How Director Morgan Neville Tapped into the Sorrow of Anthony Bourdain's Death

The new documentary 'Roadrunner' explores his life, but also his death.

roadrunner anthony bourdain documentary
Focus Features
Focus Features

Morgan Neville's documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is, yes, a tribute to the chef, writer, and television host that celebrates his legacy and impact. It's also an open wound of a film that reckons with the grief and anger Bourdain left behind when he died by suicide in 2018. The emotions from Bourdain's friends and colleagues who speak with Neville are laid bare: There is sorrow, but also resentment and anger from the likes of restaurateur David Chang, artist David Choe, Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, and musician and painter John Lurie, as well as the producers and directors of Bourdain's many television shows. It often feels like a cinematic wake, one that is still raw.

The first part of Roadrunner offers up a biography that will be familiar to many fans of Bourdain's work, but as it goes on, it starts to attempt to address the more difficult, more unanswerable questions of why his life ended when it did. While fundamentally understanding that what those who loved Bourdain are seeking is unknowable, it offers an upsetting account of a tragedy as told by the people who were closest to it. Neville, best known for his Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom and his Mister Rogers' documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, spoke with Thrillist about the grief he encountered while making his movie about Anthony Bourdain.

Thrillist: The emotions around Anthony Bourdain's death are still so raw. You really capture that in the talking-head interviews. How did that affect the story you were trying to tell around him?
Morgan Neville: I mean, honestly, when I started the film, in my mind, I was thinking, Oh, I'm making this film for Tony. And because Tony loved movies and he had such great taste, I was like, Oh, I want to make a film that Tony would like himself. I devoured every bit of music he ever talked about, and read the books that influenced him and the movies he loved, and I just tried to get all that DNA in there. But when I really started to sit down and spend a lot of time with the people in his life, I realized that there was part of his story that he probably wouldn't have liked, which is the pain that he left behind, because I think if he had understood it, he wouldn't have killed himself. I realized at a certain point that I was making the film for them too, because they're the people left behind.

His agent told me a story that, shortly after he died, some suicide prevention society asked to use his name and likeness, and she said, "No, Tony would've hated that," and turned it down. And about a year and a half later, they came back and asked to use his name for something, she started to say no and then she stopped and said, "You know what, Tony doesn't get to say anymore." And I thought that that was revealing of everybody in Tony's life, giving themselves permission to not feel like Tony's over their shoulder at every minute. That's kind of how I felt making the film. I like to think that some of the brutal honesty in the film, as uncomfortable as it would have made Tony, Tony was nothing if not brutally honest, and so I think in that way he should appreciate it.

John Lurie is among the first to express anger in the film. How did your exploration of the "why" of Bourdain's death evolve as you started talking to these people who have these strong residual emotions about his choice to end his life?
I saw all the stages of grief along the way, and it's constantly changing. The reason I put that [soundbite] there in the beginning of the film was actually because when I started making the film, for the first several months, we just cut the beginning of Tony's story—I literally, totally blocked off what happened to Tony at the end of his life. Because it's easy when making a film like this for it to feel eulogistic, to see everything through the prism of his death, and so I really wanted us to be in the moment and feel like it was fun and all the excitement and opportunity that came to him with Kitchen Confidential and everything it did. We cut the first 45 minutes of the film first, and we screened it for some people just to look at it and all of them were saying, "Oh, I forgot that he died." I realized that we had to put something in the beginning that was basically going to tell the audience that we're going to get there. Like, "Don't worry, we'll go there, but we're not going to go there for a long time." That early part of the story really is a bridge: who Tony was at the beginning and who Tony is at the end. There's a continuum that you can understand. And it's understanding that evolution, that in many ways Tony was always haunted, he was always an addict, he was always depressed. Those were things that he wrote about in Kitchen Confidential, they're not news, so it's figuring out how he made it as far as he made it, in a way.

What was your relationship with Bourdain? Why did you want to make a film about him?
I was a fan like most people. I'd read Kitchen Confidential when it came out and I loved it. I watched his show sporadically. I always liked it. I wasn't a super fan, but he was just somebody who I always felt like was one of the good ones. He was somebody who was authentic and he was broken in a way that made you root for him and trust him when he took you someplace on the show. I think of him as somebody like Johnny Cash—he's somebody who has this interesting persona that just makes everybody trust them. And so when the idea came up to make this film, I instantly just thought, "Yes." That always works out the best for me, if my gut tells me the moment I hear an idea, "yes," then it's probably a good thing.

