Rick Steves Takes 60 Minutes Through the Back Door
(Written in Venice, 5/25/05)
In 1978, when I was still a student at Seattle's University of Washington, the budget European travel class I taught in my spare time was attracting surprisingly big crowds. A producer from 60 Minutes called and said they were dropping by to film me teaching. I told my class and we all got excited. But plans changed, and nothing ever came of it.
|60 Minutes correspondent Vicki Mabrey sits an excited Rick Steves down in his living room for an interview.|
Twenty-six years later they called again. My guidebooks were now best-sellers and, again, they wanted to profile my teaching. I thought, "I'll believe it when I see it."
Producers called and called. I was skeptical. Then they actually flew out last fall to scout the shoot and do research, looking up — it seemed — everyone I'd ever worked with. They turned over every rock, even sleuthing out any possibly disgruntled employees. Now I was beginning to believe they were serious. My attitude was, "This is who I am and what I do." I made a pact to share the unvarnished truth about my work and teaching.
As the profile unfolded, it was clear: CBS would spend whatever it took to get the story. After preliminary interviews, they assembled a TV crew triple the size of the one I use for my public television series, and set out to capture "a day in the life of a travel writer in his small town USA home." Walking the train tracks to work, dropping by the local coffee shop, pointing to my Junior High School out my office window, even filming my father tuning a piano. We filled the local theater for a special travel skills class, giving the crew plenty of travelers to interview about this phenomenon of Americans traveling post 9/11 with more fun and confidence than fear.
Then Vicki Mabrey flew in for the big interview. After scouting lots of places, they chose my living room, which became a forest of lighting and sound equipment. I saw the behind the scenes preparations for the trademark 60 Minutes interview: tight, beautifully-lit head shots.
|Vicki carries on the interview as we paddle through a Dutch village wonderland.|
For about two hours, Vicki and I talked about my business philosophy, the value of travel, and the ethics of sending hordes of Americans to "undiscovered little villages." Every time I said something especially quotable, the crew would get excited. Like happy hens, they'd make the 60 Minutes "tick tick tick tick" sound (indicating that could be a show opening sound bite). Vicki asked "So, what's so special about Ireland?" I said, "Lots of talking, lots of beer...lots of love." Tick tick tick tick. (That ended up being the last line in the story, followed by the ticking stopwatch.)
Having produced over a hundred of my own shows, I know a fair amount about TV production. And I couldn't figure out how they'd begin to cut the many hours we'd taped down into a 13-minute segment. And this was just the stateside footage — they also wanted to travel with me in Europe as I worked.
I hate to mix interviews like this with my research work. I just can't get anything done with people tagging along with me. I've tried with European reporters and recently with a reporter from the New York Times magazine. Now I'd have a big CBS film crew in tow. The producer kept promising, "We want you to do exactly what you normally do. Ignore us. We'll just run along. You'll hardly notice."
It just didn't work that way. They had eight people, two vans full of gear, and Vicki Mabrey whose schedule was extremely complicated by other breaking news stories, including Dan Rather's problems with the George Bush AWOL story. With all the craziness of those pre-election weeks, Vicki was jetting all over the world for various projects. In the interest of "news journalism," 60 Minutes would film only my exact plane taking off and landing, and my exact train hurtling down the tracks. Therefore they hired various freelance cameramen to camp out at airports and train crossings to document my travels.
|From Amsterdam, the crew travels by train to Berlin. So much for "packing light." This is half the crew and half the gear.|
So, as departure neared, the 60 Minutes crew was in my bedroom as I packed my bag. They were in my bathroom as I did a little known ritual where I squeeze toothpaste from my big home tube into my little travel tube. They were there as my wife Anne drove me out of our garage and down I-5 to the airport. They were there as she kissed me goodbye at the departure curb. And they followed me right through customs. On the plane (they booked first class seats for themselves, but I was voluntarily in economy), they came back periodically to film what I was doing — reviewing reader feedback, typing on my laptop, ordering "two glasses of orange juice...no ice please," and snoozing. People sitting around me got a kick out of having 60 Minutes on the plane. (If you've seen the feature, you'll note that none of the filming we did on this day made the final cut.)
In Amsterdam, they documented how I was out of the airport before anyone who checked any bags knew if theirs made it through. In Amsterdam we were met by the European film crew — a hardened gang who'd worked together in Iran, Afghanistan, and all over Africa. I was supposed to do my research exactly as I normally do, and I did (just a lot slower, as the gangly crew lumbered along with all their gear — it felt like I was pulling a trailer behind me).
The producers, with whom I'd become genuine friends by now, admitted that my "guerrilla" style of TV production (just me, a producer and a cameraman) was infinitely more nimble than theirs.
They tagged along with me, checking hotels, trying restaurants, following local guides, and doing tours out of my book to see how they worked. With them tracking me, I became more aware of the mechanics of my almost-intuitive work. This was an interesting experience for me.
The producers really wanted to document the phenomenon of "Joe American in Europe" using my guidebooks. It was amazing how easily we met people from middle-America who were huge fans of the information I provided. Everywhere we turned people were calling my book "their Bible" (I always cringe when they say this) and enthusing about what an awesome trip they were having. For me (along with the raves) the fact that they were on their own — no longer insecure, but confident as travelers — was great to see. The film crew was eating it up.
60 Minutes was fascinated with my liberal politics. How could a simple travel writer have such an openly political voice and get away with it? Vicki really pushed this in the interviews we did at my home. For the most part, these discussions ended up on the cutting room floor...except for an evening we spent filming in Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam they insisted we cover the Red Light District and the marijuana coffee shops (which was absolutely fine with me). From the start, my philosophy was to be frank and assume they were just reporting honestly on my work, and not looking for dirt. (And if they found dirt, I honestly couldn't imagine it being anything other than good publicity anyway.)
