VICE CEO Shane Smith Talks Dennis Rodman, Dodging Death and Severed Heads (Q&A)
Hipster Brooklyn collided with the Media Establishment earlier this week, when HBO screened two episodes of Vice -- its buzzy new docu-series from the youth-centric media company of the same name -- for an audience that included 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft and executive producer Jeff Fager, among other boldfaced mainstream news-people.
"It was great to see the old school and the legends sort of come out to a bunch of snotty-nosed kids and say 'Hey, you’re awesome,'" Shane Smith, Vice co-founder and CEO, tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that another event slated for Friday night -- the date the show premieres on the cable giant -- "will be a lot messier and probably a lot boozier. Although Steve Kroft did have a few drinks."
Launched as a controversy-baiting culture magazine in 1994, Vice has since expanded into a full-fledged, multi-platform, significantly more mature operation headquartered in Williamsburg with 35 offices around the world; its businesses include a record label, a book publishing division, an ad agency and a network of websites. Then there's the HBO project: executive produced by Smith and Bill Maher with CNN's Fareed Zakaria on board as a consultant, each episode involves dark and dangerous missions in exotic hot zones such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, tossing correspondents into the line of fire and rolling footage of severed heads as part of its gonzo brand of immersion journalism.
In a wide-ranging interview, Smith, part of the on-camera, globe-trotting team along with Ryan Duffy and Thomas Morton, talks about his near-death experience on assignment in Iraq and confesses his anxiety over Dennis Rodman's infamous Vice-masterminded trip to North Korea.
The Hollywood Reporter: What’s the most outrageous experience you’ve had shooting an episode?
Smith: The scariest part for me was we were shooting in Fallujah and we had snuck in because there was a terrorist attack – so the whole town had been locked down – and then they caught us and they took us down this road. It was a long road, it was about a mile long road with about a 12-foot blast wall on each side. And we were like, "Oh, they’re taking us to jail" or "They’re taking us to the military command" or whatever. And they took us to this empty field that was just a field of rocks and they told us to get out of the car. And we stood in the middle of this empty field surrounded by a blast wall, which looked [for] intents and purposes, much like a killing field. And we said, "Oh shit, we’re in real trouble" because there were no buildings, there were no offices, there was nobody there.
THR: You interviewed Fallujah's mayor about the health crisis there. He helped you get out alive?
Smith: It’s all very factional – different militias are in different control of different checkpoints – and so one militia had let us in and another militia caught us and so we call the mayor and the mayor then gave the general of the first militia shit who then gave the general of the second militia shit and then they finally let us go. But it was about two to three hours of being fairly nervous and then they sort of invited us to have a huge banquet with them as a sort of them saying sorry. We’re like, "No thank you we just want the hell of here!"
THR: How did you smuggle Dennis Rodman and three Harlem Globetrotters into North Korea?
Smith: We didn't smuggle them! I’ve been to North Korea twice, I’ve done three documentaries on North Korea, and when I was there, I had seen the magical basketball – which is the basketball that Madeleine Albright gave to Kim Jong-Il signed by Michael Jordan. ... [We thought] it would be great to sort of put a basketball team together with some of the old Chicago Bulls and send it to North Korea and see what happens because know that the North Koreans are fascinated by the Chicago Bulls.
THR: Then you got U.N. seal of approval.
Smith: [The concept] was actually just to do sort of pick-up matches and go out and play with the kids and have the Harlem Globetrotters play with the kids and then they set up [the exhibition match in Pyongyang] and Kim Jong Un showed up and then the whole world exploded.
THR: Did you guys uncork bottles of champagne in the office?
Smith: No! We were really worried because it got out and it was this whole media circus. And Rodman was only there for two days and we were there for 10 days and our team was on the ground shooting. And we know how crazy the North Koreans are and how easily they’ll sort of put someone away so we were very nervous.
THR: What did you think about Rodman calling Kim an "awesome kid"?
Smith: People expecting Dennis Rodman to speak eloquently about geopolitical issues ... he’s lived a very public life. He’s a Hall of Fame basketball player but he has been on Celebrity Rehab and he’s been on The Surreal Life. I mean the guy is sort of an absurdist character. Having George Stephanopoulos grill him about geopolitical events is sort of a little bit unfair I think.
We just wanted to get in to have sort of unparalleled access to the regime and show the regime – especially at a time when tensions are so heightened. If there could be some diplomacy, if there could be some dialogue, we always believe it’s a good thing. ... And was Rodman outrageous when he got out of North Korea? Quite frankly, and I don’t know him very well at all, but was he a bit confused and was he a bit baffled? Probably.
THR: Any places you won't go?
Smith: We had a female correspondent who was gonna [cover the "Black Bloc" riots] in Egypt but ... we pulled that shoot because we couldn’t guarantee safety. So we’re not suicide-loving guys. We’re not crazy danger-seekers. We’re very careful about our stories and our correspondents.
THR: All of Vice's correspondents are men this season. Will we see a woman in the trenches sometime soon?
Smith: You know, these things take a lot of time to set up and a lot of time to shoot and a lot of time to post – but if there is a season two we have two great female correspondents that we’ll be using.
THR: In terms of graphic violence, where do you cross the line? Because the severed head shot in the segment about Taliban suicide bombers really freaked me out.
Smith: In that piece I think it’s pretty important for people to understand what a suicide bombing looks like. Because you can talk about in the in third person or talk about it philosophically – “well, I think it’s bad!" – but unless you see what a suicide bombing looks like, which is completely eviscerated bodies and severed heads and severed hands and people blown up and gutted everywhere, then I don’t think we’re doing our job, which is to say "Look, suicide bombing – especially child suicide bombing – is a human tragedy." It’s a tragedy for all of us. .... So we were very conscious of why we put it in there. We don’t believe it’s gratuitous at all.
THR: How do you respond to critics who say what you’re doing is not journalism?
Smith: The easy answer to that is I don’t know what journalism is anymore. The whole sort of debate of classic objective journalism versus a new immersion journalism – that can go on forever. ... I made no bones about my position: I don’t think you can be objective. I think if you’re in a war zone and Marines are projecting you it’s pretty hard to pan the Marines. I also think if you’re using the established media as the benchmark ... my generation and especially Gen Y was completely disenfranchised by, let’s say, the Gulf War and the failure of media, the fourth estate, to keep powerful people in check when they knew that Saddam Hussein was not harboring Al-Qaeda. When the majority of them knew there was no weapons of mass destruction. And it was seen as un-American to criticize the political regime here at that time – the Bush Administration – so the media shut up. ... If that’s the gold standard, if that’s the standard that I’m kicking against, then I’ll kick against that till I die.
THR: Is the goal to be CNN 2.0?
Smith: What they did with cable we’re doing it online. This show I’d like to be our generation’s 60 Minutes so we can point to it and say, "Yes, we do some of the best news in the world."
This article has been edited and condensed from a longer interview.