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LYDIA TENAGLIA - When It Comes To Embracing New Frontiers In Nonfiction TV, The Producer and PGA Member Has No Reservations

Posted By Chris Green, Wednesday, October 25, 2017

First things first: the G is silent. “Te-NAL-ya,” she corrects me, proudly rolling the word around the L like a Calabrian street vendor. “It means ‘pliers’ in Italian, which I somehow think is very fitting,” she smiles. ”It feels like a good match for my personality—tenacious. Tenaglia.”

Having tenacity as a birthright seems like a pretty good starting place for a producing career, particularly one that’s based in the highly competitive and ever-shifting world of nonfiction television. A post-college, entry-level stint at legendary documentary company Maysles Films provided the next step, schooling her in the finer points of the classic verité style. She put that education into practice out in the field while still employed at Maysles, serving as camera assistant on the acclaimed 1992 doc Brother’s Keeper.

After graduating from NYU’s graduate film program, Tenaglia started to hone her producing chops at the late and lamented New York Times Television, graduating from the edit bay to story development and field producing. Along with creative partner (and later husband) Chris Collins, Tenaglia began to look for material the duo could expand into larger work. She struck gold when she picked up Kitchen Confidential, the charged, abrasive, intensely readable memoir of then-chef Anthony Bourdain, which pulled the curtain back—way back—on the New York restaurant world. Upon learning that Bourdain was proposing an Innocents Abroad-style travel journal as his follow-up, Tenaglia saw the rich narrative possibilities of the idea and picked up the phone. The ultimate result of that cold call was A Cook’s Tour, which aired on The Cooking Channel for two seasons before hitting its stride as No Reservations following its pickup by the Travel Channel. Today Tenaglia, Collins and Bourdain’s flagship show lives at CNN, under its third title, Parts Unknown.

While Bourdain’s ongoing gastronomic exploration remains the mainstay of Tenaglia and Collins’ production company, Zero Point Zero, the enduring appeal of the series has allowed its producer to refine her style and expand her own creative horizons. Shows like Meat Eater and The Hunt with John Walsh showcase Tenaglia’s skill at building innovative, culturally engaging series around fiercely distinctive voices, while feature work such as Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent and Fermented leans into the culinary cachet she’s earned through her championing of Bourdain. We’ll learn even more when she and Bourdain take the stage as two of the headliners for the Producers Guild conference Produced By: New York, on October 28.

So, very few producers start out with the idea that they would be producers of either TV or movies. What was the original plan for you?

I’d say early on I was always interested in the field, but I took a circuitous route. I went to undergraduate at Smith College, and then I took two years off and worked at Maysles Fims. There I became interested in cameras and editing and got my first real sense of unscripted production.

Had you done any scripted stuff? Theater stuff, even?

No. When I was at Smith, I had started to dabble in producing short videos for friends who were doing thesis projects and who wanted a video component. I realized that I really liked being behind the camera and trying to tell a story in that way, through a visual medium. So that was my very first intro to producing, all self-taught. And then I had my Maysles experience.  Six months into my job there, I met some documentary filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and serendipitously ended up on their film called Brother’s Keeper, as a camera assistant. So I got a chance to explore camera. Bruce was also a great editor, so I would go into the edit room and watch him as he did his thing. So I kind of created my own internship that way.

After Maysles and the Brother’s Keeper experience, I wanted to deepen my knowledge of film production, so I went to grad school, NYU Film and Television, and started making my own short films. I found work as an editor around the time production companies were pushing the model of “preditors,” editors who could also produce their own material.

Right, yep.

Do you remember that?

Some folks still use that word.

Yes, it’s still used! There were “preditors” and then there were preditors who coud also shoot, so it was really the trifecta of fun, there! I did producing-shooting-editing at New York Times Television for a while and really got my footing producing stories. I rose up the ranks and started series producing and then executive producing. And then at one point my husband Chris Collins—we worked together as a producing team, as friends, before we were married—and I had this crazy thought, as many people do, “Hey, maybe we should try to go pitch our own stuff.”

