The last thing director Morgan Neville wanted to do in his documentary about Anthony Bourdain was eulogise Anthony Bourdain. This wouldn't be a stroll down memory lane, with everyone swapping tall tales about their dearly departed friend. This, Neville says, was his attempt to understand what he hadn't been able to before he began the two-year process of combing through 100,000 hours of footage and interviewing the people who'd been closest to Bourdain, from his second wife Ottavia Busia to his friend David Choe to the first TV producers he ever worked with, Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins. It was his attempt to understand why Bourdain killed himself.
In the three years since Bourdain died, his fans have erected a memorial on a foundation of his best moments: the wisdom he passed along to fellow travellers, his philosophy on being a respectful outsider, his relentless pursuance of adventure. We—anyone who felt a connection to him, his fans—had sought to be hungry for life in a way that would've made him proud. Then he fucked with us all by ending his life. He was no longer for his fans to know. Left with few answers and a shadow of doubt cast on those once-transcendent Bourdain lessons, many retreated back to easier memorial ground. Those in Bourdain's orbit couldn't, and Neville's Roadrunner gives them an outlet for their grief. Their anger, too.
In that way, Roadrunner rests like a ball of wet cement in the stomach. We are reminded that death was were there all along. Bourdain romanticised suicide. He joked about it. He repeatedly pondered karma and the next life on camera. He killed animals before feasting on them. As the film starts, his disembodied voiceover tells us that he finds it "useful and therapeutic" to think about death; in a later clip, he jokes that all the good karma in his life must mean his next one will be lived out as a sea cucumber.
He was an addict chasing...something. His peers agree. Maybe it was happiness, which, in its most gutting moments, Roadrunner showed remained elusive to him. His favourite song, as chef David Chang says in the film, was not a raucous rock and roll anthem but "Anemone" by Brian Jonestown Massacre—"heroin music," Chang called it. And every minute into the documentary, which starts with the sudden fame Bourdain found after Kitchen Confidential, progresses chronologically from there to his death.
It’s not all ominous. As Neville says, the beginning of the film features a “shy, gangly, nerdy Anthony Bourdain,” the one unaccustomed to fame, a pre-pirate king Bourdain. We see him learn how to become the cigarette-smoking, voiceover-mastering Bourdain we, the fans, would lay claim to. But then we're hurtling closer to his end, when we must contend with the last two years of his life, during which he fell in love with Asia Argento, became a champion of the MeToo movement, rarely saw his family, and challenged his Parts Unknown crew with his singular brand of obstinance. This is an uneasy sequencing of events, featuring some of the most challenging talking-head segments you’ll ever sit through.
As for understanding Bourdain? Neville believes he has the fullest picture of the man yet, pieced together through archival behind-the-scenes footage and all these brutally honest interviews. And his fans are reminded Bourdain is not just a man deserving a place alongside Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson in modern mythology, but also a man who never seemed able to find what he was looking for. Before Roadrunner's release, Neville spoke to Esquire about what he felt he owed to Bourdain's fans, how he investigated Bourdain's "psychiatric portrait," and the takeaway from the last third of the documentary he believes is the most important.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ESQ: Before you started even thinking that there might be a film here, was there a moment that was your quintessential Anthony Bourdain moment?
Morgan Neville: It's like a second-hand brush with Tony, when [David Chang and I] talked about doing a TV show, which became Ugly Delicious, and David said, "Hey, I have to talk to Uncle Tony about this." Particularly for Chang, and all the Lucky Peach people from that magazine, and all the people I came to know and work with, they're always talking about Uncle Tony. It was going to the Godfather to get his blessing to do the show. Tony gave it his blessing. But what I realised, because I knew him as a public figure, is they were like, "When we started Lucky Peach, he wrote articles for us so we'd get attention. He would offer us money to help us," and that he had an imprint of books he was printing on the side. He did so much that people don't know about to support emerging voices and chefs. I was like, "Oh, this is a guy that really talks the talk and walks the walk." I know it's kind of a blurry answer, but I just had this sense at the beginning of like, "This guy is fighting the good fight."
Did you feel that you understood his personality and the way he thought to any extent before you started making the doc?
