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Anthony Bourdain Preps for His Chat with Albert Maysles By Chatting with Us About Food and Film

Photo of Casey Cipriani By Casey Cipriani | Indiewire December 11, 2013 at 1:09PM

What do restaurant industry veteran and TV personality Anthony Bourdain and legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles have in common? Tonight they're going to find out.
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anthony bourdain parts unknown

What do restaurant industry veteran and TV personality Anthony Bourdain and legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles have in common? Tonight they're going to find out. 

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 about.

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.

We've 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.

"I don't see myself as an activist or an educator or an inspiration or any of those things."
So then are you straying from a cuisine documentarian into more of a cultural documentarian?


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 can do.

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.

This article is related to: CNN, Anthony Bourdain, Albert Maysles, Interviews, Documentary, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries







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