The Maysles Documentary Center in association with Zero Point Zero
Production and The New York Society for Ethical Culture is presenting a conversation about film and food with Bourdain and Maysles, moderated by Michaela Angela Davis and featuring special
guest Marcus Samuelsson. The discussion will feature clips from Maysles’ genre defining work in film, and Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” television series on CNN. (Go HERE for tickets; for student tickets priced at $20/each, enter the code STUDENT.)
Indiewire spoke with Bourdain before the event and chatted about the film inspirations he uses on his show and how he’s shifted from a culinary documentarian to a cultural one.
What, if any, inspirations from documentary filmmaking have
you taken and applied to your multiple TV series?
Not so much documentary stuff. I mean we work very hard to give each episode its own unique sort of look,
sound, feel, atmosphere and editing style. We don’t want people to have a
sense that it’s just another episode. You know I go some place, I eat, I meet a
bunch of people and then come home.
That’s a fairly limited story line. So we work very hard to mess with the
format as much as possible and give each episode its own stand alone universe to live within. And a lot of what we
do it either inspired by or driven by films that I love, cinematographers that I admire, soundtracks that I’m crazy
Like who, for example?
Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer for Wong Kar Wai. Terrence Malick’s stuff is amazing. We look very carefully at the work he’s done over the years. How he blocks, how he uses light or how he doesn’t use light. We’ve looked back at everything from Jean-Pierre Melville’s work, sort of Parisian film noirs to early Ridley Scott, like “The Duelists.” Robert Rodriguez. A lot of the new Asian cinema, particularly Shin’ya Tsukamoto, who did “Tokyo Fist.” Shigeyoshi Suzuki, his whole battle without honor and humanity, the way people fall out of frame. We’ve ripped off Antonioni and classic Fellini shamelessly and whenever possible.
But we love great cinematography and we’ve looked at it a lot. We look at color balances, we think about scores and music, we look at camera movements. We’ve even chosen locations based on a burning desire to play with the
color palate and film style of Wong Kar Wai rather than, “Let’s go do a Hong Kong
or Taipei.” It’s, “Where can we go to do the kind of cinematography, to
capture that look and feel of Wong Kar Wai?” All of us on the crew, we’ve
worked together for a really long time, it’s really a joint feat of enterprise with really talented, producers, cinematographers and editors.
talked a lot about what’s the most fucked up thing we can do next week? How can
we get as far away as possible from what we’ve done before? What kind of a look
would we like to try to get? Given that we don’t have millions of dollars worth
of equipment or, you know a budget or six months to shoot it. We’re always
pushing ourselves to be different or be better and try to do new things and a
lot of that is inspired by a very wide spectrum of other peoples work. Be it a
little known Japanese director with a thrilling editing style. And I’ll say I
don’t care whether anyone recognized who we’re riffing off of, let’s try that.
Or can we do a whole show with no two shots? Or the constantly moving, sort of
swooping camera like Terrence Malick. Can we do without lights entirely? We try
to do what Jack White talks about how he moves his instruments around on sage
to make it awkward, a little difficult to play. And in some ways we kind of try
and do that. We try to push ourselves either by restrictive formats or setting
up rules for ourselves to try and do something different and creative.
Do you strive for a balance between the cuisine, the
culture and the place itself within each episode?
Cuisine is easy. Principally, I guess the short answer is no.
I think it’s strange because I spent 30 years as a professional chef and I
have a lot of food contacts around the world. But particularly now that we’re
with CNN there’s really no pressure or expectation for us to stay close to
that. We’re free to wander if the opportunity presents itself or if the
conversation changes. We can wander far away from food. If the food’s there we
like telling the story from that point of view, certainly. I’m intensely interested in who cooks, why they cook, what they cook, where these things came
from and what it says about a culture. But there are plenty of times lately in
particular where I don’t know that we achieved great food scenes in say Libya or The Congo. We felt free to do them anyway and in fact it’s often easy to get
people to open up to you over meals in a way that they might not if I was going
in to do a hard news story. But I guess the answer is no, we’re free to wander
and do what we’d like, but we’d like food to be a starting point.
So then are you straying from a cuisine documentarian into more of a
It happens. It just started to happen over time. Other
things intrude into the meal. I mean there’s nothing more political than food.
You start with who eats and who doesn’t. What people eat and why. How the
cooking methods are often from having to adapt to situations on the ground.
Growing seasons or colonization or deprivation. The answer to gastronomy is
often very political. But I think more and more we find what started out as
meal scene turning into something else. When the person you’re eating with is
missing a limb or two, you ask, “Gee how’d that happen?” And often that leads to a
much wider set of concerns.
Why do you think food is such a good starting point?
I think, from my point of view, I found very early on,
wherever you go and at every income level, people tend to be really proud of
their food. And if you ask them the simple question, “What do you like to
eat and what do you like to cook?” — and show a genuine interest in just
those things, you’re asking people essentially what makes you happy? It’s a
very loaded question. And people tell you when you share those experiences without
any pretense or artificiality, people tend to open up and tell you very
intimate things about themselves. They’re at their most unguarded. And
there have been very few cultures where I haven’t been treated really, really
well, once I’m able to establish a relationship based on that simple thing.
Show me what makes you happy at the table. I’ve been to a lot of countries
where they have no particular reason to love Americans or be nice to me, but
again and again the simple expression of interest in what people cook and eat
and the foods and dishes that make them happy has lead to all of these really
great open doors, that I don’t think would have been there for us if we hadn’t
expressed that willingness in the beginning. So clearly, and this is something
that sort of snuck up on me over the years. Like wow! I keep having these
awesome experiences and see these amazing things, basically developing
relationships with people in very unexpected places. And it’s clearly because
I’m willing to eat, and just as important, drink with people in as close to a
non prejudicial way as I can.
Maysles likes to inspire dialogue and action with his films.
Do you have a similar goal with your series?
No. I don’t see myself as an activist or an educator or an
inspiration or any of those things. We’re trying to make a beautiful, well-made story, and make a thing, an hour, that looks and sounds like is well
crafted. Like a chest of drawers or a nicely made handbag. To the extent that
it has inspired people to read more or consider eating out of their comfort zone,
or traveling to places they might not have considered traveling, or opening
their minds to other cultures, that makes me very, very happy. But that is not my intention, I’m not so full of myself to think that I can
or should be doing those things. I go to a place, I show you as best I can what
I saw and what I felt like when I was there. And that’s I think as much as I
Do you have a favorite food doc?
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” I think is as good as it gets. Probably
the best I’ve seen.
The one thing about food docs and food TV that I’ve always wondered
about is how you build trust with your audience. We can’t taste the
food, we have to believe you.
The food is less important than who is cooking. It’s not a
show about food, food is not that interesting in an of itself in a vacuum. The
answer to that is simply that I’m not there describing the food. I deliberately
say things like, “Wow that’s great,” or “That’s awesome.” I don’t need to tell you
that its got a mineral tang and slight sweet and sour notes. I don’t really
give a shit about whether you can visualize how it tastes. I think if we show
it to you being cooked and we photograph
it on the plate well, you will draw your own conclusions and that’s good
enough. I’m much more interested in the person making the food and the
environment in which they make it.