Vice's Shane Smith on HBO show's second season, scoops, and EGOTs
Throughout the week, the team at Vice has been uploading episodes from the first season of their globetrotting gonzo-journalism HBO series for fans to watch for free online.
But the Emmy-nominated series — which grabbed headlines this year for sending Dennis Rodman to North Korea, among other things — isn’t resting on its Kim Jong-un–hazing laurels: the crew’s already hard at work on their second season. Vice cofounder and CEO Shane Smith spoke to us from Afghanistan to talk about the places they’ll be going, the scoops they’ll be getting, and the Pulitzer Prize they’ve got their eyes on.
EW: So where are you right now?
Shane Smith: I’m in Kandahar. It’s a bit quiet because it’s Eid right now, but it’s a bit of a hairy town, obviously, because it’s the capital and birthplace of the Taliban. So you’ve gotta keep a low profile. We’ve been investigating on how much money we’re wasting here — some estimates say as much as $100 billion on schools that’ve become chicken coops and military bases that’ve become goat farms. And we’re gearing up to head up to the Helmand Province soon, so that’ll be big.
The craziest thing we’re doing here, which is supposed to happen in the next couple of days, is that we’re supposed to go out with [General] Abdul Raziq, who’s the head of the border police here in Kandahar. He’s essentially the most powerful man in the southeast — he controls the Pakistani border, and he’s known as the Taliban Killer. He was trained by the special forces and now he’s gone apes—; he’s the only guy the Taliban fear. So we’re going out on a crazy patrol with his lunatic forces who are sort of half-dressed as the Afghan National Army and half-dressed as Adam and the Ants. They’re all very colorful chaps who are not afraid to go out and engage. If it all comes together, that’s going to be the craziest thing I’ve ever f—ing done.
And we are meeting with the Taliban while we’re here to get their take on things as well. We’re going to go up to a Jirga, which is a tribal council. We’ve been invited by one of the warlords, so they can’t f— with us because we’re under his hospitality.
What other places are on your itinerary for the new season?
We have two big pieces planned in countries that are really hard to get into, and even harder to shoot in: Iran and Saudi Arabia. So we’re gearing up for those.
We’ll be heading to Iran in this same trip. Iran right now is the holy grail for reporters — it’s even harder to get into for Western reporters than North Korea — and Saudi is a big deal for us as well. So we have big plans for both those shoots, and hopefully they come off. That’s my wishlist right now.
Well, we’re just shooting like crazy. We have a bunch of new hosts, too, that we’re adding to our teams on the road, so we can shoot more segments. We’re shooting in Russia right now, where they’re issuing genetic tests to about 300,000 people in Kazakhstan who were experimented on with live testing of atomic bombs. We’ve got big stories in Chechnya, Papua New Guinea. We’re in Somalia right now, we’re shooting the Al-Qaeda drug-running through Mali and North Africa.
And right now, we’re shooting in Cuba and in South America. We’re doing some crazy s— in Panama, too. I can’t say much, but it’s basically legal money laundering and illegal weapons tied together. There’s a lot of crazy fucking s— going down down there!
We’ve also already banked a lot of North Africa. Libya, Syria, Egypt — you know, a lot of the Arab Spring stuff, which is obviously ongoing. So we’ll be revisiting that throughout the year.
Anything closer to home?
Yeah, we’ve also got some domestic stories that I can’t talk about because they’re ongoing, and some pretty big scoops. It has to do with the borders: They’re two things going on, one with the Mexican and one with the Canadian.
And we’re also planning a lot of environmental stuff, like in Greenland. We’re trying to go to the Arctic before it gets brutal up there, so that’ll be sooner rather than later.
Last season, you guys raised a lot of eyebrows by sending Dennis Rodman to hang out with Kim Jong-un in North Korea. Are there any celebrities planned to show up in this season?
We do have a few well-known faces. I can’t really talk about it because I don’t want to screw up their shoots since they haven’t done them yet. But yeah, we’ve got well-known names going to some pretty crazy places. We’ll see what happens.
Is there a pressure to raise the stakes in the new season?
There’s definitely a pressure to have better stories and get big scoops. For sure we’re not looking for more danger, but we are looking for bigger stories, and for scoops. Last year we were sort of finding out feet, and this year once we figured out what stories resonated, we said, OK, let’s do more of those.
Which ones resonated?
Obviously North Korea was a big one, but also Nigeria. The environmental stuff really did well. The things where we caught the back-end of the news cycle, like Iraq and Afghan suicide bombers — showing the sides of things that people don’t really tend to see. Like, “You’ve heard everything else about Iraq and Afghanistan, but you haven’t heard this.” Those are the kinds of things we’re going for — trying to embed not with the Marines or the Air Force but more with the young anarchists, the militants and revolutionaries in Europe or the Arab Peninsula or North Africa. Actually see how young people are changing, and sometimes in many cases for the better and sometimes not for the better. So this year, we’re just trying to be a little more comprehensive and give a little more context [to big issues].
So the show’s nominated for an Emmy, which is interesting, given that Vice has long been associated with an anti-establishment, subversive attitude that might not take a lot of stock in, say, industry awards.
Look, we’re human — we like recognition. I want to win Emmys. I want to EGOT it. I mean, the Tony part will probably be hard. [laughs] But going forward, we want to be considered for Peabodys and, down the line, Pulitzers. If you can get recognition that helps you, [it] gives you more power and clout to do the kinds of things we want to do. And if our success leads to more challenger brands coming up from the ranks and making s— that you don’t see on TV, that’s great. We’re incredibly stoked just to be nominated, and we’re just stoked to be on HBO.