He loved food, Orwell, jiu-jitsu, and punk rock — I have this feeling Anthony Bourdain was a lot like me, only famous. It’s a feeling, deep down and undeniable, that I don’t express out loud very often because I know how insanely corny it sounds. A lot of people probably feel that way about Anthony Bourdain. In fact, fomenting this very kind of thought might’ve been the secret to Bourdain’s success — his ability to live the life you wish you had, if you had the means and the fortitude.
That everyone seems to feel a personal connection to him, combined with the fact that he spent at least a third of his life writing and producing memoirs and travelogues and hanging out with prominent people, makes the project of a definitive documentary a daunting prospect. Which parts of the literal thousands of hours of footage do you use? Who do you interview about him when virtually every food person in the country can share an opinion or a personal anecdote?
With Morgan Neville’s portrait of Bourdain, Roadrunner hitting theaters on July 16th, I asked Neville, the Oscar-winning director of 20 Feet From Stardom and Won’t You Be My Neighbor, what made him think he was up to the challenge.
“Part of it is I’ve been making documentaries for almost 30 years, and I’ve made films about how culture connects us,” Neville told me. “I felt like Tony was like a fellow traveler. He was kind of a documentary filmmaker himself. I felt like I was starting at a place where I had some baseline understanding of the type of guy he was.”
In other words, Bourdain made Neville feel the way he makes so many of us feel: like “a fellow traveler.” Roadrunner is part Bourdain greatest hits record, reminding why many of us liked this guy in the first place, part enlightening portrait of an addict who tried to cure himself by, successfully until it wasn’t, transposing his drug addiction onto to his various obsessions — cooking, traveling, new relationships, jiu-jitsu (which Bourdain took up at the age of 58), the #MeToo movement.
As daunting a project Roadrunner may have been by volume, it was also thorny by content. Not only was Anthony Bourdain an addict, but he also killed himself. It’s virtually impossible to talk about someone who has committed suicide without naturally wondering why, a question we can’t help asking even when we know that there can never be a satisfying answer. The truth is it frequently happens on a whim. On top of the manner of death, there was Bourdain’s amour fou with Asia Argento in his final months, the cycle of blame afterward, and seemingly endless scandals and counter-scandals.
Is it even possible to discuss the end of Anthony Bourdain’s life honestly without contributing to the anti-Argento backlash? Not to mention the potential legal consequences. In the end, Roadrunner has discussions of Argento, but no interviews with her — a decision that feels odd, even if the alternatives carried risks of their own.
“That part of the story is like narrative quicksand,” Neville told me. “Whenever there was more of it, it just brought up ten more questions, and it gets really complicated. I felt like if I’d interviewed her, it would just end up in this kind of, she said-they said, litigating everybody’s behavior, and it wasn’t making me feel like I understood Tony any better.”
Again, that’s sort of the trouble with Anthony Bourdain as a subject: no matter what you say about him, there will be millions of people itching to play Monday morning quarterback. Roadrunner is a touching look at Bourdain’s life that in many ways gets to the root of what made him so appealing. One thing it isn’t is the end of the conversation. I spoke to Neville about the challenge recently.
So when did you first become aware of Anthony Bourdain?
Kitchen Confidential, I think it was, and maybe even before — there was a chapter of Kitchen Confidential that came out before the book in the New Yorker that caused a stir. I think I read that article, it was like something like, “Think Twice Before You Order This.” (Ed. note: that aforementioned article was actually titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.”) Then the book I remember, all my friends read it, it was like “the book to read that year in 2000.” I kind of missed Cook’s Tour, his first show, because I wasn’t watching the Food Network a whole lot, and it was kind of an obscure show. But at some point in No Reservations, I started to watch it, and then later Parts Unknown, and the show also got better and better. I mean, people think that Tony had a TV show for 18 years, but he had a bunch of different shows. You go back and look at those early shows and they are rough. They’re made for no money, and they’re kind of cheesy. And then if you look up by the end, they’re like beautiful movies he’s shooting.
