Just Let It Happen: Behind Parts Unknown With Director Tom Vitale

If Anthony Bourdain ever appeared on your television screen, there's a good chance Tom Vitale stood behind the camera.

Vitale spent virtually his entire career working alongside Bourdain, first as a tape logger on A Cook's Tour, working his way up to post-producer for No Reservations, and finally, directing some of Parts Unknown's most iconic episodes, including its Hanoi, Iran, Copenhagen, and Congo shows.

Vitale spoke with The Takeout about his 16-year run with Bourdain. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Takeout: Back during those early seasons, what was the motivation of the show? And by the time you reached the last few seasons of Parts Unknown, did that motivation evolve?

Tom Vitale: It was pretty constant all the way through, even in a certain way on A Cook's Tour. It was always Tony's take on a place. It got much fancier with each progressive season, but those themes, ideas, and ways he looked at things were constant. Motivation? For example, Graham Greene's The Quiet American would be a reference on almost any Vietnam trip all the way back to the very beginning.

TO: Certainly with the later episodes, the team was taking more chances with things like non-traditional narrative structure or shooting in the style of, say, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Was this the production team being comfortable in its own skin?

TV: The biggest shift moving to CNN was it allowed Tony to go to places like Libya or Congo, places that Travel Channel never had an appetite for. It's not like he didn't have an interest in going there before. [Going to CNN] was the first time he could do whatever he wanted. And then over time with CNN, [the network] became more confident, or, Tony wore them down when it came to some of the storytelling techniques. It was an evolution in that Tony always wanted to do something different. In the later seasons, it was getting closer to the storytelling he wanted, our tools got better as did the quality of the editing, and we had more resources to do scouts, which was a huge boon for getting better characters to sit across the table from him. Tony being able to have better conversations was a big thing. But the later shows would not have been out of character with what he might've done at the very beginning, if he had the resources and the confidence.

TO: Can we talk about those better tools at your disposal?

TV: The Sony F5 and F55, those cameras were amazing for what we did. The sensor was so much bigger so we could film things in lower light—not that we didn't light things, which we did a lot especially at the end, to keep improving that cinematic quality.

TO: You mentioned Travel Channel pushed back on locations like Libya and Congo. What was the push back from Tony and your team? 

TV: Tony from the beginning would always choose the locations. There was never an episode that wasn't somewhere he actually wanted to go. That's why the relationship with Food Network ended. After the second season on A Cook's Tour, Food Network wanted to refocus him on domestic locations and more barbecue because that's what rated really well. And he refused to do that, which in retrospect, must have been an incredibly brave thing to do because during that time he was somewhat convinced he'd never been on TV again. Not that he really wanted to be on TV so much—at the time.

The locations were very much his choice. Things could be vetoed. With Travel Channel the most out there place we ever went was we did an Iraq-Kurdistan episode near the end [of No Reservations]. There was also Haiti. [Those were] definitely a fight.

TO: Were there any locations Travel Channel just outright say no? 

TV: Libya had been discussed while we were still at Travel Channel and that was a complete no. Congo was a place he always wanted to go, and there was never a chance Travel Channel would allow that to happen. They thought it'd be bad for their brand if anything bad happened to Tony or the crew in a place like that. It really wouldn't go well with the idea of traveling.

TO: Once you moved over to CNN in 2013, did you get free rein?

TV: They were very open and very happy to have Tony. That was probably how they moved him over was by saying "you have complete freedom." And to a pretty large extent, he did. What he wanted to do was also in line with what they wanted—going to places that are less-traveled and telling those stories.

There was a black-and-white episode we did in Rome for No Reservations, and it was a dream of his forever to do a Fellini-like episode. And Travel Channel was never going to allow that. But they had got bought and sold by some company, and basically nobody was in charge. We didn't really have an executive producer at the network, and Tony could very astutely tell that. He demanded it at exactly the right time and there wasn't anybody to shut it down. So that's how that happened. It wouldn't have happened before, and it wouldn't have happened afterward.

TO: What was the process of choosing the locations and characters within each episode?

TV: There were certain episodes where [Tony] would be incredibly specific. There were others where it was a blank slate, or he became less interested in the place between suggesting it and the time to do pre-production. So there's not a singular way to describe how an episode gets made.

