Bourdain voiceovers

Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, author, and acclaimed host of shows like No Reservations and Parts Unknown, died by suicide in 2018. Filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) was approached by CNN to make a movie about the iconoclastic TV personality, and the result is Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, a new documentary that hits theaters tomorrow.

I spoke with Neville about combing through thousands of hours of footage, trying to capture the “real” Bourdain, figuring out how to frame this story, and yes, even creating an artificial intelligence model to produce some voiceovers for the new movie.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Let’s start at the beginning. Do you remember your first exposure to Anthony Bourdain?

Kitchen Confidential. Actually, he published an article in The New Yorker before Kitchen Confidential that caused a stir, and I read that article. Then when Kitchen Confidential came out, it was definitely the kind of thing that people passed around and said, “You’ve gotta read this book.” So I did, and I didn’t really pay that much attention for a while, because I wasn’t watching The Food Network on basic cable a whole lot in those days. But once it got into No Reservations and he started appearing more places, I started saying that I liked watching him. It wasn’t appointment TV for me, but it was like a lot of people: when he was on, I’d get sucked into it. I ended up reading, Medium Raw, his second autobiography, at one point. I followed him on Twitter. Twitter was built for somebody like Anthony Bourdain. For a smart, snarky, person like Bourdain, Twitter was a godsend, and he loved it. So I liked him, but I hadn’t thought that deeply about him, other than I knew through a bunch of my friends who are writers and food people how important he was for them.

The narrations Bourdain wrote for his shows were always some of my favorite aspects of those programs, and I assume you had access to all of those files while making this movie. How did you go about the gargantuan task of combing through all of this archival footage and audio to create a cohesive story in this movie?

To make a film about Bourdain and not have him in some way narrate it would just feel odd. So as I thought about it, I started thinking about Sunset Boulevard and William Holden narrating from beyond the grave. That’s my homage to it.

That seems like something he would have loved.

I think he would have loved it, but the kicker, when I started watching old episodes of the early shows, Cook’s Tour, season one, he does an episode in L.A. at the Chateau Marmont, and he films himself floating face down in the pool.

Wow.

I was like, “OK, he’s already ahead of me on this.” So then I got not only his voiceover, which we had all of those sessions, but every book on tape and podcast and radio interviews, and I went through all of it. Anything that felt like a really substantive line, we put into a spreadsheet, basically. We ended up with a 500-page spreadsheet that I organized by theme. So if it was Tony talking about food, or talking about travel, or talking about childhood, or whatever, we organized it that way. So we had this binder of Tony on everything. There was a very fleeting moment in the beginning where I just thought, “Should I just not interview anybody and have Tony narrate the entire film?” Although I knew that wouldn’t work. It was just an interesting conceit. Because the fact of the matter is, as great of a writer and narrator as he was, he had big blind spots about himself, too. I was never going to get those in his voice.

That was actually my next question. He was an incisive, insightful, and profound analyst – of history, of politics, of societies, and often, himself. So I was wondering how you navigated how much of this story should be told in Bourdain’s own words versus how much of it should be told by the people who knew him, and it sounds like you were grappling with that pretty early on.

Yeah. At the end of the day, he couldn’t tell that much of his story. Particularly in his backstory. He was his own best subject. He always wrote about himself, and he was a memoirist always. He loved memoirs, whether it was Down and Out in Paris and London, which was one of his all time favorite books, the George Orwell book about working in kitchens in the ’30s. He did tell a lot of his own story in a really entertaining way. Even going back and looking at Kitchen Confidential, the thing that struck me was how world-weary he is in that book. He wrote it when he was 43, and there’s a tone in there of, “I’ve seen it all, I’ve lived it all, my story is over.” His story hadn’t even really begun, which is crazy. But there’s this passage in Kitchen Confidential that, for a while, I had in a rough cut of the film, but I took it out. It’s to your point: he has this speech he gives, where he says – to paraphrase – “if I’m walking across the street and get hit by an ice cream truck someday and I’m lying in the street and they’re pulling the bumper out of my head and I’m drawing my last breaths, am I going to regret that I didn’t eat a certain thing or travel to a certain place? No. I’m only going to regret how I disappointed those around me who cared about me.” He wrote that when he was 43!

