From the start of Morgan Neville’s long-awaited documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, the specter of the chef and entertainer’s 2018 death is ever present.
Bourdain is shown talking to an off-camera producer about his lack of concern about his remains after he’s dead — unless it could be used for “entertainment value.”
“Throw me into a wood chipper, spray me into Harrods in the middle of the rush hour,” he says. “That would be pretty epic. I wouldn’t mind being remembered in that way.”
Bourdain’s obsessions, humanity, curiosity, and mordant wit intermingle throughout the movie, opening in theaters Friday, July 16, as Neville tells Bourdain’s story three years after his death by suicide through behind-the-scenes footage and recent interviews with people close to him.
Neville, a University of Pennsylvania grad whose previous documentaries include 20 Feet From Stardom, about background singers, and the Fred Rogers biopic Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, starts the documentary by laying out Bourdain’s sudden success:
He was an unsung chef at a French restaurant in New York City at age 43 in 2000 who did a little writing on the side when Kitchen Confidential, subtitled Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, hit the best-seller list.
One moment, Tony Bourdain is shown on the sidewalk, smoking and phoning in Les Halles’ produce order, and the next, he is awkwardly shifting his 6-foot-4 frame while Oprah Winfrey interviews him on national TV.
Roadrunner tracks Bourdain’s metamorphosis over 16 years, from a shy, dorky, and seemingly little-prepared traveler who stumbled mightily in his first episode into a poised, polished, and worldly counterculture chronicler.
Within two years of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain was all over the map with the Food Network travelogue A Cook’s Tour, soon after picking up the Travel Channel’s No Reservations and The Layover before leaving for CNN to host Parts Unknown.
We see the contrasts. How the shows put him on the road for 250 days a year, ruining first one marriage and then a second — and we also see him trying to be a good father to his only child, Ariane, now 14. We see how he once moved easily around New York City but, later, how he tended to hole up in his hotel to avoid crowds.
Neville and assistants pored over 10,000 hours of footage — much of it picked up figuratively off the cutting-room floor, ripe with private moments captured by the omnipresent cameras and bolstered by Bourdain’s often acerbic commentary.
“We actually had 20,000 hours, total,” Neville said, “although we only went through about 10,000 hours just because a lot of it was duplicate camera angles and things.”
A documentarian documenting a documentarian, Neville said he got the job because Bourdain’s team understood that they were “all way too close to the story to do it themselves.”
“They needed somebody dispassionate,” he said. “I understand that. I was talking to Amy Entelis at CNN [the executive who brought Bourdain to CNN] and she said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in Bourdain?’ And I instantly said, ‘Yeah.’ I read a couple of his books and I wasn’t like a die-hard fan, but I felt like he was he was somebody I liked and felt like he was fighting the good fight in a way. And I had questions.”
Among those Neville interviewed were Bourdain’s production team; David Chang, the chef-author and mentee; his longtime friend and collaborator Eric Ripert, who found Bourdain’s body in a hotel in France (and declined to discuss that); his second wife Ottavia Busia; and a few friends, such as artist John Lurie and musicians Iggy Pop, Josh Homme, and Alison Mosshart. Neville did not choose to interview Asia Argento, a filmmaker and Bourdain’s companion.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation with Neville on July 13, 2021:
You also directed the Fred Rogers documentary. Was there a common thread?
I think they were both humanists who were using television in new ways, broadly speaking. But they were very different. I think they were both people trying to figure out how we connect through the through the neighborhood or through the world. How do we all connect together?
What was the process like — doing a documentary for a journalism outlet about one of their own?
The good thing is they all understand how production works, so they understood what I was up against, because I don’t think I appreciated how difficult this film was when I started it. I think I was kind of willfully ignorant of just how much work it was going to be and also just the complexity of it. In a way, making a film about an icon is kind of a losing battle because everybody has their own version of what they want to talk about. There’s always too much or too little of something. And so I could only make the film for myself — what I wanted.
Tell me what you knew about Tony before.
I read Kitchen Confidential and I knew the basic biography — kind of a funny, dark, former chef who’s suddenly traveling the world endlessly and doing it in a smart way. I knew all those basics. But the other thing I knew about him that I think most people didn’t know — because I started a TV show called Ugly Delicious with David Chang — [is that] not only David but a lot of people in that world got to know all him as Uncle Tony.
When we started Ugly Delicious, David went to Uncle Tony to get his blessing, like kissing the ring of the godfather to see if it was OK. I also knew from those guys that Tony did so much to support emerging writers and chefs in ways people don’t know, whether it was helping Chang start Lucky Peach magazine or publishing through his imprint. He really mentored a lot of people, writers and chefs, in a way that was never public.
And what you learned?
His vulnerabilities. He seemed to have such swagger and, of course, people with that much swagger often use it to hide something else. I think part of it is, as I discovered, he was a shy person and he was a person who had all kinds of anxiety. I think there were times where he could, you know, where he had a kind of a persona to hide behind, as a lot of people do.
The persona became the thing that he wanted to put out there, but he himself was actually a very thoughtful, shy person. Even his [second] wife, Ottavia, tells the story that when she met him, she expected him to be this bad boy and he was like a total sweetheart to her. He said that he could be really sensitive and soft and shy in real life.
I saw that in a lot of footage. It’s interesting when he would sit down [to shoot a scene] with somebody that he didn’t know, he would often just open up by talking about his own life and his own problems or his past addictions. He would just jump into the deep end talking about these things to get people to open up about themselves. Of course, they would never use that footage when they cut the shows.
But it’s all there in the raw footage. Just a lot of him really being open with people. I think that was incredibly revealing for me.
From what I’ve read, people were shocked by Tony’s suicide but not surprised. Was this true?
I think so. We show him making a couple of jokes about suicide. But when we were going through the footage, those are just a couple of examples. There were many, many examples, and even in the first season of A Cook’s Tour, he was enacting on camera kind of a suicide. There’s a quick shot. I showed him floating face down in a swimming pool that he shot in season one where he was kind of doing his William Holden from Sunset Boulevard. And he joked about it.
I think he had been doing this stuff for so long, for 20 years, that I think people said, “Yeah, Tony’s just dark. You know, his sense of humor is dark, his perspective is dark.” But I don’t think people thought he was ever going to do anything about it, that he would ever really act on it. And I think that was the shocking part. But I think the people close to him felt that darkness was always there.
But it’s interesting. If you go back and look at Kitchen Confidential, there’s like a fatalism to it. “My life’s kind of over.” And of course, his life hadn’t even begun at that point.
[Talk of dying] was just there everywhere. Is it a joke or is it just storytelling, or is it real with Tony? It was almost impossible to tell the distinction between those things.
If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.