Anthony Bourdain needs no introduction.
If you’ve owned a television or have visited a bookstore at any point since the dawn of the new millennium, you know who he is. Suffice it to say that his ubiquity as a cultural icon and general force of nature has been well served by an oversized personality, ferocious ambition and boundless energy. He’s best known these days as the host of his hit CNN show Parts Unknown, but he has also written novels, best-selling memoirs (his book Kitchen Confidential started it all), TV scripts (Treme) and feature films (Bone in the Throat, based on his novel). Until now, though, he’s never produced a feature documentary. In Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, he found a subject he couldn’t resist and exec produced it—in part because he badly wanted to honor a visionary chef who he thought had been unjustly marginalized, and in part, perhaps, because he related so viscerally to Tower’s renegade genius. The result is a fascinating biopic artfully constructed with recreations, key celebrity interviews, and even a bit of mystery, all of which tell a much more complicated and nuanced story than Bourdain expected. He enjoyed the process so much that he’s already producing another doc, Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, due out later this year.
Tim Rhys, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Jeremiah Tower is a fascinating combination of iconoclast, introvert and showman.
Anthony Bourdain (AB): Those are very deep waters. He’s a tricky, brilliant subject. Lydia Tenaglia, my longtime partner and co-owner of Zero Point Zero, did an amazing job of directing it.
MM: You’ve been to 100 countries and you’ve shot more than 250 episodes of your show. How do you keep it fresh?
AB: There are a whole lot of stories to be told and it’s a very big world. My heart and soul are still with Parts Unknown. We’re just able to do things that are batshit crazy. Last season in Rome we did a show that you’re not supposed to be able to do. And we did it all in widescreen letterbox format, using a huge film crew and a really enhanced color pallet. We made this wildly creative show about Pasolini fascism and Brutalist architecture, and to get away with that, to be that creatively foolish… it’s what will always make me the happiest. I’ve never had a discouraging or stupid conversation with anyone at CNN. They’ve been really, really supportive.
MM: If someone came to you with a great script asking you to be the producer on a narrative feature again, would you do it?
AB: Yeah, I would. But I’m a ridiculously busy guy. I’m traveling more than 200 days a year, so I’m really very careful about what I say yes to. It would have to be pretty spectacular or weird. I’m always working on something; I have a restless mind. I’m afraid of my inner demon so I keep myself very busy.
MM: What are some “things you’ve learned as a moviemaker or TV-maker?”
AB: Don’t work with assholes. Ever. No matter what they’re offering, no matter what they bring to the table. If they’re the sort of person where the phone rings at 10 o’clock at night and you wince because you see that it’s them, then don’t do business with them. One asshole will ruin your life. I’ve managed my entire TV and filmmaking career to work with people I like and respect. If the point comes where I don’t like or respect someone, I don’t work with them anymore.
The right collaborations make it work. A lot of the fun is in who I’m working with. The show is very much geared toward who do we get to collaborate with this week? And we go hang out with them. We can work with Darren Aronofsky one week, or Vilmos Zsigmond, Queens of the Stone Age, Mark Lanegan or David Simon. Collaborating with people like that is really what excites me.
Show up on time and keep your word. I think this is something that comes directly from all my years in professional kitchens—you had to show up on time and you couldn’t let things slide. I’ve been a disappointment in many, many ways to people, but I’ve always shown up on time. I try very hard. If I say I’m going to do something tomorrow, I’ll do it.
Be willing to walk away. Making movies and television should be fun. There’s tremendous freedom in the television medium, especially. It’s not that hard to step into a vacuum. I’ve found that most people in the entertainment business are frightened. They go bed at night afraid that they might do or say the wrong thing and not be on television anymore. So, I think a willingness to not work in television anymore is very important. You’ll be the one guy in the room who isn’t terrified of doing something different or strange or self-indulgent.
Know who to trust. Honestly—and I’m not being facetious—I think that having been a heroin addict, having had to score drugs on the street and make quick decisions about the basic character of an individual… those skills serve me very well in the entertainment business.
Constantly challenge yourself. I don’t want to repeat myself, I just want to make stranger and more creative shows all the time. I want to work with new lenses and new cameras and emulate the work of directors of photography from films that most of my audience will have never even seen. The technical aspects of putting together a good hour of television or a good two-hour film are very satisfying. That’s what makes me happy. MM
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent opened in theaters April 21, 2017, courtesy of The Orchard. Featured image photograph courtesy of CNN.