In 1999, when “Parts Unknown” executive producers Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins first approached Anthony Bourdain about turning his then-yet-to-be written book “A Cook’s Tour” into a television series, the chef-turned-author, with his recent best seller “Kitchen Confidential,” was more than skeptical. He had been a sharp critic of the wave of celebrity chef shows that had become popular staples of cable television.
“I don’t think he was locked on making a TV show even when we went to make ‘A Cook’s Tour,'” said Collins, when he and Tenaglia were guests on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast. “I think Tony saw it as an opportunity to double dip. He was getting paid not that much money to make this show; meanwhile, his designs were always on writing. The thought of being the guy in front of the camera yammering away was not his thing.”
Bourdain, who was 41 at the time, had never really travelled. He wanted to write a book from the point of view of someone who was experiencing different cultures and their foods for the first time. His sole intention was to explore, then head back to his hotel to write. Tenaglia and Collins could film him along the way, but he didn’t view himself as an active participant in their show. Food Network had ordered 23 episodes, and the initial six-week trip throughout Asia started off as a disaster.
“Tony was completely awkward, he didn’t understand the relationship with the camera, he didn’t understand what we were doing, why we were there, what was expected of him. He was terrible, it was terrible,” said Tenaglia of the first “Cook’s Tour” shoot in Tokyo. “We’d now sold the series to the Food Network, this was a disaster. [Tony] didn’t quite understand what the dynamic was, and so we were trying to prompt him to deliver to an audience and all he wanted to do was go in, have his experience, and go back to his hotel and publish another book.”
The seemingly doomed show did a complete 180-degree turn when the threesome arrived in Vietnam. While never having travelled, Bourdain was a voracious reader, amateur historian, and avid movie buff. His reaction to the famous airport, which he’d seen and read about in so many books and movies, seemed to change everything.
David Scott Holloway
“He had a visceral reaction to that, and we always say that is when the show came alive,” said Collins. “I think he suddenly experienced the camera as an audience and he was using the camera, the proximity of camera, what the camera could do, what it could see. Suddenly, it started to click. It was Vietnam where the rhythm of the show started to take root.”
It was in Vietnam that Bourdain’s movie obsession also gave the new show its distinctive flavor. Bourdain was sparked by the creative challenge of exploring each new location through the lens of a film, or group of films, often arthouse and foreign, that moved him and through which he’d been introduced to the landscape and culture. It was a creative challenge that brought the three collaborators together and led to the mutual devotion and friendship in a 19-year collaboration.
Tenaglia and Collins point to their early homage to “Mad Max” in the first season as being a real breakthrough. “We were all film-nerd geeks, and we were really just enjoying having the freedom of executing this,” said Tenaglia. “‘This is a food show, who cares, we’re in the Outback, it’s the desert, this looks like ‘Mad Max,’ let’s figure this out.'”
In every iteration of the show over 18 years, the crew remained small, approximately five people, but in the early days the show had particularly limited resources to pull off its various cinematic tributes. For ‘Mad Max,’ they were working with two DV cameras (Sony PD100s), a pickup truck, a dog as a prop, and the Outback landscape.
“The night before we sat down, me, Chris, Tony, and actually storyboarded out this one scene that was going to be our homage,” said Tenaglia. “It gave us such joy. It made Tony giddy when were able to pull things off like that. As the show progressed, from ‘A Cook’s Tour’ to ‘No Reservations’ [Travel Channel, 2005-2012], to ‘Parts Unknown’ [CNN, 2013-2018], those homages became more sophisticated. We had incredible DPs on board.”
The biggest turning point in the show came in the summer of 2006. Bourdain was filming an episode of “No Reservations” in Beirut, Lebanon, spending 36 hours filming and exploring how the city had become the Middle East’s cultural hotspot for food and nightlife. It was on the second day a war erupted between Israel and Hezbollah. Bourdain and his crew, holed up in their hotel, watched as the city was bombed, before Tenaglia found an ex-military security expert to safely evacuated them.
“I remember that day he and the crew got off the plane,” said Collins. “There were hugs, there were tears, there were kisses, and then he said to Lydia and I, ‘Yeah, we’re not making a Beirut show.’ That was about 30 seconds before the head of the network said, ‘Hey, can you get a rough cut down in two weeks?’”
Bourdain had always stated he was not a journalist. To go down the road of using the fact he was on the ground when the city was falling into ruin felt exploitative.
“I remember Lydia and I had a conversation with Tony and said, ‘Listen, we respect the way you’re feeling, absolutely, let’s just sit down, do a quick scratch interview of him,” said Collins. “I think it was a little bit of manipulation on our part, knowing full well we needed to deliver something. We sat him down in one of the edit suites, set up a camera, and did a quick interview. The whole time he said, ‘We’re not using this, right?,’ ‘We’re definitely not using this.’ We shot for a couple hours and that was really the bed that we laid the images on top of. It was that interview.”
David Scott Holloway
Seeing how the show came together, along with the experience of Beirut itself, changed how Bourdain saw the show. The Beirut episode, which would become its first Emmy nomination, was widely praised, but more importantly Bourdain realized he could no longer ignore the larger issues surrounding the people and culture he was exploring.
“I think Tony really understood deeply the power of that type of storytelling,” said Tenaglia. “Yes, we went there. Yes, we went to try the food of Beirut. Yes, we went to talk to the people who own the restaurants and throw the parties, but when that happened he made a connection, this is the way in, food is the way in, the table is the way in, but that isn’t really the story. The story is who are the people on the ground, what are their lives, what do they hope for, what do they dream about, what are the things they’re up against, what is the culture surrounding whatever this table is and the show shifted at that point and he embraced that more deeply.”
While never pretending to do objective reporting, increasingly “No Reservations” became a deeply personal first-person form of storytelling. “The show kept pushing against the edges of a food culture, travel show,” said Tenaglia. “It started to morph into something else, and it wanted to go in that direction.”
It was at the same time the Travel Channel had a change in its management and mandate. “We honestly thought, as did Tony, the show’s going to run its course here,” said Tenaglia. “We can all pat each other on the back and say, ‘Job well done,’ but we all saw the writing on the wall that maybe this wasn’t something Travel Channel wanted to continue with and it was really at that moment that CNN came along.”
The show’s three creators questioned if they could iterate the show for a third time, but it was CNN’s insistence that “Parts Unknown” continue to head in the direction it was already heading. “We all thought, ‘Do we have the ability to recreate this show, do we have the ability to make it fresh again?’” said Tenaglia. “What we found with CNN as a great partner with this series — pushing the series where it needs to go — everyone here felt a resurgence.”
“Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” is nominated for six Emmys, including Outstanding Informational Series or Special. Tenaglia and Collins’ production company, Zero Point Zero, has two other shows nominated for Emmys this year as well: “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman” and “Somebody Feed Phil.”
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.