Looking at the Black and White World
They said it couldn’t be done. Others, sensibly enough, asked why we would want to do it in the first place.
We were assured that ratings inevitably will plummet, and that much of our core audience will be outraged by this abominable, doomed exercise in self indulgence (and that is surely true).
But I think this is our finest hour. It’s what we were put on this earth for–to cause terror and confusion at the network, to alienate our fans who were beginning to feel comfortable with us, to try something that–as far as I can tell–has never been done: A full hour of food and travel television in black and white.
This Monday night, the Rome episode is, to my mind, far and away the most beautifully crafted, technically accomplished episode of NO RESERVATIONS ever. It was a lot of work. We are–ordinarily–a shoot and scoot, digital outfit. Two camera people, two producers (one of whom packs a third camera). Generally speaking, we don’t have lights–or people to hang them. We don’t have a sound guy. We certainly don’t have hair or make-up people or wardrobe, gaffers, gofers or camera assistants. But a while back, during a late night, liquor fueled conversation at a hotel bar–somewhere on the other side of an ocean, my two Emmy Award-winning “directors of photography” (as they like to now refer to themselves) Zach Zamboni and Todd Liebler and I were throwing knucklehead ideas around, and somebody boasted that “we’re so damn good, we can shoot a whole show in black and white!”
I was inspired by this confident chest thumping. Traditionally, the “travel show” adheres to a fairly standard structure and formula. Even for us–we lucky few who’ve been allowed the freedom and latitude to mess with content and style however we like–there are boundaries.
There must be a beginning, commercial breaks, presumably an end with some kind of resolution. This becomes, surprisingly, more of a straitjacket than you might think when you’re dealing with a “story” that inevitably concerns: “Tony goes someplace. He eats a lot of stuff. He sees some things. He leaves–hopefully with some final thoughts.”
After nearly a hundred episodes, we’re always, always looking for new ways to tell that same basic story in new and disorienting ways. I’m always hoping that whoever tuned in last week and loved the show will tune in the next week and go, “What the **** is this? “and then, after a double-take, have to check the listings to make sure they’re even watching the same program.
So, after another round or two of negronis or mai tai’s or gin and tonics or whatever we were drinking at the time, I ventured to pursue the matter–even pushing things..a bit. Or a lot.
“How about we like…go to Rome and do like a total early Fellini thing..with stationary cameras..letterbox format…and lots of dubbing and subtitles….and green screen driving shots—and like that whole 1960′s Nino Rota music thing? And I mean like really do it. Not some cheesy homage. I mean really rip off the look and sound in every shot from beginning to end. Make it look like a ****in’ movie!! It’ll be awesome!!”
Back at the office, more sober minds like our Executive producers/zero point zero masterminds Chris Collins and Lydia Tenaglia pointed out that Fellini had a crew of at least 50 or more people. He shot film, with huge cameras, hundreds of lights, tractor trailer trucks to haul the stuff. Hell–he rebuilt the Trevi Fountain for La Dolce Vita!! We probably couldn’t do that it was pointed out. Plus, he was Fellini–one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. We, decidedly, were not.
And there was the matter of a little thing called the budget. You want to make something that looks and sounds and feels like a movie, it costs. A lot. A whole helluva lot more than our cheap-ass little travel show can afford. Hell, way things are going, any day now, you’ll see me on camera in my hotel room, just “happening ” to be tidying up with a Swiffer–so we can afford new knee pads for Todd–and lens cleaner for Zach. But Zach and Todd assured me that they personally would haul and hang the large number of (hefty) lights. That we’d find a way. That we could do it. That through patience, persistence, an incredible amount of hard work–good advance scouting, the spirit of improvisation–and the acquired skills of two of the best shooters on television-that together we could make a show that–if nothing else–other camera people, editors, cinematographers and professionals from other shows would come up to us years down the line and say about: “Dude…that Rome show? The one in black and white? That was some ****ed up cool shit! Wish somebody would let me try that!”
We commissioned original music. (I’m particularly fond of the bizarro scat singing during the driving sequences–a dead-on homage to my favorite mid-60′s cheeseball classic, “The 10th Victim”). We rented a studio and a classic Alfa Romeo convertible for some quick interstitial “transit beats”. And Rome itself conspired to help us make the mini-movie we wanted. Because the “movie Rome” I was looking for is still there. And mixed in with the deliberately “artificial” look, some incredibly fortuitous, happy accidents befell us. The fight in the “Angry Cousins” restaurant is not staged or pre-arranged. It happened just that way. The nighttime streets looked just like that–only even more dramatic in black and white. The food was amazing. My co-star Cesare Casella–and our local fixers found us amazing locations–with the twin (and potentially conflicting) agendas to find spots that were both authentically and specifically Roman and exclusively locals-oriented–as well as being visually reminiscent of scenes from such films as La Dolce Vita, 81/2, L’Eclisse and so on.
