Anthony Bourdain, host of the Peabody Award-winning program Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN, spoke with us about how creating his shows and finding interesting stories has challenged him professionally, as well as personally.
Transcription NotesInterviewer: Matt Shedd Interviewee: Anthony Bourdain
Welcome to Stories That Matter, a Peabody Awards production. I'm your host, Matt Shedd. In each episode of this show I talk to writers, creators and producers about what goes into making a Peabody-winning program. Today's conversation is with Anthony Bourdain. His current show Parts Unknown won a Peabody for episodes that aired in 2013, during its first season on CNN.
We discuss the amount of work it takes to make one of these episodes; the politics involved in filming and traveling to these far away places, and why he doesn't see it as a news program, even though he's on one of the world's most recognizable news networks.
Here's my conversation with Anthony Bourdain.
The first thing I wanted to talk to you about was, the Peabody Awards are given out to what the board of jurors believes unanimously are stories that matter. What are your thoughts about why they saw Parts Unknown as telling stories that matter?
Wow, I don't know. I mean, I don't, it's something I really assiduously try to avoid thinking about. I can't tell you how flattered I am that I was even considered for a Peabody, that I'd be mentioned in the same sentence or paragraph or even pantheon and winners like David Simon, but I try really hard to never think about what people might like about the stories I'm telling. I see that as sort of the road to madness and as an impediment to good storytelling. You know, you tell the story, the best story you know how, as creatively as possible, in as true or manipulative of a fashion as you choose to, and you hope blindly that people like it. This is sort of a formula that works for me. If I start thinking about what worked yesterday or what people liked or appreciated or took out of it, that would be terrifying to me and intimidating.
Well then to rephrase the question, what are some of the stories that you've told on Parts Unknown in specific that have really mattered, that stand out as mattering to you? I imagine they all matter to you on some level since you put the time in to produce and host and write for all of them.
I mean, look, there are stories, there are a number of different types of episodes of Parts Unknown. Some of them are driven by food, some of them are driven by individuals. Some are driven by issues or just things that bother me or things I want to talk about. So there are certain episodes that I'm particularly happy that I got the opportunity to show people aspects of places that I've been, or tell particular stories. So the stories that I've told that matter to me were the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That was an episode that I tried for many, many years to set up and hadn't been able to for security reasons. This is the historical story of a place that is little known: the Belgian colonization years. This was a historical obsession that had been something of a dream; I wanted people to know, and I wanted people to get angry about this huge resource rich country that is in such terrible, terrible, terrible shape.
[clip of Parts Unknown Congo episode]
The Iran show was important to me because Iran's so confusing, and again an aspect of a country and a culture that doesn't fit in with the narrative, and makes you think. Gaza and the West Bank were a satisfying story for me because we told, it was a very small series of stories. We basically showed Palestinians as humans beings who do ordinary things like cooking dinner for their kids, and, you know, having fun, and this is an aspect, unfortunately, of Palestinian lives that are rarely shown on television. It seems like a very small and unambitious thing, but I got a lot of feedback from people who were really, remarkably appreciative of just this really, what one would think, was a very small, insignificant thing. I hit a lot of these places that, you know... I tried to not have an agenda. I go in, I try to talk to people about ordinary thing, and in doing that, they often say extraordinary things back to me.
That seems to be a unique aspect of the show, that we get to see these ordinary people talking about their ordinary lives. I've heard you mention that in the past. You know, these are usually regions where we only see dead bodies and catastrophes.
Yeah and I think it's... I may be on a news network, but it is decidedly not a news show. What it's turning out to be, though, I think, is, I hope, a useful adjunct to the news, meaning, when something happens in Gaza, now you can put a face to who we're talking about, what are they like. You know a little bit about them. You've seen them across the table. You've seen them with their kids. You've heard maybe a little bit of their perspective. What you decide, what you take away from that, that's certainly up to you, but I think it matters any time you let people talk, anytime you give people an opportunity to imagine what it's like to be another person. Surely that's a good thing.
Just going off of what you just said, I saw this quote recently from Jeff Zucker, who, I guess, your boss, right?
I think this was in the Hollywood Reporter. "Some people were initially skeptical of having this TV food personality on the air, but he's shown everyone that you can learn as much from an episode of Parts Unknown as you can from any of our field reports, and that's an incredible thing."
I'm really grateful to him. I think it took a lot of courage to put us on the air, and we've handed them some difficult stories as well that really didn't fit in with anything they'd done before and they've stuck by us and given us the opportunity to pretty much do anything I want anywhere I'd like to do it. So, you know, I have the opportunity to tell the stories I want anywhere I want with whoever I want in the style that I'd like to tell them, and that's a real privilege and a joy.
Can you talk a little bit more about that relationship between more traditional news that we get on CNN for instance and what you provide?
Well, it's not a conscious thing. It's I've just found, sort of after the fact, that ... You know, I'm curious about places in the world like Libya, like Iran, Myanmar, places where the history's interesting to me and often there is or has been conflict. When I go, I'm not looking for a story, I'm just asking very simple questions about things like food and what makes you happy. But those questions, the answers to those questions provide some context, some background, often some historical background to current events. I didn't intend for it to be that way, but often places we go, things happen after the fact. I mean, we did a Russian show a while back, last season, I had dinner with Boris Nemtsov. I asked what seemed to be fairly casual questions.
[Clip from conversation with Nemtsov]
I think that's an episode worth rewatching given what's happened. But it was certainly not a calculated thing. I mean, I'm having dinner with an interesting guy who's well suited to give us a perspective on life in Russia today. I never anticipated that it would be anything other than an interesting dinner with an interesting guy who was telling us things from a unique and important perspective. I didn't expect to be called out in the news and talking about Boris Nemtsov a year later. I just didn't anticipate it. When we were in Gaza, I certainly didn't anticipate what happened a year later. When I was in Libya, meeting all of these kids who were in many ways protecting us from harm, I didn't anticipate what happened to them and what happened to their country. I just don't plan those things. I show up and I ask simple things. I'm not a Middle East expert, I'm not an Africa expert, I don't pretend to be. I'm asking what would seem to be the easy questions, but they're the questions that people are seldom asked, and people, I think, often enjoy the opportunity to answer. Also, food, what's on your plate, is an indication of your whole history and character in a lot of ways. An Egyptian chef once told me that the history of the world is on your plate. So what people are eating, or what they're not eating in any particular given situation, tells you a lot about them, and you give the people the opportunity to talk about their food, particularly their sort of cherished specialties, their national specialties, that's often a long and tragic and bloody story.
I'm glad you brought up Boris Nemtsov because I, of course, read about it in the news, and then as I was doing research for this interview, I came across that episode and I watched it, and then I watched your interview on Anderson Cooper  and I was just curious if you could reflect, I mean, you, because of this show and your role now as this host who gets to travel around and meet all these interesting people, how does that affect you personally when you touch a tragedy like that so closely. How did that news, the news that he [Nemtsov] had been shot and killed, how did that affect you?
Shock, dismay, I mean I was sort of incredulous that he wasn't worried during our meal. It seemed to me that he had plenty of reason to be concerned. He was not. I was very, very, and still am, dismayed and heartbroken over Jason Rezaian and his wife and what's happened to them in Iran. Something we have to think about, and something I think about a lot on the show: the people who we leave behind. Now I can go to Russia or China or Iran and I can say anything I wantâ€“maybe not when I'm there, but I can certainly go back and make a show with a voice over or an edit that reflects my opinion about things. What I have to consider, and what I do consider all the time, is what about the people who helped in those countries while I was there, and how might my comments reflect back on them or impact them.
So in Iran, for instance, we were very, very, very careful to not say anything in the show that was going to implicate or endanger or embarrass the people who really took a leap of faith within Iran and were kind to us. And, you know, it's a very paranoid culture over thereâ€“perfectly innocent people, as we saw with Jason, can be accused of things at any time. So if I'm up in Yunnan province in China making a show, as happened, I'm probably not going to be talking angrily about Tibet and the Dali Lama. It's not cause I don't have an opinion on those things or that they're not worth talking about, they certainly are. It's just I have to think about the ordinary people who were seen on camera with me and who were looking after me who might be viewed with suspicion after the fact.
So does that affect the ... So you're obviously thinking about that while you're talking to them.
Absolutely. If I'm in a place like Cuba or China or any place where they've got aggressive and, you know, suspicious security services, I'm not going to put some restaurant owner or side kick, you know, in the soup. You know, I don't feel the necessity, you know, I'm not Edward R. Murrow, I'm not there to give you the whole story. I'm there to give you a slice of what I saw and what I choose to tell you. That's it. I'm not looking to lie, I'm not looking to misrepresent, but if talking about Tibet while in China is going to endanger the people around me, that's not my agenda. I'm not there to do that story. I'm there to talk about food and culture. And in talking about food and culture, people reveal a lot about themselves. A nation reveals a lot about itself anyways, so I'll leave those stories to others.
I mean, Putin, I had no problem attacking Putin head on in the show. It was a very ... that was a very angry, let's call it what it was, anti-Putin show. We tried to make him look dangerous and ridiculous at the same time. Nemtsov was certainly fully on board there. He spent much of his life as a loud, proud public advocate for, you know, voting Putin out of office at very least. But I think, so you know, I had no problem having an agenda driven show in Russia. But there are places where I've been very, very careful. You know, Boris Nemtsov was fully aware of the risks and chose to take them far more courageously than I ever would or ever did.
Do you find people unlike Nemtsov who are maybe just not as consciously trying to be provocateurs but are just sitting and talking and opening up about their beliefs and their country and their culture? Do you find that sometimes they overshare or say things that you have to go back and edit before producing the episode in interest of protecting [them]?
Yes. All the time. All the time. Like we look at it and say "Wow, they were really indiscreet with us. And this is going to come back and hurt them." And a lot of times even the security people, the people who are supposedly there to help us but are, in fact, also there in fact to report back on our behavior in some of these more repressive countries, they are often very frank with us off camera. We're conscious of the fact that if we give them an unfriendly edit or we're really mean in a particular segment that, since it was their job to keep us away from certain things, we don't want to hurt them. We try to find a balance there. You know, there are very, very real consequences in some of these countries. And it's just something we have to think about, that we choose to think about. If I was a reporter, if I was a hard news reporter, it would be a different question. I'm there to get the story period, you know, I have a responsibility. The consequences to the people who talk to me... thankfully those are the kinds of decisions I don't have to make.
Is that the main distinction that you would make between your show as an entertainment show, I think is the word you use, versus a news show?
I know I'm not a news show. That's for sure. I'm a storyteller. When you tell storiesâ€“and I come out of writing novels and memoirs and essaysâ€“filmmaking, making television, video, is necessarily and fundamentally a very manipulative process. That's part of the joy of it. You know, you can make your viewer feel the way you felt. I can go to Congo, look out the side of the boat as it passes by, feel a certain way and then later, back in the editing room, make sure that through the careful use of cutting, of editing, camera movement, and most importantly, music, I can make the audience feel the way I want them to feel. That's a very manipulative process. Even in hard news, I mean that music is kind of telling you how you should feel about something, you know, in the news magazine shows. So, I don't know, I just see myself as coming out of the storytelling tradition. I'm not there to misrepresent, I'm there to tell you honestly how it felt to me at the time. The story's almost always the same: I go someplace, I eat a bunch of food, I meet some people and I come back and tell you how I felt about that experience.
And you've talked about how you've, you look at these as short films, I think you said that in the post-Peabody Awards interview, and that you're very informed by the history of film and something of a film aficionado. What's the process, you know, you go and get a bunch of good tape in Libya, how do you decide what story you want to tell about Libya?
Any number of different ways. I spend a lot of time, I am really a huge film nerd and I make sure to surround myself with people who are as enthusiastic about cinematography, editing, the history of film. Some shows we go out and shoot the best we can with a look in mind and then put it together after. More often than not, we think about where we might go to have the opportunity to get a certain look. Shanghai show last year, I'd been looking for an opportunity to get a particular type of cinematographies. I'd fallen in love with Kar-Wai's films and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, and I wanted to go someplace and make a beautiful hour of television that looked a lot like that. So that sort of drove where we went and the story we told was this impulse to make something that was beautiful in a certain kind of a way.
We'd been talking for years amongst ourselves about when might we have the opportunity to tell an entire story backwards, like begin at the end and tell the thing like the film Memento in reverse order. So we just, I think the season opener of this coming season is a shot in Korea, and it starts at the end of a long karaoke and booze-fueled bar hopping scene, so I basically start the show hideously drunk and become more sober as the show progresses. So a lot of shows are driven by that impulse to make a movie or to reflect on something that I've seen in films that excite me and inspire me creatively. But I think the driving engine of the series in general is that whatever we do, whatever we do, that it's different, that we try as hard as we can, to make the show look and sound as different as possible from the show the previous week and anything we've ever done before. Even if it fails spectacularly. We just don't want to do the same thing, we don't want to repeat ourselves. We just want to keep pushing ourselves and make interesting work, even if it fails, even if it doesn't work, we want to make stuff that's interesting, that's different from what other people are doing, that, you know, shows the courage to risk failure and, as important, we want to have fun. All of usâ€“the camera people, the editors, the post-production, the sound designers, everybodyâ€“we want to go home feeling "Man we're doing good work out there. Or we died trying."
