Morgan Fallon, who directed the West Virginia episode, sits down with producer Helen Cho to talk about reconnecting with his West Virginia roots, shooting Parts Unknown’s first extended episode, and the pressure to “get it right.”
Helen Cho: How did the idea for the West Virginia episode come about?
Morgan Fallon: Tony and I were shooting an episode for season 9 in Antarctica, and we had been talking about southern West Virginia and how I didn’t think many people knew about it. I had lived in central West Virginia when I was a kid, and it was a very formative experience. Things were difficult for my family. We lived in an old farmhouse with no electricity.
I hadn’t gone there for years, when in 2003 a friend and I were scouting for documentary ideas. I went down there and drove around for, like, three weeks. It was always in the back of my mind that it would be a fascinating show, but I think as the show evolved on CNN, I wondered, “Could you actually do a show there?” When Parts Unknown was more food focused, I thought it was going to be a little tough, but as the scope of the show broadened, shooting here became a no-brainer.
Cho: Did you get to connect with anyone from your childhood?
Fallon: We had a family friend at the table with Tony at one of the diners in Lost Creek. Having that voice from my childhood was profound and personal.
Cho: You’ve now directed eight episodes of Parts Unknown. What are your criteria for covering a place for an episode?
Fallon: That’s an evolving question for all of us. The big question for me was whether this little town could support this show, and the answer ended up being, overwhelmingly, yes. These people opened their hearts up and really poured out for us what they were about. That was totally a result of Elaine Sheldon, the documentary filmmaker we worked with down there.
Cho: Some places don’t have cell or internet service, and for our domestic shows, we don’t hire fixers. How did you find your sidekicks? Through Elaine?
Fallon: We did some internet research, but most of the heart of that show you wouldn’t be able to access online. All of that was fed to us by Elaine, who directed an interactive documentary called Hollow, which won a Peabody Award. Funnily enough, she sat at Tony’s table when we won the award years ago. As soon as the idea for the West Virginia episode came about, I called her.
All those community connections and relationships were her sweat equity. She grew up there.
Cho: I notice your shows tend to have a longer preproduction time than most. Was that the case for this episode?
Fallon: Yeah, the first phone call to contacts in West Virginia was almost a year out.
Cho: Typically we get, like, six to seven weeks, which can be intimidating. Do you feel that pressure to get it right? To learn as much as possible about a place in six to seven weeks?
Fallon: Absolutely. A lot of that comes from a lot of us being travelers and understanding how much there is beneath the surface wherever you go.
For this episode, I got in a car and covered every corner of this county because I care about it and love it. I wanted to meet people, to see places, to check out new things.
When we shoot somewhere, I care so deeply about what people there will think. Will they think that we understood them? Will they think that we got it right? That we fairly represented them—both the negative and the positive?
That is where the pressure comes from, for me. It’s not just if you can make an awesome, bells-and-whistles show. Hopefully it’s a beautiful show, it’s exciting, it’s engaging, and hopefully, we win a bunch of awards and have a good time while we’re doing it, but that’s all secondary to “Will this feel authentic and real?”
Cho: Right, and this show isn’t about the top things in places. At the end of the day, it’s about Tony’s experience in a place. We’re not covering everything, but you still have to understand the bigger picture as best you can.
Fallon: Yeah, the process of the show is: We sit down and do a ton of research and then start filtering things out. We think about what ideas would make a good show, what ideas will tell the story of a place, what issues people feel close to their hearts. You lay those out and structure them in a way that sets Tony up for a successful journey of understanding a place. We don’t just come in and hammer out a scene and then hammer out the next one and then put them together. You have to set up an experience and make sure that not only is it a complete narrative but that it also fits within a production schedule. That’s when it gets difficult.
We can’t do everything. It’s like what Tony says: Don’t pack your schedule, go on a journey. Learn something. Be comprehensive and take time to breathe. The best shows, I think, do that. West Virginia was very much that kind of journey.
Fallon: It is intimidating.
Cho: You started out with Parts Unknown as a director of photography, and you still film for some episodes. What were you looking at, stylistically, for this one?
Fallon: We had just done a highly stylized show in Nigeria, and we looked at West Virginia and decided to strip some of that back and approach it in more of a documentary fashion.
I took inspiration from the  film American Honey, where the shooting did not distract from the characters or the narrative. They had this beautiful interplay between the imprint of man and the imprint of nature. You’ll notice we include a lot of B roll in West Virginia—birds in the foreground and power lines in the back or a coal operation in the foreground and nature in the back.
In terms of interviews on the street, it was basic and straightforward. If we had gone in and made a hyperbolic show with a lot of style, we would have torn away from the core of the story we’re trying to tell, which is this very grounded story of American culture.
Cho: What do you hope people from West Virginia and other viewers take away from this episode?
Fallon: I hope they saw that we went there asking questions instead of having a predetermined narrative. I would say that 80 to 90 percent of major media outlets that go to McDowell County have prescribed storylines about opioids or crystal meth or illiteracy and poverty. So you have this narrative that you’ve built in an office, and then film B roll and interviews that simply construct that narrative.
I would hope that people saw that we asked their stories instead of deciding from afar who they are. That’s happened to them so often, and all of the media industry has done the same thing. Cultural, physical, and economic exploitation have been taking place for a very long time. We’ve said, “Listen, here’s a group of honest, hardworking, heartfelt people that you’ll meet in this country.”
Cho: This is our first extended episode. How did that come about?
Fallon: I presented it as, “We have the material. We could do this.” I think CNN was looking for that. As you know, these shows can be mercurial. There’s a gamble in each one, and you hope things will break your way. Everything in this episode broke our way. We were also able to break ourselves into four separate cameras. One of our DPs, Jeremy, was able to move around the state independent from us and get footage that our schedule wouldn’t have otherwise allowed.
Cho: How did you spend the extra time? This episode was 57 minutes long, compared with the usual 42 minutes.
Fallon: When you start in producing or directing you think, “Will I have enough material to fill a show?” You quickly learn that that’s not the problem. The most difficult part, by far, is cutting down. Having the bigger canvas to paint on meant we could include a lot of moments of silence, of reverence, moments where you’re just floating through the woods or absorbing just the sound of the place. My hope is that it adds some physical or tactical experience to understanding a place that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
This interview has been edited and condensed.