About two months before going, we would start pre-production. The first step is hiring a local fixer or producer in the country who would help with everything from permits to logistics, and ideally, help with the story. Making the home team proud was always something that was important to us.

The sort of characters we're looking for, the ability to speak English well is the first one. Because when English is your second language, when you throw a bunch of cameras in front of you, your ability to speak English as a second language would often dramatically decrease because of the pressure and intensity of the filming. By the end, the system I had that worked the best was making sure the local producer recorded a video—just shoved a camera in the person's face, even if it was an iPhone—and have them talk and see how much that threw them off.

Let's say we were going to have six to eight different people Tony was going to meet on the show. We'd have double that number by the time we hit the ground for a scout. I don't think there was a single episode I did where things weren't changing down to, like, 4 a.m. the night before. One episode in The Philippines, we had four cancelations all from sick grannies. The cancellations we had were quite rampant.

TO: You said you'd have double the number of local characters you needed for every show?

TV: Nothing would be set in stone. I had twice the number of people that I wanted to film with and then during the scout, I'd whittle that down. There was a certain element of heartbreak with that. It's really hard when you meet somebody and they say, "I just can't wait to meet Tony or be on TV!" and you can tell within the first 30 seconds whether or not they make the cut.

TO: How do you build in moments of spontaneity? Do you ever run into someone on the street and then you'd go back to their home and cook with their grandma?

TV: No, absolutely not. No, no. That was impossible. There were some hard lessons learned over the years of people inviting you in to cook in their homes until they saw the release that had to be signed, and then saying, "I can't sign this. I'm not going to be adjudicated in the state of Georgia, I don't even know what that is." The releases were terrifying. They were three pages long. Basically you had to sign away your first-born child. If you said anything you'd have to go to court in Georgia against CNN lawyers that were terrifying.

To clarify, we couldn't walk in off the street and film a scene proper. We wouldn't have been able to set up quickly enough. The grandma scenario you ask about could—somewhat in theory—happen. And actually did once or twice, with a granny that is. But we'd need at least a day's lead time to set it up, then half a day for the crew to prepare before Tony's arrival. So it was more like we'd be searching for a grandma scene and it would turn out, for example, one of the drivers would be related—the perfect one. Spontaneity had to be scheduled.

TO: One of the more memorable episodes was the one in Buenos Aires, which you worked on. In one scene he visits a psychotherapist, and in retrospect, there's a lot of telling things he divulges. Tell me about making that episode and that scene.

TV: Buenos Aires was an example of one of those episodes where he didn't have any ideas going in. He had been there many years before and really liked it, but "beef" and Happy Together, the Wong Kar-Wai film set in Buenos Aires, might have been as far as his direction on that episode. So during the pre-production—and this would happen all the time—we would end up in places during its off-season. Because although the weather might not be so good, it meant there were a lot less tourists. So things like B-roll were better with more locals. Buenos Aires was an extreme failure in that sense. The first phone call I had with a local producer, she said "Don't come (during the summer)." It was the hottest couple of weeks during the year, and much like late August in New York, everyone gets the hell out of town. Buenos Aires is a ghost town during this time.

Well, we didn't have a choice about that. And very quickly I realized, it's kind of wonderful because it gives us some texture about this place. It's an empty city, a ghost town when we were there. And the heat was so intense, the only people who were left were die-hards like waiters or construction workers, people who can't really leave. And so the episode quickly took on that as a theme. The therapy thing came up because I believe Buenos Aires has the highest per capita rate of psychotherapy in the world. And I instantly thought that would be a great device for it. And it took me so long to bring it up to Tony. I think I waited until he was in country, actually. Because he would shoot down ideas all the time, even if they were good, because he got the wrong impression. So the first night we were in Buenos Aires we went out for drinks, and I brought it up, and of course, expecting him to totally shoot it down, which was going to be devastating because I thought it was a really good idea. And strangely he was very into the idea.

TO: Why do you think that was?

TV: [Long pause] I don't know.

TO: You mentioned about how sometimes things during the shoot would go to shit... 

TV: Not sometimes. Every time.

TO: What was the most extreme example of that?

