The One Thing You Don\'t Do
By Paul Cabana, producer
When filming a prison interview, the one thing you don\’t do is keep a shot tape in the camera, in case they ask you to hand it over. When you\’re producing a home makeover show, the one thing you don\’t do is become the middleman between a homeowner and a contractor, because you effectively become the contractor. When directing No Reservations, the one thing you don\’t do is tell Tony what to say because, well, you just don\’t.
I\’ve worked with a few different hosts and a lot of times, you just feed \’em lines. It\’s not disingenuous or manipulative. When you do, you have no choice.
Here\’s the math: say you have a shoot day with two locations. Once you include travel, lighting, set up and breaks, a 10-hour crew day is more like 4, so two hours filming per location. A scene is broken up into different beats. In No Reservations, a scene might include establishers, walk & talk, meal prep, meal and conversation, say 20 minutes per beat. In a travelogue show like No Reservations, where Tony\’s voiced-over thoughts thread the whole show, 90% of what you need to film is process or non-sync — basically, people not talking. That said, on a hosted show, you absolutely need the host talking a little bit to camera, directly to the viewer. So tallying it up, sometimes you have a couple minutes or less to get that done. In those stressful moments, sometimes you just have to tell someone exactly what to say.
Although the same math applies to Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, the same rule does not apply to Anthony Bourdain. There could be some hostage strapped to a bomb that can only be diffused by Tony looking at a camera and saying what town he\’s in and why he\’s there, you still don\’t tell him what to say.
So what do you do?
Laos Day 4, Scene 3, Strategy 1: You ask really, really nicely. Tony and guest are riding on elephants through the forest. In the one moment the elephants are next to each other, still and all cameras are perfectly lined up, I tell Tony \’hey, this would be a great time to ask a question.\’ I think the only conversation that will make the final cut is Tony telling me that there is a reason in those old Westerns, they don\’t film people talking while on horses.
Laos Day 4, Scene 1, Strategy 2: You kindly suggest. I\’m filming Tony looking at a ricefield where 13 live bombs from the Vietnam War have been found and wired to explode. Before they detonate, I suggest to Tony that after the bombs go off, it would be a great moment to open the show. What followed was 13 bombs going off and then a deafening silence.
Laos Day 3, Scene 2, Strategy 3: You find a workaround. Tony is sitting around a huge spread with a group of villagers. After 10 minutes of silent eating, there is absolutely no conversation. I make eye contact with the camera guys and raise one finger which tells them to go in for tight singles. Then I tell the translator to call over to one of the guests and ask him to ask Tony a specific question (in Laoso so Tony won\’t be annoyed.) After a minute, the guest looks up and asks with total sincerity, \”Tony, why did you want to come to Laos?\” What follows is an amazingly heartfelt and surprising response that made the scene one of my favorites.
Laos Last Day, Scene 1, Strategy 4: You just let him talk when he wants to talk. By the last morning, I had absolutely no footage of Tony talking to camera and I was resigned to just make it work when I got back. We all break off to each film the countryside as dawn lifts. Although he\’s on a break, Tony decides to follow Zach, one of the camera guys, to some bridge.
Of course, I don\’t know this is happening until later that morning when Zach hands me a tape and insists I watch right there as he looks on. He never does this, so it must be good. In some cafe by the river, mopeds whirring behind me, I cue it up. I watch Tony crossing a narrow bamboo bridge through the morning fog, monks in bright orange robes passing by, lush, green rice fields in the distance. He sits down, looks right at the camera, and describes why this country is so hauntingly beautiful, so unforgettable — putting in perfectly unscripted terms what the whole crew had been feeling all week.