Anthony Bourdain "Roadrunner" documentary filmmaker: "His flaws were also his superpowers"

Oscar winner Morgan Neville appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss the painful challenge of capturing the chef's life

Published July 15, 2021 4:00PM (EDT)

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (Focus Features)
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (Focus Features)

Anthony Bourdain knew himself a little too well. The late beloved chef, author and world traveler was often quoted toward the end of his life talking about how he might die — sometimes laughing while he did so. Some found his sentiments macabre, but others may have chalked them up to Bourdain's big personality and penchant for getting laughs and making his companions feel intimately like family. 

Academy Award-winning documentarian Morgan Neville shows both sides of Bourdain in his new film, "Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain," which chronicles how he went from being chef at an obscure New York restaurant to one of the most notorious and beloved figures in the food world and beyond. The film is the culmination of a long and challenging project, one in which quite a few of the interview subjects said they would never speak about Bourdain again publicly.

Neville pored through hundreds of hours of collected footage from years of Bourdain's television work, carefully homing in on the pathos and emotional unrest that Bourdain wrestled with, even as he had tremendous success. The result is a loving portrait of a complicated, troubled and admirable man, who his longtime creative partner Lydia Tenaglia described as an "unmuscled James Bond'' on camera.

Neville appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss making the film, one he hoped that "Tony" would've seen himself reflected honestly in. You can watch the interview with Neville here or read a transcript of the Q&A below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You've profiled so many beloved and iconic figures in your career. Bourdain is described in the film as a control freak, a physically irrepressible, wild, impetuous, sometimes cruel, but also very loving father and having had that experience later in life. So what got you interested in chronicling his life?

I think really in the beginning it was that, I always felt like in a way, he was a bit of a fellow traveler to what I was doing. Looking at my films over my career, I've realized I've made films about culture. I'm interested in the people and the things that help us to find other people and define ourselves. So that can be food or it can be music or art or film. Those are things that I've always been really attracted to.

And I feel like, what he was doing with his show was basically helping us understand and dimensionalize people on the far side of the planet. And kind of understanding that they sit around the dinner table and talk about their hopes and dreams and all those kinds of things, which sounds very lofty and I'm sure Tony would have cringed at some of it, but that's exactly what he was trying to do. That's what I think he was doing with the show at its best. So there was that part of it that I always just thought he was somebody fighting the good fight.

And the other part of it was I just had questions. He's a complicated person, deeply complicated person who was slightly different in different situations and had many different facets to him. And then of course the suicide just was inexplicable to me. And so when the idea came up to make this film, I just in my gut, I was like, yeah, I feel like that's a journey I want to go on. It was not an easy journey. I learned a lot making the film. I also got to spend a lot of time with Tony making the film if you can imagine how much footage we got to go through, thousands and thousands of hours. There's a lot that was great and pleasurable about making the film too. And a lot that was challenging and painful about making the film, but in a way I feel like that's what I signed up for when I became a documentarian.

The story is told really artfully and you made an interesting choice to begin with the end, right? You said the hardest part of the film was talking to people from his life, many of whom hadn't processed what had happened. And these interviews were hands down the most difficult ones you've ever done for a film. Why was that?

Well, we started doing these interviews probably a year and a half after he had died, and a lot of people in his life literally hadn't talked to other people about their real feelings about it. And even the husband and wife team, Chris [Collins] and Lydia [Tenaglia], who were his partners in all television for 20 years, they had never talked to each other in a deep way about their own feelings. And they told me that they were talking to me before they talked to their husband or wife about it because it's a lot to burden somebody with. "Let me just emotionally unload –" particularly in the wake of a suicide where there are so many complicated emotions of not only grief and sorrow, but shame and guilt, all of these things that suicide brings out that are totally unfair, but they're always there too.

So yeah, it was hard. And I think even as I was making the film, even sometimes during the interviews, I could see people changing and coming to terms with things or thinking about things. And certainly up into the conversations I'm having this week with people in the film, just seeing how people are processing and growing and working through the stages of whatever they need to work through to deal with it.

What was your first impression of Anthony? Though you never met him, but from watching all this footage?

I mean, I knew him like the public knew him, I had read "Kitchen Confidential" and "Medium Raw." I'd watch the show in the Middle East. I liked him as a person and as a character and I liked what he was doing, but then really trying to kind of unpack, who, what was making him tick. I mean, part of it is this part of me going in to making any film. I go in with as little agenda as possible. My only agenda in the beginning is to understand. "Tell me what you think. I'll read everything. I'll talk to everybody." And then I can start to formulate what I think are the ideas and what the story is.

And I think with Tony, I mean, he was so complicated, but one of the things I came to realize was in many ways, his flaws were also his superpowers. He was a recovering heroin addict and cocaine addict, and had written about all that in "Kitchen Confidential." I mean, that was on the table from before he was famous. And so everybody knew that, but so often he would talk about his own mistakes or foibles or preconceptions, or going to a place and being like, "God, I thought this and I was totally wrong." I think that's part of why people trusted him. And he also had this boyish enthusiasm about everything, and that was something many of his friends talked about. They talk about what a romantic he was or that he could be like a little boy.