TV: There's literally not just one. For example, that psychotherapy scene in Buenos Aires, in order to have a location to film in, our producer had find to find a friend of her mother who's an analyst, and she's out of town and we could use her office. We're already on thin ice with that scene because it's not the sort of thing that Tony would usually do. And we get there to set up a couple of hours before to light it, the air conditioning was broken, and the lady who was out of town, she was a bit of a hoarder and had lots of cats. The entire place reeked of cat pee. And then the lights are on as we're lighting, and the place heats up to about 125 degrees. We tried to get an air conditioner that we brought in, but it was so loud and was chugging, and we couldn't have it on while we're filming. And it didn't even do much to cool down the area. So it was 125 degrees of reeking of cat piss. And that actually went well because it came out like it was planned.

All these things though, every time it went wrong? It ended up making the show better for a bunch of reasons.

TO: Making the show seemed like, to put it lightly, an enormous amount of work. 

TV: We did a behind-the-scenes interview show during the last season (Season 12's "Under the Tarp") and one of the questions threw out at the crew was whether it was fun. And nobody thought it was fun. Some of the words they used were "life-changing" and "exhilarating" and "once-in-a-lifetime," but not a single person would have called it fun. Tony wouldn't have called it fun. Friends and families think it was like a vacation. You'd get back and be completely burnt out and spent, nerve endings raw, and nobody ever really understood why you'd be in that shape coming back from a trip. Unless you were actually there and experience it, it's impossible to understand that it wasn't fun or relaxing. Fun or relaxing is the week you spend in bed when you get home from a trip.

TO: Do the writing and voiceovers shape the episode, or does the footage inform the writing?

TV: The footage would shaped the writing more. The way a traditional edit is done is more that the voiceover would structure it. It's a credit to the amazing editors who worked on the show and their patience—cart ahead of the horse was really the only way to do it. We had to cut the episode down to a pretty refined state because Tony wasn't good at looking at anything rough. He would never be able to disambiguate rough from "not good." You had to basically fine cut an episode, scene, or act of a show to send it to him for writing. And he would often say you're on the wrong direction, and we'd have to start from scratch and re-fine cut it before he would give any narration. So the narration was tailored to a cut episode. He was very hands off in the edit unless it was not working, in which case he was very intense in his opinion.

[Editor's note: Vitale wrote during the fact-checking session: "I neglected to say here that Tony's writing made the show. It was the show. So I don't mean to downplay the voiceover.]

TO: Can you speak on the efforts the production team would make to make your characters forget they're going to be on camera?

TV: While the crew was setting up, the producer or I would ideally be talking to the character off-site at a nearby bar or restaurant. Or we'd have them come as late as possible while still having enough time for them to be comfortable, or be able to talk to us but not see the set up, which was really ugly. There's lights and a lot of people.

TO: So there's no interaction between Tony and the subjects before the cameras started rolling?

TV: That was utterly key, if at all possible. As far as I understand with other hosts, they would play ball a lot more than Tony would. They would do a second take, if a camera missed something. Tony wouldn't do that. If he met the side kick before we were rolling, which would almost always happen despite our best efforts, that's when things would be the most natural. I could always hear him because I had an IFB attached to his lavalier mic, and my soul would die a little bit each time he said some brilliant, wonderful thing off camera.

And they'd sit down and their conversations would become incredibly flat. This would happen all the time. He wasn't doing this on purpose; he really didn't like the camera. It made him uncomfortable. So we'd be shooting for an hour, an hour-and-a-half, and near the end we'd shoot these wide shots—which meant the scene was over—we'd go back further, put on a zoom lens, and the people didn't have cameras around them. And that's when so much of the great content would come from, the last 15 minutes after an hour-and-a-half of standing there in tropical heat with incredibly heavy cameras.

TO: You said Tony doesn't enjoy retakes for the camera—was that because that's just him, or was that a choice to maintain that organic spontaneity between himself and his subjects?

TV: I don't think anything with Tony can be reduced down to one particular thing. He would always be telling us "just let it happen" with no patience or understanding that it was impossible to just let it happen. For all the reasons he wasn't totally privy to, between how long it took to set up, to the often-times sensitive nature of the locations we were filming, he wouldn't be a part of all those negotiations with people. He definitely wanted it to be spontaneous, and came down on us quite a few times for it not being spontaneous. But it was always good advice. So it was a struggle. He didn't like to think he was making a TV show.

