Bourdain’s shows have grown more visually complex and cinematic over the years, using intricate editing and atmospheric slo-mo shots to add mystery and gravitas. Episodes are often directly inspired by Bourdain’s film passions. A season 2 trip into Tokyo’s nightlife underbelly–complete with segments on bondage and S&M–was informed by the work of Tokyo Fist director Shinya Tsukamoto, while the Shanghai episode currently unspooling on-screen tapped Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai as its key reference point. Bourdain usually picks the influences, but it’s up to the team to execute that vision. “Before we go out on a shoot, Tony will give us a homework assignment, which is about a dozen esoteric films,” says Brigden. “We become obsessed with those filmmakers. We live and breathe them.”
Bourdain is more than just Parts Unknown’s host, head writer, and executive producer; he is its creative engine, picking locations, teasing out themes, obsessing over narrative structure, and guiding its overall artistic vision. At one point while watching a meditative, beautifully shot Shanghai montage, he’s distracted by some incongruously funky background music. “I wish there was no bass,” he says to Brigden and Andrukanis. “It shouldn’t be danceable. It should be wistful.” It’s a small detail in a short segment from a single show, but it’s easy to see how that one tweak will transform the mood of the scene–and maybe even the whole episode.
That quest for excellence is a big part of what’s kept Bourdain excited about making a show with the same basic format for the past 14 years. He can be intense, but he constantly pushes the crew to reach toward the new. “We literally sit down and try to figure out, ‘What’s the most fucked-up thing we can do?’ ” he says, taking a swig from his industrial-size cup of light-and-sweet deli coffee. “ ’What haven’t we done that we can try?’ ”
— Anthony Bourdain, profiled this week in Fast Company. Says a producer who has worked with Bourdain for a long time: “He is fun, funny, smart, sardonic, and a pain in the fucking ass sometimes. But it’s a very collaborative process. He is challenging in all the best ways. He can outtalk, outwit, outhumor anybody who’s trying to argue with him, and sometimes that gets your ire up. But ultimately you take that ire and channel it into the show.”