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[the waitress serves us our beverages: Alton a beer and me a sweet tea]

ALTON BROWN
    Do you want something to eat?

MICHAEL MENNINGER
    Uh, I'm not hungry right at the moment.

ALTON
    [sips his beer and likes it] That's a beer.

MICHAEL
    [repeating] That's a beer. I'm not, uh, I'm not into beers. I've tried some and I just … I'm waiting for your beer show. When's that going to happen?

ALTON
    Uh …

MICHAEL
   It is going to happen?

ALTON
    Uh, yeah, yeah. Beer's going to be in the second...  You know, we used to shoot a whole season at a time. It would take me three months, minimum, working every day to get that many scripts together and then it would take us two months to shoot them. Then the way it used to be done is then everything would get edited and that would generally take another two months. So a season would take, basically, half a year of my time, a solid block, because I'd have to kind of supervise all of those.

    The way we do it now, we actually make five at a time in blocks. We've got our post-production down to where we literally have the edit system at the house where the kitchen is. So we actually edit as we go. It's like, sometimes we'll finish a show—we'll actually finish what's called the off-line edit or the rough draft edit that we send to the network for approval—it might get finished the day after we finish shooting, literally. That really makes a lot of sense.

    What's especially nice about it is that If I get into time trouble—if I end up with a script that comes out two minutes long—I'll know about it before I'm done shooting it so I can change things to kind of make up for it, make fine tune adjustments, because it used to be you were stuck with whatever you got. There's no way to write precisely. There just isn't. There are formulas in Hollywood where, like, a motion picture usually has a page per minute—is the formula—and there are certain ways to write to make sure that happens. But when you're dealing with food, cooking, and sometimes interviews, there isn't any way to do that. There's no way to know, "well, this is going to be a twenty and a half minute script," because it's a real uncomfortable block of time ... and I'm not sure why that is. You know, it's like I have four acts to work with: a seven minute act, a six minute act, a five minute act and a three minute act. I don't have to hit that dead on. I have to hit it within reason. And the whole thing is, that you've got to make sure that by the end of the act, by the time you go away to a commercial break, you've got the audience in position to where you feel confident they're going to come back.

    My job, my real job, is to sell a certain amount of advertising. Anybody in television that says otherwise is wrong. I happen to be lucky enough that I get to make films about something that I want to make films about. But in the end, I've got to know that I can get you back after 'x' number of minutes break. So that makes it a real challenge. It makes it a very difficult time block. We have even a shorter amount of time to work with than your average sit-com which gets, I think, 23 minutes of content, 23 and a half minutes of content. So, it's hard.

    It's very often frustrating to compress everything that I want to say about something, because I have to think about every show as being the last time I'm going to get to talk about it. That's the way I think. Because you never know. You don't get to come back. You can't do two part-ers because the way the Network rotates airings. I never know what show's coming on next and I never necessarily know how many shows, repeats, are going to be before that. I have no clue. So I've got to deal with things completely.

    Like this weekend, I've been shooting a soufflé show. It's the last of the Egg Files shows. It's concluded with this one, probably be the last one. I started with, like, four soufflés in this show and I got so into "this" science or "this" and "this" and by the time I add "this," now it's down to one. There's going to be like one recipe in the show, and I'm still long. So It's like the scenes that I haven't shot, yet, I'm having to work this weekend, it's like, "how am I going to get all this in there?" And most of the time I'm lucky. Most of the time I hit … well, luck? I mean, at this point I think we're shooting the 72nd episode now, I think? Seventy-third, maybe. Seventy-third, actually. So I know the rhythm of it. It's not expertise. It's just like [begins beating out on the table about 2 beats per second]. It's rhythm. Five times out of six, five times out of seven I get it right. I get it right enough to where the shows just kind of fall together. But then there'll be that one where you just didn't realize how long it was going to take to ‘fold this into this' or how long it was going to take to ‘cook food x'. I used to think in terms of timing. I'd time how long it takes to do this and that and the other. It doesn't work. It's a complete waste of time.

MICHAEL
    Well, you mentioned some of it here: walk us through the process of getting an episode from your head to our television sets.

