It’s been well over a decade since Anthony Bourdain, former executive chef of Manhattan’s Les Halles and author of bestselling memoir “Kitchen Confidential,” became a TV star. With his Travel Channel series “No Reservations” and “The Layover,” Food Network’s “A Cook’s Tour” and stints on “The Taste” — for which he’s Emmy-nominated for his hosting duties for a second year in a row — and “Top Chef,” Bourdain is an old pro at this point. But when Bourdain and his longtime crew moved over to CNN to kick off the multiple-Emmy nominee “Parts Unknown,” they faced one big problem: How do you make something new while working in a genre — nonfiction television — that relies on repeating the same general formula every week?
“It’s a limited story that we’re telling, ultimately,” Bourdain says. “On every episode, I go someplace, I eat a bunch of stuff, and I come back.”
To get out of this rut, avowed cinephile Bourdain made a break with the principles of reality-TV style and instead looked to auteur filmmaking, viewing each show as a standalone feature with specific cinematic reference points, themes and Dogma-style self-imposed technical limitations.
The result: One of the most visually and compositionally adventurous nonfiction shows on television, and one that manages to evoke the flavor of certain environs and characters in a far more immersive manner than simple documentary shooting.
As Bourdain puts it, “It’s a successful series for me if someone who liked the show last week tunes in this week, and is uncertain whether they’re on the right channel.”
For example, “Parts Unknown’s” Copenhagen episode focused on idiosyncratic chef Rene Redzepi, whose Michelin-starred restaurant Noma is famous for incorporating wildly unusual ingredients — forest moss, sea-buckthorn, black ants — foraged from the surrounding environs. To film the episode, the crew took technical inspiration from both Redzepi’s methods and Terrence Malick’s similarly nature-focused “Tree of Life,” shooting everything on an EZ Rig apparatus from above, using a single lens, and prohibiting all two shots, handheld camerawork and tripod footage.
In effect, the show’s editors were forced to forage through a mass of nontraditional shots for appropriate footage.
Similar examples can be found throughout the show’s run. A surrealist look at Tokyo’s sexual subcultures was modeled after the cult cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto.
The upcoming “Bronx” episode looked to vintage “Sesame Street” episodes, “Wild Style” and the photographs of Jamel Shabazz for specific visual cues. “Los Angeles” tackled L.A.’s Koreatown with tricks gleaned from Michael Mann, and a camera mounted to a remote-controlled helicopter. A trip to Jamaica riffed on “Thunderball” and “The Harder They Come.” And the show’s rollicking “Thailand” episode threw in the kitchen sink — using an EZ Rig, Super 16 lenses and even a greenscreen plopped down in the middle of restaurants (a nod to the hyper-real visual style of cheapo ’70s Thai action movies) — to capture the careening chaos of a drunken night in the city of Chiang Mai.
“We’ll often decide where we go over a film I’ve seen that’s really excited me,” says Bourdain, who classifies himself as “a really annoying film nerd — I had probably seen the entire Janus film collection by the time I was 12.”
He cites Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” as a recent film that set off his alarms. “I saw it, my head exploded, and I said ‘OK, where do we have to go to shoot something that kind of looks like that?’ Or I’ll be on a Wong Kar Wai jag, and the crew and I will watch all of his films together and start thinking about what we can take from him as far as camera movements, lenses, even production design. Or, as much as we can given that we don’t actually have the budget for a production designer.”
The “Parts Unknown” traveling crew consists of five full-timers, plus additional temporary staff who are hired on location as needed. This enables the crew to operate with a “short logistical tail,” Bourdain says, capable of ditching the planned concept on a moment’s notice when inspiration (or disaster) strikes.
For the show’s cinematographers, such as longtime Bourdain collaborator Zach Zamboni, that means adhering to Boy Scout levels of preparation.
“We do carry a lot of gear,” Zamboni says. “We’ve gone into a shoot with 11 different types of cameras before. The central concept of the show is this idea of getting lost; that you have to be lost in order to find something you haven’t seen before. So you have to be prepared when that happens.”
As Zamboni explains, even when a particular episode might be tackling a well-traveled, well-known location, the crew still puts a premium on “getting lost” in some fashion, even if that simply means shooting counterintuitively.
“ ‘Las Vegas’ was the first show we shot last year, and we decided we were going to keep the camera on the tripod until it was just painful to do so,” Zamboni relates. “Typically on a documentary shoot, you’re trying to capture reality as it happens, and you become adept at framing the chaos of reality, picking up the camera to apply your sense of blocking and framing to improve on reality. But when you’re confined to the tripod, there’s a whole new level of discipline. You’re almost going against your own basic cinematic instincts.
“Philosophically, it’s very much like travel, where if you want to see something new, it’s got to be challenging and scary for you. Otherwise you’re just treading the same territory.”
Though it followed a more traditional model, “No Reservations” allowed for plenty of stylistic experiments as well. For example, a Vietnam episode from season 5 functioned as an extended essay on Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.” Yet with CNN’s backing, “Parts Unknown” has seen Bourdain explore destinations much further off the culinary tourism path — Myanmar, Libya and the Congo in particular — and allows for a degree of provocation and political commentary that places the show much more within the realm of documentary than travelogue.
“I never make an overt decision to make a show political. In fact, I try to avoid it,” Bourdain says. “But there is nothing more political than food. If I’m there shoveling food in my face, it’s worth mentioning who’s not eating. If my host is missing three limbs, it’s worth asking ‘Hey, how’d ya lose them?’
“Plus, I’ve never minded pissing people off. I’m perfectly happy to be in communist China or Saudi Arabia one week, and the next week be hanging out with Ted Nugent. It actually makes me very happy knowing that various sectors of our presumed fanbase are really going to hate a particular episode.”
Yet whatever happens, Bourdain’s guiding principle, as Zamboni relates, is to never let the previous show serve as a model for the next one. “It’s easy to make the same thing day in day out,” Zamboni says. “I’m already thinking about the next season, and I have to take the time to tear everything down before I can start seeing the world in a new way again.”
Appropriately, in conversation Zamboni finds it hard to stick with the shows that have already aired, pausing to gush about an upcoming episode set in Paraguay.
“It’s a similar concept to the Copenhagen episode, but using (Steven Soderbergh’s) ‘The Limey’ as a reference point, playing around with time,” he says. “Editorially, it’s a really advanced show. I think it’s gonna be our masterpiece.”