Feeling a sense of wanderlust, but don’t quite have the time to explore our planet’s most exotic locales? Living vicariously through Bill Weir is the next best thing. The second season of the CNN Original Series The Wonder List premieres Sunday, at 10 p.m. ET. TVNewser spoke with Weir about the new season, his travels through Cuba, and how his program is able to stand out in what’s become of a politics-dominated year on cable news:
TVNewser: Congrats on the second season of The Wonder List! Without giving away too many spoilers, what can we expect from the upcoming season?
Weir: If you like Season 1, you’ll love Season 2; just by the fact that we’ve figured out how to make the show. Last year, we hit the road for our first shoot in the Greek islands and none of us had ever worked together before. It was a brand new concept where we were trying to figure out what the voice would be. We had come so far in the first 14 episodes of season 1. The strength of the images just gets better and better, and hopefully I think the storytelling gets even better as we continued to tackle these mini-documentaries week to week.
Ultimately, what I hope the audience’s experience will be is the same as what I experienced. Every time I hit the road or got on an airplane, I did so with sort of a preconceived set of notions about what story I’m going to tell; and invariably, I got my mind blown in various ways. That’s a testament to having the time and space to really report on a story and not have to worry about getting back to the set for a live shot. I went to Cuba and the show I planned on writing after five days in Havana actually ended up being different than the show I wrote after 15 days traveling across the country. That’s what I hope people get from it.
TVNewser: The season premiere follows you on your journey through Cuba. I know many people who have expressed a desire to visit the island nation. What should we know about Cuba in 2016, and how were you received by the Cuban people?
Weir: They are so warm and inviting and such gracious hosts, in spite of the pent-up aggression between these two neighbors. I’m a child of the Cold War. I was born in ’67 so I remember the last days of “duck and cover” drills. My mom would talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis. My first impressions of Cuba were that it’s much more broken than I anticipated. Havana is the “Paris of the Caribbean,” and I call it “the world’s sexiest ruin.” Havana is crumbling, but the people are making due. They have resolviendo (“resolve”) which is the Cuban art of getting through life. It’s the attitude that keeps those ’57 Chevys running. It’s the attitude that helps them survive on $30 a month.
I also expected to have very guarded, careful interviews given the regime’s brutality over the years, but it was really interesting to see that people were as critical of their government as we are of ours; but at the same time, holding onto the pride and the ideals of the revolution. Cubans still want to maintain that social fabric that they’ve been forced to survive through. It was an interesting combination of yearning for something better, but having pride in the Cuban soul at the same time.
Weir: Season 1 was a master class in guerrilla documentary film making. We have a small team, including a director of photography Philip Bloom, who is amazing, a camera assistant, and two producers. Everyone does a bit of everything. We all shoot and we all log interviews. There are five of us and the cameras are always running. For me, it’s really driven by “what’s the spine of the story?” Obviously, we’re going to the most magnificent places on the planet that we all agree should be preserved in some way, and for me, it’s “what’s the story hook? What’s the human narrative that’s going to carry us through?” The beauty of this is that we go into the process thinking the story is going to be about “X,” but after two days it may become all about “Y,” something we didn’t even consider before. We end up interviewing this person we’d never met, and a lot of times they become main characters in these worlds.
From the perspective of people in this business, it’s such a different metabolism from the days at local or network television where you busted your hump to meet your deadline, whether it was for GMA (Good Morning America) at seven in the morning, or for World News Tonight at 6:30 PM; and then you start over the next day. This is as close to filmmaking as I’ve ever experienced. I essentially disappeared for a year, went off and shot one episode a month over six or eight months. I’m scripting one hour, and once we put it through the edit, I’m usually scripting three episodes at the same time while hiking up to Machu Picchu during the day. Production ramps up slowly, then it’s madness for three months, and then returns to a slower pace once we get the edits smooth. After that, I end up having the best time because I get to relax!
TVNewser: We’re obviously in the midst of a wild election season. How are you able to stand out in the midst of this madness?
Weir: First of all, we’re hoping that none of the candidates bites the head off a live chicken on a Sunday evening because we’ll probably get pre-empted if that happens! But seriously, the beauty of CNN is that the brand is stronger than it’s ever been. People are obsessed with this election so getting pre-empted is a risk you run by airing on a network that’s built on breaking news. But at the same time, I love being in this time slot. For one thing, my crew and I are some of the few people in America who have spent the last six to eight months watching the election from Namibia or Bhutan or Iceland. That completely changes your perspective. I always joke that if all Americans can fill their passport the way that I’ve been blessed to, if we can give all Americans a blank passport and an unlimited credit card to go visit 20 countries, we would have a much different perception of how great America is. I think we’d have a much different foreign policy because people around the world look to us and they admire us.
Interestingly, in Bhutan, a little Buddhist kingdom high up in the Himalayas, the citizens finally got television in 2002! Their minds were blown when this television “box” came into their living room. I go up to this little 200 year-old farm house in the Himalayas and I meet a woman who lives in a house and still cooks her breakfast over an open fire. But she has a satellite dish, and she asks me if I’m for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?! The most popular show in Bhutan is American professional wrestling! It’s interesting because this is a Buddhist country, all about “peace and harmony” but when they flipped on television they started asking “why are these men hitting each other?” A few weeks later, their kids are jumping on their backs, saying “it’s The Rock versus Triple H!”
Weir: It’s a tie. I got to scuba dive in the Bay of Pigs, which is fascinating on a lot of different levels. There are these magical little villages right out of Hemingway located on the Bay of Pigs. They have these homes called “casa particulars.” The government just gave permission to Cubans to open up bed and breakfasts in their homes. For $30 a night, you can stay with a Cuban family in a clear, air-conditioned room, eat fresh lobster and drink cold beer every night. It’s amazing.
Also, we went to the Viñales region where they grow all of the tobacco leaves. In terms of agriculture, it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of farm land on the planet. Again, they were just amazing and gracious hosts. AirBnb is the biggest business and brand in Cuba right now. My advice to anyone who really wants to go is: Yes, you have to go to Havana for a few nights, but get out of the city, go into the countryside and experience the “real” Cuba.
TVNewser: Did you take in any baseball games?
Weir: No, we didn’t have time to go watch any professional games, although I actually brought my glove and we played a few pickup games in some goat fields. Because you have to play baseball when you go to Cuba!
TVNewser: Any final thoughts in regard to the second season of The Wonder List?
Weir: The thing I’m trying to get across in this heavy tooth and claw political season is that we are this little haven on Sunday nights where the family can gather around and look around the world with a sense of awe and curiosity, instead of anger and suspicion. This is important. I think viewers will be sucked up in the show and learn a lot about the world as I experienced it!