The Thing That Made Anthony Bourdain So Good



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“Be increasingly surreal,” Tony said.“ Make this show as hallucinogenic as possible. I want images from Haitian art, crosses, skulls, dicks, babies, limbs intercut with the dreamlike surreality of the actual environment.”

By 2010 the show was starting to repeat locations, and Tony had wanted to stretch his legs, tell some different stories. He’d insisted, then finally demanded, we go to Haiti, and ultimately the Travel Channel had begrudgingly approved the trip. We arrived several months after the massive 7.0 earthquake that had left a quarter million people dead. This would be the first time the show had purposefully ventured to a truly “high-risk environment.” I don’t think any of us quite realized what we’d signed up for until landing in Port-au-Prince. The city was gone. In its place was a patchwork of grief, mass graves, countless makeshift refugee camps, collapsed and twisted concrete stitched together by a network of partially blocked roads. Thousands were still missing, survivors were dealing with a cholera outbreak, and foreign aid and attention were flagging. Driving at night, the only light came from an occasional passing car or burning oil drum, indication of an improvised roadblock. Our head of security, Damien, never had his hand far from a gun secreted in the glove box.

The shoot had been emotionally intense, but two months later back in New York, the edit was coming together well—really well—until the network did what seemed like their best to ruin it: “Lose Tony eating second helping. Doesn’t make him look good in a food shortage” and “Is there any tourism still available?” More worrisome, there were demands for more clarity in the voiceover, more linear explanation, a neat sum-up at the end and generally less artistry in the storytelling. Eric, the editor, and I were horrified, fearing the network might succeed in gutting our show. But Tony stepped in and pushed back, fiercely defending the cut.

“This episode is Emmy material. This is not Frontline. We want impressionistic . . . we are showingnot telling. This is not polemic. There is no happy conclusion or any conclusion to be reached that won’t be out of date by airtime.”

Tony ultimately prevailed, and he was right: the show won Zach and Todd a well-deserved Emmy for cinematography. It also set a precedent that raising the bar sometimes required traveling to more challenging locations. It also required knowing how and when to push back against the powers that be.

If I wasn’t in the field shooting an episode or sleeping for a week straight when I got back home, you could probably find me working with the editors. I was always intimately involved in my edits; I had to be. The way I looked at it, if the show got left on the edit room floor, it didn’t matter how hard we worked in the field. Edits may not have been as glamorous as the shoots, but they were just as high stakes and far more satisfying. In a strange way, through the edit I’d actually realize I had been there and sort of vicariously enjoy the trip in a way I hadn’t been able to while filming. Television production—especially with Tony—was an “ends justifies the means” operation. It might have been the most horrible, painful, humiliating, awful shoot, but if it was a spectacular edit—a great end product—almost everything bad that happened in the field was forgotten.

Successfully guiding a show through the edit required long days screening raw footage, pulling sound bites, doing additional research, and creative collaboration with the editor. The real storytelling happened in the edit room. I always strived to add bells and whistles, make something that was beautiful, emotional, honest, or even just special to me personally. The ultimate goal was, of course, making a good show, and Tony was the ultimate judge of success.

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