Have you ever wondered how a show like Ride With Norman Reedus gets made? Executive producers Anneka Jones and Lizzie Ashe chatted with amc.com to offer a behind-the-scenes take on how the crew plans out the destinations, what it takes to be a co-rider on the show and what a day in the life looks like travelling around the world.
Q: How do you approach beating out the season? What does pre-production look like for an unscripted show like this?
Anneka Jones: I think with a show like this, where we have an opportunity in each new successive season to flex new creative muscles and come up with new things for Norman to do, it also becomes a challenge, because with each new season that we do, where can we go that feels new and different? It’s gotten harder in that way. We shoot in Norman’s hiatus for The Walking Dead, which is pretty consistent through the years, but is unfortunately during the winter months, so that limits us geographically where we can go [to shoot Ride]. We thread that needle in terms of coming up with new places, which has gotten more difficult, but what has gotten easier throughout the years is, as a team, we’ve just gotten better and better at how we make the show. We’ve been lucky to get pretty much the same crew back every year, so even though the locations are different… we, as a production machine, have gotten really smooth in the way that we produce the show. So while it’s become creatively more difficult, it’s been really great to benefit from the well-oiled machine that our team is.
Lizzie Ashe: I think it was super exciting for us to be able to tap into different kinds of places and to have the variety that we did [in Season 4]. Japan was a place that Norman has a longstanding connection to and a long history there, and it’s always fun to explore places where he has that kind of background. It was also fun to go to places that were not really on his radar, like Uruguay, that were fun to explore. And culturally, they were really different places, and it’s interesting because no matter where we seem to go, the motorcycle culture of that place is our touchstone. We start with that, and those folks are the ones that we approach first in the early stages of pre-production to get a feel for what the place is like, and who we can explore it with and how we can explore it. On the one hand, we see a ton of variety in all these different places and how people approach riding and what it means to them, but there’s also a lot of commonalities — and the thing we’ve found in all of the locations is that people are really friendly and helpful. …There’s definitely that community we plug into in all of these places, which is a big part of the pre-production process and one of the more fun parts of it, too, I would say.
Q: How much of the show is planned in advance, and how much is based in Norman saying, “I want to do this”?
AJ: [Laughs] We’re producers, so we like everything pre-planned. And we want the ride to feel intimate, which necessitates even more planning than normal. We have to permit the roads, and we have to clear locations. It would be great if we could naturally go where the wind took us and where Norman’s curiosity took us, but in production that’s not really possible. The team does an amazing job of first looking at a region that would be interesting. It is a travel show, so you can’t just drive around your neighborhood; the idea is that we’re satisfying some wanderlust of Norman’s and some curiosity. So we ask, 1. Where is an interesting place to go? And 2. What’s a do-able ride there? We have to go from a point A to a point B as a real ride. Once we narrow the scope, we’re able to find places along the way that have a variety of immersive activities. We all like to eat [Laughs] so we look into where we can stop for food. We like to, as Lizzie said, touch base with the local motorcycle community and subculture to see what riding looks like in that particular place. We always feel obligated to really learn something, so what is the history of the place? What is currently going on there? We like to meet people who can speak to that and tell that story. And of course, just meeting interesting people along the way. Once that route is planned, we have to clear all of that. But if all of that is known ahead of time, and if Norman is involved too much in the creative, then it takes away the spontaneity. What we try to do is give some locations or spots along the way that will allow us to follow his curiosity if he’s interested in something — and then of course in a place, we just kind of set him loose. If something interests him, wherever we are, we just follow that. I think being able to be that nimble, where it’s at once both planned and prescribed, and at the same time it’s like, “OK, here’s the sandbox, go play in it,” we’re able to follow the flow of it and document it accordingly so hopefully it feels real and spontaneous. He’ll know the broad strokes, but we want to maintain some surprise — like you would on any road trip. You might know where you’re going, but you don’t know exactly what you’re going to find there.
Q: How do you choose which guests to select for each trip?
LA: The short answer is that it’s a real team effort. It’s not a normal show for people to appear on, because the people who come on the show and are guests on the show really want to do the show. It’s not something they’re doing for the promo purposes; it’s not going on a late night talk show or anything. It’s a big commitment for everybody we have on the show. It’s typically three days, sometimes a little less, but we ride a lot and we do a lot in a day. A big part of the process is making sure that people are up for that level of activity. We always want it to be people that Norman has chemistry with and people that have a natural curiosity, so it’s a small window of folks who ride, and then in addition are up to doing something like this, and then have the time and availability. Norman puts feelers out, people on our team put feelers out, and we start a lot of conversations and hope that they result in people who can come out with us and ride.
Q: In various Q&As with co-riders over the years, they frequently mention that they really do ride the length of the trip on the show, that it isn’t just glamour shots of them on the road.