And so when you fall in love, it's like the first time and when you eat something, that's like the first time you tasted it, or when you traveled the first time, there's something that's just kind of, full of, "aah," and excitement. But the flip side of that is when you're 60, maybe being a little jaded is a good thing, that maybe it helps you actually understand what's emotionally important in your life and prioritizing them in a way.

He got this tattoo in his, maybe he was 59 when he got it, that said in ancient Greek, on his arm, "I am certain of nothing." And that sounds great to be open-minded, to be non-judgemental. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that was kind of sad that, if you're 60 and you're certain of nothing, then that means you're doubting things that you shouldn't be doubting. Like the love of the people around you, or the love of a family, or things that are very important. And I think that Tony was always kind of stuck with this idea that him being the seeker and him being curious and being non-judgemental, these are all good things, but there's a certain point where if you do them too much, they become bad things. And I don't think he could ever find a boundary between any of these things, his creative work, his personal life, anything, they were always in a big soup together that he could never parse in any way.

I feel like Anthony might've been described as neurodiverse, that hyperfocus common to ADD and the restlessness and the perfectionism and the lack of patience with the way things are. And about an hour and 18 minutes into your film, once he speaks to a therapist, right? And yet nobody else you interviewed seemed to touch on this idea as an explanation that might have given him some comfort about, understanding who he was and finding a place for that. But even he knew he was manic. Did this stick out to you at all?

Yeah. We talk about addiction a lot and a lot of people do talk about that in the film. Which is more a by-product of a lot of these other kind of personality traits he had, which was definitely a kind of an OCD-ness, anxiety, depression. I mean, he had a range of things, and he was never diagnosed as bipolar, but he certainly was exhibiting bipolar-type traits. And he even talks about it, "I'm manic, I'm really up, and then I'm really down." Chris says in our documentary that the kind of ups and downs of Tony became much higher and much lower. Somebody who [dies by] suicide, often has underlying mental health issues. And Tony, as we mentioned in the film, just started going to therapy for the first time as an adult, just weeks before he died. And I don't think really got to do any of the heavy work, but I think it meant that he was starting to realize that he actually had to do something, that some things were not going right and that he had to make a change.

But as other people say, here's somebody who was a heroin addict and never went to rehab and still drank. It's somebody who, in many ways kind of papered over a lot of the problems by substituting new structures for himself. I think part of why he was such a good chef and I think it was even, I would say he was even more of a good chef at running a kitchen in terms of being efficient.

He was the most on-time person anybody has ever met. He was always 15 minutes early for anything ever. The crew said he was always 15 minutes early. That's why in the beginning we had this clip of him waiting for the fish man, and he said, "that's why chefs are all drunks, because the world doesn't work like our kitchens." And I feel like in the kitchen, he created this regimen. He was able to through his sense of responsibility and his kind of workaholism to make this his new addiction. It's like, "Okay, I'm just going to work incredibly hard." And that'll be the regimen that will keep me from all these other bad habits, but still that doesn't really address the underlying problems there all along. And I think those were always kind of waiting in the wings for him. And I think he felt that in a way too.

It's clear that Anthony had a great sense of irony, which came through to me. And I wonder what he would have made of your take on him and his life?

I think when I started the film, one of the first things I was thinking is, I wanted to make a film like he would like, and certainly that he recognized himself in. And I spent a lot of time searching out every song he ever mentioned and watching all the movies he loved and reading or rereading the books that influenced him. Really trying to get into his head in terms of his taste and everything else.

But I realized pretty early on that there's part of the story that Tony had no insight on. There's part of the story that he wouldn't have liked necessarily which is his blindness to both the love that people were giving him and his inability to feel it. And the grief that he left by the decision to kill himself. I mean, these are very uncomfortable things. And I think at a certain point I was thinking, I had to honor the people I came to know in making the film who were all there picking up the pieces in the wake of his death. And so the film I think tries to do both. I like to think that at the end of the day, Tony loved brutal honesty and as uncomfortable as it would have been for him, I think he would have respected how honest we were about it.

What would you like people to come away with from your film?

One thing is when I started making the film and I'd say to somebody I was working on a film about Anthony Bourdain, often the reaction I would get was just a heavy sigh, of like "aah." "I haven't been able to watch his show since he died." And these kinds of feelings of just people not knowing how to think about him because there's no way to make sense of kind of how he killed himself. And so it's just a lot easier to not think about it or not think about him. I hope this film helps people get to the other side of that, or start to get to the other side of that, which is remembering him as a whole person. Thinking about him, that he could be dark and funny and smart, and brilliant. And that those are worth remembering too, like trying to get to put things into context, so people can at least start to process what he meant and get beyond. Get beyond that place where I think people are, a lot of people are just stuck. And I think the film, hopefully it's cathartic in that way.

I know you're out promoting the film. It's coming out July 16th in theaters. Will it be on digital anywhere?

Yeah, I think eventually in the fall, I think it's on CNN and some point thereafter, it will be on HBO Max. Which is where "Parts Unknown" lives. So it felt appropriate that the documentary and his show would be on the same platform, but it's going to be over a period of months. And it opens on July 16th and then a few weeks later it'll be available on things like iTunes and Amazon and other play platforms.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain" premieres in theaters on July 16 and will be available on CNN and HBO Max later in 2021. 

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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Anthony Bourdain Interview Morgan Neville Movies Roadrunner Salon Talks