TO: But so obviously you were making a TV show. What was he trying to create? 

TV: He had talked several times that in his ideal world, the camera would be his point of view. "My eyes, you'd never see me or hear my voice." He's certainly talked a lot in interviews and some of the shows about the kind of hypocrisy of anyone thinking they're important enough to be on television. Automatically, it's not authentic. But he definitely kept it real, and he was pretty successful at that.

TO: We can't talk about the show without mentioning the Hanoi episode with President Obama, which you directed. The conversation the two had became legendary. It felt very intimate—just two dads talking.

TV: That's another example of the "last 15 minutes of filming." There was no room in that restaurant to go wide. But there was an hour-and-a-half of talking about Richard Nixon's obsession with cottage cheese. And I was like, "Oh my god, there's not going to be a scene here." We could have never seen the forest for the trees in that experience, but until you got back and saw the footage, it was so intense. The scene was shot in the evening, like 6 or 7 o'clock, and we all had to get there with everything at 8 or 9 a.m., including Tony. Tony would usually come about 10 minutes before the cameras started rolling. It's not that he minded waiting, but he would see the gear and be reminded we're making a TV show. So in Hanoi we had to be there the entire time and witness the entire build, which was even a bigger build than usual because of the importance of the guest.

It was this concentric circle of Secret Service. Vietnam is one of those countries you needed to have government minders. And the Secret Service made it clear that we were to tell nobody in advance of this filming, not even your own parents. So we couldn't tell the government minder. Of course, they're very quickly realizing, "Why are you getting to a place so many hours before?" It was very stressful.

Another thing was someone from the media end of the White House came for a scout and requested that the air conditioner be working, and of course we go there and the air conditioner wasn't working. So we had to buy an air conditioner, but it's not just a regular air conditioner, it's one of those built-in-on-the-outside units. These teenagers in flip flops were carrying it on the roof with a ladder trying to install this new air conditioner. I was sure somebody was going to get killed. Tony's there seeing all of this, and I've never seen him so withdrawn during that waiting time. He just sat in the corner. Usually if he's upset he's quite funny about it. But he was very withdrawn and so nervous.

TO: He was nervous about sitting down with the president? 

TV: Yeah. He wasn't starstruck. But for all of us, it was this moment of "Why the hell is the president want to have dinner with us?"

TO: What are you up to these days?

TV: I have been enjoying my first vacation in 15 years and burning off my vast number of frequent flyer miles and spending time with my family and friends who I haven't seen in a long time.

TO: Have you ever reconciled with the fact you're not going to be working on Parts Unknown or with Tony again?

TV: I think it became pretty clear right away. I mean on a deeper level, it's hard to really fathom that he's gone. Still. Because he was such a big presence. Reconcile, I guess, is different from understand though, isn't it? I thought traveling would be hard. But it wasn't. Staying at home is harder.

TO: If you had to recommend someone who's never seen Parts Unknown a few episodes to understand the show, which episodes would you guide them towards?

TV: I could only answer out of (the ones I worked on). There's so many different sides of Tony. The greatest parts about him might have been Libya or Iran, because it showed his olive branch. Those aren't my favorite ones to make, I like the fun ones a lot more. But Tony was probably in his best in those.

The Philippines is one of my personal favorites. Borneo was another one of my favorites, probably for reasons that don't translate.

TO: Can you try?

TV: Borneo was the first episodes of No Reservations I post-produced. We took the same trip 10 years later. He promised in that first episode to go back to that Iban village in Sarawak for their harvest festival, which is this totally raucous drinking festival. It was a very difficult episode but I think it came out very well. It was really hard with him, unless it was directly coming from him, to build emotion into things. And that was one where if anyone else had done that episode, it would have been very flat.

Paraguay, I was really proud of that one. We went to Paraguay to investigate this missing great-great-grandfather (of Bourdain's). A normal approach might have been "let's go eat barbecue and talk about it twice." But much against Tony's will, I kept it on track with that search and succeeded. Copenhagen was really beautiful from a food perspective, probably the best food episode I ever did. So I'd say Libya, Copenhagen, Paraguay, and Iran would probably my favorites to watch if I could watch them.