LA: It’s super taxing. And to Anneka’s point about keeping things spontaneous, on any motorcycle trip, you have to stop sometimes, you get tired, or you have to make unplanned stops to take a break, or go to the bathroom. We roll with all of that, and it’s exhausting I think for everyone on this show. Except maybe for [Michael] Rooker — he was the one person who was like, “Got any more?” [Laughs]
AJ: Yeah, we were keeping up with him. And I’ve always been surprised with how willing Norman is to do what we ask him to do and to do the long days. And maybe it’s just him as an actor and the call sheet is gospel, that you show up when you’re supposed to and there’s a team there. … He’s really good about doing the show, and he’s really not a diva in terms of where we eat, or where we have to stay in some of these places. I think there’s a certain kind of bar for the “celebrity treatment” on this show, and frankly it’s pretty low. [Laughs] And so when we ask a co-rider, we really try not to sugarcoat what we’re asking them to do, not only to ride but also to roll with it, and I think [Norman] really sets the standard when they show up of like, “No, we’re really doing this,” and it’s been really helpful because I think a lot of people might show up on Day 1 and be surprised and like, “Oh, we’re really doing this! This isn’t just getting shots of us riding, we’re actually riding.” It’s been cool to see co-riders, celebrities and non-celebrities rise to the challenge.
Q: How do you deal with the unexpected on the road?
LA: There’s always some unexpected thing that happens in pretty much every episode, where we’re just thrown a curve ball. In Japan, it was waking up to about half a foot of snow in the morning, which is not conducive to motorcycling or anything that we wanted to do, but that was when we did drifting on the race track, which ended up being great and was probably better with the snow in some ways. It was fun in the end, but stressful to wake up with that morning. There’s a lot of stuff in the “Things We Can’t Control” column. You try to plan for it, but then sometimes you’re like, “Well, six inches of snow, this isn’t going anywhere.”
Q: There’s also that surprising moment this season when Dom Rocket breaks his tooth in Episode 4.
LA: I would say, that whole ride was a lot of fun, too, because Dom was A) a genuinely lovely guy, and B) it was nice getting some new insight into Norman, because he and Norman go back so far into a very different time in Norman’s life. It was really interesting to have someone along with us who has that kind of relationship with him, and I think their enthusiasm for hanging out with each other was really infectious for all of us.
Q: Do either of you ride motorcycles? Do you take that perspective as well into the show?
LA: I do now. It gave me a little more sympathy. [Laughs] But only a little. It’s another way that that community is really welcoming. I’ve kept in touch with a lot of the people who have been on the show and I’ve gone out to ride with them outside of the show. It’s a really nice benefit on the side.
Q: Norman is frequently stopped by fans wherever you go. How does that affect your production? What are the fans like around the world?
AJ: One thing about last season that really stuck in my mind is that in Uruguay, we had no idea how the fans would be. I think we were kind of used to the fans in America. Norman is usually very generous… in terms of his time with fans.. We really are out in the world, we don’t cordon him off, and if we’re in a parking lot and people come over to him, he talks to them, and that kind of opens the door for more people to come over, so Lizzie often has to be the bad guy and say, “So sorry guys, we have to move him along.” We have a lot of fan interaction — we kind of know their temperament in America. They’re mostly polite, and they’ll wait for those floodgates to open, and really it’s [Norman] opening them, and then they’ll talk to him, but they’re always very respectful. We had an experience in Spain [in Season 2], where they were completely different types of fans. It was like, if you imagine old footage of fans of The Beatles. Just mobs of fans, they were just very fervent, and they would mob and trip over themselves. Norman would be pulling out on a motorcycle — and I don’t know about you, but I tend to step out of the way if a motorcycle is pulling out near me — but the fans would get in the way, so that was very stressful. This season, in Uruguay, we were like, “We don’t even know if he’s going to be known there.” And let me tell you, he is known there. And the fans were very similar to how they were in Spain. They really were fervent fans of his, and mobbed him in the same way like they were seeing the Beatles or something. And word would spread that he was there, and what hotel he was at, so before we even checked into a hotel — and mind you, we never stay in the same place twice, or very rarely — so we’d be pulling into a hotel at night and there were already fans there. Sometimes we’re able to operate without concern for that sort of stuff, we just roll with it and nobody cares who we are and what we’re doing, but in Uruguay, we were really surprised with how crazy the fans were there for him.
LA: The fan thing, that just got me thinking about different fans around the world, there was a fan in Japan who I think semi-professionally is a Norman look alike. He’s a Japanese man, but he looks so much like Norman when he’s kitted out that I once mistook him for the real thing in the hotel and was looking for Norman and chasing this man down the hallway. Because he just hung out in the lobby the entire time we were staying there. But in terms of fan interaction, that one stands out for me. Very nice guy, but definitely confused me at one point. [Laughs]
Q: What does a day-in-the-life look like for you and the crew? Is there anything that’s consistent between days on set around the world?
