When you’re making travel TV, months of work have to be done before you can shoot a single frame of film. Here’s an (unapologetically wonky) inside look at how an episode of Rick Steves’ Europe is conceived, researched, and pre-produced.
Most episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe are loosely based on our guidebooks. Rick is constantly traveling to update and improve the books. When he gets home from each trip, he weaves his favorite experiences into TV scripts. But every so often, we want to expand our horizons by filming destinations that aren’t covered in our guidebooks — such as Bulgaria and Romania. And since I’m “the Eastern Europe Guy” around our office, Rick sent me to do some TV scouting and scriptwriting in these new destinations.
Researching Europe — whether for guidebooks or for TV — sounds like fun. And it can be. But between those fun moments is a tedious slog. You work long hours, chase down iffy leads, and wind up kissing a lot of frogs in the hopes of revealing a prince or two.
The biggest challenge is being selective. A 30-minute episode of Rick Steves’ Europe starts with a 3,200-word script. And from our past travels in Bulgaria and Romania, Rick and I already knew about 90 percent of what was going to make the cut for each show. My job was, first and foremost, to gather the information we needed to film that 90 percent, and only secondarily to scout possibilities for the remaining 10 percent.
Everywhere I went, I worked with great local guides, who were extremely helpful…usually. But sometimes their unbridled enthusiasm made things challenging — flipping that 90/10 ratio upside-down. A passionate Bulgaria booster or an avid Romaniac can’t fathom that every single sight in their homeland isn’t perfect for American airwaves. And my guides found it even harder than I did to keep within our 30-minute, 3,200-word budget. They always wanted to show me just ooooone more thing. I spent countless hours visiting minor sights that were just fine…but not right for TV. Some simply weren’t visually engaging. Others required too much weighty context to make meaningful. And a few felt redundant with material in other shows.
Sometimes those cuts are especially tough. For example, I spent two days scouting Bucovina, the northeast region of Romania famous for its rugged hills and breathtaking painted monasteries. Rick — still nostalgic from a trip there many decades ago — has a strong personal affection for Bucovina. And while there scouting, I met an excellent local guide, Chip Siemco of Hello Bucovina, whose insights brought those vivid frescoes to dramatic life. This was shaping up to be a great segment.
After two and a half weeks of 14-hour days (and much frog-kissing), I returned home from my scouting trip. Weighing options carefully with Rick, I put everything I’d learned into a centrifuge and distilled it down to the best 3,200 words on each country. Bulgaria fell into place easily. But Romania was a challenge — our script was already overweight at more than 4,000 words…before I’d even started writing about those painted monasteries in Bucovina. We briefly considered two episodes on Romania instead of one. But deep down, our viewers want us to be selective — and we want to respect their time by not testing their attention span. We agreed: One tight, “best of” show was the smart strategy. That meant we had to cut some strong material. Bucovina would take a lot of time to shoot, for a relatively short segment in the show. And its painted monasteries felt similar to Rila Monastery, which we knew we’d cover with gusto in the Bulgaria show. So, much as it pained us, we swallowed hard and cut Bucovina. (Sorry, Chip!)
The “shooting script” is a helpful blueprint, but only a rough one. Until the final voice track is recorded — weeks or even months after the episode is shot — the script is a living, evolving organism. As we film, we continually reconsider, refine, and rewrite virtually every word. But at least the first draft of the script lets us begin scheduling the shoot.
We spent the spring arranging details from the office in Edmonds. We got in touch with our favorite local guides and booked our preferred hotels — that part was easy. But the real challenge was the red tape. You can’t just show up with a giant camera and start filming. You need written permission, arranged months in advance.
Usually museums and other sights understand what we’re doing, and work hard to accommodate us. Sometimes they ask us to pay for the privilege of filming (which is a little frustrating — after all, we are essentially producing a nationally aired infomercial for their attraction, at no cost to them). And, on rare occasion, they simply aren’t interested. The abbot at Bulgaria’s Rila Monastery generously invited us to film the stunning courtyard. But, understandably, he wasn’t comfortable letting our camera disrupt the sanctity of the church interior. When we suggested that a generous donation might grease the skids, our guide patiently reminded us that, for monks who’ve taken a vow of poverty, money doesn’t talk.
Both Bulgaria and Romania — former communist countries that are still behind the European curve in terms of both bureaucracy and corruption — made permissions tricky. It took a lot of persistence to get the paperwork we needed (often leaving us greatly indebted to our hardworking local friends). But at the end of the day, we were legal, scripted, and ready to fly. Next up: The shoot.
This is part two of my “Behind the Scenes” blog series about Rick Steves’ Europe Season 9 — now airing nationwide (check your local listings). You can also watch the Bulgaria and Romania episodes for free. And in case you’re in a gift-giving mode, the brand-new, 10-episode Season 9 DVD is currently on sale in our Travel Store.