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In an interview with the New Yorker, the Oscar winner spoke about his work on the film, which documents the author and travel documentarian’s life starting from his early days as a public figure. To do this, Neville spoke to those who were close to Bourdain, including family, friends and the producers and crew of his television series.
But the documentary also uses Bourdain’s own words to help tell his story, through audio recordings of his voice from various sources. Bourdain’s narrations are clips pulled from TV, radio, podcasts and audiobooks, but one also features Bourdain reading his very own email, and that’s one Neville couldn’t get directly from the source.
There are three quotes in total within the film, according to the filmmaker, that he said “I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of.” So the Roadrunner director re-created them, resulting in an AI model of Bourdain’s voice.
To do this, Neville handed over “about a dozen hours of recordings,” according to The New Yorker, to a software company, eventually creating “an AI model of his voice.”
“If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the AI, and you’re not going to know,” Neville said. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”
On Thursday night, Bourdain’s second wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain tweeted in reference to Neville’s comment that he had sought permission to use AI for the late chef’s voice. “I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that,” she wrote.
On Saturday, the New Yorker‘s Helen Rosner published a follow-up piece in which she noted Neville wrote to her that afternoon explaining the A.I. idea “was part of my initial pitch of having Tony narrate the film posthumously á la Sunset Boulevard—one of Tony’s favorite films and one he had even reenacted himself on Cook’s Tour.” He responded to Busia-Bourdain’s tweet, adding “I didn’t mean to imply that Ottavia thought Tony would’ve liked it. All I know is that nobody ever expressed any reservations to me.”
Rosner notes Busia-Bourdain e-mailed her as well about the A.I. idea, explaining she recalled Neville bringing up the concept but had not realized it had actually been used until the news created a social media frenzy. “I do believe Morgan thought he had everyone’s blessing to go ahead,” Busia-Bourdain wrote to Rosner. “I took the decision to remove myself from the process early on because it was just too painful for me.”
The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to Neville’s reps for further comment.
Jul. 16, 00:05 a.m.: Updated with tweet from Ottavia Bourdain.
July 17, 6:45 p.m.: Updated with New Yorker quotes.
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