Do you think that a host would be allowed to evolve like that, if this were to happen now?
God, I don’t know. I mean, because Tony is such a one-off culturally, and you can see right now if you look around television, people are trying to come up with the new Anthony Bourdain. There is going to be no new Anthony Bourdain. There could be other people doing interesting things, but he was such a unique character. He had the credibility of having been a chef and the storytelling ability of a writer because that’s really how he thought of himself, as a writer first and foremost. But he was also this complicated, flawed character who wore his scars on the outside and was very open about his own insecurities and constantly learning on camera. That’s something that you just don’t see that often. He says in the film that he loved to go to a place and be totally wrong about it. He went out of his way to go to places that he just didn’t understand. Like in the wake of the 2016 election, the first episode he did was West Virginia. He’s like, “I want to go and sit down with these people.” And it’s one of my favorite episodes he ever did, because it’s just him being open-minded. So often when I see television, I just feel like everybody’s minds are made up before anything is shot. You don’t actually see people experiencing things on camera.
Did you approach this project differently than you did with, say, a subject like Mister Rogers?
I mean, yes and no. I’d say my general approach with anything is just to try and get the subject’s energy as tactile as possible. In this case, I went through every time he ever mentioned a song — he had done podcasts, and he had made some playlists, and he had mentioned songs and books, and I put together a playlist that’s 18-and-a-half hours long. Everybody who worked on the film had the playlist and we’d listen to it. Then I went back and re-read Graham Greene and George Orwell Down and Out in Paris and London, all these books that were very influential to him, and watched the movies and the Wong Kar-Wais and the Antonioni‘s and all the films that he was influenced by. He was such a culture vulture that I was just trying to feel like, oh, I’m kind of in his head space.
The other part is the footage, of which there was an insane amount. The other part on top of that is the interviews. For me, the more I have no agenda going into a film, the better it will be, I’m just there to learn and then reflect back what I learned. In the beginning, I really wanted to make a film that I felt like Tony would respect, but also in spending so much time with the people in his life and having these really tough interviews, I realized the film also had to speak to something that Tony himself probably would have been very uncomfortable about. For somebody who is so good at wearing their flaws on their sleeve, he still had some major blind spots about himself.
Asia Argento is this background presence throughout the movie. I mean, obviously, I have to ask, did you try to interview her? Were you trying to get her to participate?
I didn’t. I didn’t want any more of that story in here, just because, and we talked a lot about it, that part of the story is like narrative quicksand. Whenever there was more of it, it just brought up ten more questions, and it gets really complicated. I felt like if I’d interviewed her, it would just end up in this kind of she said-they said, litigating everybody’s behavior. And it wasn’t making me feel like I understood Tony any better. And so, I just made the decision to concentrate on what was Tony thinking at every beat. I feel like Tony made all those decisions, he made the decision to date her, and he made the decision to kill himself. Tony’s the one who’s responsible for everything, I want to be very clear about that. But yeah, I’m totally good with the decision I made there, because I feel like I really worked to balance it right.
There’s been sort of a backlash against her already. Is it sort of like, damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of thing, just bringing up that story?
Sure. But I mean, there’s no way not to bring it up. She is part of Tony’s story, so you have to bring it up. But if you get into the weeds on it, again… it becomes a film about his last relationship and not a film about the life of this guy. I knew that certain people are going to think, you should have more of this or less of this, or you should have talked to her, not talked to her. Like I said, I’m 100% certain for myself that I made the right decision. So people can like it or not like it, that’s up to them, but I feel good about it.
On that note, there’s probably no shortage of people willing to talk to you about Anthony Bourdain. How did you decide which ones had valuable insights to share about him?
Part of it is, I’m not a big fan of interviewing a hundred people for a 100-minute documentary or whatever, because I feel…
I mean, you already have 1,000 hours of footage.
