Roadrunner director on filming his new Anthony Bourdain documentary: 'You have to make impossible decisions'
"It’s deeply complex, and there’s no tidy answer," says filmmaker Morgan Neville.
For more than two decades, filmmaker Morgan Neville has made his name on movies that transcend the idea of documentaries as a dry truth-telling form, from his 2013 Oscar winner 20 Feet From Stardom and 2018's lauded portrait of Fred Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor? to his deep dives on musical iconoclasts (Keith Richards, Brian Wilson, Iggy Pop) and rock-star chefs (Netflix's Ugly Delicious).
Nearly all those elements seem to converge in Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (out now), a sort of forensic accounting of the life and last days of the late food god and television host whose suicide three years ago sent shock waves across the world. When it debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in June, the project was widely praised for its access and intimacy; since then, controversy has erupted over its previously undisclosed use of AI to deepfake Bourdain's voice.
The director has now provided this statement via Focus Features: "There were a few sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke aloud. With the blessing of his estate and literary agent we used A.I. technology. It was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I thought it was important to make Tony's words come alive."
EW talked to Neville five weeks before the AI story broke, though he spoke openly about the often complicated process of getting the movie made, and the aspects of it that Bourdain may or may not have approved of. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were announced as the director back in October 2019. How soon after Bourdain's death did you join the project? And was this something that you had pitched, or that came to you?
MORGAN NEVILLE: No, the reality is that right after Tony died, a lot of people were talking about doing books and films and unauthorized things. I think his estate and friends and production company and CNN all came together and said, "Let's put out a press release saying that we're going to make a film," just to make everybody go away. And they did that, and it worked. And everybody went away.
It was more than a year later when they actually said, "Well, maybe we should actually make a film." I think initially there was no real intent to make one. It was something I was interested in because I was a fan and we had mutual friends. I liked him like a lot of people liked him. I'd read a couple of his books and liked his show. But also, I think I felt like he was a compatriot of mine. In a way he was a documentary filmmaker, and I felt like he was on this journey I'm on — which is, how do we show people what we all have in common, our common humanity, how culture connects us. These things he was doing were the things I believed in. I felt like he was one of the good guys fighting the good fight, and I just connected with it.
He's a deeply complex and fascinating human being, flawed and smart and messy. People ask me about Mr. Rogers all the time, and yes, there is kind of a moral core to both of them. But Mr. Rogers was such a consistent person, and Tony was the opposite. Tony was a protean figure. Depending on whoever he was talking to, he would show a different part of himself. I made a film about Orson Welles, and I think Tony was much more like him than Mr. Rogers. The things that made him complex and flawed were the things that made him great. His obsessiveness and restlessness and curiosity, all these things were his strengths and his weaknesses at the same time.
Where did all the archival footage come from? That's pretty wild luck, to have all that.
There was an unfinished documentary somebody started making about him right when Kitchen Confidential came out, before he ever thought about doing television. And there were 60 hours of footage of it we found that were like a godsend. It made me feel like that's where the story begins — the story of a guy in his 40s who has this life-changing success in a way that is incredibly rare for people to have, to reinvent themselves in middle age in such an extreme way.
He was deeply curious about the world but had never been anywhere. He spent most of his time, five or six days a week, in kitchens for 12 hours a day for 20 years. He was not particularly successful at anything. And even if you go back and reread Kitchen Confidential, it was like, "My story's over. I've done it all, and I'm just going to go off into the sunset. Maybe I'll open my own little restaurant somewhere, someday." The end. But going back and rereading that, it's like, "Oh my God, the story hadn't even begun."
You really don't linger on his childhood, so it's not a cradle-to-grave Wikipedia-style biography at all.
I try to avoid that as much as I can. Even in the midst of the Mr. Rogers documentary, I didn't talk much about childhood. There's a couple of bits and pieces, but you don't need to know that much more. The things that made him Tony were not particularly driven from his childhood. He was more shaped by the era he grew up in — going to Vietnam protests, having access to psychedelic drugs in high school, and living through the birth of proto-punk music, the Stooges and the MC5. Those things shaped him. I think he was shaped so much by the kind of anti-authoritarian and rebellious attitudes of the early '70s more than anything. Because his family was a pretty straight suburban New Jersey family. He was just like the wiseass in school.
It does seem like he would have been pretty thrilled to know his movie was made by the same guy who made The Stooges documentary [Search and Destroy].
And the Keith Richards doc! Keith was another one of his heroes. I was like, "Those are good bona fides for Tony."
What about access to his family and friends? With so many of them — his ex-wife, his brother, his crew — you can feel the pain is still pretty raw in some of these interviews. How was that for you to navigate since you didn't know most of them going in? How'd you get them to trust you and open up to you?
They were by far the longest and hardest interviews of any film I've ever made. Though there were a number of people who did it for Tony. They didn't do it for me. They felt like they owed it to him. And several of them said that to me — one of them is even in the film. It's obvious they're not going to talk about it again. It was a one-time thing. I had a lot of conversations with people not on camera, getting to know them and building trust. And I interviewed a lot of people who aren't in the film. You interview 34 people, and at the end of day you're really trying to just focus it all down into two hours. You have to make impossible decisions.
