After months of anticipation, Vice's mind-blowing newsmagazine show will be making its debut on HBO tomorrow night. While we've been hearing snippets of what's to come with the heavy-hitting documentary-style series — in-your-face shots of war torn countries, appearances by Kim Jong-un — we were hungry to learn more about the subject matter, and the fearless journalists who journeyed straight to the source. So, we chatted with the mag's intrepid founder and CEO, Shane Smith, to find out what it was really like traveling the world, sleeping in ditches and in military camps, and going face-to-face with all kinds of not-so-friendly militia. Shane gave us the inside scoop on what goes down behind the cameras, what the team is looking to tackle next, and what we can do to spread the word about important global issues.
What gave you the motivation to start this project, and how did the idea come to fruition?
"We have tons of reporters and contacts around the world, and they send in thousands of ideas every day for the magazine, for online, and for mobile. So, we kind of have a limitless well of story ideas and then we pick some of them for HBO, depending on whether we think they be could edited into a smaller piece rather than an hour-long documentary. If they'll be punch-in-the-face stories that people will talk about the next day, they'll be picked for HBO.
As far as how we started the project, we've had a bunch of networks approach us, but we've always been a little bit leery. Our agent, Ari Emanuel, told us that we had to go with a network that would let us swear (because I can't go through a sentence without swearing). He said, 'There's only one place for you, and that's HBO.' So, we had dinner with the team and Ari and then we said 'Great, let's do a show,' and then we met Michael Lombardo and then we were off!"
Can you paint us a picture of what the conditions were like when you and the team were traveling and filming?
"A lot of the best stories are in the worst places, so a lot of the time the conditions weren't great. You know, Afghanistan isn't really a tourist country so they don't really have great accommodations or food. I think the worst thing for me personally is when you are shooting you don't really worry at all, and then I came back with all kinds of different parasites. So that's sort of the downside of it, that most of the places we go are very viral. You come back with all sorts of unwanted hitchhikers."
How were you received by the different locals in the areas that you went to?
"Well, Kashmir and Pakistan really accepted us, because we wore the local garb. We would talk to the people and they would say 'We don't generally talk to press, but we'll talk to you because we see you as brothers.' I guess because we also have long beards, I don't know! But, pretty much everyone wants to tell their story, so when you have a camera, people act a lot differently. There's only a few places we've been where people saw the camera and started smashing it up automatically and people just didn't like it. So, we have to be very careful in those situations."
What would you say the most unexpected thing you came across during filming?
"Wow, that's a hard one. It was definitely unexpected that Kim Jong-un would show up at our basketball game!"
What was your fear level like when you were filming?
"When you're filming in a dangerous place, everyone sees it after the fact. When you're there, you're just working and thinking 'Did you get the shot? What am I going to say? How did it look? Did we get the interview?' There are a lot of logistics involved; driving, security checks, paperwork. So, generally when you're there, you're caught up in the minutia of trying to film something in a war zone, a conflict zone, some places they don't want you to shoot. So, you don't think about it, quite frankly, and all of a sudden you're in the edit room and there's guns pointed at you and masked terrorists threatening you and you think 'Oh shit! That was pretty dangerous!'"
How did you set the boundary between going to the extreme to get the story and the truth, and what is just plain putting yourself in danger?
"For sure, we get a lot of people saying that we're crazy, but the fact of the matter is that all we care about are good stories. And, a lot of our stories aren't even in a war zone, they're just here in America, but some of the best stories are out in the most difficult places to get to, or to shoot, and so we go get those stories but we're not suicidal! I have a wife and two kids, I'm just a regular guy and I love my life. So I'm very careful, but sometimes shit happens and you want to get the story while you're on the ground. But, we're very careful about how we go about getting the story. We're all in love with life."
Do you have any issues or areas that you want to explore next, that may be on your wish list?
"We're doing a lot more environmental stuff, which is pretty hard because we have to go to Greenland, Venice, New York, the Maldives, all over the world just to get one 15 minute segment. As for countries, there are lot of stories in a lot of different countries that we want to be in season two. My fascination right now is the Kingdom of Mustang, which is one of the hardest places to get into in the world. A lot of their GDP comes from illegally making meth to give to Chinese prisons and slave labor…obviously nobody wants that story told so it's very difficult, but that's my dream story. But, there are pirates in Somalia, pirates in Indonesia, drug cartels in Mexico…obviously very hard stories to do as well, so there's a lot of stories that we're going to be cranking out."
What do you hope that the audience takes out of this series? Is there any kind of activism that you want out of this?
"For us, going around the world and seeing all these problems, we always say 'Somebody should do something about this' or 'Somebody should say something about this,' and then I realize, oh I have a platform, I have one of the biggest youth audiences in the world, why am I not doing it, why am I just saying that somebody should be doing something about it? So, the first step is to say something, and show people what's happening and then afterwards you bring awareness to what's happening, then non-government, non-profit organizations, advocacy groups, and political groups can get together and you use awareness to help with whatever that problem is, so I hope that we bring stories to people that way.
If you look at what happened with Kony 2012, there was a lot of interest out there, but they weren't expecting it to be huge, so it drove some of them crazy and there was a lot of confusion as to what to do afterwards. For us, we just want to put a microscope on a lot of problems that are happening in the world, and through online or social media point to people, organizations, and groups that are trying to do something to help alleviate some of those problems."
Photo: Courtesy of Vice