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Two's Company: New 'Iconoclasts' Series Pairs Visionaries on Sundance Channel

By Tamara Krinsky

Mario Batali (left) and Michael Stipe at Batali's restaurant, Otto Enoteca Pizzeria in New York City

Burned out on James Lipton's questionnaire and Oprah's daily feel-good chat fest? Sundance Channel is betting on a new interview format to lure viewers who are looking for something a little different. The six-part documentary series Iconoclasts, which premiered on November 17 and runs through December 22, pairs headline makers and creative visionaries for an hour of personal conversation and storytelling.

"Over the years, we've gotten a lot of documentary portrait pitches for films about artists of one kind or another," explains Adam Pincus, who recently stepped down as Sundance Channel's senior vice president, original programming. "At the time we weren't doing doc features or one-offs. More recently, we've been talking about how to approach this idea in a way that would be different, new and original, and have a series format."

Iconoclasts, which Sundance Channel is producing with Grey Goose Entertainment, hinges on the unique pairing of subject and interviewee in each episode. Some of the couples immediately make sense, such as The Food Network's "Iron Chef," Mario Batali, and musician Michael Stipe, who are friends off camera. Other pairings are more surprising, such as actress Renée Zellweger and CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

According to Pincus, the combinations happened in a variety of ways. "Sometimes we knew we wanted to feature a particular subject, and we tried to find a fit," he says. "Sometimes it was a fan relationship with another person, sometimes they were friends, sometimes there was a prior relationship in place. With all of them, it boiled down to approaching one person or the other, and asking who or what would be interesting to them. For example, we knew we wanted to do something on Christiane Amanpour, and then we found out that Renée was fascinated with her."
A highlight of each program is the trip or activity each interviewee chooses to share. For example, actor Samuel L. Jackson visits basketball legend Bill Russell in Seattle, where Russell gives Jackson a tour of his home and the two play a round of golf; artist/sculptor Jeff Koons takes fashion designer Tom Ford on a tour of his New York studio and shows him the artwork he developed based on his Popeye Series; and media mogul Sumner Redstone takes Academy Award-winning film producer Brian Grazer on a shopping spree at a local fish store.

At first glance, the series might seem an odd fit for Sundance Channel, as the episode featuring Robert Redford interviewing Paul Newman is the closest Iconoclasts gets to independent film. Pincus says that for the past several years, the Channel has been exploring how to use original programming to broaden the audience's understanding of the brand. "Sundance is really about innovation, artistic expression, breaking new ground. We don't want to do programming that's only about independent film, because Sundance is bigger than that. There's a strong desire on the part of organization to be looking for people who are trying to break the paradigm and innovate in some way. Creative iconoclasts are extremely Sundance--they are exactly what we are."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.