ALTON
    I look at every season as like a boxed set. I like every season to be, where, if you were to put them on a shelf next to each other you'd feel that there was a completeness to it. That there was a sense almost like there were chapters, but they don't relate. Like an anthology of short stories that you would put into a collection. These work together. You would expect these things to work together. So when we're putting together subject matter...  And this is getting harder and harder. I mean, as seasons go by it gets very hard because I hate repeating myself although I've certainly come to learn that certain lessons bear repeating. I've actually let go of that. Once I realized that I was a Home Ec. teacher and I started listening to what educators have to say about how to repeat things in a way that adds dimension to a lesson without making it look like a repeat.

    The truth is, food's not that complicated. It isn't. I used to think it was. As a matter a fact, when I started Good Eats a lot of it was in trying to grasp the complexity of it. The truth is, it's not complex. There are, really, a very kind of set number of tenets that run the cooking world. And so what you have to start looking for is facets in them. You can't just say, "Well, here's this" or "There that is. There's egg whites. There's everything you need to know about egg whites." The truth is you come back and every time that you deal with egg whites again you've got to look at it from a slightly different perspective.

    But to actually getting around to answering your question: so I'll look at what we've done. The longer that list gets, the smaller the list of things you haven't done gets. And you start trying to find... There's kind of a protocol. You know we—when I say "we" it sounds like I'm shifting blame, me—I think about what interests me about this or about that. It can never be, "Well, let's do a show about asparagus, okay, because we haven't." What do you say about asparagus that teaches somebody something? It's not enough to say, "Well, asparagus is green and it grows here and it gets harvested then," because in the end, people can't really use that that much. That's fine. But knowing where it grows probably is not going to help you cook it better. You might gain appreciation for it but it's not going to change your world.

    So I'll come up with a list of procedures, things that are basic lessons or basic applications. And sometimes it will start with an application—stir frying or controlling a grill—and then finding foods that are really good examples of how to have that control. I work with index cards, just piles of index cards everywhere. I'll just start writing things down on an index card and at first I might just be really silly. You know, it's like the other day I wrote down Band-Aids because I was thinking about the fact that anybody that works in the kitchen is going to cut themselves sooner or later and we ought to think about Band-Aids and first aid kits, you know. You take that [card] and you put that over there in that stack and maybe an unrelated thing goes over there and eventually you have enough stacks to where you start kind of sorting things out and saying, "Wow, those Band-Aids could relate to something over there. And you do that a lot with this food. And this food's got interesting qualities because you can do this with it." And then you just kind of slowly start setting these stacks aside, you know, as they kind of relate to each other. It's kind of like color swatches or something. You start looking for these tonalities, and you start forming stacks.

    Some of it can be just as simple as, "Gosh, darn it, we need to talk about this." The beer making show that's coming up all came out of trying to deal with baking, actually. It was originally a sourdough bread show. Then it came down to, "I really can't deal with sourdough bread without going to San Francisco and I can't go to San Francisco for this block because of budget-this or time-that." So in reading about bread there's been new archeological evidence that shows that brewing actually came before bread making. So it's like, maybe we can actually learn more about bread making by making beer first. Maybe that's the first course to that lesson, or it's the prerequisite if it was a college course. And so a lot of that goes into it.

    It gets real hard because there's so many things we've dealt with, and I don't like going back. When we did the show about cocoa powder this past season, season five, which is the first time we really touched chocolate since season one—not that that was the definitive chocolate exploration—but I'm just now starting to learn how to try to—I don't want to say repackage, because that's not what it is—revisit subject mater in new ways. I like that [Art of Darkness II] show. It's probably my favorite show of the last [5th]  season because I was able to kind of, in my head, 'get' cocoa powder. Most of these shows generally start with me trying to ‘get it.' There's something I've got to 'get'. It's not enough to know a lot about it.

    It's like the soufflé show which is the last one of this first block. I wrote the soufflé show, finished the script three weeks ago, and I finished it on a Saturday night and read it on a Sunday morning and was like, "This isn't any good. This isn't right. This is bad." I threw it away and I went back to the kitchen. I was like, "Okay, I'm not getting something. There's something I'm not seeing here. I'm taking the procedures for granted. I'm not looking at it." We sometimes play this game we call the alien game. We'll get this blackboard and say, "okay, you're an alien coming over for the first time and you find this food." As cooks, it's very difficult—the cooks I work with—it's very difficult to forget what you know, especially the way that traditionally trained chefs learn. We're taught things "because. Because that's how it's done. You don't ask questions, you learn how to do it, you go to work." Right? Sometimes you have to stop and forget everything. You've got to say, "I don't know how to make a soufflé. I know nothing." When I did that I literally kind of forced myself to forget and throw away all recipes and to sit down with a piece of paper and say, "Okay, what's a soufflé? What do I expect from a soufflé? What's good about it? What's potentially bad about it? What do I do about that?"

