Ride With Norman Reedus Q&A — Executive Producer Anneka Jones on How Ride Dealt With Global Quarantine
Ride With Norman Reedus sends motorcycle enthusiast and The Walking Dead star, Norman Reedus, to far flung corners of the world to explore the open road with artists, musicians, celebrities, and friends. While the first two episodes of Season 5 feature Norman with his co-riders, Josh Brolin and Dylan McDermott, in New Zealand, the rest of this season of Ride will look a little different because of the Covid-19 pandemic. We sat down with Executive Producer Anneka Jones to learn how the Ride team dealt with making a travel show while stuck at home, how they crafted a "scrapbook" of Ride memories, and what fans can look forward to during the rest of this unique season.
Q: So this was a season like no other — first with taking Norman, his co-riders, and the crew down to New Zealand, and then with the arrival of Covid. Can you talk about what the early days of the pandemic were like for the crew? Where were you all and what happened?
A: For Season 5, we had big plans to go more international than we ever have before. I think it would have been four international episodes to two domestic episodes, which was just so exciting. It just seemed like "This season will be bigger and badder and more far flung than ever!" [Laughs] We had all these plans, and these episodes are planned way in advance, to physically get that many people there safely -- obviously, pre-pandemic. The bikes, everything -- it's a real roadshow.
Then there's the creative angle: where do you go, what's interesting, who do you talk to? If it's in a foreign language, we have to find local producers. We had done a lot of work, and a lot of budgeting, to make those four international episodes possible, and so we were off to the races in February -- we did two episodes in New Zealand, we were high on life. We went to the corner of the world and got two amazing episodes with Josh Brolin and Dylan McDermott. We were like, "This is gonna be great!" [Laughs]
And then Covid happened. Norman was flying back from New Zealand to LA, and then we were gonna go to Italy and then Croatia, if my memory serves. If you recall, Italy was one of the first hardest hit locations, so it was like "Ooh, maybe not Italy, but since we've already done so much work there, could we use that same team but go to the south of France...?" It was a day-by-day adjustment. Essentially as the pandemic spread, our plans kept changing, like, "Maybe we could do it over here, maybe we could do it over there."
Then there came a point where people were getting stuck. There were Americans that couldn't come back to America, and they were just stuck over there. We realized very quickly that we were operating under a basic assumption that, because we travel all over and we knew how to do it, that we could still go to places, do our show, and get out. And we realized, along with the rest of the world, that the rules had changed really quickly. We had to consider things like: what if we went, and got stuck someplace? What if we went and got sick? Do we have the same access to medical care? It got really serious, really quickly.
We thought, "Ok, there's no other country that we can go to. We've got the two New Zealand episodes, thank god. We can't do Italy and Croatia, right now." I also don't know if you remember how naïve we were then, thinking, "It'll blow over in a couple weeks!" It was like, "Ok, let's push it down and push it down." And then it became clear that this thing was just spreading so fast, and that even a domestic episode to replace those internationals, was just crazy talk. We couldn't be out in the world, and certainly the safety of the crew, of Norman, of the locals we would be interacting with, was top of mind. It was lockdown time; the idea of a show that was going to go out and spread it further was crazy.
Q: How did you and the creative team decide to turn the rest of Season 5 into a pseudo-clip show?
A: Obviously we had two episodes, so it became a post-production operation. Editors worked from home, which was a huge undertaking. We were in this mindset of, "Okay, if all we can do right now is post-production, why don't we do (what we call in the industry) repacks?" [We looked] at all of the old footage and thought, "Could we do some kind of walk down memory lane? Could we revisit places? What about footage like outtakes?" So we started thinking about that idea of repacks, since editing was the only thing that was safe to do, and we pitched four different episodes to AMC, and they wanted all four! We went from thinking that we would only have two episodes this season, to suddenly having the opportunity to make a whole season. So we had a lot of fun coming up with how to look back in a different way, how to differentiate those episodes, and then we came up with the four different repack ideas.
Q: How did you choose which pieces to pull out and segment together? What was that building process like, since it served as the framework for the rest of the season?
A: When we pitched the four repack ideas, we really didn't know all four would get greenlit. So, we stepped back, and myself, Lizzie [Ashe], the showrunner, and Geoff O'Brien, who is sort of our showrunner of post-production, came together and asked, "What do we do?" It's hard when you're in the middle of making the show to step back and ask, "What is this library? What do we have?" So [we had] two episodes that were traditional repacks, which still fit the model of the show. Norman narrates and you don't see him, as he always does, and he takes us through this trip.
