“Enjoy the Ride:” Lessons for Fellow Filmmakers from Anthony Bourdain

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On today, what would’ve been Anthony Bourdain’s 63rd birthday, people all over the world are paying tribute to this master chef, best-selling author, and award-winning documentarian.  I’ll admit that I was real late in the game to becoming one of Bourdain’s fans.  I didn’t read his best-selling behind-the-kitchen doors memoir “Kitchen Confidential” until the tail end of last year, on a trip my wife and I took to Charleston.  A trip, ironically enough, that was partly inspired by Bourdain’s Season 6 Episode of Parts Unknown featuring the southern city that’s now one of the nation’s top “foodie destinations.”  And as for that aforementioned show, I didn’t really sit down to watch a frame of it until a good friend got me to watch a few episodes back in the summer of 2016.

But even though I came into Bourdain appreciation a little late, it certainly didn’t hinder my respect and appreciation for him and his work.  Parts Unknown regularly became a staple show for my wife and I – running incessantly thanks to NetFlix – a way of exploring the world through enriching conversations with interesting people all while enjoying incredible food.  What could be better than that?  I travel a good amount for work, and it’s almost impossible for me to ignore Bourdain’s presence in the atmosphere of consciousness anytime you stop and have a remarkable meal somewhere new.  Whether it’s an unruly cuban sandwich at a hole-in-the-wall food truck in Florida or a simple pizza and glass of wine on some side street in Florence – it’s easy to imagine Bourdain’s voice over being there; ever omnipresent to set the scene just perfectly.  with language vivid and ethereal while also brassy and audacious — sometimes within the same thought.  As I write this now, I think about how supremely unfair it is that this amazingly talented chef could also be that skilled of a goddamn writer. But that was him, from at least the distance that celebrity creates between a star and their fans…a man that used his unique experiences and voice to take his audiences to places they’ve never been before.

A day like today (and a Trending hashtag on Twitter) makes you stop and reflect a little, and for me, I thought about lessons that could be gained from Anthony Bourdain – specifically for filmmakers – no matter where we reside in this vast and constantly evolving industry.  And a few came to mind pretty quickly.  Here’s what I thought about…

Listening is a Lost Art Worth Regaining: 

As a producer and director, especially one that conducts as many interviews as I do, this really becomes one of the most important things I do in the midst of a shoot day.  When you’re up against a big shot list and your mind constantly wants to jump to what you have to do next (or what you sometimes need to go back and get before the day’s over) the hardest thing to do is stay locked in and present.  This is especially true for me on interview shoots – where I take a lot of pride on making that interviewee feel like 100% of my attention is on them and their messaging success.

Bourdain’s interviews throughout Parts Unknown are a constant reminder of how important this skill is.  In fact he’s so skilled at it, that it feels completely effortless – a casual conversation unfolding before our eyes.  It’s because as an interviewer, he always seemed to be at ease with whomever he was talking to – and listening intently to what they have to say.  This is how he got such raw and interesting conversations about the history, politics, culture and conflicts of whatever unique place he was visiting.  This is one of the qualities that you heard friends and colleagues talk about the most in the days after his sudden and heartbreaking death, how introverted he was, how much you had his attention when you were with him, despite the hundreds of things probably going on in his universe at a given time.

In our era of digital distraction, this kind of memorial compliment is an anomaly – especially for a mega-celebrity like Bourdain was.  This isn’t just something sound bite craving filmmakers like me can learn from, but all of us — as people striving to make our relationships richer, deeper…and conversations with each other more enlightening.

Credit Always Goes to the Crew:

Big-time on this one.  In Kitchen Confidential Bourdain spends a lot of time honoring the myriad of dishwashers, bus boys, and sous-chefs (to name a few) that he’s worked with throughout his career as a chef.  Getting to know a few restaurateurs in recent years, the best of them echo this sentiment – that they’re nothing without their crew.

And then, switching gears to his career as an award-winning filmmaker, Bourdain appears to have had the very same adoration for his production team and crew on his show.  Just take a quick visit to his dormant Instagram and you’ll see so many posts dedicated to the team of technicians bringing his show to life.

Now any filmmaker will say, “it’s all about the crew” but what actions do (and can) we take to make sure they know we really mean and value our teams?  I’ll admit that some days I’m real good at this and other days – I could be better.  As a director, most of your energy goes into talent – and sometimes it has to be that way – but it’s important to never lose sight of the people really making or breaking that project.  For me, it’s about communicating with my team – trying to prepare them as much as possible for any given shoot day, and then in little ways throughout the day trying to show or tell them how thankful I am that they’re there.  Their talent and professionalism doesn’t go unnoticed or undervalued.  Meals are important to me and that everyone’s well-fed (and caffeinated) while on-set or after the day is over when we’re on-location.  If I expect the crew I’m working with to put in a long day in the heat (or the cold which anyone that works with me knows I hate much more) then I make it a point to be right there with them – although I can’t promise it’ll be without a lot of under my breath cursing.  It seems like common sense, but on some sets lines are clearly drawn and it quickly feels like not everyone is pulling in the same direction. If your crew actively avoids mindlessly bull shitting with you then you’re doing something wrong.  While we all have different jobs to do on a job-by-job basis – everyone from Executive Producer to PA has to feel like they’re all on the same team; easily being able to see how their contribution fits into the big picture.