You've been at this for a long time, travel shows. I want to kind of go back to after Kitchen Confidential was a big hit and that moment, you described this in Medium Raw, where the success of the book finds you getting a TV deal with the Food Network, who you hadn't been exactly easy on in Kitchen Confidential. And so you find yourself in this position of now you're a TV host, producer, whatever your role was in that show. Can you walk me a little bit through that transition, and tell me about what the hardest part of that learning curve was.
Well, I'd sold a book. I mean I'd come to realize pretty quickly that this Kitchen Confidential book was doing very well, and that I had enough juice with my publisher, maybe, to quickly, before they found me out, sell another book. So I sold them the book anyone would try to sell a credulous publisher who feels good will towards them. The concept was I travel around the world to all of the places I never dreamed I would be able to see, and eat and drink, and they pay for it, and then I write about it.
And then some producers walked into my restaurant and said they wanted to make television with me and I said, "Well, I'm about to do this book." And they said, "Okay." And they pitched it to Food Network, and we ended up building a series concept around me traveling around the world ostensibly to write this book and they would follow me with cameras.
Now first day of filming, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or how to make television, and I remember the first time the producer, camera people asked me to turn to the camera and say and talking to camera, say as they put it, where are we, why are we here, and what do we expect to find, I was stunned. I had no clue. And frankly, I didn't then, nor do I now get any pleasure from being on camera, per say. It's sort of an odious task. The process of making television, however, that appeals to me.
So the first few episodes are really painful and awkward, but at one point in Vietnam, I'm shooting with Chris [Collins] and Lydia [Tenaglia], my partners and head of Zero Point Zero Production, the people I have been making television with ever since, and I was in a hotel room, not feeling particularly good and I was looking, in Vietnam, and I'm looking up at the ceiling and there's a ceiling fan going around slowly and I thought about that first scene in Apocalypse Now, and I said "Hey, you know, we should start the show with, you know, basically we should do the first scene of Martin Sheen in the hotel room and get some chopper noise and riff on Apocalypse Now." And they got excited by that idea, and we started to do that. And suddenly, I sorta saw the light. You know, it wasn't about me. It wasn't about me talking to camera. It wasn't about face time. It wasn't about that at all. It was the opportunity to tell sort of these messed up, goofy, self-indulgent stories and have a lot of fun. You know, the camera is, you know... television has many strange and terrible powers, and it was that moment, staring at that ceiling fan and thinking about "Hey, we can make our own, you know, cheap version of Apocalypse Now here." That's when we held out the possibility that television might be fun instead of this intrusive and sort of degrading, ego-driven venture.
Right around this time, and it'd already happened and you'd already commented on it in Kitchen Confidential, but there's this rise of the cooking show phenomenon on TV and celebrity chefs, and I guess I'm curious to hear what your thoughts are on that in general and why we seem to be inundated now with these shows about cooking.
I think my career arc has been completely different. I think, clearly, I benefited from an increased interest in food. My show was about me traveling around the world eating interesting stuff. I like to think that we told interesting stories and we tell interesting stories in an interesting way. I think a lot of the other chef shows are very personality driven. You spend time with these people, like Emeril [Lagasse] or Mario [Batali] or any of them because they were interesting people whose personality you like, you want to spend time with them. I don't know that that was...
But wouldn't you say people feel that way about your personality as well?
Um, I don't know. I feel in some ways I benefit from the "I'm just not the other guys." I think I get the people who don't want to spend time with [a] friendly, comfortable television friend. I think the fact that I'm cranky is refreshing to some people. I have the enormous privilege of telling the truth on TV. Like I don't have to say I feel good all the time. I'm not always smiling and happy. I don't pretend that I like everybody, or that I'm enjoying making television, or that I enjoy everything I eat. I like to think that's a refreshing change.
Most people, unfortunately, you know, most of the people in food television have to pretend they're happy. They've been in media training. They've been told "Smile all the time. Keep hitting certain points. Be careful not to offend anyone. Don't say this, don't say that." You know, that's all I do. I don't care about those things. The television business is filled with people who are to one degree to another, frightened. What they're frightened of is that they won't be on TV anymore. I never really cared about that. And as soon as they started asking me to do those sort of things that keep you on television and make you more successful on television, like pony rides and state fairs and barbecue cook-offs and all of that sort of nonsense, I said "No. I'm just not going to do it. I can't do it. You know, I'll hang myself in the shower stall if I do that for a week. And I'd rather not make television." And pretty much that's what happened. I was in very short order, not making television.
So, your path to where you are getting now would be totally different than say, some of these celebrity chef personalities? It seems to me more like the path of a filmmaker who has to star in his own show kind of begrudgingly.
Look. The network has never kind of come to me and said, "Look, we'd like another one of our stars on your show. Put him in the show. Put him in the episode." I'm not doing that if I don't want. Network's never come to me and said "We need more barbecue. It's really big with the male demo 24 to 36." I'm not going to do that. I'd rather not make television. Everybody understands that now. Most people would happily make that accommodation to still be on TV. It's helpful when everybody understands that you don't care that much about being on TV, that you're willing to walk away rather than to do what everybody else does. I would if I could. I just can't. It's not integrity or anything.
It remind me ... My first interview was with David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, for this show, and he said exactly the same thing, that he knew that if he gave the audience what they wanted, then the audience wouldn't really end up liking it anyways. And that he was ready to walk away at any moment. And that's what allowed him to do...
Yeah, my hero is David Simon, who he has a certain period of time in mind to tell a story and he tells a story. And he takes as long as he feels he needs. And if people are complaining along the way, tough. You know, I just, I really admire that and I think, you know, if you look at the number of people who saw The Wire when it was first aired, and then you look at how many people have seen it and love it and feel as I do that it's the greatest thing that's ever been on television, I think his decisions were borne out, validated.
Let's stick on David Simon for a while. You wrote for Treme. What was your role in that?
I was given a character and a story arc, and I worked on that story arc.
Was it the chef story arc?
Yes. Basically from the end of season one on, if it had anything to do with the chef or chefs or food, I was writing it. Either contributing or writing.
What was that relationship like working with one of your writing heroes?
Well, when he first called up, I mean I nearly soiled myself with excitement. I think I called my agent immediately and said "Look. David Simon's gonna be calling. Just say yes. I mean whatever it is, don't dare even bring up money. Just say yes." It was like ... you know, you're a little kid who looks up to Joe DiMaggio and suddenly Joe DiMaggio calls and says he'd like you to join the team. It was like that. And it was the most fun I've ever had really working. It was just really, really fun and easy and thrilling and I was very, very, very, very, very proud to do it. And everyone who worked on that show is not only great to work with and really, really smart, but really nice. Everyone. It's extraordinary. Everyone David Simon surrounds himself with, it seems, from producers, writers, actors ... I don't know if they were nice people before. but they're all nice people now.
Nice people, but he seems to have a similarly kind of cranky disposition that you ascribe to yourself in terms of...
Yeah, okay, he's prickly and opinionated, but he's a mensch. [?] You know, if he says he's going to show up and do it, then he's going to do it. He's a stand up guy [?], and so he's surrounded by stand up people, and that's a rare and beautiful thing in any industry, but especially [in] television.
And it comes through in the work.
I think so. The guy believes in stuff. He has values and principles. It's extraordinary.
I'm a big fan as well. I wanted to talk about one episode of No Reservations, a short clip from the end of the Beirut episode because I've heard you talk about that as a turning point for you.
[clip from the end of the Beirut episode of No Reservations]
So that's a really powerful, I mean one of the most powerful episodes to me. I just, I guess I want to hear your thoughts, hearing that. I mean that was in 2006. Is that correct?
Hearing your thoughts nine years later. I mean how has your view of humanity and also making television changed?
Well, I was very proud of that show because it was such a grim ending and I was just wasn't going to give in and do a hopeful... anything. I was angry, I was very sad, I really... that period had really changed how I looked at the world. And I'm proud that I was able to say that on television. That I just didn't... there was not going to be any corny element of hope there at the end. You know, we're all going to end up ground under the wheel. I wish I could say that I feel differently than that clip. You know, for me, there was making television or there was life, there was travel before Beirut, and there's making television and life after. If anything, those feelings have been reinforced by what I've seen in Libya and Gaza.
I see really awful, awful things happen to nice people all the time. I meet really nice people who've done awful, awful things. I've seen and been in many situations where everything is fine until it's not, suddenly. So this notionâ€“at random evenâ€“that just terrible things can be visited on perfectly innocent people, well I've come to learn that happens all the time. A common love for barbecue or an ability to sit around with a political adversary at table and enjoy each other's company, while surely a good thing, I don't whether it's exactly a recipe for world peace. It can't hurt, that's for sure. We're going to need the ability to do that before things get better. But am I more hopeful about the world, about things working out? Do I feel any differently than that clip there? No, I don't, I'm afraid. I'm more tolerant of people on a person-to-person basis, but hopeful for the world ... I don't see a lot of reason for optimism, frankly.
So how does that change how you make TV?
Look, I'm a romantic. You know, I'm for the underdog. If someone's railing against tilting at windmills, and I like them, I'm not going to portray them as a fool. Or maybe I will as a fool who I admire. You know, I'm clear-eyed, or I like to think I am, but I hope I haven't let cynicism poison my appreciation of a world that's pretty awesome. You know if the immediate future doesn't look so bright right now, that doesn't mean that this isn't a world worth living in and waking up every day and doing the best you can. I mean I'm raising a 7-year-old girl. I'm hopeful that she will have a better life than me. That she will have a good life and that she will live in a world that's worth living in. And I believe that to be true or I wouldn't have had a child. You know, we face... it's a big world. There are a lot of really awful, terrible, terrible things in it, but there are also many wonderful things. You know, life doesn't lend itself to all encompassing, sort of happy platitudes, unfortunately.
Did you feel any shift... I mean that's a standout episode for me of No Reservations. Did you feel a shift overall in the show in general when you moved to CNN?
Just more freedom. I mean we were continuing what we did, but with a lot more freedom as far as where we could go and a looser rein as far as the stories we told. I didn't feel any... I feel no obligation now... I could be as food-centric as possible or have no food at all. The focus of the show can be a very tight focus looking at a place like Lyon through one person's eyes as we did with the Daniel Boulud Lyon show that recently or, you know, sort of a wide, historical overview of an entire country and its history as we tried to do in Congo. They've just given us a lot more freedom as far as scope of the story and, of course, where we can physically go. I mean CNN is a world-wide news organization with experience on the ground in places like Libya and Congo. That's not something Travel Channel would have been able to do for us.
So is CNN at the top of where you would like to work? I mean would you rather have a show on HBO or something like that?
I can't think of anybody in the world who has people on the ground and experience and experts in places like, you know, right now working in Beirut, Congo, Libyaâ€“it's been an enormous asset for us. I frankly have never been supported as ferociously, steadfastly as I have at CNN. I've had nothing but smart conversations with smart people who've done exactly all along what they promised what that they would do from the beginning. So, I'm pretty happy.
You mentioned that you have these experts on the ground and guides and people who can plug you in. Can you describe a little bit of how you pull that all together?
Well in Congo, for instance, we got a lot of research and the benefit of some previous experiences, but somebody found us a filmmaker who'd been living in Goma for years making an independent film, and they had connections on the ground as far as guides and translators. We work with people like thatâ€“fixersâ€“all the time and that's a long process sort of making sure that they understand who we are and what we're like and what we're looking for, and as importantly, what we're not looking for. We don't want a fixer on the ground who's looking to show us a particular place in a ... we don't want them to have an agenda. We don't want them to try to show us the top 10 things that every American should know about a particular country.
We're looking for someone with a sense of humor, real experience, who understands the show, they understands me, that ideally I'm looking to learn what it's like to live in that country, what people who've lived there their whole lives like, what gives them pleasure at 2 o'clock in the morning after they've had a few drinks. The details. The typical things. Not the sites, not necessarily the most important things.
I'm a big believer in atmospherics and somebody who can give us, provide us the access to the things we need to give our viewers a sense of the atmosphere. What it feels like, smells like, sounds like to walk down the street in Bangkok or Tripoli. That's who we want to work with.
So is that how you pick who you talk to, the people that can do that for you?
Oh well it's sort of an audition process. We'll reach out to either professional fixers who do these things for film crews sometimes. Other times food bloggers, somebody who I've met through the chef mafia, a friend of a friend. You know, it's a pretty long pre-production process finding that special person who will help us select a menu, basically, of possible scenes and things we may or may not want to do. Or to find us the things I decided already I want to do.
A lot of it comes down to you saying yes or no?
All of it. We're either doing it ... yeah ... I'm not showing up and saying, "So what am I doing next?" I mean, we hope to have a pretty good idea of what we're doing before we set out. Now that's not always possible. In Libya, for instance, it's an ever-changing situation. We were pretty much winging it full time. For security reasons, restaurants couldn't know we were coming until we arrived, and we could only spend about 30 minutes in any location at one time before we provided, what our security guys were saying, was a target of opportunity. And there are some countries where it's just difficult and where things go wrong and we try to adapt, let things happen. But we try to be reasonably organized.
How big is your crew?
We leave the country with me and two camera people, a producer and a director basically. So four people. And then we pick up local drivers, translators, a couple of camera assistants these days. So there'll be another six or six to 10 local people joining us when we land.
I know we're coming to near the end of our time here, but I was wondering if we had time to listen to one more short clip.
It's a clip from the Libya show.
[clip from the Libya episode of Parts Unknown]
I picked that clip because it seems to be a really good example of what we get from your show as a kind of supplement to the reports that we hear about Libya and the unrest there. We actually get to see this guy who's a normal guy, a travel agent, who just takes up arms. Is that part of what you're looking for when you go to a place like that?
