable band.
As narrator, Bourdain distills each destination’s essence for his viewers. Here he boiled down the key ingredients of his show’s success, none of them canned. The elements are organized into three areas: overall approach, people, and production (with excerpted quotes from Tony and selected comments from his crew).
- Subjective view: “It’s a very subjective show. I tell stories from my point of view. It’s not integrity, it’s selfishness and vanity. I don’t always want a happy show every week.”
- Defy convention; no neat resolutions: “We work very hard to escape from convention. There’s an arc to everything on TV shows, with teasers and a final resolution. I’ve realized there’s no real justice in the world and random things happen to people.”
- Unpredictable; no repeats: “If I see the pieces come together in a competent, predictable way, I become unbearable.”
From Nick Brigden, producer, director, editor:
“Every narrative is different because we don’t want to repeat ourselves.”
- Risky choices; no off-limits topics or destinations: “I’ve been able to get away with what I want; otherwise I have a track record of walking away. The more fun we’re having, the network is probably less apt to like it. Sometimes the show pisses off fans.”
From Sandra Zweig, executive producer:
“We received many phone calls after the Tokyo episode.”
- Extensive preparation and extra footage: Bourdain arrives at destinations already familiar with some aspects of the local culture based on books, films or prior visits. While on location, the crew shoots several extra hours of footage, and occasionally retrieves tapes from these archives.
“It’s never good news when we have to go back to find cut footage. In some places you end up being concerned about people you’ve talked to after you go home.”
An example is the extended interview with Russian activist Boris Nemtsov that aired following his death and after the Moscow episode.
- Evolution as narrator and storyteller: “On ‘A Cook’s Tour,’ the fact that I’d have to turn and speak to the camera was a slap in the face. Stories distinguish what we do from documentaries or journalism.”
- Maximize locals’ and celebrity guests’ camera time: Episodes often features celebrities, like French chef Daniel Boulud and rocker Iggy Pop, and interesting local characters. Bourdain says, “We talk to people who reveal their destination and lives in a compelling way. I prefer less time with me talking and more time with others telling their stories.”
- Good fixers, sidekicks in each locale: “It’s a mixed bag if we use the wrong sidekicks. If you don’t have a good fixer, it’s a problem.”
- Teamwork with longtime ZPZ crew: They all joked that there’s also some friendly rivalry between the two producer-directors, Tom Vitale and Nick Brigden.
From Lydia Tenaglia, executive producer:
“Chris [Collins, her husband and fellow executive producer] and I have been married to Tony ever since we began working with him.”
- CNN’s support and worldwide network: Tenaglia says, “The relationship with CNN allowed us to push forward and make the show better. It’s enabled us to break free of the parameters of typical travel shows.” Zweig says, “The Travel Channel chickened out of Libya, but CNN didn’t. They had contacts there on the ground to push and get the paperwork done.”
- Careful editing: “There’s no underestimating the importance of good production values. A lot of what makes it work are cuts, shot selection and edits. Editing is incredibly important, and we essentially force people to feel a certain way.”
- Brilliant visuals: “I don’t bring a camera because it’s too hard to capture these places. But I travel with a brilliant film crew.”
- Regular voice: “I use my normal voice on camera. Everyone else talks funny on TV with a weird, unnatural intonation.”
- Selective silences: “TV hates silences especially in the travel space, so we’ve pushed silences longer than usual.”
- Music from multiple sources: “We pay a lot of attention to music and we don’t use music libraries.” (There’s also a first-rate theme song)
Bourdain summed up the show’s M.O. as follows:
“I go, I eat and drink a bunch of stuff, then I go home.”
If only the process were that simple.
(#1: Parts Unknown bus ad courtesy of CNN)
(#2: Bourdain on red carpet courtesy of Paley Center for Media Tumblr)
(#3: Bourdain and ZPZ Crew on red carpet courtesy of Paley Center for Media Tumblr)
(#4: Parts Unknown image from ZPZ website courtesy of CNN)