So we thought if we're going to go on this "virtual road trip," revisiting all of the places that we've been, what kind of story can we tell? When we stepped away and really looked at all of our destinations, it felt like a domestic episode and an international episode was the most simple way to approach it. With the backdrop of the pandemic, and feeling at once so detached from each other -- nobody goes out, nobody travels -- but at the same time, thinking about an entire world that's going through the same thing at the same time, it's a very unifying idea.
Given the pandemic, there was something so sentimental about thinking about the places that we've been, and the unique people we met there. You start to feel like there's a shared sameness, similarity, connection with people all over the world. So the international repack episode is very people-focused, and we hoped that it would remind us that we have a lot more in common than what separates us. For the domestic episode, what with the backdrop of the political turmoil of last year, and the unrest in terms of social justice and racial inequality, it just felt like—not to be super patriotic—but we felt like we needed to look back and explore the core values of America. We had to remind ourselves what those are. So the domestic episode became a love letter to the ideals of America, which we don't always live up to... but it's worth being reminded what they are and set them up as goals. So that was the angle we took for the domestic episode.
The two others are very different. One thing that we never do on the show is have Norman interviewed, and have the audience see him in that setup. You're usually "inside his head" in voiceover. So we thought we would have some fun with breaking the fourth wall. Of course, he'd rather be doing a real Ride episode and travelling around, so the fact that we're interviewing him about his favorite memories—we just wanted to play with that feeling of being stuck at home. That episode, in our nomenclature, became "Norman's Memory Lane." For that one, we could kind of guess what would be most memorable for him, but we had a bunch of brainstorming sessions with him asking, "Which ones stand out? Which ones do you remember?" So we didn't write his memories, though we did have to jog all of our memories of everywhere we've been. It breaks the format of the show in a really fun way, and I hope viewers get excited about seeing him. Of course, he's all over every episode, but it was cool to see him in this different way and see him sharing in a different way.
Q: We'll also get to meet a lot of the crew later on in the season! What was that like, putting the crew front and center?
A: We wanted to think of something different for these episodes, not thinking that they would all get picked up. We thought, "We could do a real behind-the-scenes and explore what it takes to make the show." We could pay homage to the fact that we're interacting with everyone on these screens, so we thought, "Well, what if we really embrace that?" So we have this video conference reunion with the crew, and that's the interview setup to talk about the behind-the-scenes of the show. We thought, "This is the real experiment, I don't know if this is gonna work, I don't know if anyone's gonna care." But it was really, really fun!
Of the four repacks, for the people who worked on the show, that one is like a love letter to the show. The other episodes are love letters to other things. That was really fun to make. Not that any of us want to be in front of a camera, but to talk about what it takes to make the show, and to be given that time and attention was great. I hope it resonates with people, and I hope they don't lose sight that it's a really intimate show. Even though there's a bunch of us, it is like a family on a road show. There is still intimacy, it's just with 30 of us. [Laughs]
Q: How were you and the creative team looking forward to "coming together" and revisiting new segments of the show with more behind-the-scenes info?
A: It's like summer camp! I mean, obviously, it's a job -- it's really hard work, it's long hours, but it's a seasonal thing that we've been doing in the dead of winter because of Norman's The Walking Dead schedule when he's on hiatus. The same group of people get together for this kind of reunion, and we're out doing fun stuff. Who doesn't want to travel the world and have someone else pay for it? And because we didn't get to do that, the idea of taking the time to share stories, reminisce, and connect virtually -- it had this heightened sentimentality because we didn't get to do it in person. It was really cathartic for us to be in a Ride headspace without actually taking the ride, and I hope it was also helpful for everybody. There were so many stories that we couldn't include. Some of them because, "Oh, probably nobody cares except us," and others because it was hard to contain it to one episode! But it was great to share those stories -- at least the G-rated ones. [Laughs]
Q: In the latest episode, Norman talks about some of his favorite moments from his adventures, but what are some of yours?
A: I feel really lucky because I got to go on two that are always everyone's favorites for different reasons. One is the Dave Chappelle episode in Low Country, where we went from Charleston to Savannah. They're just great places that are really interesting. We went to the Penn Center where Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote part of his "I Have a Dream" speech, and the Gullah-Geechee culture is so rich there, and obviously that was all planned.
We knew Dave Chappelle had some familial history in South Carolina, but it just so happened that he was available for those episodes—having him visit that part of the country was just coincidence with his schedule. I wish we could say we planned it, but we were just like, "Hey how about these episodes?" And he said, "Yeah, I have family history here." He's super entertaining and so open to everything we wanted to do, and he and Norman were getting to know each other, which is always the dream, because you travel with someone to get to know them! And that was actually happening in real time. He's so fun and he had a connection to the place. So the Chappelle episode was everybody's favorite for different reasons, and he was just lovely.