Well it's nice when it happens. Often you hold your breath when somebody opens up to you like that over a meal. And of course, with the passage of time, I could look back on that and say, "Where is he now? What is he doing now? Which side is he on now? Which militia may he ... is he still alive? Who's he with? Who was he in a turbulent post-revolution Libya? Now more and more every day with the ISIS problem, which side is he on? What became of him?" I don't know.
And you have no way of getting in touch with him?
I think I could find out. I know we ... actually we have been following a number of the people in the show, some of whom are no longer with us. Some of whom who went on to be what we would call adversaries. So it's very ... not unusual. It's complicated.
So why did you decide to go to Libya when you did?
Well, it seemed like a very hopeful time. I mean, for exactly stories like that. Actually, one of the guys who we worked with in security, a British guy who's sort of in and out of public service, shall we say. Sometimes he's helping film crews, other times he's suddenly vacationing in Libya during the run up to the revolution. He was sending me emails saying, "Oh it's awesome here. The kids are great. There's like a Libyan anti-Gaddafi rap scene. It's a really hopeful awesome place. You should totally come here." So from that point on we were looking ... you know we heard about all these kids returning home, making rocket launchers out of hair dryers and PVC pipe. It was an inspiring story and there seemed to be a clear bad guy. I mean who liked Gaddafi? So we went ... we started to set up the show pre-Benghazi during a period when it looked very, very, very hopeful. One of those rare occasions where it seemed the good guys won. Of course, it was a much more complicated picture and things have been going very badly for Libya since, but we were there during a very interesting window where people were still sort of walking around on a volunteer basis, ad hoc basis, directing traffic, doing public services. Walking around sort of blinking in the light of, for a lack of a better word, what seemed to be at the time, freedom. And trying to figure out what to do next. So I went there for that. And quickly, even while we were there, it was clear that the situation was much more complicated and a lot sketchier and more unpredictable than we'd anticipated.
Would you go back there now?
Now? As a responsible parent, probably not. I don't think I'd be safe. When we arrived in Libya a couple years ago, our security guys almost immediately said, "Look if we'd known then, before we left, what we know now on the ground, we would have advised you not to come." And the situation, of course, has gotten much, much, much more dangerous and uncertain.
Does that happen quite often for you where people advise you not to go to places you would like to go?
Well, I've been trying to do a show in Yemen for a few years and we have been told that's not a good idea right now. I've looked at Afghanistan at various times hoping for a window of opportunity there. So yeah, there are places where they've ... you know, I've been advised ... we just ... it's beyond the threshold of good sense. And you know, all of us are very close on the show, and the camera people, the producers, the directors, we're a family. We go way back. I'm not going to put my crew in jeopardy either just for an hour of ... so that I can make a good show. That's something to consider as well.
That's it for this installment of Stories That Matter. Our theme song was written by Tim Hill and performed by the band Bobby London. Our executive producer is Dr. Nate Kohn. Our editor and sound engineer is Wes Unruh. Associate producers include Ele Ellis, Noel Holston, and Wes Unruh. Production assistance for this episode was provided by Jana French. Special thanks go to WUGA-FM in Athens, Georgia, for letting us their studio space. You can visit our website at PeabodyAwards.com to find even more original content. Also follow us on Twitter at @PeabodyAwards, and look for us on Facebook. I'm Matt Shedd, and thanks again for listening to Stories That Matter.…
Alex Gibney, director of the Peabody Award-winning documentaries Taxi to the Dark Side and Mea Maxima Culpa, spoke with us about his role in documenting the abuses of institutional power.
Transcription NotesInterviewer: Matt Shedd Interviewee: Alex Gibney
Welcome to Stories That Matter, presented by the Peabody Awards. I'm your host, Matt Shedd. In each episode of this show, we talk to writers, creators and producers about their Peabody winning work, and why they felt those stories needed to be told.
In this installment I talk to documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. He's directed over thirty documentaries, tackling subjects as diverse as Enron, Wikileaks, Hunter S. Thompson, lobbying in Washington, and Lance Armstrong, to name just a few. Gibney made his Peabody-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side in 2007. It's a disturbing and detailed look at the U.S. military's abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan.
His second Peabody-winning documentary, 2013's Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, told the stories of deaf men, who had been sexually abused as children in Catholic schools. The movie also documented the cover-up of those cases, that went all the way up to the top levels of the Vatican.
Two of Gibney's most recent films include Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, and Going Clear, a film about Scientology that has yet to be widely released. It has already prompted an official response from the Church of Scientology.
Here's my talk with filmmaker Alex Gibney.
I was wondering if you would like to talk a little bit about the abuse of power, that seems to be a constant theme in your movies.
It definitely turns my crank. I mean I think ... I don't like bullies and I've been, you know, even when I was young, I would, I remember reading, for example, Sideshow by William Shawcross and just being outraged by what Kissinger and Nixon had done in Cambodia. And so there's something about people when they get power and power is sometimes important...the idea that they would abuse it and use it to inflict pain and suffering on the powerless. Somehow that really does turn my crank. And, you know, I grew up with some, you know, my dad was a journalist, my mom was also a writer, and my step father was a minister who was very much of a crusader for civil rights, so I guess I had it around the house.
[Clip from Taxi to the Dark Side]
You released [Taxi to the Dark Side] about the US Military torturing prisoners in 2007. Were you nervous at all about what the repercussions might be for taking on Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush?
I was nervous when I went to Afghanistan. I mean, that's something to be nervous about. In terms of taking on Cheney and Rumsfeld,etc, I feel like there's a long tradition of that in this country and if we don't do it, then something's wrong. And I think that, so ... for whatever reason, that didn't make me as nervous as it did facing my own mortality in Afghanistan.
And again I would say I was very cautious and I wasn't embedded with the American military, you know, on the field of battle or anything like that, but when you walk down a street and somebody tells you, "Oh that place where we just bought the outfit that might be good for you to wear ... somebody ... you know, a suicide bomber blew somebody up there not too very long ago." It does give you pause. And, even when we were in the guest house, you know, the rafters were rattled one night, and, literally, plaster came down from the ceiling as a couple of stray rockets landed near by, so, you know, it does make you think.
So as you were putting together Taxi to the Dark Side, what was the thing that you learned that surprised you the most?
What surprised me most in that film was to understand how the introduction of the willingness to torture people acted like the introduction of a very virulent virus. And that, you know, the permission for a few CIA agents to waterboard people spread throughout the entire system through something the psychologists call Force Drift, the idea being that the people felt they had permission to go beyond the bounds of normal interrogation and to keep pushing the limits and using more and more force in order to get information.
It spread like a virus throughout the entire system and you can see very much, you talked, you know, you were talking earlier about the abuse of power, you can see how with a wink and a nod, people at the top of the system can give tacit permission to everybody down below to break the rules, to break the law, and to transgress the moral values that we're supposed to stand for. That was the most interesting and most surprising thing for me in terms of making that film â€“ to see how that virus was introduced to the system and how it spread.
[Clip from Taxi to the Dark Side]
How would you compare the practice of torture, and how that spread through the military, with this kind of culture of abuse that you document in your film about Enron?
Well, I think psychologically, it's very similar. As you know from watching the Enron film, I included a small sequence from my favorite psychological experiment: the Milgram experiment. And that was called Obedience and basically what's interesting about that is that so long as you have this guy in a white lab coat saying, "You know, it's okay. I'll take responsibility, you can continue to administer those shocks," that people then feel they're empowered or they're not bound by the same kind of personal morality that might have governed their actions.
So they, you know in the experiment, they keep going up the line administering higher and higher shocks, and in Enron, you know, through this kind of wild, free-market fundamentalism, the idea that the most aggressive, the most vicious kind of competition, even if it meant shutting off the lights in California, was good. Once you imbued that philosophy, then anything went, anything goes. And that culture spread through Enron, again, very much like a virus. So much so that people's own individual morality were soon left by the wayside and they felt they'd been given permission by the people at the top to do whatever they needed to do to make money. It was the bottom line â€“ the ultimate ascendency of the philosophy of the bottom line â€“ that so long as you're making money, it's good.
[Clip from Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room]
I feel like every one of these films about abuses of power has led me a little bit further and further into the psychological mechanism and also into the organizations in which this plays out, and there's a wonderful phrase that police sometimes use called "noble cause corruption," and basically it refers to the dirty cop who, believing that he knows who the bad guy is, can't get him through traditional means, so say plants a, you know, a marijuana joint in his pocket and then arrests him for possession. Now, maybe now marijuana isn't such a good example as heroin, but that's the idea, and the idea being that the end justifies the means â€“ that you know you're a good guy, so it's a okay for you to do that, and you know the guy you're planting the drugs on is a bad guy, so it's okay for you to go there.
So, whether it be 9/11 where we assumed that we were the good guys and everyone else out there were bad guys, the terrorists were the bad guys and we could do whatever was needed, thereby, you know, effectively giving up on the very values we were supposed to be fighting for, or at some place like Enron, where you believe that you have this kind of higher mission which was a kind of unchecked capitalism that was gonna make the world a better place, and so long as you were imbued by that philosophy, anything goes, anything was okay â€“ that idea of "noble cause corruption" that would allow you to commit greater and greater crimes because it was in the service of a higher ideal. You know, we did some research on some of the electricity traders who took down the California grid. It wasn't just Enron, but it it was a bunch of other trading companies that did that, and, you know, a lot of them talked about it in kind of classic misunderstanding of evolutionary biology, you know, the idea that we had to thin the herd, it was kind of Ayn Rand-ian stuff, you know, survival of the fittest, and you create a more efficient market if you're absolutely brutal in the prosecution of going after your competitors, or sometimes, in the case of Enron, your own customers. But I think they saw that the Enron stuff was a way of showing how pitiful the government was, you know, the government shouldn't be trusted to have anything to do with the market, there shouldn't be any rules â€“ if there are no rules, everything will work out just great. Well we found out with Enron, and then in 2008 with the banking crisis just how wise that philosophy was.
So what's your secret? How do you get people to open up about all these difficult subjects on camera?
It's not so much about what you ask when the person you're talking to is in the chair, it's getting them in the chair to begin with, and I think that it's persuading the interview subject that you're going to create a space in which you will listen to what they have to say, and if they lie to youâ€“and many people lie to meâ€“if they lie to you, you can ... there are ways of dealing with that in the editing room, but, in the moment, you know, you wanna give them the opportunity to say what it is that they have to say, and if you can persuade them that you will take their testimony and listen to it and treat it with dignity, then I think you have the basis for discussion that moves beyond the facts of the matter into deeper considerations of, of motive and understanding. And I think most people want to tell their own stories, really, but the idea is to create an environment in which they feel it safe to do so.
Now sometimes, you know, you're confronted with people whoâ€“and Lance Armstrong would be an example hereâ€“who kind of enjoy this process of telling stories in part because they're lies, and, and so you have to engage people like that, and Lance was an interesting character. I liked Lance, I liked hanging out with him, but you could tell that there was a kind of enjoyment that he had in terms of telling these lies, and so going down that road with him was an interesting path, and it was interesting not only for him, but also for me 'cause you can get lost in there.
I mean, to me it's even more paradoxical than that because when [Armstrong] says, you know, "Maybe years later, they'll look back and say, 'Yeah, he won the Tour de France seven times,'" what I find so staggering about that answer is that it's utterly devoid of any larger context. It's like he's seeing the footnotes and he's missing the big story, and the big story is that he lied, and he lied to a number of people that he said were closest to him, and those were the cancer survivors, and somehow he's clinging to the idea that he won, but he's mixing up a sporting event with life, and they're not the same.
Maybe it's the same ethos that's behind the practice of torture in the US Military as well as the abuses at Enron. You know, "We're going to win no matter what."
Well, Dick Cheney said, "We're gonna go over to the dark side." If you really think about that, "we're going over to the dark side," it's a way of saying, "We're gonna beat these guys," but as you suggested, by saying "We're gonna go over to the dark side," it means we've already lost because we've lost our fundamental values that we're supposed to be fighting for to begin with... so he announces a new path to winning, but that very announcement says we've lost.
Now I want to transition into talking about your 2013 film Mea Maxima Culpa. This is your second Peabody Award-winning film, the first being Taxi to the Dark Side. Can you talk a little bit about what's different about Mea Maxima Culpa from some of your other films we've touched on?
I'll tell you one thing that's different about that film, in a wayâ€“I focus a lot on the perps in these films, if you think of them as crime films, and you hear a little bit about the victims, I mean, at it's heart I suppose you could say that Taxi to the Dark Side is the story of Dilawar, the young taxi cab driver, but he's almost a ghost through the film, and most of the time is spent with the people who made him suffer, who killed him, who murdered him. Same thing at Enron, you know, you see the lineman who lost his life savings, but most of the time is spent in the corporate boardrooms [where] these people hatched their heist.
In the case of Mea Maxima Culpa, we spend much more time with the victims, but in this case, the victimsâ€“these men who were students at a deaf school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin â€“ found a way of fighting back in a way that I found very powerful, so Mea Maxima Culpa is ... really ... I think a film about fighting back. And of course it's about power and it's certainly has a lot to say about "noble cause corruption," but there's a reason I ended that film with one of the deaf men putting his left hand over his ear and thrusting his fist into the sky, which is the deaf sign for deaf power.