LA: It’s consistently hard. [Laughs]
AJ: I’ll say quickly that it’s a good example of how the show gets harder but we make it easier, in the sense that we just know what we’re doing. I think that we’ve really figured out what is reasonable for a day, be that miles we’re trying to make, or how many scenes and locations we can hit, so they’re long days for sure, but I think we’ve bitten off just enough. … Oftentimes, because it’s a travel show, we’re constantly moving so we only stay in a hotel for one night, and the team has gotten really used to just checking in and then not getting too settled and then checking out the next day and getting on the road. When you don’t expect you’re going to settle in anywhere, you just learn to roll with it. … We’re a motorcycle travel show with a female showrunner. Despite how we work hard to have female crew members and producers and whatnot, it’s a really big team, and it’s a male-dominated field and a male-dominated subject. So the fact that Lizzie is able to lead the charge, it’s because she won’t ask anyone to do anything she’s not willing to do herself. She’s up and at it with everybody, first in and last out, and I think that helps lead the team and keep them going on a long day.
LA: Aw, that’s sweet, thank you. I guess as a day-in-the-life, we’re always trying to work with daylight and make the most of that. And like Anneka said, it’s a pretty well-oiled machine at this point. It’s an amazing effort that has come together in a way that makes my life a lot easier now, I’d say, but we get on the road, we have a couple of meetings throughout the day to talk through the plan and keep everyone coordinated. … There’s a lot of coffee, I can tell you that.
AJ: I would say that my hope is that [the show] looks really intimate — it’s Norman and a co-rider on this road trip. But in fact we’re a large caravan of people. I haven’t even done a headcount recently of how big the crew is, but it’s at least two dozen people. And it’s a travel show, so those people need to be moving too. We have a caravan of vehicles, we all have assigned seats, there’s a camera van that’s all tricked out, there’s safety, there’s the producers, we have an advance team, we often have police escorts for safety, we often have EMTs. When we’re finally on the road, it’s all good because we’re moving, but there’s a lot of potential slowdown in the day every time we stop for a scene. It’s a bunch of vehicles in a parking lot, and you can imagine everyone has to pee, and everyone wants a snack, and we could easily get behind in the day just because there’s so many of us. But to keep the trains on time takes really good leadership, and Lizzie and our AD keeps us moving and keeps the caravan lined up. With the crew coming back every year, they know that the more efficient we can be out there, the better the product is, and we’re never holding Norman up, hopefully, and the more authentic the moment is. He can just arrive in a place and sort of experience it. It’s not like we’re going, “Hold on, we’re setting up lights,” and “Hold on, that person isn’t ready yet” or whatever, so we really keep it moving.
LA: We try to be as unobtrusive as possible so that Norman and the co-rider can have a real experience together, and we try to minimize their awareness of the cameras and the huge caravan around them, which is no small feat. But it’s also about how the crew approaches their work, and their attitude, and while we try to be unobtrusive, there does end up being a lot of interaction. We’re all staying at the same hotel at the end of the day, so we all get to know each other very well, and that includes Norman and our co-rider. Keeping a level of calm and an element of fun to it is super important, because obviously if you have a stressed out crew running around, it’s not conducive to the people on camera. Everyone has done an amazing job of keeping that sensibility of working hard and also not harshing the mellow, and also being part of the ride and having fun as well.
Q: What were some of your favorite memories from creating this past season?
AJ: I feel so lucky to have gotten any show to get picked up for multiple seasons, but this has been a really fun one. I think some of my favorite memories are just experiencing such new things, and new parts of the world and another country with this bunch of people and in this strange scenario. Like we’re not going to “the best restaurants” — we’re going to the restaurants that can fit thirty people and are willing to sign our location release.
Q: I know things are on hold right now for the most part, but is there anything you can tease about Season 5?
AJ: Spoiler alert: pandemic! [Laughs] We joked about just filming Norman riding around a parking lot by himself. But this is the current status: we got two episodes in the can in New Zealand, which were just amazing and maybe jinxed us all because they were so cool and different and far away. We had big plans to go to Europe that timed with the outbreak, so we thought, “Well, we’ll just make them domestic episodes because that corona thing is happening over there.” [Laughs] And then every time we changed out plans, and the poor team kept scrambling to redo creative, the news just kept getting worse and worse. So where we’re currently at is we’re paused, and the hope is that this thing will peak sooner than later, and then we’ll be back up and get the rest of the episodes in the can either before The Walking Dead comes back, or in another hiatus that he has. To have any in the can, we’re pretty proud of the two that we have and we hope to have more soon, but it’s not for lack of interest or planning. So, stay tuned. We also had two really good guests when we were in New Zealand: Josh Brolin and Dylan McDermott. If for some crazy reason, that’s all that remains of Season 5, they’re pretty special ones.
Click here to watch full episodes from Ride With Norman Reedus Season 4 on amc.com and the AMC apps for mobile and devices.
Want to learn how to follow in Norman and the crew’s footsteps this season? Check out travelogues for each of the rides through Georgia, Tokyo, Kyoto, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Kentucky. For more behind-the-scenes stories about this season’s adventures read more Q&As with Norman and his co-riders here.
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