Call them trendsetters, tastemakers, change agents. Regardless of the terminology, the people and companies profiled in our annual Trailblazers feature share at least one thing in common: their forward thinking and desire to innovate made the non-fiction and unscripted world more interesting over the past year. We begin our look at 2014′s Trailblazers with Anthony Bourdain, host and executive producer of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown is redefining how producers and networks think about food and travel series, but its titular host remains pragmatic when asked his thoughts on success.
“I seem to have slipped through the cracks,” he tells realscreen. “I’ve had deals with various television entities during weird periods.”
The 58-year-old chef-turned-explorer has indeed emerged as someone networks turn to in moments of reinvention, and that affords him an unusual amount of creative freedom. Once he has that freedom, he prefers not to let it go.
Bourdain first made a name for himself in media with his 2002 book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Its success led to successive TV deals with Food Network and Travel Channel.
Travel aired his Emmy-winning No Reservations series for eight seasons and for a spell, he loved working there. “There was a period of time where I was given as close to total freedom as anyone has ever had on TV,” he recalls. But the honeymoon eventually ended, and he accepted an offer from CNN, which was looking at unscripted formats in a bid to reignite ratings.
He immediately took advantage of the network’s connections with fixers and militias around the world to boldly take Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown where foodie travel hosts would not normally go: Libya, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
If there is an overarching format for the show, it is to ignore prescribed format rules. Since its premiere in 2013, Bourdain and his team from Zero Point Zero Production have refined their stream-of-consciousness essayist approach to producing the series, basing episodes around specific people, locations or filmmakers, as well as auteur directors or cinematographers he obsesses over.
So far, execs at CNN have given him carte blanche to indulge his diverse storytelling instincts, and the approach has worked. Parts Unknown is a top-rated series for the network, and has won a Peabody Award and three Emmys.
Even A-list Hollywod directors are calling to collaborate. In December, Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky toted a camera for a season five episode shoot in Africa.
Has success given you the freedom to be more experimental in how you produce the show?
There are two important things I’ve found in television. One is to understand that most people in television are frightened all the time. They’re frightened of losing their jobs. They’re frightened of making the wrong decision. When they encounter someone who really and truly doesn’t give a f*** about losing their job, that is a relatively immovable object, it’s something they’re not used to encountering. That attitude was always helpful to me.
Another is that television, generally, likes to repeat what works already. My partners understood early on with No Reservations that whatever worked and made people happy last week, it’s the smart thing to do something completely different next week.
Has your approach ever caused concern at CNN?
That’s what’s great about working with a worldwide news organization. They have contacts, fixers and local militias on the ground to interface with. The show that probably worried them was the show we sent them on the underbelly of Tokyo – sadomasochism, Hentai and tentacle porn. I’m sure somebody somewhere thought it was worrying. But they supported it.
How do you hope those shows contribute to the perceptions of those countries you go to?
I don’t see myself as an advocate. I don’t see myself as a dogooder. I don’t see myself as a spreader of enlightenment or an activist – any of those things. I should be trusted and mistrusted as much as anyone. I’m a guy with a point of view who goes to a place, looks around, comes back and tries to give as honest an account of my experience as I can, but it is my experience. If I inspire people to consider getting a passport – people who don’t already have one – or to think differently about difficult, complicated places, that makes me happy.