    And in my case I realized, "Okay, it's about marrying two unrelated forms. I have here a vulnerable, soft foam and I have this rich, viscous sauce and I have to bring them together in such a way as when it's baked, it's a marriage."  I started thinking a lot about viscosity and things like that, and I just started making soufflés from scratch with anything that matched that viscosity. Finally, one of the best soufflés I made had like four ingredients. It was egg whites and a can of cream of mushroom soup, because it's a concentrate, right? Okay, this is the thing you've got to remember about soufflés: there's this base, this viscous base, and it's only half of the mass but it has to deliver all of the flavor, okay? So using a concentrate... I started thinking, "Well, there are a lot of ways you could do that." So it's like I took a can of cream of mushroom soup and I mixed in, like, some tarragon and sautéed some mushrooms and I folded it in with the egg whites, it's a great soufflé.

    And I said, "I can make a chocolate soufflé out of brownie batter." And I make up some brownie batter from a box, fold it in with egg whites. [makes a small explosion sound] Chocolate soufflé. It worked. And it was like, "I get it now. Now I get it. Now I've learned something. I see it now." And if I can't see it I can't write it out. A lot of times I'll see it and it leads me in so many directions, that I get frustrated because it's like, "man, I really wish I had time now to go off and talk about oven temperature for, like, an hour," but I can't. I have to go and do that for three and a half minutes.

    And so there's all this stuff that I want to talk about and I have to say, "Well, that, that and that and this goes into a book." That's where books come from, you know? It's those deeper explorations of things. That's where the first book is coming out. "I'm Just Here For The Food" is born of all the stuff that I had to push off the side of the table. Not that's it byproduct, but stuff that I was really interested in that I couldn't divulge.

You know you write a book [and] they're like, "Take all the pages you
    want."
It's like, "Yes! Okay, how many pages can I have?"
They say, "Well, 250."
And in the end it's like 288.
They're like, "Well, that's okay because there are, like, 127
    illustrations."

    Because there weren't originally going to be any illustrations. I don't know if you've seen the book yet or if you have a copy.

MICHAEL
    I have not.

ALTON
    Well, by golly, we'll go over to Barnes and Noble, they've got a few. If I had one, I would have brought it to you today but I don't have one. I had one copy and I was down in New Orleans a few weeks ago at the Research Chef's Association Convention and I was key note speaker, and I left it in the hotel room. I just left it. So I hope you'll …

MICHAEL
    [in reference to receiving my book] Amazon's a little slow.

ALTON
    It isn't their fault. The way it happens... First you have to understand that anything I know about books I've learned in the last half hour, professionally speaking. Bookstores get drop shipments. A publisher will send 15 books—because that's all they expect to sell in any given piece of time—to several hundred stores. Somebody like Amazon who gets huge amounts of books has to wait, literally, for the boat to arrive. The warehouse is in Chicago so the freighter actually has to make it through the canal and get into the Great Lakes and blah, blah, blah and park in Chicago and dump the books. Because we're talking about a huge amount of them. We're talking about a lot of books. And that's different because what the publisher will do is air freight stuff to book stores.

    For instance, Barnes And Noble has had it for two weeks now. Borders doesn't have it and has never had it, which is odd because I'm doing mostly Borders on the book tour. (I don't understand how that works.) I went to a small publishing house because they were the only one that would let me do... There were other publishers involved, but they all wanted cookbooks [to be] ‘cookbooks'. You know, they wanted ‘appetizers', ‘main course', they wanted ‘meat', ‘vegetable', ‘blah-blah-blah'. And I was like, "you know, if I can't write this book by cooking method, I really don't have much to say because that's what I want to write about." So, I went to a smaller house that would deliver... It's a very high quality book, printed on very, very good paper. The thing weighs three pounds. It's a big book. They allowed me to do a text-book size. It's nine-by-nine so that it'll will lay open if you want to cook from it. And they agreed to no pictures of food, but it's packed with illustrations. There's an illustration on almost every page.

    But they're also a house that do relatively small printings—they'll do a lot of printings in a year because they're used to their books kind of going out at a solid trickle—and the entire first printing was sold before the books arrived. So we pushed the button on … we? THEY pushed the button on the second printing, I think, about two weeks ago. So they're being printed and bound right now.