You know, these guys fought back and they were the weakest of the weak if you think about it. I mean, in some cases, you know, the way the priest used to creep into their rooms at night and often would abuse the kids that he knew had parents who couldn't sign so they couldn't even tell their parents what was happening to them. He was a predator of the worst kind, preying on the weakest, and yet, somehow, over time, they found a way not only to process that pain, but to fight back, and some of them sued the Pope, the guy who, at the top, the Capo di tuitti capi, allowed this kind of gangsterism of pedophilia to continue. So, to me that's what makes Mea Maxima Culpa so powerful is that these people who couldn't speak ended up having the loudest voices.
[Clip from Mea Maxima Culpa]
I'm a lapsed Catholic. I was interested in the story, and even though this issue had been covered by many people, I felt there was an element to this story that was special, it mostly had to do with the way the men were fighting back, that part of the story hadn't been told. Where I dug in was in the personal details of the men and the story of this deaf school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And not only did we get their testimony in great detail, but also went to Italy and stumbled upon another story of another deaf school in Verona that was shockingly in "harmony," I use that word in quotes, with the story in Milwaukee, so that it really created a senses of the breadth of this. Then we also went to Ireland, so it was that kind of discovery of the pattern that I think was valuable. And also finding some materials that had never been much seen before, particularly this home video of these men, frustrated by the fact that the Church wasn't holding this predator priest to account, so they went up to his cabin in upstate Wisconsin and confronted him. And that video tape is just one of the most chilling and also inspiring things I've ever seen. Terribly shot and full of emotion, it was incredible.
It was the men decided to go up and confront Murphy and they took a video camera. And I think one of the reasons it was so poorly shot was one of the men was just terrified, he didn't know where to point the camera. They were confronting this predator who, and you have to remember, they're seeing this predator while he was weak when they confronted him, he was an old man, they remember him when they were kids and he was this vital authority figure, so the camera is visibly shaking as this one man really berates him and confronts him and has this toe-to-toe argument in signing language, American sign language with this housekeeper who is also a Catholic woman, and she keeps reminding him in sign language that he's Catholic, and he's saying this has nothing to do with religion, this is a crime, it's very moving stuff.
[Clip from Mea Maxima Culpa]
That's the kind of thing when you're making a film that's different from writing an article, and you have to examine whether or not it's worth making a film. What is it about images and sounds that, that are particular to the story that make it right to make it as a film as opposed to just repeating an article? So we dug deeper in those areas, and we spent a long time, also, trying to figure out how best to film the deaf men because I felt that was terribly important in terms of how they gave their testimony. And I wanted to have a conversation with them, which meant the use of translators, but I also wanted to hear the sound of their struggles, because you can often hear the grunts and sometimes, you know, almost inaudibly, the attempt to say words in English even as they're signing them. And then exclamations. This one guy, as he's talking about getting it all out, he goes "Paaaa."
[Clip from Mea Maxima Culpa]
To hear all that, which is both kind of exalting and also gives you a sense of distance between the hearing world and the deaf world, was very powerful and it took us a long time to figure out exactly how to film that in a way that would both bring some appreciation to the wonderful creativity of that language-and there was a lot of debate about this, whether we should subtitle or whether we should use voice actorsâ€“we decided to use voice actors for a couple of reasons. One, we felt it would be more emotional and less intellectual than reading the subtitles. Two, you know, if you're reading the subtitles, you're not able to pay as much attention to the visual beauty of American sign language. So that was why ended up going down that road.
In this next part of our conversation, Alex Gibney and I discuss his more recent documentary Mr. Dynamite: The rise of James Brown.Gibney tells me about how he got on board with this documentary. It involved a phone call from none other than Mick Jagger.
If Mick Jagger calls you and asks you to do a documentary about James Brown, there really isn't another answer except for... yes! And one thing in terms of the James Brown filmâ€“and I should say this really, and it goes for all the other filmsâ€“ I work with some very talented producers, and the first thing we do in a project like that is to say "Okay, let's get all the clips we can." And then I brought on board a talented writer named Christopher John Farley who also suggested some areas of inquiry that hadn't much been looked into before, like the March Against Fear and James Brown's role in it, which I wasn't really aware of.
[Clip from Mr. Dynamite]
And then it was like "Let's reach out to as many people as we can, particularly the musicians. Let's see where they are and let's see if we can go talk to them." So it really happened all at once. I think the hardest part with something like James Brown is to find a focus, and to find a way of telling the story. And for us, that was two things. One was I didn't want to tell a cradle to grave biography. We ultimately focused on the rise of James Brown. The other part was I thought it would be fun to make it a musical, so a lot of the story is actually told through song, and those two ideas in tandem gave us the key to unlock the mystery of how to tell the story.
[Clip from Mr. Dynamite]
You've dealt with a lot of heavy subject matter in your documentaries. What one would you say made the biggest impact on you personally?
People ask me that question and it's always hard to respond to it. I can only say that, in the case of Taxi to the Dark Side, it probably had the biggest emotional impact on me because my father died while I was making the film and my father's in the film at the very end. He was a Naval officer, and he was an interrogator in the Pacific theatre and he felt very strongly about this subject, and I actually video taped him when he was very sick, and he said "Let's turn off the oxygen machine and let's do an interview."
[Clip from Taxi to the Dark Side]
Because of that, I changed the narration, I kind of changed the take in the film and it became a very powerful, personal journey for me because I felt to some extent I was honoring his righteous anger over what Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were doing to the values that he felt he was following in World War II. So for me personally, that had the biggest emotional impact.
I think I also recognized on that film that it had a deep psychological impact on me in another way that my editor and I both recognized, my editor Sloane Klevin, which was seeing all those images of torture really scarred our psych. We didn't experience it, we didn't ... it wasn't even close to what other people experienced in the flesh, but understanding the damage that was done to the interrogators and sometimes to the guards who administered these beatings, never mind the people who died or were wounded or psychologically scarred from it, we felt a kind of pale reflection of that that was really upsetting. I mean it was changing us personally just to look at those images day in and day out. So for all those reasons probably Taxi to the Dark Side had the biggest emotional impact on me personally.
As far as which film do I like the best, I don't want to go there. There are a lot of things I like about them all, so ... and a lot of things I wish I could change now, but Taxi is the one that had the biggest emotional impact.
It's been over seven years since you released that documentary. Would you say that the US has made any progress since then?
Well, I would say one step forward and two steps back. I mean, when Obama came into power in early 2009, you know, he said we're gonna close Guantanamo. Well, it was a noble thought, but it hasn't been done.
He said we weren't gonna torture anymore, and I think that, by and large, that's been effected, and yet at the same time the Obama administration is now fighting tooth and nail to prevent the proper release of the Senate investigation into torture which holds the CIA and certain members of the U.S. government complicit in terms of violating our fundamental values. So, I think ... maybe Benjamin Franklin's line here if I can remember it properly ... should be remembered, the idea that "here's your republic if you can keep it." The idea that we always have to be vigilant, that, you know, "If men were angels," said Madison, "We wouldn't need government." So, you know, this process never stops, and I think in the main, you know, over the course of human history, we are probably getting better, but we're getting better at a time when we're about to make the Earth boil up, so, you know, we better take stock.
I think it's this idea of self reflection that's so important, and that's what I discover over and over again in these stories about the abuse of power, is the unwillingness of those in power to reflect on the ways in which they may be deceiving themselves about their own rectitude.
I've read that you have a film coming out soon that talks about Scientology. Can you tell me a little bit about that film?
It's an interesting film and it follows along the lines of some of my other inquiries, it was something I couldn't have done until I had done Mea Maxima Culpa. And also, the abuse of power issue is represented. But the focus I would say is on the process. We follow a number of people who came to Scientology, spent a long time inside the church and then decided to leave. And it traces kind of their psychological process, the psychological and religious process.
And I also saw that in this film you explore a little bit about Hollywood's connection to Scientology. Does that make you a little bit nervous about potentially offending future backers for future projects?
I have thought about it, but, you know, at the end of the day, you have to go forward and, it's kind of a damn the torpedoes moment, you figure that if you do a good job and you're telling a story that's attacking abuses of power, let the chips fall where they may.
But I'm sure that you've gotten blowback before for some of your other documentaries...
You know, there's always some blow back, but, let's just say that the satisfaction I got out of exposing abuses far exceeded any of the blow back that I received.
That's our show for this time. I'm Matt Shedd. Thanks again for joining me for Stories that Matter presented by the Peabody Awards in cooperation with WUGA-FM. Music in this episode included selections from the Nine Ince Nails album Ghosts. Also that's a cut from Tom Waits album Blood Money playing behind me right now. Throughout this episode you also hear excerpts from the films Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The Armstrong Lie and Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown.
Wes Unruh worked as the sound engineer and helped me produce this episode. Special thanks to Ele Ellis, Chris Shupe, Noel Holston, and the director of the Peabody Awards, Dr. Jeffrey P. Jones. Dr. Nate Kohn, Associate Director of The Peabody Awards, is our Executive Producer. Join us next month as I talk to another Peabody Winner. To keep up with all the content we're producing you can also follow us on PeabodyAwards.com and on twitter @PeabodyAwards. And thanks again for listening to Stories that Matter.…
Creator of the Peabody Award-winning The Bernie Mac Show Larry Wilmore spoke with us about his history of writing for variety and sitcom programs, and the new direction his career is taking with the launch of The Nightly Show on Comedy Central.
Transcription NotesInterviewer: Matt Shedd Interviewee: Larry Wilmore
This is Stories That Matter, a Peabody Awards Production and I'm Matt Shedd. In each episode of this show, I talk with creators, writers and producers about how they made their Peabody Award winning work.
My guest for this show is Larry Wilmore, host of the brand-new Nightly Show on Comedy Central. Wilmore is well known for his appearances as a Senior Black Correspondent on The Daily Show, but he had a long and successful career as a comedy writer long before that. One of his first jobs in the industry was actually writing sketches for In Living Color from 1991 to 1993. Throughout much of the decade, he also wrote for sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Sister,Sister and The Jaime Foxx Show.
After that he went on to co-create The PJs, a claymation series on Fox depicting life in the inner city projects. In 2001, he created the Peabody Award winning Bernie Mac Show and would go on to work as a consulting producer for another Peabody winner, The Office.
I talked to Wilmore as he was still developing Nightly Show and hiring writers. Our conversation opens up with Wilmore telling me that the news stories in 2014 made it a tough year to be waiting to go on the air.
Larry Wilmore: I mean the fact that I'm doing a show and we weren't on this year feels criminal, you know in some ways. I got people saying "Larry, when are you coming out?" I'm like "It's not my fault. It's not ... give it some time. We gotta have a chance to premiere."
So are you chomping at the bit to get on the air?
Sure, absolutely, you know. I mean, but there's a lot of things that we wanna do, I mean it's not just covering ... you know we're not doing like a serious-themed show or, you know, people shouldn't look to us to solve everything. You know, "Finally, Larry's gonna fix the race problem." You know, "Thanks Obama, you're a big help." Our show, is basically, it's still first a comedy show that, you know, is going to have my comic take on a lot of these things.
Comedy news has kind of turned into a genre in it's own right it seems like, I mean largely from people like you who were on The Daily Show, and John Oliver is doing really well on HBO now. What do you think that phenomenon is about? Do you have any insight into that?
Well it's said over and over, I mean I used to, over the past years I talked to a lot of colleges and that kind of thing and a lot of the young people, you know, said they get their news from Jon Stewart, you know, or [Stephen] Colbert. It's just a phenomena that started happening and a lot of people, I think they trust Jon's take on things, you know. I think it was a combination of when what you might call regular news got more opinionated, young people felt "well as long as i'm getting an opinion, I may as well get Jon Stewart's." That's what it felt like to me ... so yeah. I'm flattered, I mean, to be considered in that same category, certainly on The Daily Show I handled mostly racial issues, but on The Nightly Show, we'll handle everything, so it'll be interesting.
So what is it about working with and for Jon Stewart that has allowed so many people like you to launch really great, I mean you already had a career as a writer, but now you've got a whole other career as a star of your own show and executive producer, and I mean the list goes on â€“ there's John Oliver, Colbert, but then, you know, Rob Corddry and Steve Carell. I mean what is it about that, that environment that has led to so many great careers?
You know, it's a great question. You know, believe me, if I had that answer, I'd be a manager and not a performer. Sometimes talent just tends to cluster in certain places, I mean Saturday Night Live has certainly had a good track record for that over a long period of time. Certain areas do that. Vaudeville, a lot of people came out of there. The Comedy Club Circuit, a lot of people came out of there, you know and this just happens to be another one of those places where, John's voice is so strong and his standards are so high where the people coming out have just been able to do other things too. Itâ€™s kinda cool.
I mean just from my standpoint as someone who watches the show and reads the articles and sees his quotes, he seems like a very generous, gracious person.
Absolutely. I say Jon is like a combination of Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite. He has that generosity of Carson as a hostâ€“Carson wanted you to be funny, he knew it didn't threaten him at all because, I mean, there was no one more charming than Johnny Carson. And Walter Cronkite, you just trusted the things that he said, and there's if Walter said it, I mean, Lyndon Johnson, our president said, "Well, if Cronkite is against me, I guess I'm done." That's pretty powerful. I mean I'm paraphrasing, but that's pretty much what he said.
Jon has that rare ... he's so smart, you know, he's funny as heck of course too. But he's really smart too, and you're always continually amazed at how thoughtful and smart he is. He makes you want to be, want to raise the bar on what you do.
[Clip from The Daily Show]
In this next part of our conversation, we jump back to the beginning of Wilmore's career when he worked as a sketch writer on In Living Color.