And very fortuitously, our paths crossed with Anthony Bourdain, almost 18 years ago. I had read Kitchen Confidential and thought it was a great read, and heard that Bourdain wanted to do a follow-up book called The Cook’s Tour, where he was going to travel around the world. So I went and I met him. Cold called him. He was still working in a restaurant at the time. And I pitched the idea of trying to make A Cook’s Tour into a television show.

He’s like, “Whatever. What the hell. I’m just a writer who happened into a book that made a splash. I’m still working in a kitchen, for God’s sake.”

Chris and I ended up shooting a 10-minute demo at Les Halles, the restaurant where he was working at the time. I edited it together and we pitched that, and that went forward as a series. That was the start of our production company, of our relationship with Bourdain. We formally created Zero Point Zero Production in 2003, and the Bourdain series really became our flagship show. It started at Food Network, where it was called A Cook’s Tour, and then moved  to Travel Channel for eight years as Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, and now we’re on CNN for the last few years as Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

Many producers don’t have the luxury of that kind of steady anchor series.  Its consistency and longevity is a  production company’s dream, allowing it to grow and evolve. But we had that good fortune. We have about 150 people working at Zero Point Zero now, working on different series for a variety of networks. We continue to have a fantastic partnership with CNN and are working on a few new series for them right now; two are in production and will be announced next year. So that’s that!  My career in a nutshell. [laughs]

Producer Lydia Tenaglia and Anthony Bourdain, en route to the next exotic location and revelatory meal. (photo: Chris Collins)

Can I skip back and visit some points?

Yeah! Of course.

So just going back to Brother’s Keeper, what was that first documentary experience in the field like? What was it about that gig that made you feel like, okay, I’m in my element. This works for me?

Well, even getting on that film was very fortuitous. I was working at Maysles at a really low-level, entry position. But I had become good friends with the guy who managed the equipment there, Marcel Dumont. He taught me a lot about film cameras—how to film load and focus pull, a lot of good AC stuff. Bruce and Joe were also both employees at Maysles at the time; Joe was heading up the sales and marketing department and Bruce was an editor. They happened upon this murder mystery story up in Munnsville, New York and drove up there on their own to check it out.  The quickly realized that they had a good story on theor hands.

So they very quietly gathered a small crew, as cheaply and economically as possible. The DP, Doug Cooper, was incredibly gifted but young at the time and willing to commit to the long hours and low budget.  And so was I. Having been at Maysles for over a year, and watching their verité style of filmmaking secondhand (from my desk chair!) I really wanted the experience of being in the field. So I threw myself into the project. For 10 months, every weekend, the four of us—Joe, Bruce, Dough and I—would load up the van and drive five hours to Munnsville. We’d spend the weekend there, gathering the material for Brother’s Keeper. I was just plunged into that whole world, feeling like: This is really cool. I felt viscerally connected to that kind of storytelling, that kind of camaraderie with a group. That was very eye-opening for me. It was what made me apply to grad film school. I think back on film school now, and honestly? I probably could have done a year of that and gotten the same amount out of it. I don’t regret going. But it’s really an apprenticeship industry. You learn by connecting yourself with people in the industry, a good editor or a good DP or a good producer, and just saying, “I’ll get your frickin’ coffee. I will do whatever it takes. I just really want to learn.” The industry has always been based on that apprenticeship style of learning.

It’s a craft.

It’s a craft. Exactly. It’s a craft and you learn by connecting yourself with the craftsperson. What I learned most by being involved in Brother’s Keeper and observing Joe and Bruce in the field is how, as a filmmaker, you walk the very fine line of connecting with a subject, but then pulling back quietly into an observational role. Working on both sides of that line, you come to understand something very deep about people.  That was unbelievably fascinating. That kind of verité storytelling can be so powerful, so compelling, so riveting. I think my personal producing style probably walks its own line between Maysles-style verité and something more produced. I definitely lean toward wanting pieces of the story to have a more constructed beauty via recreations... but damn, Brother’s Keeper was a masterpiece.