    And a lot of that had to do with me. I was very late on editing the manuscript. I finished the manuscript in August and I kept adding to it. I added two new chapters, an epilogue, doubled the size of the appendix, all this stuff. So I actually didn't deliver the last written word of that book until, it was the end of January [2002]. So they couldn't go to a big batch printer in, like, the Orient, in Asia. They decided to have the book printed in England at a really, really great printer that actually does color correct, printing and binding all in one facility just so they could indulge me in time. Because usually it takes six months from the time the last word's written until the book can be on the shelves. So they cut me a lot of slack. I'm very appreciative of that.

MICHAEL
    So, you've got your ideas now. You've picked out three things or four things you want to cover in the show, where's it go from there?

ALTON
    Sometimes it just sits there for awhile. I won't have a story line yet, or I won't have an approach yet. But what I'll start doing, sometimes I'll know right away like... The hardest thing to write is how the show opens, the hooks. So, what I might do is, I might divide it up into bits and pieces and write those bits and pieces and then slowly bring it together like a mosaic. Like, I know there's going to be a W scene in this show and we're going to talk about ‘x'. Well, I'll get that research, I'll set it aside, I'll write that scene. Done.

    So there are two different ways it works. I'll either do it like a mosaic, filling in the blanks, slowly bringing it together and then maybe writing the opening and close last. Or sometimes I'll sit down and just start at ‘A' and go all the way through. There was a show from season three called, A Case For Butter. I wrote A Case For Butter in a day. I sat down, I had the idea, I wrote. When I walked away it was done. It still had to be edited, you know.

    And then there are other shows that, literally, I'll have to leave. I'll have to go away from and then come back to. They're frustrating but some shows just fall and some shows don't just fall. You'll have to come back to some and work on them and then you'll go away. You might not get the ‘open' or you might not find the... I try to always have this kind of thread, if not a story line, something that ties up every episode somehow so that that it's not just a cooking show. Because there's nothing more … well, I'm not going to say …

MICHAEL
    I'll say it: boring?

ALTON
    Cooking shows can be boring. You know, I like story lines. I want people to feel that there is something besides just another dish to ride on.

MICHAEL
    Doesn't it also add to the memory factor? I mean, we remember …

ALTON
    I would like to think so. I've read that that's true. I do believe—and this is my mantra—that you can't effectively educate without entertaining. I often say that I have the high school transcripts to prove it. I barely made it out of high school. I did. Because nothing made a bit of sense. I have to have connection. The greatest, unexpected joy for me about making Good Eats is—and this is going to sound terrible—but it's made me smart. Because I used to be, "Well, there's physics [indicates a section of the table] and there's biology and there's chemistry over there and I don't know what the hell that's about, and over here's this." And through food, I've come to understand something of each of those through their connectivity, by connecting them. By connecting the dots between anatomy and chemistry and history and anthropology, I've come to appreciate all of that and understand something of all of that.

    I think I probably have a more functional understanding of chemistry through food and can explain it better than some people that teach chemistry. And that isn't because I know everything, but it's because I know how to communicate what I understand. That is my gift. I have but one gift: I can communicate what I understand. If I can get it, I can get other people to get it. That's what I do. That's my one ability, I think.

    And I'm a real good ‘trash man'. I'm a very good ‘junk man'. I can pick through popular culture. I can pick through my own garbage can. I can pick something up and say, "Hey, you know, I can think of something to do with that, you know?" It's like Sanford and Son. My brain is like the set of Sanford and Son. I keep everything and I'll throw something in a corner and come back to it in 8 months and it's the most important thing in the world because I found some way to bring a meaning to it for me.

    It's a real personal thing. I don't make Good Eats for anybody but me. I'd love to say I do it for fans or whatever, but I don't. I'm glad there are fans because it makes me feel like, well, what I do is worth something to other people to some degree. I'll get e-mails from parents who say, "My kid, our seventh grader, was flunking science and he started watching Good Eats and now he's in the science fair, blah, blah, blah." Well, I mean that's corny but jeepers. When you're in television, you live in a world of ratings and budgets and all of this and you hear that once or twice, it can fuel you for a year. It can. It can keep you going for a really long time. And then when a teacher pulls me aside or a chef pulls me aside and says, "You know, I've got my kitchen staff watching Good Eats so they'll understand this and that," I'm deserving the air, I'm earning the air that I'm taking up on a daily basis.