I’d imagine on a show like Parts Unknown when you’re in a new city, country and hell sometimes continent every few weeks you better know how to have everyone pull in the same direction.  Clearly with 9 successful seasons of this show and many others of “No Reservations” before that Bourdain knew how to lead a kick ass team, whether on-location or in the back kitchen of a 5-star NYC restaurant.

Embrace Adventure and Opportunity:

It’s easy to watch a show like “Parts Unknown” and say to yourself…”man, I really wish I got to do stuff like that.”  The funny thing is, I can think of countless times where I’m at a party and someone asks me about work.  If this is the first time I’ve met them and I tell them they immediately perk up, and if it’s someone I know well they just want to hear about what we’re working on currently.  This is something I really take for granted, how fortunate I am to do what I do, travel around, work with talented teams for really big brands and handle large projects with some big expectations.  I often have to stop and remind myself, “yeah…it is pretty cool.”  It’s natural to always feel like the grass is greener somewhere else or be seeking the next big thing, but Bourdain reminds us of the simple pleasure of having an amazing meal with good friends.  He did this all over the world, in crazy restuarants…and also in places like a Charleston, South Carolina Waffle House. It was a gift of his to make an interesting and exotic place quickly intimate and familiar.  He used the common connection of food and his own unique conversation style to hit this perfect balance that elevated his work beyond easily bucketed genres – because he always stayed true to himself, his interests, and constantly embraced his surroundings.  He and his team didn’t go to some city 4,000 miles away and make it conform to them – they instead absorbed it, let it wash over them, and reflected it back to the audience in as true a way as possible.

Isn’t this authenticity something we all claim to strive for in our work?  To make it feel natural and “organic” even as we’re twisting the story strings to have it fit the narrative we’ve pitched, storyboarded, and shot listed?  This is certainly a lesson I need to remind myself of, to stay more open and vulnerable with a new filming environment – to stray from the plan sometimes and let a story meet me more halfway.

Bourdain and his team had this down.  No two episodes of Parts Unknown felt the same.  Yet they also didn’t feel out of control, yet guided by a steady hand, a common philosophy if you will. Next time out on a big project I need to remind myself to continually be mindful of the philosophy behind the message or the overall ethos – and allow myself to be met instead of always chasing it down.  It’d definitely be a fresh approach – and one that would no doubt net some interesting stories to bring back home.

Don’t Stray Too Far From Home:

Was reading an article this morning that argued it’ll now be impossible to analyze Bourdain’s legacy without bringing up the topic of suicide.  Bourdain’s death added fuel to a critical epidemic that requires more investment, attention and awareness – on a global scale.  No one will ever know what final factors caused Anthony Bourdain to take his life last June in his Paris hotel room – but many friends and colleagues that knew him best do point to one of the major factors–long stretches of time spent away from home.

Superstar athletes and mega entertainers all talk about the toll being “on the road” takes not just on your body but your psyche over time.  International businessmen and women traversing through time zones as if they’re exits on a highway will share similar stories of fatigue and burnout – lamenting the toll this kind of traveling takes on their most cherished relationships.  When you’re “on the road” you miss birthdays, weddings, holidays sometimes – events that all-too-easily (and quickly) add up.

As filmmakers and then beyond that, as entrepreneurs we never want to turn down a project, we never believe we have a limit.  We can work 12 hour shoot days, then spend hours responding to emails and jumping on calls for other projects and just keep pushing the limits.  We don’t want to delegate because that means ceding control, and we don’t want to ever say “no” because maybe that door will never re-open.  So I know these are struggles I have, but for those fellow filmmakers reading this – I’m sure you can relate as well.

Over time, managing this work-life balance that everyone talks about becomes just as challenging but also just as important as continuing to hone and sharpen skills as a filmmaker and a professional overall.  Much like Bourdain proved in his interviews, I think the trick is being and remaining wholly present in all of your experiences and relationships.  Family and friends want to be there to spend time with you, and this emotional nourishment is critical.  Make sure you plan ahead for important events, vacations, etc. well in advance so you can better plan and communicate your availability to clients when projects come up.  And most importantly, make time for yourself to do the things that, well….make you — you.  Reading, exercising, trying out new restaurants, whatever it is.  When you have free time, don’t freak out – use it to better yourself in some non-work way.

Counter intuitively by taking yourself away from your work for even brief respites – makes you sharper and better the next time you dive into a project.  I’ve always found this to true, and every time it happens…like a fool, I’m always surprised.  Hopefully by writing it down this time, I’ll be better at reminding myself.  We’ll see.

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After his death, former President Barack Obama said of Bourdain, “he made us a little less afraid of the unknown.”  This BTS still is from an episode of Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” from 2016 when he and Obama shared a meal in Hanoi, Vietnam.

In summary, as we pay homage to the life and work of Anthony Bourdain I’m reminded of my favorite Bourdain quote…

“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park.  Enjoy the ride.”

For me this simple quote resonates so deeply for where and who I am right now.  I don’t look at it as being just about food.  For me, that temple could be your preconceived and imagined life.  It’s supposed to play out exactly a certain, and even…perfect way.   But life’s never perfect, or certain – it’s full of twists and turns – many of which  you can’t plan for or never see coming (good and bad).  The best we can do is meet each experience with openness, enthusiasm, and a sense of adventure.  Learning lessons from the things that don’t go our way, and cherishing the moments and people that bring us that sense of fulfillment and joy.

To me…that’s what it means to “enjoy the ride.”

 

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