Lydia Tenaglia with iconoclastic chef Jeremiah Tower
on location in Mexico (photo: Lydia Tenaglia)

Being able to integrate that in a way that feels coherent and organic is a real skill and a real challenge. In terms of bringing Anthony into the picture, what was it that sparked for you, that made you pick up the phone and make that cold call?

His writing was very funny, very sardonic. It was brash, almost punk. Kitchen Confidential was flung out there with no sense that it would have any consequences or ramifications. It was very unfiltered but also so smart. Clearly there were lots of references to books and films. So when I heard that he wanted to write A Cook’s Tour, where he was going to travel the world despite having virtually no travel experience, I was intrigued. Bourdain’s entire career up to that point was 25 years in various kitchens of New York. And suddenly he’s asking, “How does the rest of the world eat? What do they think about food?” I thought maybe there’s a series here, where we follow this guy around as he sort of stumbles through the world. And that in fact is exactly what the show became. We found Bourdain at a point in his life where he was really traveling for the first time. Everything was new, everything was different and strange and outside of his comfort zone.

I think we were able to capture that. At the same time, the show would not have worked quite the same way if Bourdain didn’t already have an encyclopedic knowledge of films, of literature and history... he was able to draw from all those references. As producers, Chris and I were feeding off of those creative references. We found that rhythm with Bourdain pretty early on.

By the second location of A Cook’s Tour, Vietnam, we had hit our stride...The minute we landed and exited into that airport—an airport that we’d seen all through images of the Vietnam War—there was an immediate connection to that location for him. He’s a very avid reader of Vietnam history, especially the war period. He had a strong connection to works like Apocalypse Now and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. He had all these references that he started to pull from, and from there, he came alive—and the show really came alive at that point. We ended up doing two seasons of A Cook’s Tour. Then the Food Network’s mandate shifted, and they asked Tony, “Could you try to do more domestic shows? Maybe a barbecue show?”

How did he take that idea?

He … politely pushed away from the table. [laughs] God love them, that stuff has worked very well for Food Network. Nothing against barbecue shows! Because hey, we did a barbecue show. But Tony’s like, no, I’m really enjoying this international thing. Fortunately, we were able to continue making the show with other networks.

After doing the series for so many seasons, how do you work to keep the format fresh?

The format for the show actually forces us to keep it fresh. For each location we travel to, we ask: Is there a reference that we want to tap into for this particular place? Several years ago, we did an episode of No Reservations set in Rome. We did it all in black and white, very much fashioned after that Italian neo-realist style. That was the starting point. How do we shoot a Rome episode using Italian neo-realism as our reference point? That’s the starting point, I think, for every episode. Is there a film reference, a book reference, an historical reference we can use as inspiration? Is there a filmmaker we really like? Bourdain a fan of Wong Kar-wai, for example, so our Hong Kong episode became an homage to Wong Kar-wai films. Darren Aronofsky, the director, wanted to accompany Tony to Madagascar so that episode had its own texture and tone.

Hit Madagascar with Darren Aronofsky. Cool, cross that off the bucket list.

[laughs] Exactly. I mean, the only real format to the show is: It’s Bourdain and we go to a country. That’s it. The rest is asking the questions: What’s the story here? Who are the characters in that place who can tell that story? The show has moved way beyond just sitting down to eat food at the table. We did an L.A. episode where we concentrated the entire show in a three-block radius of Koreatown. We just made the entire show about that world of characters who live there.

Yeah, that neighborhood is a real crossroads. In terms of prep, how far out are you planning these shoots? Obviously you need to have some control over your shooting environment, but so much of the best nonfiction work comes out of spontaneity and improvisation.