    I didn't answer your question, did I? [chuckles]

MICHAEL
    No, that's okay. I'm going to bring you back.

ALTON
    [chuckles] Okay.

MICHAEL
    Let's say you finally get your script written, piecemeal or straight through or otherwise, where does it go from there?

ALTON
    Well, the first place it goes, is it goes to my producer who looks at it to tell me whether budgetarily I'm out of my friggin' mind, which has occasionally happened. Or whether we can divert funds. ‘This' show's not going to be too expensive so we can pay for Scrap Iron Chef, which was an amazingly complex... We shot 172 set-ups in two days. It was a massive undertaking to make that show. And probably not worth it. We didn't get a lot of response from that show. My ego ran away with me, or my sense of satire, or the fact that I just wanted to do it ran away with me. So, she gets them and we figure out is everything in here affordable, how are we going to do that? That doesn't take very long, because I know, basically, what there is, and I know what the financial realities are, and what my crew is capable of doing. I've got the best crew working in cable television, that's for sure.

    Then it goes to the [Food] Network. The script goes to the Network because they have to approve everything. Food Network is extraordinarily good about giving me freedom. They give me amazing freedom: they never come down here, they never get in my way. They may want to change a few things. Usually, the executive that I work with there—and I've been through a couple of them. The first three seasons were produced under one executive who left and then I got another one. And they're usually right. They know enough to know when to leave me alone and when to say, "No, don't do this." But it's usually small things. They're really good about that. So it gets approved by them.

    Then the way—it's kind of technical—the way that you know that an approved script is it gets Scene numbers put on it. We all work with this software called Final Draft. It's probably the best screen writing software in the world and everything we do is on that. So, my producer will put the Scene numbers on to the Final Draft document and post it on our intranet site so that all of the department heads can download it immediately and see what's going to be expected of them.

    Before that even happens, of course, we'll be in recipe development. Once I know what I want to do, I may not have time to go cook it, to write the script, and so I do what I call Einstein cooking, theoretical cooking. I cook on a blackboard. Everything gets worked out on, like, a blackboard or something. It's like, I'll get it all worked out and I'll give it to them [his chefs] sometimes without ever cooking it. My thing is, is like, if I know what's going to happen, I don't have to cook it. I let somebody else do it. "You guys go cook it and test this. Bring it back. Let me taste it. We'll talk about it. If we have to change it, that's fine." Nine times out of ten... My thing is, if you really know your food and you really know what's going to happen, you can do it on a blackboard, you can cook on a blackboard and know what's going to happen. A real good example just goes back to some inspiration on my part if you're interested in hearing that?

MICHAEL
    I am.

ALTON
    I used to make my living as a cinematographer and one of my favorite cinematographers is a guy named Gordon Willis. And Gordon Willis—he just does commercials now—he was a cinematographer for The Godfather. And when The Godfather came out it was very different. It didn't look like movies used to look. I mean, it was a radical departure. If you go back now and rent The Godfather on DVD and watch it along with, maybe, five other films from the same year, you'll see exactly what I mean. And when Gordon Willis got interviewed not too long after The Godfather came out, it was like, "How did you have the balls to break so many rules." And Gordon Willis says, "Well, it's easy if you know what's going to happen."

    And here's where cooking is like cinematography: when you're a cinematographer and you shoot a piece of film, you've got no idea. I mean, you can't see it until it goes off to the lab, gets processed, comes back, right? So you have to know what's going to have to happen. You've got to know how that piece of light and that piece of light is going to hit the emulsion, what the penetration is going to be, how it's going to work out in the lab. So his thing was is, it's not scary if you know what's going to happen. Well, he was good enough to know what was going to happen. And it's the same with a cook. A good cook can write a recipe from scratch and give it to you without ever having cooked it and say, "there," because he knows what's going to happen. And if your science is righteous, if you know, if you can cook in your head, if you can put it through the paces, if you know that a piece of chicken responds to this and this and this in such a way, you can do it on paper. You could write a whole cookbook, a good cook could write a cookbook without picking up a pan, just from knowledge.