Yeah, and I actually interviewed at least a dozen more people that aren’t in the film, not because they weren’t great, but I kind of made this decision that I wanted everybody in the film to actually be a character. Everybody in the film, you know exactly who they are, you know how they connect to Tony, when they met Tony. So when somebody comes back, you’re not saying, “Who was that talking head?” Literally, nobody talks in the film until they’ve been introduced in this story with Tony. And that meant that we can only introduce so many people. Again, we shot probably 34 interviews, and I think we used 18 or 19.
To me, they’re just a cross-section of the people who knew Tony really well and who had different experiences as a friend, as another chef, as a coworker, as a wife. It was just different types of voices that could speak to different parts of his life. I always say that making a film is not writing a book, that it’s so reductive, you’re just trying to get the essence of all these ideas, because there’s just no way to unpack them in all the detail. That’s what books are for.
There are a couple of scenes where it looks like he’s at some sort of a 12-step meeting. And then he also drank a lot in his shows, and all my friends in recovery, basically, they say that you can’t do that. Did that come up at all? What was his relationship to actual recovery programs?
He had no relationship, really, with recovery programs. I think it was part of that episode where he went to a working-class Massachusetts town and sat in on a recovery program, because there was so much opioid addiction in this town, and he talked about himself. He was always willing to talk about himself, about his drug days, to anybody. It was a way of disarming people and getting them to open up about themselves. If you look at the raw footage of a lot of episodes, he’d be like, “Yeah, I first went to Baltimore. I couldn’t score heroin there.” Just very open about those things.
But as David Choe says in the film, I don’t know anybody who got off of heroin without going into recovery and Tony didn’t. He absolutely replaced one addiction with another. He had this real sense of responsibility. So he kept putting himself in positions where he had a lot of responsibility. The rigor of a kitchen was something that kept him on the straight and narrow. But did he ever deal with all the issues that may have been addiction? No. Literally the last eight weeks of his life, I think he started therapy. I think he was realizing that he needed help, but it was too little, too late. The therapy scene we have in there was, they’d done an episode in Buenos Aires, which I guess has the highest per capita use of psychoanalysis in the world. So he’s like, “I’ll do a therapy session for the camera.” They ended up filming for an hour and a half, and they use bits of it in the show. Again, Tony would do it because he knew that stuff wouldn’t be in the show. In the same way that if he sat down with somebody who did shoot a meal, he would instantly talk about himself as a way to get people to open up, and then they would never use him talking about himself.
So I would of ask this of anybody making a documentary, sort of as a general question, but: why are you the guy to tell this story?
I mean, it’s always presumptuous to say you’re the guy, but … I think there were a couple of things that made me feel like I could do it. Part of it is I’ve been making documentaries for almost 30 years, and I’ve made films about culture, about how culture connects us, how we have more in common than not, and how culture, which can be food, art, music, as a way of understanding people and the others and humanizing them in a way.
I felt like Tony was like a fellow traveler with me. I felt like we were fighting the same fights, and he was doing it in his own way. And he was kind of a documentary filmmaker too. I so liked that about him. And also, I got his taste. I’d made a film about Iggy Pop. I made a film about Keith Richards. I made a film about Orson Welles. I made a film about Johnny Cash. These were Tony’s heroes. I know exactly the type of taste he had in movies and music and books, because a lot of that’s my taste. Not that taste equals understanding, but at least I felt like I was starting at a place where I had some baseline understanding of the type of guy he was. And then once you have all that, then you really go deep into the psychological stuff and try and figure out what it is that made him tick. The reality of it is somebody like Keith Richards or Iggy Pop, who he adored and in some ways kind of emulated, they’re very Zen characters. They really don’t care what people think. I think it’s part of why they’ve survived is they’re so willing to just float on top and really nothing gets to them. The thing is, Tony wanted to be that, but he always cared. He always cared so much. He was never going to be the guy that didn’t care about everything.