Bourdain's voice is so essential. How did you think about how you had to use it and how you wanted to deploy his own narration over the course of the film?
I felt like to make an Anthony Bourdain documentary and not use his voice would feel like you're ripped off somehow. So I actually went through every bit of VO, every podcast he did, every book on tape, and I pulled every soundbite of everything he said, and I have a binder that's 500 pages long with everything he said. And at one point, I thought I could make this entire film just with him narrating it and no interviews, except for the fact that I think he had certain blind spots, particularly at the end of his life, that he wasn't the best narrator of. I realized other people needed to bring in another perspective, because as much as I love his perspective, it's deeply subjective. But it's amazing how much he was his own best subject and how much he narrated about his own life, and so I just wanted to put that into the film as much as possible. And then even at one point, there were a few soundbites of things he had written that he hadn't spoken, and so I actually created an AI model of his voice and had it create some of those lines.

roadrunner anthony bourdain documentary
Focus Features

Asia Argento, Bourdain's girlfriend, is not a talking head, but she is a character in the later part of the film. Did you try to reach her?
I did not ask her to do an interview. I say to John Lurie at the beginning of the film, when he says, "Oh, you're just going to go where the tabloid-y stuff goes?" and I was like, "No, I want to find out why he was who he was." Which is true, and I felt like her relationship with Tony is so complicated that the more you get into it, it takes you further and further away from understanding. I feel like if I even had one more minute of her in the film, it would throw the balance of the whole film off because I don't know if it would bring me closer to understanding him. I've decided that it was going to end up in a more, kind of, lots of people saying, "This is what I thought," and her saying, "This is what I thought." And I just didn't want to get into that game of he said, she said, they said.

There's a moment where one of the directors of his show talks about assigning blame. But in talking about how his relationship with Asia fell apart, were you worried about casting blame on her?
It's why I put that soundbite in the film. Because I don't think people kill themselves. I don't think 60-year-old men should kill themselves because they break up from somebody in a relationship. Tony was somebody who had suicidal thoughts for decades and he wrote about them in his books. He wrote about almost driving off a cliff at one point. And so I wanted to make sure that whether or not you put fault on her for her behavior, the decision to do that act, it was 100% him. It has to be.

David Choe's reaction at the end of the film is so powerful, as is his defacing of a mural of Bourdain. How did that come about?
It literally happened like it does in the film, which is, I was thinking about the end of the film and David is a friend of mine and we were just shooting the shot and I said, "I found this footage of him on the beach in Provincetown, and it's very emotional and there's just something about him on the beach that I really liked. And I could see maybe ending the film there." And then he says to me what he said in the film, and then when he floated that idea of defacing the mural, I loved it, but I didn't do anything with that for six months. And then six months later, I said, "David, remember that thing you said, how would you feel about doing that?" And he was like, "I'm game." He hadn't cut his hair six months later, so I said, "Would you shave your head and deface the mural?" And he's like, "Sure, because Tony would have loved it." And, I will say, we actually commissioned the mural that we defaced.

You also end on happy photos of your subjects. What was the thinking behind that?
It was because I was at the bottom of this deep well of grief that I was getting from everybody in his life. And in a way, the film is a film about suicide and about the people left behind, and I just didn't want to leave an incomplete picture that these people are all broken. I think they're all deeply hurt, but that there are green shoots of life after something like this happens and people can find another side to it. Talking to David Chang about it and knowing he has a son, and seeing Josh Homme, who wrote that song for us, it was the first time he had worked in two years: People can heal too. And so that was just the message of just trying to say that though suicide is a bleak subject, I didn't want to wallow in that bleakness. I wanted to suggest that there are ways out of it too.

What did you find most surprising about Tony's life in the process of making the film? 
I think his shyness and insecurity. I mean, the fact that he was literally shy, like had a hard time looking at people in the eye early on, and I think that shyness later, in a way, manifested as his agoraphobia that he really had later on. Just his difficulty in being Tony Bourdain publicly, because he seems so damn good at it on television that you would never guess that it was that much of a struggle. But it really was, and it's part of that thing, I think that Josh Homme says, but there's a moment where Tony goes from being the narrator to being the protagonist. It's understanding just how uncomfortable that could be for him, I think was really revelatory for me.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.