    And sometimes you get theoretical. Sometimes you get a little crazy and maybe, "Wow, that's radical. I'd better go try that because there's a mitigating factor that I don't know about." Lord knows that the 70 or 80 recipes that are in I'm Just Here For The Food are all from scratch. Nothing [is] borrowed from any shows because I didn't think it was fair for people that could download recipes from a show to buy them again. It didn't make any sense. But there were a few times where I came up with ideas that were wacky, real wacky. You know, it's like, "Wow, we'd better try that. We better try that several times."

    What I like to do is come up with ideas and then send them out to cooks that aren't thinking the way I'm thinking. Because the only real way to develop a recipe—and this is certainly true with the show—if I come up with a recipe in my head, I'm going to cook it with all that stuff that was in my head. And that means that I might miss something that a cook that wasn't living in my skull, there might be something missed. Or there might be some little piece of information that I take for granted. So I'll write it down without ever cooking it and give it to my cooks for the show, give it to my Sous chef and, "Go cook that. Let's not even cook talk about it. Just do it so that we can see how far your interpretation was from where my mindset was." And then we'll go back and forth a couple of times in refining it. And then we'll lock it. We'll say, "okay, that's good. That'll go in the script the way it is."

    Sometimes I'll write the entire script without them even having gotten them yet. Then we'll go back and change it, or sometimes it will work. Sometimes we'll change a recipe on the shoot, on the set. I'll say, "Stop. Something's not right." Or somebody else, my lead cook—Maureen Petrovsky is her name—will say, "I've got a bad feeling about this." Or, "You know what? I think we're missing an opportunity." And I'll say, "What? I mean, let's talk about it. Let's stop everything and talk about that." And we'll do that at the last minute. We'll do it while we're shooting sometimes. Because in the end, it's about the food. I don't dictate. It's like, "If you've got something to say, throw it in the hopper. If I don't want it, I'll say so." But a lot of times that's how really great ideas come to bare.

    So we'll get that done and we'll refine that as time goes on. But the scripts will be posted and every department will go to work knowing what they've got to do, especially important for the props department, because we have a lot of unusual items. You know, often things have to be built from scratch. Sometimes my prop guy will call me up in the middle of the night and say, "AB, man, I can do this but it's going to cost so friggin' much." I'll say, "Todd, okay. We'll find another way. What do we have? What can we do?" We'll work it out and that's the great thing about collaborating.

    And then you're in pre-pro[duction] and then you're shooting. And with me, there's not usually a lot of time between finishing the script and shooting the darn thing because I'm always late—almost always late. I push it to the last minute. I'm one of those guys that wrote my term papers the night before they were due. I'm bad about that. Very bad about that. The Network kind of forces me not to do that because they have to have a certain amount of time with the script that they require before I get to be pushy about, "Hey, are you going to approve this? Are you not going to approve this?"

MICHAEL
    A lot of shooting is done out of sequence, because you travel …

ALTON
    All of it. Well, no. That's not true. Not all of it. We do travel. But even if we weren't traveling, there's a lot of... You look at a block of time and you say, "Well, our budget allows this." It's like packing a box, packing a suitcase. How can I arrange these items to fit in this box? And it may mean taking this out of this show and sticking it over here. Generally it separates out into three division: local location, travel, kitchen. Sometimes I might want to do something that's so expensive in the kitchen that I don't get to travel. There's no travel out-of-state for the first five shows of season six. For one reason, it wasn't really necessary. The subjects artichokes, yogurt, strawberries, tuna, soufflés were all do-able here. I'm not going to travel for stupid reasons. Not going to do that. You have to look at the smartest way to spend money.

    And for awhile, it's like when I was making the artichoke show I was thinking, "You know, I really ought to go to California because just about every artichoke in America is grown in this one town in California. I should go out there. I should shoot that harvest." And I started thinking, "Well, for what? It's an overgrown daisy. What is anybody going to get by seeing the stalk that the overgrown daisy was on?" Not much. And the truth is, is I spent a lot of money in the first few seasons of Good Eats shooting scenes that really just didn't matter. I went to a lot of expense to shoot things that, could the story done without them? Yeah. I drug a crew to Fernbank Science center to shoot one shot of a dinosaur for, uh, I can't remember then name of the show …

MICHAEL
    [gaffe #1] Fry Hard.

ALTON
    No, no, no. It was the chicken show in season one. Uh, Bird In The Pan.

MICHAEL
    Oh, Bird In The Pan, sorry.