We did one sketch that Les Firestein and I wrote together and it was "Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton" but kind of as Abbot and Costello. They were Al and Lou instead of Bud and Lou. And instead of "Who's on first?" it was "Jew's on first?" is what it was. It was right after the Crown Heights thing where the Jews and Blacks were having this tension and it was really, really funny. Les actually pitched the thing, but I ended up writing it with him and I thought, "Man, if we could do this kind of stuff, this is fantastic."
[Clips from In Living Color]
Were you surprised about some of the things you were able to write on that show and how bold you could be?
Not at the time. If I look back, I'm surprised, but at the time, we were just allowed to do it and we did it. I think television was a lot freer back then.
Why do you think that is?
Well I just think it was and I think we came into a time where it got more politically correct. I mean if you look at All In the Family, some of the content that was done in the 70s was insane compared to. I mean Maude, they did a whole episode about abortion. The content on TV was a lot more controversial for your main stream content levels on networks. Now that stuff would have to be on paid cable.
That kind of leads into the next period of your career where it was more ... I guess I had no idea that you wrote for Sister, Sister, Fresh Prince, Jamie Foxxâ€“shows that people would typically think of as more conventional sitcoms.
Yes, those are conventional sitcoms. I wouldn't say there's much commentary going on. The next commentary show that I did after all that was The PJs show I co-created with Steve Tompkins for Eddie Murphy. And that was the animated show, and that was chock full of social satire. I mean we had a crack head in that show. I remember having to fight to keep him, I said "Look, there is, Andy Griffith Show had the Town Drunk, Taxi had the Town Drug Burnout, so this is the natural progression of that. This is the Town Crackhead." And he had lines like [imitates the character] "Welp, gotta go. Crack don't smoke it self."
[Clip from The PJs]
I loved doing that show. We put so much satire in that, so that was my first coming back to that after In Living Color in a whole different way.
I gotta tell you, I was in junior high, I think, when that show was on, and it was one of those shows that I, I mean I thought it was great and I love the animation, and I love the commentary, but it was one I wouldn't let my parents catch me watching it.
I love that! I love hearing that. That's great.
But it all came back to me when I watched the pilot. You know, the crack patch, the band-aid that was a crack patch and they're drinking malt liquor-just how vicious that show was.
I mean, we had lines like "Welp, Juicy, you know what Juicy, I hope we never grow old." And he'd say "Well, the statistics are in our favor." These lines where I'm like "Oh man, that's a hard joke." That was a rough joke. And we did that on network television in 1999. You could not do that show on network television now. You'd have to be on Adult Swim.
Not only is there all the stuff that we're talking about, the social commentary, but there's violence. I mean there's guns being pointed at the main character and a child, and then â€¦
But there's a distinction between the good people of the projects and the bad people, so we weren't painting brush [?] that everybody was the criminal element. But also the way the criminal part of that was also an everyday thing, where, you know, Thurgood and his wife Muriel were walking down the street and he goes "Hmm, gun shots coming out the west tonight, Muriel." And they're just walking down the street, just having an evening stroll.
To go back to the earlier shows that you worked on, what did you take away from that time in these more conventional shows?
Well, I mean during that time, it's kind of your apprenticeship in television. I was just learning about storytelling in television, you know. So while I was there, that's all I was trying to do was try to write those episodes and learn how to do it. At that time, the reason why I started writing and producing was because eventually I wanted to learn how to write something for myself, so I took it very seriously in terms of "How am I going to do this. What am I here to do." And all the lesson that I needed to learn. So I wasn't looking at it from a content point of view so much as a structure and, you know, how to point of view.
And that apprenticeship, it seems like from things I've heard you say in the past, that that's kind of what allowed you to make The Bernie Mac Show, which, as you've stated, kind of deconstructed the sitcom.
That's right. That's exactly right.
So it seems like you needed to go through that apprenticeship of working on all those shows to do what you did with Bernie.
Right. To know what I didn't want to do. Got to have a foundation of knowing what the norm is before you can deviate from it.
Here's a clip from the pilot of The Bernie Mac Show that earned Wilmore an Emmy.
[Clip from The Bernie Mac Show]
It was part of the Peabody Award winning first season.
So I mean the most obvious thing that stands out about that show is his direct connection with the audience, with America, and that's so great. I'm curious to hear the other things about network television that you were trying to deconstruct or the network sitcom.
Well one of the big things was the rhythm. I thought the rhythm of the sitcom was very much in people's ears and I wanted to disrupt that rhythm just so it would create, on its own, a surprise. Because just innately you wouldn't know what's coming next just because the rhythm was messed up. So where the rhythm of sitcoms is duh, duh, duh, duh, joke, duh, duh, duh, joke, duh, duh, duh, jokeâ€“even if you don't know what the joke is, you know can sniff that joke coming at any second, but if I went duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, [long pause] joke. Or just disguise it a little bit of how the humor was delivered, or just the rhythm of the show, just how the even the dialogue was delivered. How I can catch you off guard.
And that's why I was going for more of a realism and at the time, remember nobody was doing the single-camera show, I think Malcolm in the Middle was the only show on the air, and I had watched, I think I may have talked about this on WTF, but I was watching this show 1900 House where this family was put into a house, I think, in England and they had to act as if it was 1900 and they had to behave like that and there were all these cameras all set up and I thought it was fascinating to watch these people. And I thought "Boy it'd be interesting to do a sitcom where we're just observing. Instead of the action being pushed out to us, we're observing." So there's doesn't have to be this forced type of performance or action or that sort of thing.
And then the other component was the actual structure of sitcom, at that time, was really dominated by farce and having studied playwriting in college, you know what the rules of farce are, you know it's a lot of slamming doors, it's misunderstandings and "Oh he's gay, oh no.â€ And so a lot of sitcoms were built on misunderstandings and on the farce rules, and the farce rules are very high stakes, what I call, big act breaksâ€“something very important is happening at the act break that makes you want to come back after the commercial. "Oh no, is this going to happen?" dun, dun, dun. And that's how the sitcoms were doing.
And I wanted to disrupt that and I was looking at reality shows. I was watching The Real World, and when it would go to commercial, there was no big moment that would happen, it would just go to commercial, and I'm like "Well why do I want to keep watching this." And I just kept playing it back, and kept playing it back and kept playing it back and I kept asking "Why do I want to come back? There's nothing going on here in the plot. There are just coming back." and I thought "Well, maybe I'm just interested in these characters and what's going on. Maybe there's something happening in their lives and I just want to see more of that." And it was a revelation to me, I go "Oh, okay, I don't have to manipulate the audience in this manner. I can get them invested in a character's emotional journey." And that was a revelation to me.
And if you watch, you'll see that the act breaks are not manipulative. Something actually ends at the act break and then when we come back, we're moving on to something else. And that was on purpose. But the network I was dealing with, they would give me notes based on the farce form, you know, they wanted these act breaks that were based on plot and I was giving them things that were based on story, on the emotional journey, and so we never saw eye to eye, and they ... you know ... I won't go into all that. But it was very frustrating. But now you see many shows have copied that too. Whether it was The Office, who redid a lot of that type of storytelling, or there wasn't those type of act breaks at The Office, we were just, we were getting in deeper into that character's psyche, you know, and that sort of thing. So it's a whole different type of story telling for sitcoms.
And Bernie Mac, the man, was just such a great performer.
Very enigmatic, very charismatic, very interesting as both the character and a performer and the perfect instrument for doing this type of thing because he looked like something we hadn't quite seen doing that. And, you know, he's pulling from the tradition of Jack Benny, who spoke directly to the audience, or George Burns, who would "Say goodnight Gracie" you know, talk to the audience. Or Gary Shandling kind of revived, didn't make fun of it in his show, It's Gary Shandling Show, where he talked for dune [?] So Bernie was taking, he was in that tradition of relating directly to the audience but in a slightly different way. For The Bernie Mac Show, I wanted it to represent his emotional life and what was going on over ... he was pleading to America to relate to his plight.
One of the standout episodes to me, and I think what's so powerful about it, that slice of life that it gives is a black experience that you didn't see, I mean, it's a different view and it felt more authentic than what you saw on Fresh Prince or on Sister, Sister.
Absolutely right. And without commenting on it as well. It's just taking it for granted.
Like the religion one where Bernie gets saved and he goes to church. That's a great example of that. There's no "this is the right thing or the wrong thing" for him to go to church. He's just thinking as a pragmatist, like "How do I get these kids in line?"
Yes, exactly. It's all to shut up the kids, you know, and he doesn't care about his soul, he wants their souls saved. He thinks they're the devils. He has a problem when someone tries to save his soul. Yeah that's a problem.
[Clip from The Bernie Mac Show]
And he's just such a powerful performer that he could take you on that journey, that psychological journey that you're talking about with a look, you know, he could do it with a look and you're there.
Yes, absolutely. It was fantastic.
Him and James Gandolfini, actually, since we talked about The Sopranos, they're both powerful, powerful performers that we lost way too early.
Absolutely. I agree, what a great analogy. I agree. They both had stored up power where, in the simplest of things you saw this energy in everything, and that's that stored up energy where you know something could happen at any second.
Before he was offered his new show on Comedy Central, Wilmore was helping produce the ABC sitcom, Black-ish. He tells me about how he got involved in that project.
I was called by ABC because they were thinking of picking it up to shoot the pilot, if I would help shepherd it through the pilot stage and so I did that with Kenya and helped rewrite it and get it ready and, you know, produced it, cast it, all that stuff and did the pilot. And then the whole Comedy Central thing came around and I had to ... I was gonna run Black-ish full time but I ended up just helping out on the first like eight to 10 episodes.
Okay, so you've completely stepped away from that?
Yes, at this point I'm completely away.
Okay. Did you see that project as continuing, kind of, the trajectory that we were just talking about with Bernie Mac of showing a more authentic African American experience?
Well it's a little different from Bernie. For me, what attracted me to that script, to Kenya's script, was I felt there was some content in there that, you know, when we talked earlier about All in the Family and that there was content in those sitcoms and to me it seems like sitcoms today don't have any content in them, you know, they're all very silly, you know some of them are very funny doing that, but nothing's really being discussed of any consequence it seems like to me. I can't think of one, I could be wrong, at least on the networks I can't. I mean Louis [C. K.] tackles some interesting things in his show, but more of those are so lipstick, you know it's more about his character and kind of the psyches and that. But it's very interesting though, you know. But in terms of commentary on anything or content about issues, it just didn't seem like it was out there. So I was like "Wow. This is very good for you Kenya, you got some interesting stuff" and it's funny how timely it ended up being, especially this year. But that's what drew me to it was that part of it. And this was a different type of family that I hadn't quite seen, you know, in this way.
[Clip from Black-ish]
Were you a little bit ... I mean it's a good problem to have the option of two different shows, but was there part of you that was a little disappointed to step away from that?
Oh absolutely, I mean you're so looking forward to it and you're so excited, so as excited as I was to be doing my own show, I was very kind of sad to be leaving Black-ish.
So what's this like, I mean what stage are you at now with The Nightly Show. I'm sure you probably hired your whole staff and, are you guys writing every day?
No. We're still putting people together. We're still closing deals on all the writers, so no we're still doing all that.
So are your days now a lot of meeting with people, deciding whether or not they're right for the show, auditioning people. Is the kind of the stage you're at right now?
All of that kind of stuff and figuring out the show at the same time. So it's all of that stuff.
And I think this is something you mentioned in other interviews, that it's going to, I think it was the WTF one actually, that what you kind of have in mind is something similar to the Bill Maher's format with Politically Incorrect
Well it's hard to compare it to Politically Incorrect. His was strictly a panel show. This will have me at the beginning like Jon and Stephen and even Oliver, where I'm giving my take on what's going on in that form. And then there'll be a panel aspect to it. And there will be some correspondent type stuff as well. So it's kind of a mashup of a lot of those things, but our own thing, you know. I mean I understand that for people normally to understand shows, they have to compare it to something that's out there, it's hard to just describe something on it's own.
Right, right. I mean since you've run sitcoms, you ran a cartoon, and now you're running your own talk news type show, what do you prefer as a writer, or do they just satisfy different parts of your brain?
I think they satisfy different parts of my brain. This one is probably the most daunting because I'm performing in it as well, and the others, my job was just to write and produce, you know, which is a tough enough job in and of itself. But to be the one who is the messenger, so to speak, the one who's being written for, this is it's own challenge
Well here's a question: Were you surprised to hear that Bernie Mac had won a Peabody Award when it did?
Absolutely. I mean, I didn't know how people were going to react to our show. When I wrote that, keep in mind, I knew I was disrupting the rhythms and doing something different, but I didn't know if people would like it, you know. It was just something I was interested in. I didn't know. And so when people accepted it in a way, it was all surprise, a pleasant one. I was very happy about that, I was very honored to get a Peabody. And, by the way, Walter Cronkite gave me the award, I mean it's so ironic that he did. I was a huge Cronkite fan growing up and the fact that he gave me that award makes it one of the most special awards I've ever gotten.
[Clip from Wlmore's Acceptance Speech at the 2002 Peabody Awards Ceremony]
And he really laughed at that last line and I was like "Oh! Very good. You made Walter Cronkite laugh." So that made my day.
And then, I had no idea I'd be working with Jon Stewart and I'd be doing this kind of thing in the news business. I had no idea at the time. Here I am getting an award from Walter Cronkite having no idea I'd be on a path to giving the news, so to speak, to America.
