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The 2021 AFI Docs Film Festival, with a mix of virtual events and in-person screenings at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, includes a centerpiece screening of Morgan Neville’s Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. The director, whose other work includes the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom, the box office hit Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and the Netflix series Ugly Delicious, spoke with THR about the delicate task of telling Anthony Bourdain’s story — from his origins as a New York chef, through his emergence as a beloved TV journalist to his death from suicide in 2018 at age 61.
Did you know Anthony Bourdain?
I never met him. [Ugly Delicious host] David Chang was a friend, and there were a bunch of people I got to know on Ugly Delicious who were friends with him. He was such a godfather figure to everybody in that world that I understood his importance, and then when he died, I saw the crater it left. The hardest part of making this was talking to people from Tony’s life, many of whom hadn’t processed what had happened. These interviews were hands down the most difficult ones I’ve ever done for a film. I feel like the film itself is an act of therapy for the public. Like, how the hell does somebody like Tony Bourdain kill himself? My goal is to have people not just think of his death when they think of him.
There’s so much existing footage of him. How do you decide what to include?
God. There was an insane amount of material — and not just from the shows. Somebody had started making a documentary about him right when [Bourdain’s 2000 memoir] Kitchen Confidential was published. We got 60 hours of footage just from that. Here’s a guy in his mid-40s who feels like his life is kind of over, which he says in Kitchen Confidential, whose story hadn’t even begun.
How did you persuade people to talk to you?
People were reluctant. But there was also this feeling like this was only ever going to happen once. We have Ottavia [Busia], his [former wife], saying it in the film, but several people said to me, “This is the only time I’m ever going to talk about this.” People definitely grilled me on, “What do you want this film to be?” [Chef] Éric Ripert was one who said, “Why do you want to make this film?” and I said, “I want to make a film that Tony would recognize himself in and that can live up to the complexity of who he was.”
Was there anybody you wanted to talk to who you weren’t able to?
No. I know a lot of people wonder about [Bourdain’s girlfriend when he died] Asia [Argento]. Part of the problem with her part of the story is that it’s incredibly Byzantine. It’s very tabloidy. If you get into the she said, he said-ness of what happened, it asks a hundred other questions and doesn’t get you any closer to understanding him. It’s narrative quicksand.
So did you reach out to her or did you just decide …
No, I didn’t.
Was CNN Films attached from the beginning?
Yeah. When Tony died, some people were sniffing around doing documentaries. CNN and the estate and his manager and lots of people close to him put out a press release saying, “We’re making a film about Tony,” and it stopped everybody else from doing anything. But they actually had no intention of making a film. It was more of a placeholder. About a year later, they said, “Well, maybe we should actually think about doing something.” And several months after that, his production partners on CNN said, “Look, we’re all way too close to this to judge what it is. We like you, we trust you, go and make your film and we’ll live with it,” which they did.
So no one said to you, “Make sure CNN looks good in this?”
No. I had final cut, which was important. But they understood it — that they couldn’t be objective.
Who did you consider your audience?
Initially I was thinking of [Bourdain] as my audience. I love Tony’s taste because it’s a lot of my tastes. He was a music aficionado, a cineaste and he loved books. I wanted [the documentary] to have a bold approach because that was very Tony. But Tony only gets you most of the way there. He doesn’t get you all the way there because there’s always a part of his story that he didn’t have a perspective on. Having done all these interviews with everybody and feeling the depths of the grief, I felt like Tony would be uncomfortable with that. But he doesn’t get to say — because they have to live with that and he doesn’t.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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