Prep can be anywhere from five to seven weeks, depending on the location and how difficult it is to access. It’s important to find good fixers on the ground who can help get that inside access, and find characters who can tell the story of that location in a unique way. If we have a strong visual conceit, like in the Wong Kar-wai episode, that will inform the kind of cameras and lenses we use, along with the color palette and style of shooting. That part gets carefully thought out. When shooting each individual scene, there is a tremendous amount of improvisation, but there is also a lot of structure in the way a particular story is going to be told.

Can you talk a little more about that? What are some times on location when you had to scramble, where you wound up somewhere unexpected?

I can answer that question pretty literally, in fact. [laughs] But I have to first note that I’m not physically producing that particular series anymore. It’s produced in the field by an incredibly skilled team of directors, producers and cinematographers, led by executive producer Sandy Zweig, who are putting their own personal and very unique aesthetics into each episode. But very early on when we were doing A Cook’s Tour, it was just me and Chris and Tony in the field. For one episode, we were in Cambodia and suddenly had this opportunity to fling ourselves into the unknown—the fixer said, “If you want, you can take a boat ride up this river and it’ll take you to this interesting little town in the jungle on the border of Cambodia and Thailand.” Now, this trip was not included in any of our preproduction research, but we thought, sure, let’s see where this goes. We made our way down to the shoreline in a very remote location and suddenly this man pulls up … in full military fatigues. That was our boat. The three of us got on with him. He spoke no English. And we made our way up this river, deeper and deeper—it went on for a long time, hours and hours. The sun started to drop. The boat suddenly stopped. In the middle of nowhere, we picked up another passenger, a male passenger, also in miliraty fatigues. And at that point, we looked at each other and we were all a bit freaked out.

Now as producers, you can either sit there and be completely freaked out—and we were—or you can be freaked out and then try to make a scene out of that. Up until that point, we had been mostly shooting the scenery along the way, but then  we decided to tap into what was actually happening there, tap into our fear and trepidation in that moment, and make that a piece of the story. We started prompting Tony, trying to shoot him in a way that hovered between fear and fascination with the situation and what we were all feeling. That became one of the strongest scenes in the episode.

That was nothing we ever could have pre-produced. It was not on any outline. I think that is the strength of the Bourdain series, the way it walks that tightrope of improvisation.

So if as you’ve said, Bourdain has provided the foundation for Zero Point Zero’s work, how have you tried to build on that?

Across most of our work, we definitely lean in the direction of character-driven stories. The characters have a really strong personal voice. Eight out of 10 times they’re actually very good writers; they’ve either written books or they’re accomplished journalists. So from the start, there is a strong editorial point of view and a strong writing style. We’ve done a series called Meat Eater, a hunting show, for six years now with a guy named Steven Rinella. That was a subject that I thought I had no affinity for and certainly had my own preconceived notions about. He walked in the door of our office that frst day and I was like, Oh, here comes the hunter guy. I already know what this is going to be. But I started to read his work. He’s written several incredible books about the ethos and philosophy of the hunter. He’s probably got a more honest relationship with food than any of us does, and he was able to articulate the world of hunting in a way that really attracted us to the subject matter.

He surprised us, just like Tony did with food and the table. Food and the table was just an entry point to talk about something bigger. It isn’t just about that banh mi you’re eating in Vietnam, it’s about what is contextually happening around it. It’s sociopolitical, it’s cultural. Steven Rinella was able to articulate the story of the hunter to us in a very similar way. Hunting is just the way in to talk about a particular philosophy, about a personal ethos.

We’ve done The Hunt with John Walsh about the search for criminal fugitives. John, of course, did years of America’s Most Wanted, and I had had my preconceived notions of who John was. But he came in and really started to articulate his world in a powerful way. He made us all understand deeply the importance of his work for the last 25 years, And we realized that there’s a way to redefine this subject matter from a new and very particular point of view.

How so?

What you realize when you speak to John is that his strong passion to capture criminals emanates from a very personal tragedy, and he has an ability to articulate that experience from the point of view of the victim and the victim’s family, So The Hunt is really about the internal life of the victim and of those left behind after something tragic has transpired.