I feel like my first clue into him was his taste. He always had amazing taste—and taste meaning in music, in film, in books, in food—that I felt like I really connected with. I put together this 18-hour playlist of all the music he ever mentioned, and I watched all the movies and [read the] books he loved. So, I felt like that part of it gave me a superficial idea of who this guy was. Let's face it, his books are about himself. He was his own protagonist. Even his shows really are about his subjective gaze on a place. He always said, "These are my stories. This is my interpretation of a place. I'm not telling you that's the way it is. I'm saying this is how I experienced it." So I felt like I had a lot of clues about who this guy was. But of course, there was a lot more to be mined.
He also just happened to be one of the most complicated people I'd ever come across. There's certain people who are brilliant, but very... they are what they seem. Mr. Rogers was a character who is very, very consistent. Tony was somebody who is wildly inconsistent, somebody who would have grudges for years with people, and the next thing you knew, he was having lunch with them. It's like, "I believe this thing, but," as he says in our film, "I'm always willing to be proven wrong." He had this tattoo that he got in his late 50s that said in ancient Greek, "I'm certain of nothing." I think there was a part of him that was incredibly open-minded in a way that was so refreshing, but also that kept him a little un-moored, because he was always searching for whatever the next truth was going to be.
Did you feel like you had to unlearn anything about him to make an honest film?
What I was really sure about from the beginning was I didn't want this film to be a greatest hits album. If you read Kitchen Confidential, there's so many great stories in that, and if you watch the show, there's so many great episodes. I just didn't want the film to be a list of: Remember when Tony did this, or remember the story about this, or remember the episode where he went here?
Even to some extent, in the beginning, so much of what attracted me to him was this big cultural voice as a humanist, arguing for: How do we dimensionalise people on the far side of the planet? How do we understand people and how they eat and live and what they care about? But even that part of it became less central to the film than just me trying to figure out what makes him tick. It became really, to me, a psychological portrait... my journey up the river to try and figure it out.
I feel like a lot of people who loved him—his fans, not the people you spoke to—thought they understood him, and that was turned on its head when he killed himself. Did you feel like you owed his fans anything when you went into this process?
I certainly thought about it. As you suggest, his death was such a massive, tragic non-sequitur to people that they just couldn't understand why he would do that. And I couldn't understand it. On this film, I went into it really just trying to understand. I said that to people when I sat down with them. "I have no agenda here. I'm not writing the story. I just want to understand as best I can." Part of that is to process that trauma of his death. What I saw again and again is a lot of people just not knowing what to think about him, and therefore they just don't think about him. I mean, the number of people that would say, "Oh, I can't watch the show anymore. It's just so sad." Or, "I just don't get it," and changing the conversation.
Part of it is the nature of suicide, too. It's tied up in so many complicated emotions, and we culturally don't really give ourselves permission to talk about it. As I made the film, I started to realise that I was trying to figure it out, and the audience would maybe be trying to figure it out too. Honestly, I've had a lot of people see the film—the film is a tough watch—but a lot of people talking about how they can think about Tony on the other side of the film. I've had a lot of people come up and talk to me about suicide in their lives after seeing it, too. The film is one of these opportunities to give people permission to talk about something they don't get to talk about.
It seemed people didn't want to talk about, like you said, his suicide, but also the last two years of his life. In Roadrunner, you don't shy away from that at all—when he got involved with MeToo, when he was with Asia, and when he, it seemed like, alienated a lot of his crew and his colleagues. Do you expect people to be discomforted by that? It's a bit jarring.
Yeah. I mean, it was jarring. It was Tony's manic behaviour, and he was never diagnosed with anything, but he certainly exhibited a lot of bipolar tendencies. He could be depressive. He talked about that endlessly. It was incredibly hard on the people around him. Putting aside his relationship with Asia, which to me is not the cause of any of this, Tony is somebody that had issues his whole life, and I think a lot of what he was going through those last couple of years, it was really coming out of the dissolution of his marriage and him feeling like, "Well, trying to settle down doesn't work. So let me do the opposite. Let me go back to being bad boy Tony." He goes from the dad sitting on a diving board in a Hawaiian shirt in the backyard, saying, "I'm not cool whatsoever," to suddenly wearing his leather jacket and smoking again and drinking heavily. That last year of his life, where that was a philosophical decision he seemed to have made after his marriage broke up, I think that is the bigger point. And it's hard to watch at times.