Well that's great. I mean I'm really looking forward to the new show. I'm a big fan of your work up to this point, as you can see. I'm looking forward to seeing how it all shakes out.
It was my pleasure and thank you so much. I appreciate it.
That's it for this episode of Stories that Matter, a Peabody Awards production. Dr. Nate Kohn, Associate Director of The Peabody Awards, is our Executive Producer. Our Associate Producers are Ele Ellis, Wes Unruh and Noel Holston. Jana French is our Production Assistant. This show was edited and mixed by Wes Unruh. Special thanks to WUGA-FM, Chris Shupe and Michael Cardin. Subscribe to our podcast to hear other creators, writers and producers talk about their Peabody Award winning work. You can also check out the podcast and the rest of our exclusive content at peabodyawards.com. Also, follow us on Twitter @PeabodyAwards. I'm Matt Shedd and thanks again for listening to Stories that Matter.…
Creator of The Sopranos David Chase spoke with us for an hour about what it took to make one of the most revered TV shows of all time. Chase reflects on The Sopranos 15 years after it premiered in 1999 and sparked a renaissance in TV programming.
Transcription NotesInterviewer: Matt Shedd Interviewee: David Chase
Matt Shedd: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this.
David Chase: My pleasure.
MS: So I just want to start off, in light of James Garner's recent passing, I was wondering if you wouldn't mind sharing what it was like writing for him for so many years?
DC: That was the classiest operation going in TV, or maybe anywhere in Hollywood, and I think it all came down from him.
He was very much a perfectionist. Very, very concerned about content and quality, but never monomaniacal or abusive or crazy about achieving his ends. In that company--Cherokee Films was the name of his production company--everybody was treated with great respect and affection, and it wasâ€¦I can't say it was a family feeling, but certainly there was a great esprit and when I first came on that show [The Rockford Files], Stephen Cannell, who had created it, told me, "You know in two years, I've never been called down to the set once. And I've never had to do a weekend rewrite.â€ And in episodic television, at that time anyway, it was very rare.
So Jim [James Garner] put a lot, a lot of work and concentration in. He had a great work ethic.
But there was none of that hysteria. We were on the Universal lot, which at the time was doing 17 hours of network television, if you can believe it. They accounted for 17 hours of the entire weekly schedule for the three networks.
This was in the time of Baretta and a lot of other shows which maybe you heard were not so smooth sailing. And working for him [James Garner] wasâ€¦not only, not only was the writing interesting, not only were you allowed to do things that were interesting and different and creative, but I just learned a lot. You just learned a lot. Because everyone on there was really accomplished and there was a great feeling forâ€¦. excellence, really.
And it filtered down from Jim, and also his partner in the company Meta Rosenberg, had been his agent, and they became the principals of Cherokee Films and Meta was an extremely intelligent woman. She was an agent, she had been an agent for many years. She had been the head of the Paramount Pictures story department the age of 18. When I met her she was probably 68. Plus Steve [Cannell] everybody had very high levels of taste in what they considered acceptable.
MS: What do you think he brought to the role that people were so attracted to?
DC: Well, not in any order of importanceâ€¦ You know, when he died last week [July 19, 2014] you saw those pictures in the paper: that was one of the handsomest people that ever lived--obviously.
I'd forgotten how good looking he was.
I think his personality came through. I think when you were watching that guy, no matter what role he was in, you felt you were in good hands, that that character was going to do the right thing. Maybe not gladly and maybe not heroically, but in the end you had your back. And that he was a gentleman, really, of the old-school. And I think that made him extremely attractive, especially to women, but to men too. You felt that he would've been a great friend to have. If that guy had been your friend--any character he played--you would have been lucky.
MS: You kind of just mentioned right then.. Youâ€™ve talked about how he kind of begrudgingly sometimes did the right thing.
And you've talked about that in the past, that on The Rockford Files you learned that the protagonist didn't have to be virtuous, so long as he's good at his job. Would you say that TV audiences were ready for that before even Rockford happened?
DC: Well, I didn't learn that on The Rockford Files. I had been to college, so I had read some literature, so I knew that such a thing existed; that maybe the protagonist of a piece of work might not be likable, going all the way back to the Greeks. I sort of knew this, but television networks didn't know about it or care to know about that.
And Jim Rockford was a very, very mild dose ofâ€¦you couldn't call him an "antihero" but he was cranky.
And he wanted his money up front.
That's what Steve came up with. That was the first thing: "$200 a day, plus expenses." And the reason Steve Cannell came up with that was because he thought the other stuff was unbelievable. Why would any private detective on TV or in the movies risk his life over and over and over again when we never even heard if he was getting paid or not. And just the fact that Rockford made such an issue about money made him more realistic and relatable, more real. But, of course, in those days talking about money was considered gauche.
MS: So you think that networks weren't willing to take that financial risk before?
DC: Ah, who knows what they're willing to do? They weren't willing to do anything. There was a man, who shall go nameless, who at that time was head of, I think it was NBC, who came up with this concept called "L.O.P."
And what that meant was he believed that the successful show was what was called least offensive programming.
DC: That if you had the least offensive show, you would be successful. So therefore, you can't have a lot of thought. You can't have a lot of controversy. You can't have anything approaching controversy. You can only have pablum. That was the atmosphere in television when I came into it.
MS: One of the questions I had written down was: "What was so unsatisfying about working in TV?" But I think you got to the heart of it right there.
DC: Well, I mean, I've gone on record as saying "I hated every minute of it," "I loathed it," "I despised it," and that much is true.
At the same time, I've also gone on record as saying I was very fortunate, because I worked almost exclusively with people who were really talented and who were trying to do something a little bit outside, press the envelope a little bit. And were extremely talented and I learned a lot from those peopleâ€“everybody I worked [with]â€“I was really lucky.
But, you still had to go to those meetings at the network, and those meetings were soul crushing. Every. Single. Time. You came out of there saying, "Well, our vision's compromised again."
MS: Yeah, that's gotta wear on you after a while.
DC: So that's what I meant when I said, "I loathed every single minute of it."
I mean, if I, you know, if I had a catalog of the horrible ideas I heard: stupid, ludicrous ideas, which would make us all laugh now. But it wasn't funny when you had to listen to it seriously.
MS: And do you think the early days of television were like that, in the 50s for instance?
DC: I don't have any ideaâ€¦I don'tâ€¦No, I probablyâ€¦I don't, I don't know. I don't think so.
I mean it was all different because in those days, the sponsors, as I understand it, produced the shows, so you weren't just working for NBC, you were also working for Colgate Toothpaste. So not only would have to get NBC's notes, you'd have to get the notes from the guys at Colgate Toothpaste. And I would imagine there's probably not that many writers who were interested in what the guys from Colgate Toothpaste have to say about a character or a situation.
You know, we've all seen Mad Men nowâ€“that's what it was like. You had guys like Pete Campbell telling you how to write a script. But that's before my timeâ€“that was just coming to an end when I came in.
DC: I think maybe, I think maybe The Rockford Files was partly sponsored by Pontiac because of the car or somethingâ€“ I forget.
That's all it was for. That's all the whole medium is for is for selling shit. It's not really there to entertain you.
MS: Do you feel that ethic has changed a little bit in recent years?
DC: At the networks? No. I don't really know cause I don't really watch it anymore, but whenever I've tuned into a network show, nothing really seems to have changed very much. But, so yes, that's not the same ethos at cable. The thing they are selling you on cable, what they're selling you on a network, is not the show. They're selling you feminine hygiene spray or whatever it is. The show comes second.
MS: And you constantly felt that?
DC: Oh yeah, yeah. I remember doing a movie of the week for ABC. It was called Off the Minnesota Strip, and it was ABC and the network flipped out. It took them a long time to catch on, but they flipped out because it was a white girlâ€“a white teenage girlâ€“who had a black pimp. And I thought, "Ohâ€¦okay yeah, they're concerned about the African American reaction to thatâ€“African Americans being portrayed as pimps." No. They were all upset because at one point, he touched her knee. That was network television.
MS: That's interesting because I was gonna ask you about that made-for-TV movie, because you won an Emmy Award for that, correct?
MS: And I was going to ask you if it restored...or if it gave you some kind of hope that you could do something a little bit more complex and a little more of what people call "dark."
DC: No, no it didn't give meâ€¦ What gave me hope was, I thought, "Well, see. You won an Emmy for a TV movie. Maybe this is going to be the ejection seat that's going to pop you into features." That's all I thought about. But it didn't work out that way.
I was not out to do things that were dark. I don't care about doing things that are dark. I'm not that interested in dark. Dark is kinda easy. I was interested in portraying human beings like they are. At least trying. I'm not saying I get it right. But, there was a total lack of human beings on television. I don't know what those characters were, but they were not real people as I knew them. It didn't look anything like real life as I knew it, not for one... second.
MS: So when, shortly after Off the Minnesota Strip, there wasâ€¦ a lot of critics really liked Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. What was your opinion about those shows?
DC: I never really watched St. Elsewhere. Friends of mine said it was good. Maybe I missed something there.
I liked Hill Street, but I must say, I mostly, whenever I watched it, I watched it because my good friend John Patterson directed a lot of them. You know, I was not that interested in watching TV. It was like a busman's holiday for me. It was no fun for me to watch TV cause I was working in it. And, you know, I was always sorta more interested in movies and just even trying to keep up with the news or read a book. So I liked Hill Street Blues.
MS: But it wasn't something that you think, "Oh, I wanna try and go write for that show"?
DC: No, no. I never really saw enough of it to know. I don't... no, not at all. I was not, you knowâ€¦ Hill Street Blues, the great quality show that it is, was, I was also never that interested in earnest. I wanted things to be kind of be what life... present life kind of like it really was. But there was also a great element of absurdity to life for me.
So, TV went through a phase where it got very earnest. Remember Lou Grant and all those things? It was all issue oriented and courtroom dramas in which they would set up this false strawman thing like abortion to talk about. And it would end up right where they started, and there'd be this phony debate between the lawyer and the prosecutor. That never interested me. Issues like that never interested me.
I was happy on The Rockford Files because it was about a private detective. And it was very kind of true to the absurdity. It really was true to the absurdity of Los Angeles, and it really felt like Los Angeles. I mean, the show had been on the air two years by the time I came on, and they told me to go over and take a look at it, and they showed me two episodes. I had never seen it, but I had heard about it. And I saw it, and I was finished with it, and I said to myself, "God, that looks like it really takes place in a place." In other words, that looks like it's really taking place in Los Angeles, not just in its time slot. I feel that that sort of captures something about the real Los Angeles.
There were so many other shows, you know, I don't know, I mean I used to, those Quinn Martin shows: you couldn't tell where that was. It was like Anyville, USA. Specifics were not the province of episodic, of episodic drama. So, I was never, I always wanted to do something that had touches of comedy to it. And for me, I guess Hill Street, great as it was, was notâ€“-and I'm serious about thisâ€“-not stupid enough. The Rockford Files had a nice element of stupidity to it.
MS: It didn't take itself too seriously.
DC: I guess, or maybe that's what it is. Neither did Hill Street. It didn't, I mean I know Steven Bochco. I was really good friends with Michael Kozol who co-created it. It didn't take itself too seriously either, but, I don't know. I just wasn't that interested in doing confrontations in a ghetto building hallway, everybody with their guns drawn and, "Come out! Freeze, turkey!" I just...that didn't interest me.
MS: Right, and then so, in the late 80s, you had...88 and 89, you had a show that you started with Lawrence Connor: Almost Grown. I was actually able to find a VHS copy in our archives that the Peabody Awards keeps.
DC: Wow. Whatâ€™s it on? Itâ€™s on a tape?
MS: Yeah itâ€™s on a VHS, because... So CBS submitted it for a Peabody Award that year, and everything that comes in
DC: They hated that show[ laughter]. They submitted Almost Grown for a Peabody Award?
MS: They did.
DC: Well, maybe this is when coke first started coming in to Hollywood, because I never heard that. That so...that so surprises me. They had noâ€¦ they cancelled that show after eight episodes.
DC: Almost Grown, youâ€™re talking about? The one with Tim Daly?
MS: Yeah, I watchedâ€¦
DC: Well, you learn something every day.
MS: I watched the episode with the song that it was centered around was "Accidents Will Happen," the Elvis Costello song.
DC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Good song.
MS: And it was a great episode, and I mean, I think it captured what you were just talking about: real people in a complicated, emotional situation without an easy or cathartic ending necessarily At least â€¦
DC: Which is not something that I have to have, or always want to do, or always did do. I mean Rockford Files always had a cathartic of some kind. Well... sometimes we ended on a kind of elusive or bittersweet or even a question mark of an ending, but most of the time the problem was resolved.
I guess, now that we're talking about it, I think what's really important to me, also, is mood. And that is what was very hard to come by in network television was any sense of mood. I mean, The Twilight Zone--obviously there was a mood... you know? Everything else, it just always looked... overlit... too bright. You say it's New York, but I know thatâ€™s not New York. You say that's Chicago, but I know that's not Chicago. We all know it's not Chicago. We know that that's Los Angeles. We know that's the back lot. And the mood never felt right.
MS: And did you feel like you're able to, I mean... I felt it. I felt a certain mood when I watched Almost Grown. Did you get kind of what you were going after with that show?
DC: Yeah. We did. I was... yeah, I was pretty happy. I was pretty happy with that show and pretty proud of it. We had a real good cinematographer who actually paid a lot of attention to the cinematography. And, you know, there was that whole time travel thing of going back from, what was it? 1988 to 1963? We put a lot of work into making sure that we got 1963 right, and that in itself was moody. The premise was moody. This couple was divorced. The people you're supposed to care about most, the family, is already on the rocks. And that music helped tremendously, and no one wanted to do that. That cost us money, and no one "got it" at all. I guess no one had ever seen a Scorsese movie. I don't know.