We don’t put John in the field like in America’s Most Wanted. Instead, we inteview him in this very gritty, raw space, where he’s able to comment on particular cases in a way that cuts straight through to the audience: This victim was a living, breathing person with feelings and dreams and a family... and this is the aftermath when a person’s life is tragically cut short. The people around them are left in a state of internal chaos and despair.  The criminal who perpetrated this crime ran away from what they did. They must be found and must face what they have done.

The series is very powerful and very effective.  The audience becomes invested in the hunt and engaged in the process of calling the tip line.  In the three seasons we’ve been on, the show has been directly responsible for the capture of many criminal fugitives.

Tenaglia (second left) and Anthony Bourdain (second right) celebrate a delicious Vietnamese meal at Com Niue Saigon with hosts Dinh Hoang Linh (left) and Madame Ngoc (center), and producer Chris Collins (right). (photo: Diane Schutz)

That kind of material requires a really delicate touch.

Yes. I really credit the two showrunners, Shawn Cuddy and Ted Schillinger, for the way they crewed up the series.  The teams they hired are highly skilled at riding that delicate line between caring for the victims while also getting the material they needed to tell their story.  Not easy.

So, having done this for 17, 18 years, you’ve been able to watch whatever we call “reality television” cycle around a bit.

Yeah, we’ve watched a pretty big cycle go around.

How have you guys adapted to those cycles?

I think it’s more like we purposely haven’t adapted. During the years where everyone was perhaps hovering around a certain kind of reality television, I think we held our own, in large part because we’ve never been any good at pitching to the mandates. We just don’t. We can’t. A network will send out their signals, ‘This is what we’re focused on,’ but we can only pitch in a way that we truly can get excited about, that we find interesting, and that we feel like we could produce in our own Zero Point Zero style. Of course, that doesn’t always work out for us. Networks certainly have their own brands of storytelling. If our style meshes—great. If it doesn’t, we move on. But we’re not going to re-imagine the show in a way that’s less interesting to us just to fit a network’s brand identity. I’m sure a lot of production companies can relate to this.

That can be tricky when trends dictate that “food programming” means cooking competitions and recipe shows.

Yeah, in general, I would say most of the networks that we deal with here in the U.S., aside from CNN, do feel more comfortable with domestic-type programming. It doesn’t preclude them doing things that are international, but there’s an emphasis on trying to keep stuff closer to home. Whereas partners like Netflix, for example, who are inherently global by the nature of their platform, are looking for programming that can appeal to audiences all over the world. So I think they like what we do and know that we can do it well, and they believe that the material we create can be re-versioned for their different global markets. So that’s why we like working with them. The same is true of CNN. I mean, CNN’s a news organization. They’re not going to say, “Make another barbecue show.” They’re telling us, “Yes! Go to Myanmar. Go to the Congo.” Other networks more likely say—with complete justification, since they know their own brand—you know what? Our audience is not really interested in the Congo or Myanmar or what’s happening there.

What would you say to other producers who are looking to expand the boundaries of the form – geographically or in whatever other way?

Don’t be afraid to defy convention. Don’t be afraid to break the mold. You see a lot of networks decide, “Oh, that’s working,” and then everyone falls in line. “Let’s try to repeat that.”

TV is very good at that.

[laughs] It’s very good at that. I’m not trying to sound arrogant or whatever, but if you believe in trying to push the ball forward, then push the ball forward. Don’t be afraid to put your inimitable stamp on something. If someone pitches me an idea and they’re like, “Hey, this is the next Deadliest Catch” or whatever … Well, I don’t want to do the next Deadliest Catch. Because they already did Deadliest Catch, and they did it really fuckin’ well. Why do you want to do the next Deadliest Catch? Move forward. Find somebody who can tell you a story that only that person can tell, then build a world around them and push the damn ball forward.


- photography by Noah Fecks

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