Title/Author: In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bordain
Publisher: Hachette Books
In a nutshell (Publisher):
Anthony Bourdain’s long time director and producer takes readers behind the scenes to reveal the insanity of filming television in some of the most volatile places in the world and what it was like to work with a legend.
In the nearly two years since Anthony Bourdain’s death, no one else has come close to filling the void he left. His passion for and genuine curiosity about the people and cultures he visited made the world feel smaller and more connected. Despite his affable, confident, and trademark snarky TV persona, the real Tony was intensely private, deeply conflicted about his fame, and an enigma even to those close to him. Tony’s devoted crew knew him best, and no one else had a front-row seat for as long as his director and producer, Tom Vitale.
Over the course of more than a decade traveling together, Tony became a boss, a friend, a hero and, sometimes, a tormentor.In the Weeds takes readers behind the scenes to reveal not just the insanity that went into filming in some of the most far-flung and volatile parts of the world, but what Tony was like unedited and off-camera. From the outside, the job looked like an all-expenses-paid adventure to places like Borneo, Vietnam, Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Libya. What happened off-camera was far more interesting than what made it to air. The more things went wrong, the better it was for the show. Fortunately, everything fell apart constantly.
“I knew it was the pressure getting to me; but I was so deep in the weeds I felt powerless to stop it from clouding my judgement.”
(Vitale on the episode they filmed with President Obama)
In the book, Vitale wrote, “I well knew Tony liked to make people think, keep them guessing, his storytelling style a reflection of unsatisfying real-life complexities.” I watched his show for exactly this reason. They were always thought-provoking, leaving viewers food for thought with his brilliant writing and voice-over, giving us the view of the country from a local’s perspective and letting the “images do the talking”.
Vitale quoted President Obama, “Because it reminds people that actually there’s a whole bunch of the world that on a daily basis is going about its business, eating at restaurants, taking their kids to school, trying to make ends meet, playing games. The same way we are back home.”
Being a fan of Anthony Bordain’s Parts Unknown, I couldn’t resist not reading this memoir. And I absolutely didn’t regret it.
Vitale started as a logger and worked his way up producing and directing nearly 100 episodes with Bordain. Despite having the door literally slammed in his face the first time upon meeting Bordain, Vitale, like the rest of the crew, held him high on the pedestal, almost cult-like, even dedicating one of his chapters, ‘5 Signs You’re in A Cult’. Once, someone pointed out that Vitale had Stockholm syndrome when he excused Bordain for mistreating him. Although Bordain was gentler to him after being confronted, he turned on Vitale again the next day.
Despite his mercurial behavior, Vitale and the rest of the crew worked hard to please their boss. Vitale questioned, if “there is such a thing as vacation-of-a-lifetime PTSD where your main tormentor is also your hero, mentor, and boss?”
This memoir was honest and reflective, and full of interesting anecdotes about Bordain and the show, and Vitale didn’t try to beatify Bordain, whom, known to the crew, as someone not easy to work with. From the book, he seemed to me a leader who bullied his staff, often throwing profanities, at times belittling them when an edit wasn’t up to his standard. Vitale wrote he had to film every food to make sure he had the footages when Bordain asked for it. So if he didn’t know what Bordain was going to eat, Vitale would have to order every possibilities multiply by seven, because not having what he wanted was an invitation for trouble, but sometimes, he can surprise them with kindness too, like thanking them and/or congratulating them for their good work, or complimenting them in his own snarky ways.
Bordain, as shared by Vitale, was a shy person in real life, even becoming agoraphobic later in life, so it shouldn’t be surprising if he was uncomfortable with how fame had made him center of attention. However, he was aware he wouldn’t be where he was if not for his fans. He was quoted, “If you’re going to enjoy the perks of being famous, you have to be obliging to the people who make it possible.” “He compared TV to a nightmarish carnival in which he was the side-show freak”, at one point admitting “I like making television; I just don’t want to be on television.” Even with all his success, Bordain, according to Vitale, often wrestled with self-doubt, and was even baffled when President Obama requested to appear in his show. Living his life a walking paradox bothered him a lot, and having to travel 250 days of the year, it’s no wonder he felt so lonely.
While this book may seemed to be just about Bordain, it was also about Vitale and the crew, and what went on behind the scenes – the challenges they went through to make incredible episodes of ‘Parts Unknown’, from filming in various time zones, getting out of their comfort zone (Vitale has a fear of flying), having no sick days, eating “van-temperature sandwiches” out back by the dumpsters at world’s best restaurants, getting permits to film in war-stricken places, all the time rolling with the punches (Vitale called their operation a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” operation) for the sake of living up to their boss’s expectations, who, “genetically programmed to resist network TV mores,” and always pushing the boundaries.
For example, Vitale wrote about the episode they did on Korea (part of what you see on film wasn’t what they had planned!), where one of his staff, Jesse, the editor, suggested they cut the episode in reverse. Bordain, loving the idea, told Jesse to stick with it and he would back him up. After watching the episode, I felt it was very different from the rest and that it was very unusual. You can watch it here.
Vitale also shared the downside of travelling, especially in their line of work, filming and telling the world the stories of the people and country they visited, interviewing locals for content, to give them a chance to give their point of view, but, Vitale questioned, after receiving their Emmys for Libya (a must-watch) and Burma episodes, at what cost? Theirs, for risking themselves and their show, or the people they left behind?
In Iran for example, the two people who appeared on screen with Bordain, were arrested and detained indefinitely without charges. Then in Libya, Reda, their fixer, wasn’t able to return home after being accused of raping one of the local crew, when this would’ve not happened had it not for his involvement in the show. Vitale reflected, “Ultimately, I’d been willing to do whatever it took to make sure Tony’s experience lived up to his grand narrative, regardless of the cost.” and that “It was easier not to think too hard about how our new friends would be staying behind in their country and continue fighting just to survive.”
Go behind-the-scenes with Vitale and the crew, learn surprising things about Bordain (despite his brilliant commentaries, he actually hated “riffs” content and often rebuked doing it especially when he wasn’t in the mood), what and how they planned their scenes/footages, the love and respect the crew has for Bordain, and the things they had to do or go through on their trips to remote places (being a Malaysian, I especially enjoyed his episode on Borneo; it was so real, so raw, so captivating). It was like watching ‘never-seen-before’ episodes. Vitale even share about those unplanned footages that made it to film!
Reading this made me appreciate the show even more and I’m saddened that the world had lost such a brilliant mind and talent.
If you’re a fan of Bordain, his show, or just curious about this enigmatic personality, you’d enjoy this book!
I’m going to leave this review with one of his quotes 😉
Tony advised to, “watch movies, read everything you can. Be inspired by what others have done and learn from their mistakes. Stealing is fine as long as you can reasonably suggest it was just ‘borrowing’ in court.”
Thank you NetGalley and Hachette Books for a free eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are mine.