But I'll tell you, here's an anecdote that pops in my head. One of the episodes we did was called "It's a Man's, Man's World," and we used the James Brown song for that: "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World." And we put on the front of [the episode]... he had just gotten into all of that trouble with the car chase with his wife and all that. So we put this piece of black, you know, a black screen with white lettering that said "Dedicated to James Brown, the hardest working man in show business." He was still alive, obviously. So it got on the air, and somehow they didn't catchâ€“-I didn't notice anything wrong with itâ€“-and they didn't catch it before it went on the air. And they called me up, and I have never gotten reamed out like that. "How dare you? We don't ever memorialize people, especially someone like that. Maybe if the key grip of a show has been killed by a helicopter or something, seriously, we'll let them put a little thing at the end 'In loving memory of, you know, Joe Headless.'"
That was it. The fact that I had dedicated something to James Brown was anathema.
DC: And if you think that's not racist, think again.
MS: Yeah, I was going to ask if that was racially motivated in your opinion.
DC: Of course it was, partly. What does that mean? "A person like that."
DC: Well, he was in trouble, you know? Okay, yeah he, I don't know, he... there was a car chase and he, you know, he got in trouble. But I believe there was a definite racial aspect to that.
MS: Was that a big undercurrent throughout a lot of your experience in trying to write for network TV?
DC: Well, I've given you two examples so far. The one was the black pimp touching the white girl's knee and the other was this. But I have to say, honestly, no. That was not. You know that's whenâ€“well here's what did happenâ€“that's whenâ€¦ the 1970s was when every judge started being played by a black guy, right? And then a black woman. The judge in a police show, law show, whatever, all of a sudden became African American. The judge or the chief surgeon, but very seldom a principal [role].
Oh, and there was obviously also...there were no Italian gangsters. That was not allowed.
MS: Who put the stop to that?
DC: Joe Colombo. Joe Colombo, the head of the Italian...the head...of one of the five crime families here in New York founded a thing called, I think it's called the "Italian Anti-Defamation League."
MS: Which you address quite a bit on The Sopranos.
DC: Yeah. He, in the wake of...in the wake of the whole anti-discrimination feelings that were sweeping the country, which had started with African Americans, he began to feel Italians were being portrayed negatively on TV. And so he invented thisâ€¦ he started this organization, and so it was considered racist and stereotypical to have organized crime figures with an Italian last name. So, if you go back and watch The Rockford Files, you will never see any Italian--any crime figure--whose name ends in a vowel. You will not see it.
MS: I watched [an] episode [of The Rockford Files], the episode that you wrote: "Just a Couple of Guys." I can't remember what their last names were, but I'm sure that that probably checks out. [Laughing.]
DC: One of them had an Italian last name: Canigliaro.
DC: But they were also, in fact I just read a thing about it. There was a thing on the internet about that...that episode.
MS: I saw that. Yeah
DC: Yeah, there were two episodes. One was called "The Jersey Bounce" in which they were two coke-blowing hoodlums from New Jersey who settled down next to Rocky, Garner's father, and made a lot of problems and actually committed a murder and Rockford got involved and blah, blah, blah. And his name was Italian in that. I don't know how that squeaked by. But he was not a crime boss, okay? He was just a punk kid, so that deluded somebody, the standards and practices guy.
Anyway, Fred Silverman saw that and thought those two goons were so adorable that he told us to write a spin-off episode in which they might have their own show which turned out to be "Just a Couple of Guys," in which there is a crime boss, but his name doesn't end in a vowel.
MS: And he's a born-again Christian, right?
DC: Yes, yes, that is correct. There were two crime bosses, neither one of which you could identify as Italian.
MS: I see. So since we're on the subject, let's jump to The Sopranos.
DC: That ends in a vowel.
MS: Right. HBO didn't fight you on that?
DC: Well, actually, that ends in a vowel too. HBO also ends in a vowel, soâ€¦
MS: [Laughter] Well, HBO didn't want you to call it The Sopranos.
MS: The Family Man. I'm glad you ended up winning that fight.
DC: Well, we all really struggled, fought tooth and nail with them, including Steven Van Zandt, I think was the most upset. And we were losing that battle, and I tell you, I believe that if that Seth MacFarlane show hadn't gone on the air with Family Guy, we could have lost that one. Once that show went on the air, they said "Oh, okay." Because we had page after page after page of other names, of other titles that they had suggested.
MS: Ones that were better than that one at least?
DC: Better than The Sopranos?
MS: No, no, no better than. Oh, oh...that they had suggested.
DC: That they had suggested.
MS: Oh I see what you're saying.
DC: I mean they... I think they actually hire people. There's like...I think they hire like advertising companies to come up withâ€“-not just them, everybody does it, or at that time they didâ€“-to hire people who might come up with titles. Really, there were reams of them.
DC: Pass Me the Tomato Sauce, I don't know, stuff likeâ€¦ [laughing]
MS: [Laughing] Can you remember any other ones?
DC: I mean close to that.
MS: So, you made the whole first, well...first you made the pilot [for The Sopranos]. Then it got picked up for the first season. You made the whole first season before anybody saw any of it, and then the show was bigger than you could have ever imagined.
What was that like? That transition between making the first season in obscurity and really thinking that you're doing something great to becoming this pop culture phenomenon?
DC: That was an easy transition, that was fun. To be embraced by the audience, that wasn't bad. It was...I must tell you, it was very exhilarating. It was a ride, it was an incredible ride. If you're asking me creatively, was it more difficult because somehow we had something to live up to, the answer is no.
MS: Oh, really?
MS: That surprises me.
MS: Because I remember hearing, I heard an interview with Matt Weiner [the creator of Mad Men] recently where he was saying that he was really nervous about season two after season one was a success. But that wasn't your experience?
DC: No, that wasn't my experience. Matt and I have somewhat...well, we have different tastes in several ways. Obviously, we're two different people, but probably different views of our career, differentâ€¦ Matt was always much, much more...he gave a lot more credit than I did to network television. Not to, I shouldn't say that, but Matt was always very much in awe of Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling and writers from back then and he still is. And to Matt, television was not this swamp that I considered it to be. I had really come up, you know, my really formative years, when I was like in my 20s when he was like watching TV still, I was watching movies. So when I was anywhere from like 18 through 25, I was watching that blip called "great Hollywood movies." By that I mean all those guys that are in Peter Biskind's book: Scorsese, Bogdanovitch, Coppola, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby...
MS: [In reference to the phrase "Peter Biskindâ€™s book"] Easy Riders, Raging Bulls?
DC: Yeah, exactly. So that's where I was at. And so I wanted to be in movies very badly. So if they had said to me, "Guess what, The Sopranos is cancelled," I would have said, and I mean this, "Well, c'est la vie. See you guys around. Cause now I can get down to what I really want to do."
But that's not what they said. It became a big hit. And over time, I became very, very pleased to be working there, working on it. I mean, the first season I had a great time too, but I began to realize I had been given a gift. A big one, and I began to treasure it.
MS: When would you say that started? When you realized that it was a gift?
DC: It probably started in season one but it wasn't enough to really sink into me that I... In other words, I think you probably heard this story that when I made the pilot, we had a great time making the pilot. And I knew it was different, and I wasn't embarrassed by it. And I had a lot of the things I had in my mind that I wanted to do. I had gotten to do, and I knew I was working with, with intelligent people at the head ofâ€“I guess they're not called a network, HBO, whatever you want to call it, the company. I knew I was working with people who also wanted to extend things, change things, try things.
It started then, but I also was still interested in making movies. And so when I made the pilot, it took them a long time to decide to put it on the air. And I was hoping at that time that it wouldn't make it on to the air. I had written and directed it, that was a big career thing for me, to write and direct a thing like that. And I thought, "If maybe I can then get another half a million out of them, it won't go on the air, and [I'll] shoot another 30 minutes and make a feature out of it." That's what I was hoping would happen. But, obviously... that's not what happened.
And every year, for maybe two years, three years, for quite a while, I began to realize that I had to have the attitude that if this ends tomorrow, so be it. Because if I got to be where I was like dependent on the show, I would start to change the show. I would start to lick the audience's face like a puppy and ask for love. And I knew that I couldn't do that, so I had to have this ... I had to maintain this attitude of if it ends, it ends. I knew the puppy licking the face was not going to work. That's what network TV was all about: coming out of the screen and licking their face. "Love me, love me, love me!"
MS: And that would have resonated, I mean the show wouldn't have...it would have stopped resonating if...
DC: Yes, I would have started to compromise the show in order to engage the audience's affections.
DC: And I somehow got this in my head, I don't knowâ€¦ I somehow got, began to realize that that actually wouldn't be good for the show. That it wouldn't be good for the audience. They would start to get stuff that they thought they wanted, but it would have changed the show tremendously.
MS: David Simon [creator of HBO's The Wire] has this great quote about the audience doesn't know what's good for them. Would you agree with that?
DC: Uh, yes. I think...I don't, I don't think they know what they want, especially nowadays. I mean, you know, you read these blogs, and it's like, I mean, Matt Weiner [creator of AMC's Mad Men]--that guy gets raked over the coals. Every episode is dissected, and, you know, [imitating bloggers] "Peggy shouldn't have put her shoe on then." "I don't know what that's supposed to mean." "I think what it meant was that she's a right-footed type of girl."
You know, you read this stuff, and they're just all over it. And they don't like things that are done, and they're very vocal about it. But that doesn't mean that it has to be done the way they, because how can you do what THEY want. THEY are so many people. There are millions of them [in the the audience]. How can you do what four million are telling you to do?
Cause they are not all saying the same thing: "I like Peggy." "Well, I like Joan." "Well, I hate that Pete Campbell." You know, how can you pay attention to that stuff? But that's what network TV [was like]. They would have been testing all those characters. "Maybe we should get rid of Joan. I think her Q [score] is going down. Maybe her breasts are too large. Maybe we should do something about that. I think she's making some women jealous. Let's ask some people what they think." That's the way it would have been done.
MS: You end up giving yourself a lot of bosses that way.
DC: Exactly, exactly. I mean, I just don't think that's the... you know, that's not our job. Our job is...I think our job basically is to surprise people and show things that take them by surprise. I think surprise is a nice emotion, and interesting, and if they know what's coming, or they've seen it before, or it's what they expect, in the end, I think they're not happy with that. But, I don't know, maybe they are. Maybe there is a large segment of the audience who wants to know exactly what's gonna happen. "Oh I've seen this kind of story before. The butler did it." Maybe people like that. But that's not what made cable TV what it is.
MS: So you won your first Peabody in 2000. It was for the first season, so it was for what was aired in 1999. But then you came and accepted it [in May 2000], and I watched those tapes of when you accepted the award. There was a post-ceremony interview when the reporter asks you about a question about why you think the show is so popular. And you kinda say, "Well, I don't, it probably wouldn't be that good for me to think about it too hard."
But then you went on to say "Our leading man, James Gandolfini," and I'm reading the quote:
"We have an actor who portrays a great deal of simple, true human emotion and human weakness, and also the potential for human greatness. I think that Jim, in that role, people say 'I know him, that's part of me there.'"
And that was in May of 2000, so when you look at the whole scope of your partnership with him [thatâ€™s] pretty early on. Is there anything that you would add to or change about that statement in lieu of all the years that you ended up working together?
DC: Well, the only thing I would probably change is that now we know that Tony Soprano did not achieve any human greatness. He...he never was gonna be...he was never gonna "go straight" in my head, ever. He was never gonna renounce organized crime, in my head, ever. But, he...I believe Tony was a thinker and that he was reflective, and he was a searcher. I think he maybe covered it up a lot, and maybe it wasn't evident, but I think he was always looking for an answer. I think he wanted to believe there was something more than what he was seeing every day. And I think that's a form of greatness when people are in touch with that. When they're looking for some kind of sense or truth-some people don't want to think about it or some people just want to go to church and have it spoon fed to them. "Yeah here's the meaning right here."
People are smacking Woody Allen around this week because of Magic in the Moonlight. I don't understand it. I don't get it. I don't know. I don't know. Maybe on some, I guess, on some aesthetic level, you can complain about that movie, but I think he tackles some very big questions there.
MS: Oh yeah, I haven't seen it yet. You liked it?
DC: Yes, I did. By the way, [in May of 2000 at the Peabody Awards] they were asking meâ€¦ [What] were they asking me? Why did I think the show was... what was the question that I was posed at the interview?
MS: I believe it was something... I didn't write down the question. But I believe it was something like: How do you account for the popularity of the show?
DC: I mean, I had to come up with an answer, obviously.
DC: And what I was doing was throwing it to Jim, really. And that's true. Whatever I went on to say about the potential for greatness and all that--I think he, I think that is certainly what he brought to. People would go and say, "You know what? That's partly me. I have those feelings. I sometimes feel that rage. I sometimes feel that contempt. I sometimes feel that regret. I sometimes wish I hadn't said that." That's true. And he did that. And no show can be a success unless the main actor or the main performer is very powerful.
MS: Did your sense of his ability to do that grow even more over the years, because, I mean you were asked that question in 2000. I imagine that you had many more hours of working with him and cutting film that he was in and watching him perform. Did that appreciation deepen even more?