So there I was with Vicki Mabrey on a bridge surrounded by prostitutes. She asks me, "So, why do you have this in your book? Aren't you promoting prostitution?" I explain that it's not my job to protect my readers from things that, in America, might be considered immoral or racy. Whether it's bullfighting, selling sex, or smoking pot, I'm simply saying, "They do this here, and here's why, and here's how you might learn more about it."
I love the Dutch notion that a society must make a choice: tolerate different lifestyles or build more prisons. When a prostitute gets in trouble and pushes her emergency button, the police come to her aid — not some pimp.
Then, they wanted to visit a marijuana-selling "coffeeshop." I didn't want the interview to degenerate into some shallow, prime-time-sex-and-drugs-exposé, but they really wanted to feature this. As a fan of the Dutch approach of treating marijuana as a health problem rather than a crime wave, I was happy to oblige. They set up a mini-camera on my bicycle handlebars to film my happy face bobbing along the glorious canals and romantic bridges of the Jordaan District to the "coffeeshop" I recommend in my guidebooks — one in which my older readers might feel comfortable. (They kept my on-camera comment about this in the final cut, but left out the filmed part.)
|Notebook in hand, 60 Minutes crew in tow, Rick makes his rounds: Berlin's subway system.now smoke free.|
The next day we meet Majel of Wetland Safari Tours (who I recommend in my guidebook) and she takes us into the polderland for a canoe ride. This is great TV and the crew packs one canoe, Vicki in another, and me in a third. Paddling through a Dutch village wonderland, Vicki interviews me — how did I find Majel, do Americans enjoy this canoe ride, and so on — as we paddle idyllically side by side. The material is great, both visually and from a content point of view. I keep thinking, "they'll never be able to use any of this stuff." (It turns out they used a fair amount.) I'm also thinking, "they've already spent about as much money on this tiny 13-minute feature as I've spent producing an entire series of TV shows."
The next morning we're hopping aboard a train, where Vicki plans a critical interview as we roll across Germany en route to Berlin. That morning the two vans are packed and everything is shuttled to the track. I can't believe all the gear. And then I realize that's just one of the vans. Here comes more. I decide not to be a tour guide or a producer...just mellow out and let all the others figure things out.
We're on the wrong track. It's a huge project as everyone scrambles to relocate. Then the train arrives and I grab a seat. They begin shuttling the gear in and I'm gazing out the window, just daydreaming about the beauty of a tiny film crew and almost no gear. Suddenly, the train starts to glide along the platform and a look of disbelief comes over the half of the crew still in Amsterdam. The door has closed and we've left half the gear with half the crew. Producers, angry at the train personnel, are frantically on their cell phones. And Vicki and I are whooshing into Germany at 100 mph. We take an inventory and, thankfully, we have just enough people and gear to light a train compartment 60 Minutes-style and do the interview.
Plans change. The gear and crew that missed the train hires another van and driver and they decide to drive to Rothenburg. Vicki and I decide to cover Berlin with the gear we have, and rendezvous with the rest of the crew in Rothenburg later. Meanwhile, Vicki gets a call from headquarters, requiring her to leave the shoot early. With the time we have left, we scramble to pack in the essentials. The producer is determined to film me in a town that was once "undiscovered" and is now a touristy place: Rothenburg. He wants to reveal the impact that a popular travel writer can have on a once-pristine destination. I, on the other hand, am determined to show Berlin (a big-time cultural powerhouse that I like to profile in my guidebooks).
As the train approaches Berlin, a German cameraman camps out to film us speeding across the fields. In Berlin we have a frantic hour to shoot – the new Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, the subway station that was the ghost station during the Cold War, and so on. (Much of our train ride will survive the final cut, but almost none of Berlin.)
Then we drive five hours through a torrential rainstorm to Rothenburg, arriving at about 2 a.m. The next morning, we are mobbed by happy readers and travelers on the cutesy streets of a very touristy city as the cameras roll. Locals are happy with the business. Tourists are having a wonderful time. And I'm selling books while doing my best to teach a little bit of meaty art and history in a tasty touristy shell. The crew gets what they want, and immediately fly home. I stay on longer in Germany, researching my guidebooks.
|The biggest TV crew Rick Steves will ever be a part of, on location in Europe.|
For several weeks, the post-production work proceeds. Producers want archival things like my actual early journals (written when I was a teenager traveling through Europe) expressed to New York for photographing. Facts are checked and rechecked (in the wake of the Dan Rather imbroglio). And we eagerly look forward to seeing the final product.
The feature is finished by late October, but its air date gets put off again and again. The producers keep telling us, "We love it. Everyone loves it." They explain their shelving the piece during the holidays by telling us, "It'll get a bigger audience early in the spring." Then we hear that the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes will be canceled, and our hearts sink. I'm remembering 1978 all over again. But the producer calls and promises they'll air it before America hears the last tick tick tick tick.
And finally, last week, we get the word. The episode called "Rick's World" (re-titled "Rickniks" at the last minute) will run on Wednesday, May 25th. I've never dedicated so much time to an interview. But I truly enjoyed my week with the 60 Minutes crew. Their commitment to the accuracy of their "news journalism" drove me batty and, at the same time, won my respect. And I've come away feeling glad that I'll never again have to travel that heavy.
Thank you, Josh Yager, Vicki Mabrey, Sean Herbert, and your colleagues at 60 Minutes for your interest in my work. And thanks to those on my staff who worked long hours to help their counterparts at CBS turn this into an interesting feature.