ALTON
    A single shot. A huge location move. Stupid. Was it fun? Well, yeah. Did it make visual …? Yeah. But in the end, it was a half day, on location, moving a crew for a shot that lasted 45 seconds, maybe? That's not smart. That's not smart production. So I've learned to not be like that anymore, to not do the expensive thing all the time. There are lots of time I would go to far away locations to get scenes that I'd end up leaving on the cutting room floor in its entirety. I try not to do that anymore because I think in the early days I didn't trust my own creativity enough to not do those things. So I'd have people throw money at them. Which is what a lot of beginning writers did. I mean, before Good Eats I'd never written television before. I'd never written anything, really, because I never had anything to talk about. So we don't do that anymore. We try to figure out what the impact is.

    To get back to production, then, you're shooting and then you're editing. And we shoot more in-sequence now because we're editing as we go. So we try to shoot as much of... We're breaking it up so that we go out on location for a small, maybe half a week or a week, and then we go into the kitchen for a couple of weeks, and then we go back out on location so that we can make our delivery schedules because the Network wants almost a constant stream of shows now. They didn't in the first few seasons. They wanted to see how things worked out.

    Well, things worked out and so they are like [begins panting] and that's great. I'm not complaining. But that means that I very often have to shoot everything, for say, the artichoke show in a little package here so that my editor, whose name is Ginger Cassell, can get on the Avid—I don't know if you're familiar with non-linear editing systems but that's what I own—get on to the Avid, get the thing cut, so that we can then go with the color correction, get the graphics being constructed and get tapes over to Patrick who does a huge amount of work on every show. We don't spare much expense when it comes to sound and music. Original music is written for every episode of Good Eats. We do not use needle-drop, which means music that's been produced that you kind of just buy the rights to. It's from scratch every time.

MICHAEL
    And this must be much more difficult than Food Network's Emeril show where they have it all there on the sets and they've got you to flow stuff in non-linearly ...

ALTON
    Well, they never have to suffer that, so to speak. We'll get what's called an off-line. It's basically the cut show without any sound or graphics. That's all they ever see. We send that to them. They either approve it or ask for a couple of changes to be made or ask a couple of questions. Usually they like them because we shoot... I may have to fold two scenes together. It's like today. I had a scene in a strawberry field today. I'm not going to end up doing that scene because what was really important to that scene I can fold into another scene. They understand that. But they're still going to have comments. They may want to tweak something. It doesn't happen very often. They're really good about that, very supportive in that. Great client. Having been in advertising I can't tell you what a great client Food Network is. But we have to get their O-K and then we go into the actual finishing process, putting in the color correct, the finished edits, the graphics work and so on. So they don't really get the non-linearity of it all. They don't have to. That's our job to keep them from feeling that.

    But, yeah, it's amazingly different. I mean they can shoot three episodes of Emeril in a day. We take three days to shoot one episode. Actually, I think it takes 2.5. It takes 2.5 days. Good Eats is the most expensive show on Food Network that's commissioned. Iron Chef actually costs more but it's not commissioned. It's syndicated. We try to give them their money's worth. I mean, we put, I think, more money on screen per second than a lot of broadcast shows do. That's just what we do. I don't think we would have the following that we have if we didn't put that effort into it. This isn't easy. We bust our butts. We don't make a lot of money off production because I pour everything onto that screen. It's a labor of love. It is. It's a passion.

MICHAEL
    What do you enjoy the most from head to screen? What do you really like doing?

ALTON
    I'm like George Peppard's character on the A-Team. "I love it when a plan comes together." I love it when a scene, especially with a scene that my crew kind of goes, "Ooh, I don't know. I don't know if he's going to pull it off this time." I love it when I come up with something that... There's actually two things. If we end up communicating something in such a way... This is how I know that we've done it right: where my crew will go home that night and stop at the grocery store on the way home and go home and make it [the recipe] and they've never done it before. That's one level of satisfaction.

    And then when the comedy works, because comedy is hard. Comedy is real hard. When the comedy works, that's very satisfying because comedy is very elusive. Sometimes on paper what's funny doesn't translate. When those things really come together, that's what makes it really fun to shoot. It's like we've got a scene in an upcoming tuna show. At the beginning of the show—I'll probably get in trouble for telling you this but that's okay—I die in the show. I have a heart attack and die. I have an experience, an out-of-body experience, where I have a conversation with God. Only God—I stole a scene from the Sopranos—and God's a tuna at Harry's, which we've gone back to by the way. I'm by myself. I come out of dying on the ER table into an empty Harry's and this voice calls me and I go over to the fish rack, to the fish case and this fish talks to me. Literally. And working out the talking fish—and it's utterly realistic—it's hugely satisfying. Because when the crew works really, really hard on faith that it's worth it, they're not so sure. They're like, [whispers as an aside] "He's gone off this time." And then they all see it and they're like, "Man, that rocks." That's really satisfying. You know, when the crew gets into it like that. When the crew really gets into it, I know that it's going to work for the viewer.