For very different reasons, the other episode is the Melissa McBride episode, in Scotland. She wanted to go trace her roots, which is not our normal -- and as much as we would love our co-rider to have a motivation to go to a specific place, that's usually too much to ask. So knowing that she really wanted to go there, we did engineer the show around her desire to be there, and that was a different process and just gave everything so much meaning.
When we got there, the weather was cold and icy, so it wasn't safe to do bikes and we got a car. It was another one of those, "It's not how we do things," and it could have been a hindrance, but it really turned into a strength of the episode. It gave it such meaning, and having the two of them in the car, it was like a buddy, brother-sister episode. They just have such a great relationship. You could see their faces, and it was just a window into their relationship. You could do a whole show, just the two of them in a car. It was really special. And we got to see a different side of Norman. He's usually there to have fun and go explore, and in this episode, he was just so there for Melissa. It was her mission and he wanted to support that and make it happen. And there was a mystery they were trying to solve in the episode. You saw this side of him, not only through his relationship with Melissa, but also in his willingness to do a very special episode. I was on that one as well, and it was just meaningful, different, and lovely. A lot of tears. I would say those two are my favorite.
Q: I do also want to talk about New Zealand. What was it like putting those episodes together?
A: First of all, it's so far away. Honestly at the time, the plan was to go to Australia, but they were having those horrible wildfires. So we couldn't go there, but we had already wrapped our head around going really far away... so frankly, we pivoted to New Zealand because of the wildfires, and as we researched New Zealand, we discovered that the North Island and South Island couldn't be more different. We thought, "Okay great, well there's our organizational device." The North Island being more urban, populated -- relative to New Zealand, not to New York City. And then the South Island is just adventure capital, just insane nature -- and then there's the Māori. Wherever we go, we want to do a little history lesson and talk about the people there, the culture, and influences. Sometimes there's strife, and we want to talk about that as well. It was just really rich story-wise, so we pivoted to New Zealand.
Q: How did you and the team go about getting Josh Brolin and Dylan McDermott to undertake such a grueling adventure in the corner of the world?
A: [B]ooking our celebrities is really, really hard to do. There are celebrities who ride motorcycles, but to say, "Hey, will you travel around the world and actually ride a motorcycle for three really long days, and have conversation after conversation?" And they're actors, though we do musicians as well, but there's also the added layer of, "And you have to be yourself." It's a really vulnerable position to put yourself in when they would normally be like, "Just give me my line and I'll inhabit that character." So to find celebrities who were willing to go all the way to New Zealand for three days, it was really hard.
We usually book the show by starting with Norman: who he knows, friends of friends, people he knows within the celebrity motorcycle circles. Then our talent booker is constantly reaching out to this massive list of celebrities who ride, and who would be willing to do the show. And because our schedule is set so specifically, we have no flexibility. We've lost a lot of great guests who have said, "I can do two days later, I just can't do that time," but we have to really thread this needle, schedule-wise. We work around Norman's schedule, the TV schedule, and even the country's schedule, to take care of visas or when something interesting is happening like festivals. So it all comes down to that element of "Hey, can you come to New Zealand on these specific days?" and it was a real miracle that we pulled off the two big stars that we did. They were both great, and up for the ride. We really lucked out. Looking back in the wake of the pandemic, the fact that we were able to go that far, pull off those epic episodes with the people that we did before the whole world went to sh-t -- it's a miracle! [Laughs]
I'm actually really proud. If our season is four repacks, and two of the furthest places we've ever been, it's fitting. We went really high, far, and crazy, and then we needed to lick our wounds a little bit. But New Zealand was amazing. It's a really special place, they care about nature, they care about their people. Ultimately our show celebrates humanity, and shows that there's something to learn wherever you go -- even in a domestic episode. If you're open-minded, that experience can change who you are. We're so lucky to be able to do that -- and under the guise of it being a "celebrity motorcycle show" -- but we really try to have there be a deeper meaning about the connection between us all and what we have to learn from each other. And hopefully we will ride again!
Watch the latest episodes of Ride With Norman Reedus on amc.com, the AMC apps and AMC+.
Read a Q&A with Norman Reedus here, in which Norman chats with amc.com about his New Zealand motorcycle trip, his new friendship with Josh Brolin, and how the pandemic made this season "unique" and unexpected.
New episodes of Ride With Norman Reedus air Sundays at Midnight/11c.
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