TCA Winter Press Tour Day 12 Quotes: 'Top Chef' Shade, 'Wicked' Casting and Meerkat Poop

Plus photography advice, 'Tower' animation and more from PBS' second TCA press tour day.
Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival
'Tower'
Sandwiched between a foodie dream panel for American Masters featuring Jacques Pepin and Alice Waters and a Broadway-friendly panel for Falsettos on Live From Lincoln Center, things got dark on PBS' second day at the Television Critics Association press tour. 
 
Monday panels included American Experience docs on the Oklahoma City bombing and Ruby Ridge and a Nova special on the Flint water crisis, but also dark-with-uplift projects about a Holocaust escape tunnel and the 1966 University of Texas sniper shooting. 
 
 
Highlights include some reservations about Top Chef, Stephanie J. Block's Wicked story and more ...
 
*** Jacques Pepin and Alice Waters will be featured in American Masters installments as part of the series' Chefs Flight run of episodes, but don't expect them to be guest judges on Top Chef anytime soon. (Or when they are guest judges on Top Chef, at least now you'll know what they're really thinking.)
 
Asked about the influence of competition reality shows on the food industry, the two titans didn't mince words.
 
"I believe that it’s a disservice very often because this is not what cooking is all about," French-cooking legend Pepin observed. "Cooking is about being together, about love, about sharing and all that, and that type of confrontation that you have there is not really the way you learn how to cook or the way you understand food."
 
Added Bay Area icon Waters, "I feel the same way, that we’re teaching the kind of fast-food values of our country in those competition cooking shows when, in fact, cooking really is something that can be very meditative, and it’s never about competition. It’s about the pleasure of dealing with real food and having a competence for your own self on chopping and learning how to do this, and it’s sort of empowering to do that yourself, and to put it in the competition place really takes away from really the essence of cooking."
 
Oh and taste your food more, chefs! Geez. Advice from the masters.
 
 
*** Speaking of not mincing words.... Fans of inside Broadway dirt know that Stephanie J. Block was the first actress to play Elphaba in Wicked, starting from the smash hit's first workshop. Then, of course, stuff happened and the part ended up being a Tony-winning role for a different actress. Block has gone on to do rather well for herself, but promoting the Live From Lincoln Center take on her recent Falsettos revival, she was asked about Wicked and Broadway's love of star power.
 
"As an actor, it’s always hard to digest the business part of show business. And I think it will forever be a question mark to me, because what leads us to this art form is our heart, rather than a lot of our head. Do you know what I mean? Anytime I look back this may sound airy-fairy but any time I look back, I know exactly why that happened in my life, why that decision had to be made, why that wasn’t going to work for me," she recalled. "Wicked was a tough sting. I won’t even mince words. Yeah. I invested about two years creating Elphaba, with Winnie Holzman and Stephen Schwartz, and it was really basic. It was, 'You do not have a Broadway credit to your name, let alone creating something of this magnitude with Universal Pictures behind it, and this sort of production value and price tag,' and 'We’d love you to stand by for Idina.' But Idina Menzel at that point had been nominated for a Tony, had opened, and been in the original company of several Broadway casts, and that’s the way it was. So it’s going to hurt, sure. When she’s standing up there with a Tony, you go, 'Oh, drat, that should have been me.'" 
 
Block laughed, "And I got drunk. That stuff happens. But, you know, you wake up the next morning, you figure out what that next audition is. I decided they did offer me to replace Idina on Broadway, and that would have given me a second Broadway credit, but I decided to get back into the rehearsal room, with Joe Mantello, create the Elphaba that I wanted to create; and, in turn, I met my husband, we bought an apartment, I have a child. And so she got the Tony, I got the Sebastian, and it all worked out just fine. It’s not that easy to say, you know, when it’s happening, but it certainly makes sense when you look back and say, artistically, I know exactly why these choices were made, how I grew as an artist, and how I will never have to hopefully go through that again."
 
Block received raves for Falsettos and did a terrific 30-minute evening set for the critics, culminating in "Defying Gravity." She's gonna be just fine.
 
*** Independent Lens will be airing the well-received documentary Tower on Valentine's Day and PBS brought the acclaimed documentary to press tour along with two survivors of Charles Whitman's sniper massacre and one of the cops on the ground that day. 
 
The survivors said they had no concerns at all about how director Keith Maitland's rotoscope animation style would be used to depict the tragic day.
 
"I had no trepidation at all," said John "Artly" Fox. "You can tell, anybody can tell by talking to Keith for just a certain amount of time that he’s intelligent, but more than that, you can look in his eyes and see the empath and compassion for the moment and for us and for what we were going through, and it was that empathy that convinced me right away that he was the man to tell the story."
 
Maitland admitted that he'd had worries about how his approach might be received.
 
"I had that concern over and over again," Maitland said. "When you make the decision that you are going to call somebody up out of the blue and say, 'Hey, I want to talk about the worst thing that ever happened to you 50 years ago. You don’t know who I am, and I’m going to turn it into a cartoon. Go,' yes, you are bound to ruffle some feathers or to turn people off to potentially open a can of worms that somebody isn’t prepared to deal with, and so I was extremely anxious and extremely sensitive about that. What I was shocked to find over and over again is I didn’t receive a single piece of pushback on any questions about the animation or about the approach from anyone that I can recall, and what the animation did give us was an opportunity not just to focus on the big picture, which I think is what most people care about in a story like this, but to focus on the fine-tuned details."
 
*** Out of context, this quote is rather dazzling.
 
"So I asked him, you know, 'What’s the smell?' And he said, 'Phil, I’m afraid it’s fresh poo, meerkat droppings. That’s essential.' So I went out with him, and we gathered the droppings and we anointed our Spy Meerkat very delicately with the poo. And then we deployed it. And the group at first saw it from a distance. They were a little bit suspicious. They came in quite tentatively, but as they got closer, they got a whiff of our Spy Meerkat, and they visibly relaxed. They knew that the smell was familiar. It was from their own group. So therefore, our spy creature was not threatening."
 
Fine.
 
In context, it's Philip Dalton of Spy in the Wild, a Nature miniseries, which uses 30 animatronic spy cameras disguised as animals to capture footage no camera person could ever get. 
 
And the secret to getting meerkats to accept a spy meerkat? 
 
Poo smell!
 
The more you know...
 
 
*** What one piece of equipment would Rare, Creatures of the Photo Ark star Joel Sartore recommend for budding amateur photographers?
 
"Your brain. I’m not being facetious," advised Sartore, whose life mission has been to photograph rare and at-risk specials. "You can shoot great pictures with a smartphone. In fact, [National] Geographic’s got The Great Courses now, has got Geographic photographers teaching just that. It is not the gear. It is how you see. It is whether or not you think about how a subject would look from above, from ground level, in nice light, and something interesting. Those are the keys. Nice light, something interesting, perspective, and a clean background that doesn’t fight you. And you’re trying to tell a story. Everybody’s trying to tell a story. It is that simple, but it’s not that easy, because life’s pretty chaotic. Great stuff doesn’t always happen in nice light. It’s certainly true when we were filming this show. If an animal is out in the brush, it’s very hard to see it. That’s why the Photo Ark pictures are effective, is because we can actually see the animal. A lot of these animals live under the leaf litter or in muddy water. So having a clean, nice background, a great moment in time, and a nice light, those are keys. But don’t worry about the gear. Do not worry about the gear."
 
Tuesday is NBC Cable's TCA half-day. We'll see if there are enough quotes for a column!
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