DC: Yes, it did. I also began, you knowâ€¦ I came to know him more as a person. I saw how he interacted with people. That unfortunately, if it's unfortunate, kinda bleeds into it, you know what I mean. So, you try as you might, [but] you can't keep...you just can't keep it all separate. And yeah, my esteem for him and for his gifts only grew. My love for him did not always, but my esteem for him certainly did.
MS: The moment in the pilot that and the anecdote behind it that I really like is that when [Tony] grabs Christopher there at the end, that was originally written as a slap, and then that was James Gandolfini's decision to grab him like that, almost strangle him. When I, I didn't know that story when I first saw it, but I thought "Oh wow, that's so brilliant, you know, that they foreshadow the fact that Tony was going to eventually strangle him in the episode." But come to find out, that didn't really seem like part of your plan.
DC: Oh, don't you believe it! I had it all worked out. That strangling motif. I brought that to it from The Rockford Files. We were gonna do that there, and I didn't get a chance. No, no you're absolutely right. That is interesting the way that worked out. I never even thought about that. But obviously there was some physical connection, some physical connection between those guys. How many times did he almost choke him?
Now sometimes, sometimes you can look at it and it's almost like The Three Stooges.
MS: Was that an inspiration?
DC: The Three Stooges?
DC: Sure. Sure it was. I mean, for that show in particular, the answer is "yeah, probably." Abbott and Costello also. Laurel and Hardy also. But yeah, the Three Stooges are an inspiration for, you know, to everybody. Maybe not to Franco Zeffirelli, but they are, you know.
MS: I cut you off, you were talking about the physical relationship between those two guys, and I wasâ€¦.
DC: I was just pointing out, you made me think about how many times he had Christopher by the scruff of the neck, you know? And it was like spitting into his face as he was shouting at him.
MS: One thing that really surprises me, even now when I read interviews with you, that people still bring up Adriana's death so much, and then also Pussy's. But to me, the most tragic was Christopher. You know, not that [Tony] didn't on some level know that he had to do, but it seemed like the inevitable tragic ending to his inability to kind of balance being able, you know, to maintain his crime organization and then also connect to his family member. And I was just, I guess my comment is that I was just surprised by how few people seem as troubled by that as they do by Adriana or Pussy. Have you found that?
DC: That's a good question. In thinking about it, as you're talking, that, that is the death scene that actually, even right now, could bring me to tears. The others...don't. On some level, I guess that's a father killing his son, I guess, now that I think about it.
MS: That's a powerful thought.
DC: On some level I think it is. Now, you know... and Tony's father wasn't really present. Tony's father was really Junior, and look how painful that relationship was. I don't mean Tony's father was really Junior, but that was the closest we got to... I mean it was an uncle-nephew relationship, but boy was it close. And you remember the scene in which Tony says to him on the couch, "Don't you love me?"
MS: Right. He wants it so bad.
MS: That last scene between the two of them is also heartbreaking. I just watched the last episode again yesterday when he's saying... basically saying goodbye to him and can't get any sort of coherent response. Yeah, that's another one that that really gets me.
DC: Yeah, that's a, that's a big one in my book too. But the Christopher death--the reaction to the Christopher death thing is a little bit of a puzzle to me. I guess, I guess maybe what it means is that we had created such a scumbag in Christopher that people were glad to see him go. If I was to admit any wrongdoing, maybe there was some unconscious feeling like he should have been gone a long time ago. See cause I sorta thought that. I sorta felt: "How long is Anthony Soprano, boss of this family, gonna let this clown endanger everything? This is dangerous. What he's doing is dangerous, letting this guy with his, his... He's on drugs, he's off drugs. He falls off the wagon, he's back on it. This was dangerous." And what we were trying also... that I believe is what we were trying to show. And I think we actually sorta mentioned it in the show, was that, as I recall it, Christopher was supposed to have been picking Meadow up somewhere and also Christopher had a baby, and Tony looked into back seat of the car and a tree branch had completely destroyed the baby seat in the back seat. And that if things had gone differently, Christopher's baby would have been in that seat when that car rolled over eight times and that tree branch came through and he would have wound up killing his own child because he was so out of control and so weak. And I think that was all swirling around Tony's head.
MS: Right, he even mentions it to some of the other guys afterwards, they're trying to get some sort of reaction out of them.
DC: And he gets nothing. They don't, they don't... they don't get it.
MS: It's interesting that you said maybe what it signals is that you created such a scumbag in Christopher. Because despite...I mean it's his weakness and his vulnerability, I guess, and obviously Michael Imperioli's performance that makes...I mean, he's my favorite character, you know. And I, I just connect with that character so...it's something about the continual struggle for sobriety and his inability to do it, and something, and even though I've heard you talk about how he's the, you know, the depths of his self pity are boundless, but despite all that...
DC: Everybody on that show, the depths of their self pity was boundless. They were consumed with self pity, every one of the them. Maybe not Carmela, but most of the guys, certainly. Well, obviously Livia was, and I think most of the males on the show, and also Janis, were consumed with self pity. I mean, they used to say to each other, "Ah, poor you!" They used to say all the time. It was the worst thing they could say to each other.
MS: Was that your....
DC: And the other thing, the other thing they used to say all the time was, "Well, no good deed goes unpunished." This is after they tried to do something nice and it backfired. Right before they killed a person, it was like, becoming a problem, they would say, "Well, you know what, I tried to do something nice and this is how I get paid back." And they very seldom tried to do anything nice. It was all self-interest.
MS: Right. Another interesting thing that I've heard you tell...
DC: I'm sorry, it's just interesting to hear you say that Christopher is... I don't hear that much, if at all. I love Christopher, I thought he was really, really... I love Christopher, I love them all obviously, but Tony probably more than any of them. But Junior and Christopher to me were... those guys were just out there.
MS: I think what really sold me on Christopher was his aspirations to be a writer and particularly that episode where he does the Rebel Without a Cause scene, and you see that he, he has thisâ€¦ Michael Imperioli's performance of Christopher playing James Dean is great and you see that he has these, you know, he has this inner, inner life that he really wants to express but just cannot articulate in any tangible form, except for, I mean, he has a moment there where he's doing that scene and it kinda bowls everybody over.
MS: That was when I was really hooked on Christopher as my, the most relatable to me.
DC: Well, I think that's a really good point, and he, that's a really good point about the fact that he obviously did have an inner life. Junior, God knows what his inner life, I mean I really... every writer's favorite guy to write for was Junior because the guy would say anything. He was like Liviaâ€“anything would come out of that guy's mouth. There was absolutely, as Hesh once said about Livia, "Between brain and mouth, there was no interlocutor." And Junior was the same. He would just say things that, you know, were so embarrassing, so mean, so small. And so every writer on the show could express his worst thoughts through that guy's mouth.
Christopher was similar to that, but Christopher did have an inner life. And now that we're talking about it, there was probably a reason why Christopher shot heroin. I think he needed it. I think he needed to be sedated. I think it was too much. I think life was too much for him.
MS: Yeah, I guess that's what the drug addiction... I mean I found it really--although it was, you know, selfish in a sense, I guess, or endangering, endangering the family---it was the only way he knew how to take care of himself, I guess.
DC: I guess. I mean look: drug addiction is a very, very serious, sad state of affairs. Obviously you don't need to be in the mafia to have it be a danger to your family. I'm just saying that his, his actual final choice of drugs--heroin--I think is a... I think that's really very telling about him, that he, he, he just couldn't take it on some, some level.
MS: So, two of your former writers from The Sopranos now have their own showsâ€“Matt Weiner with Mad Men and Terence Winter with Boardwalk Empire. Do they ever ask your advice? Seek your counsel?
DC: Terence Winter, no. Matt...Matt and I talk about, you know we talk, but Terence has never said "Should I do X, Y or Z?" Matt has never said "Should I do X, Y or Z?", but he has run things past me, as I do, as I do now with him. I mean if I write something now, I ask his opinion of it. I also asked Terryâ€™s [Terrence Winterâ€™s] opinion of things. I let them read what I've written and say "What do you guys think?" But Terry--no never did say: "Well, what do you think about this or that? We're gonna do this on the show." He, smartly I think, felt he had to go off on his own and just do it. I mean... especially because Terry was doing a gangster show so for Terry to come and ask my opinion or my advice is one thing. That's...okay so, I'm the professor of gangster shows and we gotta go ask Uncle Dave what should we do. That's one thing. Matt was doing something completely different, so I think there was more leeway for Matt to say, "Here's what I'm kinda thinking about." Which he doesn't do anymore, but when it first started, he did.
MS: And now he's faced with the difficult, well yea, the difficult problem of how to end that story and I'm really...
DC: They both are.
MS: Yeah, that's right, that's right, they're both ending soon. So, I only have a little bit more time with you here, but I watched the tape from May of 2000 when you, you got up on stage and accepted the Peabody Award and you said something about you were surprised, you were really surprised that this, this show with this kind of content won a Peabody. Do you have any recollection of what your reaction was? I mean by that time, you probably....
DC: I have a very strong recollection of it. Very strong recollection of it. What I said on stage didn't begin to express what I was feeling because it went beyond surprise and mystification. I was, you know, okay, we're going to get the Peabody Award and I'm glad. Let's go down to the Rockefeller Center, or wherever it was, and then you know the, then they start to hand out the awards and there are stories--you know most of it is non-fiction, I think, as I recall. And there are stories about children injured in war, land mines. There's stories about national policy concerning education. They award people a Peabody for a documentary about someone's triumph over addiction and then they award a Peabody Award to a show where what they saw was Tony Soprano trying to run some guy over in a car as they ran around a parking lot, laughing to himself. And I thought, I felt like crawling under the table. I thought, "What are we doing here? I mean, all this, all this other material is so serious and quote...unquote "worthy and ernest and worthwhile andâ€¦" And what does that got to do with this...with some guy trying to run somebody up, trying to run some other guy down in the parking lot while laughing while trying to do it." I was stunned, and I really felt embarrassed.
MS: Do you still feel that way?
DC: Well, you know, I mean since then, I guess, you know, our other hour dramas have gone on to...TV dramas have gone on to win the Peabody Award and it's kind of, maybe now, more of a... more of an accepted thing. Or maybe TV dramas were winning them before, but I didn't know that. But the story of a hoodlum and a killer and a sports book entrepreneur in that company, it just floored me.
Do I still feel that way now? I still don't quite understand it, but here's what I guess. I mean, I guess I can intuit what was going on which was that people finally saw something on televisionâ€“ which was actuallyâ€¦ My complaint had been, had been prior in my career, as I saidâ€¦ They saw something on television in which they saw something about human life that seemed to be kinda related to life as they knew it. I hope that's what it was. That it felt real.
MS: My last question is how did you access the--I mean, it's a big question--but how do access the kind of courage that it took to follow this vision despite so many people saying what a bad idea it was, and that the fear of maybe of losing millions of dollars. How do you get that kind of resolve and commitment to a vision that seems absurd to a lot of people?
DC: I'm only partly kidding--well, you've seen the show, you've seen the protagonist of the show--I'm only partly kidding when I say I was fueled by such rage and anger. That was a big motivator.
MS: At your experience.
DC: At...yeah. At the kind of watered down weak tea that I was always being ordered to produce. And as I say, I got to work with some really good people, and we managed to get around that quite a bit of the time. But just going through those meetings and knowing what was wanted and how they wanted to deracinate everyone and how they wanted to strip all the details out and how they wanted to strip any thought out of it. It just, after I don't know how many years, how long I had been in the business at that time--27 years--I was just totally fed up and I, I just didn't care.
And if they had said to me, "Okay, The Sopranos was a big flop, and guess what David Chase? You're out of the business." I would have said, "Thank you, and fuck you." That's the way I felt at the time.
So, that's kinda where I was coming from, and I was at least aware enough to realize I was being given an opportunity by, that some, you know, HBO had changed its business model and I was being givenâ€¦ I was fortunate enough to be washed up on some kind of an island, and that on that island, maybe we could do things a little differently, but the ship was going down and I had washed upâ€¦[been] fortunate enough to wash up on this beach. I kinda had that feeling. But what I used to say to myselfâ€¦ Well, the fact that I used to talkâ€¦ I think I've said this in print before: my feeling going into it was the Elvis Costello song "Radio, Radio" which is about how commercial radio is so awful and his lyric in that song is "I wanna bite the hand that feeds me, I wanna bite that hand so badly. I wanna make them wish they'd never seen me." And that's kinda where I was coming from. And so, that helped me to stay true to, I don't know, vision or whatever you want to call it. Vision or whatever it was.
MS: Well, I'm glad you did. I mean, what you brought to the screen certainly has made a big impact on my life so I appreciate it.
DC: Good, I'm glad. I'm glad. And I don't want to make it sound like...I hesitate to use the word fun, but it was a blast. It was--in every sense of the word. Artistically, for me and for those of us who worked on it, it was really a blast and a trip. And it was a gift. We all should thank somebody.
MS: Well, I want to thank you very much, Mr. David Chase. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
DC: My pleasure.…
Stories That Matter
"Stories that Matter" is a brand new radio program and podcast hosted by Matt Shedd and presented by the Peabody Awards in cooperation with WUGA-FM. Each installment will shine a spotlight on one of our 90,000 pieces of media in the Peabody Awards Collection at the UGA Libraries. In addition to excerpts from the pieces of media, episodes will feature commentary from the content creator, scholar, or media critic. Short episodes will air once a month during Morning Edition on WUGA-FM and associated episodes of our full-length podcast interviews will be available here.