You say you didn't want it to seem like Asia and that relationship was the cause of anything, but the way that the film leads to his suicide, it is a very sequential order of events, and it does make you think about that relationship's role in the last few years of his life. Was that intentional?
Again, I'm just repeating the synthesised version of what I heard from doing two years of research and 50 interviews. Yeah. It's that Tony was somebody like her, that he chose somebody who reflected how he felt about himself at the time. Suicide is a singular act. Tony is somebody who had been thinking about suicide for decades. He could tell you every famous person who ever committed suicide and how they committed suicide. He joked about it endlessly. He reenacted it in shows several times. He almost committed suicide in the early 2000s. So just to be clear, Tony is the one who committed suicide. People who feel bad about themselves often put themselves in a place that mirrors how they feel about themselves, and I felt like that's part of what Tony was doing in this relationship.
In the past three years, we've heard so many people weigh in on Bourdain, but I think the voices that we haven't heard as much are those of the producers, his directors, his photographers. They are very front and center in Roadrunner. How important was that to you?
They'd probably spent more time with Tony than just about anybody. Literally. Hour for hour, they spent more time with Tony than his family. But also, as I hope it comes across in the film, it wasn't like these people were punching a clock. They were people who had signed up to join the pirate ship and go to the far side of the planet with the captain. Tony ran his production like it was a kitchen, like "us against the world." They were people that stayed with him for years and years and years. When he was off the road, he would get drinks with them. The separation between what's TV and what's real life was nonexistent with Tony. Actually, I think it's something that became tough for Tony. It's great that Tony had this camaraderie with the people in his life, but I also feel like he didn't understand often that the things that got him motivated creatively, his insatiable curiosity and wanderlust—it's hard to do that stuff in your personal life. I don't think that he ever could really figure out how to do one without doing the other. For him, it's like, "I can't be Clark Kent. I have to just be Superman."
In that way, his former colleagues, they have the most unromantic, but it seems like the most realistic, view of him. It seems like they've truly understood him.
Yeah. Although it's interesting that even the different producers and teams he worked with over the years, they all had very different types of relationships with him. One was much more father-son, and one's much more big brother, and one's much more peers that tease each other. I think they did understand him in different ways, but I think each of them, as almost everybody in Tony's life, understood a certain sliver of him. But he was, going back to the Mr. Rogers thing, this type of character who showed a slightly different version of himself to every single person. He was this protean character who was always shifting. I think that speaks to his wanting to fit in and connect and be liked by people. For all of his wanting to be Iggy Pop or Keith Richards, those guys don't shape-shift one iota from person to person. I know, I've made documentaries about both of them. They are incredibly consistent people. And Tony wasn't. He'd react to criticism. He could charm anybody, but he could also retreat from the pressures of being a public figure. He was wrestling with these things all the time in a way that must've been exhausting.
Maybe it's more accurate to say that the people who spent the most time with him understood that they were only seeing a little bit of him.
I think so. I do think they understood more than a little piece of him. I think they understood a lot of him, but I think those pieces were... They didn't all see the same thing.
Your last scene is this montage of his friends and the people who loved him living their lives and moving on. I think that there are two ways to read that. It could be read as a "fuck you" revenge thing, or as a "life goes on and it is beautiful" thing.
I took it not as a "fuck you, Tony." I mean, there were a couple of fuck you, Tonys in the film, and there were even more fuck you, Tonys in the interviews. My experience of making the film was suddenly wading into this sea of grief, and it was fucking hard to do. I made the film for two years, and people's grief was changing over that time. And it's not just sit-down interviews. I have talked to these and continue to talk to these people to this day. I like them a lot. They're really smart, interesting people that Tony collected around himself. I just felt like if they're also characters in the film, that I wanted people to know what happened to them, because I saw that for all their grief, their lives weren't over or ended, and it's part of what Tony's missing. Tony missed so much.
Do you think that his suicide, the way that he left people behind, overshadows his life and his legacy?
I think it has been. I don't know if the film helps that at all, by helping people even just think about it rather than putting it in a box and locking it. I hope people can get beyond his death, or at least compartmentalise it to the point where we can actually go back and think about who he was when he lived.
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