    I'm not very target fixated; I'm process fixated. For me, I don't watch Good Eats. Once it's out of my hands, I never see it again. I don't turn on TV and watch Good Eats. I click right by me. I don't even hesitate on me. It's the doing of it. It is the process. I don't care about the baby. I care about the birthing, I guess. Which is a little twisted, maybe. Because I can't say I don't care. I do. But I can't have anything to do with it anymore. It's like, I can't mess with it anymore, I don't really have any reason to see it anymore.

    So the real rush comes from the collaboration of filmmakers working there, really. Because that's what I am; I'm a Home Ec. teacher and a filmmaker. And the drive of working with good people and seeing projects come together... I tell you, when you do a script that's got some really hard things in it and you shoot it and it's tough and you know you're getting good stuff and then in the editing room everything just falls together and you look at the show and you say either, "That's exactly how I thought it was going to be" or "Man, it's way better than I thought it was going to be," is extraordinary satisfying. It's those little things.

    Have you seen the movie, A Beautiful Mind?

MICHAEL
    No, I have not.

ALTON
    Well, I was going to tell you a story but I'm not, because you haven't seen it.

MICHAEL
    Well, your viewers have probably seen it.

ALTON
[warning, movie spoiler in next few paragraphs]
    Well, we did a scene a few days ago, I was so touched by this that I really almost kind of got teary which isn't my nature. Just to give you some background, one of the things that happens in A Beautiful Mind is that the character that Russell Crowe portrays, John Nash, teaches at Yale. One of the things that whenever a professor there achieves something that his peers respect like being nominated for a Nobel prize, in the professor's lounge they'll all come up and they'll take their pens, usually a fountain pen, and they lay them down on the table. They give their pens to this person as a symbol of respect. And it's a motif in the movie because it happens very early in the film and then in the end it happens to Russell Crowe's character. It's extremely moving.

    Yesterday we were shooting a scene for the soufflé show that was going to involve this piece of Plexiglas coming down with all of these chemical formulas on it. I won't explain why. But one of the things that—and I'm always thinking about movies because that's how I think—one of the things that Russell Crowe's character does in A Beautiful Mind, is he constantly writes on windows with a grease pen as he works out things, mathematical equations. He does it in his room and he does it in the library and everywhere he goes he's got this grease pencil writing on glass. So I started thinking, "Well, why did we do this on Plexiglas with all these great windows here?" So we ended up doing this really, really complicated elaborate scene with this, I don't know, it's probably 21 panes of glass that got filled with chemical formula. I bit off more, almost more than I could chew because it was a beast of a scene. We ended up getting it on the second take and when it was done the crew came one at a time and set their pens down. And you know it's like every kind of pen you could imagine: cheap pens and you got magic markers and everything. They did it as a joke but it was also a real sign of, kind of, I don't know, it was really moving.

    I have the best people in the world. On the days where I'm so beat and so tired—I sleep an average of 5 hours a night and I work 6 days a week. I have since the beginning of 1999. And there are days where it's like, "I don't know how I'm going to go there today. I don't know how." But my crew, every day that they'd show up on that set, and that crew is so 100 percent there—there's a real family thing going there—within five minutes of walking in the door, I got my game because they did. That's the biggest satisfaction of any of this, are the people that I work with. They're unparalleled. How I have managed through my years of working in commercial production and movie production to amass the level of people that I have, I don't deserve them. And, you know, the reason that Good Eats looks as good as it does and flows like it does, that's a lot more them than me. A lot more. I'm the catalyst for great people, and they are. Every department is remarkable. Really remarkable.

MICHAEL
    Any other superlatives? [chuckle]

ALTON
    [chuckles] No. I just can't praise my people enough …

MICHAEL
    That’s good.

ALTON
    … because they rock. Go ahead.

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Copyright © 2002 by Michael Menninger
Last Edited on 08/27/2010