But the vulnerability of that was hard for everybody. The reality is, it was therapy for people. I think a lot of people talking to me had literally never talked about losing Tony until they sat down to talk to me, even with their spouses. I was giving people permission to now open up about these things, and it was intense.
In a weird way, I feel like it's part of the purpose of the film. I think for most people, myself included, his death was such a non sequitur to what we felt we knew about him, that coming to terms with how the hell could that happen is part of what I think the film can do. Not that there's any clean answer, but it at least makes more sense, I think, after watching the film. I don't want to say it's closure, but at least a way for it not to feel like a nagging question.
One line really struck me, and I hope I'm not misquoting it. One of his producers asks, "How does a storyteller check out without leaving a note?"
But because radical honesty was such a thing for him, were there points when you were making this where you'd go, "Would he want this in the movie, and how should that affect my decision of whether or not to include it?"
I think at the very beginning, I kept saying, "I want to make a film Tony would like." He's my audience, in a way. I went through every song he ever mentioned anywhere in any book, article, or podcast, and I put together an 18-hour playlist of Tony music that we all listened to again and again as we were making it. And I watched all the movies he loved. I felt like I understood that from the get-go. I totally got his taste. And I felt like the movie had to reflect that with a bit of a punk-rock attitude, and be funny and dark and all those things that he valued in storytelling.
But after I started doing the interviews, I realized for all his radical honesty, he had some big blindspots in his life. And even though he was his own best subject in books and in his show, everything was always seen through his subjective gaze. And he was so honest about his own foibles to a point, that when I started to really get into the crater that his death left, I started to realize just how blind Tony could be to those things. I felt like he lost his ability to have perspective on his own life in the last year of his life. There were things in there I know he wouldn't be happy with in terms of talking about his suicide, because he had no perspective on his suicide.
I'll tell you a story his manager, Kim Witherspoon, told me. I'm probably going to butcher it, but the gist is, shortly after his death, they asked to use his name in association with a charity for suicide prevention. And she said, "No, Tony would have hated that." And a year later, they came back and asked again, and she started to say no and then caught herself and said, "Tony doesn't get to say."
He forfeited his right to say "that's not cool" or "I wouldn't like that." And I feel that way about the film. Most of it I think he would like, but I think there's part of it, and part of dealing with his death, that is painful. And Tony, were he to watch this film, would be [made] deeply uncomfortable by it. As he should be.
But in a way that's punk rock also. That's the path he chose.
A hundred percent. And the time and vulnerability and honesty all those people gave to me by talking to me, I had to honor that, too. That was important to me. So it was not easy.
How did you go about handling the Asia Argento stuff? This is the last partner he had in his life, and it wasn't going well at the time of his death. There's some really painful footage in the film, but you largely choose to show, not tell.
The thing is, if you start to go into the details of their relationship, it just begs more details. Literally, I called it narrative quicksand. You bring up one thing, and people are like, "Well, what about this, and what about this?" You can spend a ton of time explaining and litigating his relationship with Asia, but it doesn't give you any more insight into him. The thing I was always asking myself was: What was in Tony's mind? And what you need to know is that Tony knew she was, as he called her, "a crazy Italian actress," and this relationship is not going to end well. He was aware of that. He told many people that long before his death, and that he chose to go in that direction — that he was looking, in a way, for that.
And that to me is the important thing. Not, "Well then, she did this. And then what happened about this?" Like I said, it gets very tabloid-y very quickly. And again, [when] I'm trying to tell a big story about somebody's life in two hours, it starts to throw the whole film off. So that's why I tried to just empower showing, not telling. That's Storytelling 101: Let the audience decide what they think. But what you need to know is what Tony was thinking. That was always my North Star.
I think definitely, in the last year of his life, he was drinking more. And we allude to it. He was never diagnosed with anything, but he went back into therapy. But I certainly feel there was a manic mood swing happening. I think he had always had some of that, but I think he just was not quite himself the last year of his life.
Again, maybe it's related to his relationship, but I think it was related to everything. I think he was just more generally unmoored near the end of the life. His creed for a long time was, "I'm a seeker. I'm curious. I want to learn." And that's a double-edged sword, because seeking and being curious is good, but it's also a path to being lost. If you're certain of nothing, who are you? Are you certain of the people who show you love in your life? You start doubting things you shouldn't be doubting. It's deeply complex, and there's no tidy answer. I'm trying to let people just feel what they can out of it and make their own answers.
What do you think may surprise people most about him? Because he seemed like such an open book, until suddenly he was gone.
It's interesting because — and we talked a lot to people about this — but the Tony on camera was very close to the real Tony. And I think that's part of why people felt they could connect with him, and when they saw him in public they felt they knew him. I think there's a lot of truth to that.
But there's part of Tony that was deeply insecure and immature, frankly. There's a kind of romanticism that only a 15-year-old boy has — like, "Oh my God, it's the best thing in the world!" And I felt like, as I said in the beginning, it was his blessing and his curse. The things that made him full of awe and so curious and so wide-eyed at things, that didn't go away. Even when being a little more jaded would have helped him.