All participants were encouraged to wear solid and contrasty black and white colors whenever possible. Attention was payed to such things as sunglasses. Everybody in post production at zeropointzero was challenged to bring their very best game. In the end, after much experimenting, it was found that individually hand tinting each food item seen on screen with just a little bit of color really made the delicious food jump out of the frame.
La Dolce Vita, of course, was largely shot in the studio. The Via Veneto in that film was not real. Much of the Trevi, as I mentioned before, was rebuilt on a set.. Certainly the interiors were not shot on location. All dialogue in Fellini films was dubbed in later. We, however, shot entirely on location (except for two quick driving shots)–trying to make the “real” look like its romantic–if frequently artificial–predecessor. Other than the clothes, the car, a clown–and about twenty seconds of dialogue, everything happened as you see it. Unlike our poor, misunderstood, insane, overscripted masterpiece in Tuscany (a glorious failure), this show had no “script”–only a very rigorous adherence to a specific look and sound. We did, however, go to extreme lengths to get those things.
So. To the credits. The people responsible for this most difficult and crack-brained yet noble enterprise:
Tom Vitale had the thankless task of producing this thing from beginning to end.. When we returned from the road with this idea and presented it to him, I don’t think it dawned on him that it would fall to him to execute this dark vision. When later, at the first pre-production meeting, Chris and Lydia tried, in his presence to talk me down from this Von Stroheim-esque excess, Tom had the expression on his face of a condemned man. To say he rose to the occasion would be an egregious understatement. He embraced the Beast–to magnificent effect. He made the impossible and unreasonable–possible.
Cameraman, director of photography Zach Zamboni was probably what Tom was thinking about when he sat, doomed-looking in the zero point zero offices. He knew what kind of perfectionist, time consuming lighting schemes this show would require. The kind of careful framing. The agonizing over choice of lenses. This show was giving Zamboni a virtual license to kill. Tom knew–we all knew, that if we went ahead with this thing, we’d all be spending hours watching Zach fiddling with equipment, bouncing lights–driving us out of our ****ing minds. Which is, of course, one of the major reasons the end result is so good. In black and white, apparently, lighting is everything. It’s a good sign, by the way, when Zach giggles insanely while working. It means he likes what he sees through the lens. He did a lot of giggling on this shoot. He sounded like Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in “Kiss of Death”.
Todd Liebler shot–as he always does–some of the most gorgeous food porn ever seen on television–all the more remarkable in this case because it’s (mostly) in black and white! He’s the Thurman Munson of shooters. Every day, every night, one championship shot after another. There’s also a humanity in Todd’s work that’s easy to overlook. Again and again he sees what everybody else would have missed–and gets the shot. By any means necessary. This also makes him the shooter most likely to get punched out by strangers. He also stepped into an important on-camera role as lunch companion when my wife, Ottavia, insisted she wouldn’t appear on camera unless Todd joined us. She, it must be said, was on the side of the skeptics regarding the advisability of this episode. I only managed to get her to agree to be on when I said I needed a “chesty Italian woman” to sit next to me in a driving scene. She considered the alternatives and agreed, saying it was preferable to having what she so diplomatically calls “some plastic surgery whore” sitting in a car next to her husband.
Veteran field producer Jared Andrukanis was the only guy who made it all look like business as usual, delivering (as always) a flawlessly organized shoot. I’ve found that you can pretty much call Jared up in the middle of the night, ask him for a tarpaulin, a hacksaw, some large plastic trash bags–a shovel and some quick-lime and he won’t be flustered for a second. Ten minutes later he’s there, ready to get choppy.
Roman fixers Sara Pampaloni and Valeria Iannozzi were superbly organized–totally “got” what we were looking for–and delivered exactly everything as planned (a remarkably rare situation). Sara’s choice of her personal favorite “The Angry Cousins” was particularly brilliant.
Chef Cesare Casella was the perfect sidekick/guide–as always. A delight on camera and off.
Post-production graphics guy Adam Lupsha (I don’t even know his real job title) made his usual magic–only more so. And Eric Lasby, who edited this behemoth, created what I think is his best show–ever. And that’s a very very high bar to go beyond. There are no great shows without great editors–and if you look closely at this one, you’ll see, how important the seamless transitions are, the selection of shots, the pace and sequence. Without his work, all the great footage, all that great food and scenery doesn’t count for shit.
I sound, I know, like I’m accepting an Oscar when the fact is, I expect this show to be widely reviled. But I’m enormously grateful that we were able to do it all. That it’s so beautiful. For the experience of being in Rome with friends, being as creative as we could be. For being part of making something we can all look back on and be proud of. It was one of the rare shows where at end, I felt the same way I used to feel at the end of a busy Saturday night in the kitchen. When I’d sit down, look at my co-workers and think: We did good work here today.