Wow.

He was also very good at owning his own flaws, I guess is what that is.

Yeah. So in addition to being a recounting of Bourdain’s trajectory, to me this movie is about the impossible task of trying to capture the “real” version of someone. Even armed with all of these tools – the archival footage, the talking heads, Tony’s social media posts – how close do you think you got to getting to the heart of who Bourdain really was?

I always feel like my films are about questions more than answers. That idea of, “Oh, you got it,” that it was tidily summed up is so un-Bourdainian. There’s a quote of his I found after I finished the film where he said, “The root of most of the world’s problems can be attributed to people trying to find a simple fucking answer.” The grey of what existed in life was where the interesting stuff happens. I think Bourdain, too, is somebody who was an immensely protean character who was always shapeshifting. He was slightly different with different people. What I kept coming back to, not only in this but in most of my films, is that I’m just trying to get an essence. A real essence of who this person is. It’s not all of the truth or all of the dimension, but you really feel like you understand an essence of who this guy is. Hopefully we got that.

How did you decide that Kitchen Confidential would be the start of your movie?

A couple of reasons. One was I didn’t want to make a six hour film. [laughs] There’s also no footage of that [earlier] era at all. I just felt like telling that whole story, as great as it is, would have been a little like playing a greatest hits album. “Oh, you read the book and want to meet the characters and [see] the stories Tony told.” But nothing really changed for Tony throughout that whole period. Where I wanted to begin was the end of that life. The first act of the film is the end of the Kitchen Confidential years, the end of him being in the kitchen, and all the transformations that come after it. That was me feeling like I was trying to take a deep sliver of a person’s life and hopefully get something out of it, rather than trying to be Wikipedia, which I think a lot of times, documentaries do.

Was there anything you learned during the research phase that surprised you about Tony?

I think his own insecurity. Part of that is maybe shyness. But the sense that so many people told me that he had incredible imposter syndrome. Maybe it’s because he had success so late in life and it was so life-changing, that he just didn’t trust it. He didn’t feel like he deserved it. People told me that even up until the end, he would feel like he was getting away with something. Part of me feels like he maybe intentionally nurtured that kind of feeling, because the other part of that is that he was very unaware of his importance. I think he would have been shocked by the impact his death had on people. I know people who were in his little world with him were utterly shocked by it. He even says in the film, “I’m not a journalist, I’m not trying to inspire people.” I think he always had this idea of, “I’m just doing a little cable show,” or, “I’ll just write my little books.” It’s also just kind of a survival mechanism in a way, to feel like he’s not important or hasn’t earned it. It kept him motivated, but it also kept him insulated.

Can you tell me more about that binder that you mentioned? I’m still hung up on that: that you guys went through all of this stuff and had everything organized by theme.

I’ll tell you one other thing, which I’ve only talked a little bit about. But I’m happy to talk about it, because I thought it was interesting. So when I wanted him to voice all of the narrations, there were a number of things that he wrote in his books that he never said anywhere, or he wrote in an article, but he had never voiced them. So we actually spent months creating an A.I. model of his voice.

No way.

And a few of the narrations in the film are actually an A.I. Tony saying those lines. Which is interesting.

Wow. I want to ask you what they are, but I also kind of don’t, because I couldn’t tell. I obviously didn’t know that. Do you want to say which lines they are?

I’ll tell you off the record, because you’re curious. [Divulges an example of an A.I. line.] Deepfakes and all of that are very ethically murky, but I definitely talked to his literary agent and everybody to make sure they were on board. We weren’t putting words in his mouth. We were merely trying to articulate things that he had already said.

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Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain will be in limited theaters on July 16, 2021. 

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