Documentarian Morgan Neville didn’t know Anthony Bourdain personally, but he felt the globe-trotting chef and author was a kindred spirit. “In many ways, we were doing the same kind of work,” says the Oscar-winning director, whose raw and personal documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” premieres Friday at the Tribeca Festival ahead of a theatrical opening on July 16.
In Neville’s eyes, Bourdain was “this champion of the democratization of food, of treating street foods seriously and ethnic foods seriously, breaking down the border of Michelin star cooking.” With “Roadrunner,” Neville wanted to explore that adventurous side of the man who traveled hundreds of days every year, from Iran to the Congo to L.A.’s Koreatown. But, he says, there was also a question mark over his life: “How does that happen? How does a guy like that kill himself?”
Neville did know several people in Bourdain’s orbit, such as chef David Chang, with whom he worked on the Netflix food series “Ugly Delicious.” So he saw firsthand the devastating impact that Bourdain’s 2018 suicide had on his close friends and associates.
Getting those people to open up about his death took some finesse. It helped that Neville had directed Mister Rogers doc “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” which he says made it easier for Bourdain’s inner circle to trust that he would have an emotional intelligence when probing their still-raw feelings.
The interviews he conducted with associates such as Chang, chef Éric Ripert, musicians John Lurie and Josh Homme, his ex-wife and members of Bourdain’s production crew were some of the most intense the Oscar-winning “20 Feet From Stardom” filmmaker has ever done. “People knew if they were going to sit down and talk, they were going to talk about everything. In some cases, talking to me was the first time they’ve ever talked about it,” he says. “I think a lot of them hadn’t really burdened their loved ones or friends with really going deep into what happened and what it meant to them.”
But Neville took care to also show the joyful, grateful part of the TV host’s life. “It was very important to me that his death not cast a pall over everything,” he says, so he fully embraced the Tony that was “very funny and outrageous.”
Bourdain is often described as a chef, but he turned his early career into so much more. “As much as he talked and wrote about food and travel, the real subject of his life was himself,” Neville explains. “The real reason people watch the show was not just because they want to see footage of interesting countries – they want to see it through his eyes.”
Many of Bourdain’s fans had a hard time understanding how this passionate lover of people, places and food could have turned to suicide. But Neville points to many factors that played into it: “He had depressive qualities. He had OCD, anxiety. He’d been a junkie who never went to rehab, he never dealt with a lot of issues.”
When he was a working chef, the rigor and discipline of kitchen life gave him a way to deal with his own addiction. But the pressures of being on the road so many days a year, especially as the father of a young daughter, were ultimately overwhelming. In the documentary, his producers Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins reveal that they were OK with his desire to stop the hamster wheel of TV production, but Bourdain couldn’t manage to get off.
“He dreamt a lot about quitting,” Neville says. “He had fantasies about moving to Vietnam and writing books, and he could have done that. He even had a book contract to write about Vietnam and take a year to go live there. But he could never bring himself to do it.”
Sourced from the 100,000 hours of material to which the team had access, the doc incorporates outtakes from his TV series such as “Parts Unknown,” along with iPhone footage and an unfinished documentary that was started when his first book came out but was later abandoned.
The extra footage from his shows provide some intimate moments. “When he would start shooting with people, oftentimes he would open up and talk about himself, just to get other people to open up about themselves. It was one of his techniques,” Neville discovered. “Then they would just cut that out — there was a lot of footage of him talking very openly about himself with people.”
As his fans know, Bourdain wasn’t just a lover of food and travel, but also an obsessive movie and music fan. When Neville started to assemble music for the documentary, he made an 18 hour-long playlist of every song Bourdain had ever mentioned or written about that he gave to everyone working on the project. “When we budgeted the film, I said, ‘we need money to have a bunch of songs in here, this has to be a film of real music from Tony’s life,” says Neville.
“He had great taste in music. It was everything from Marvin Gay to Iggy Pop to Lydia Lunch and Talking Heads,” Neville says. The documentary sets the mood with the rousing Jonathan Richman title track and songs by Television, Brian Eno and Hank Williams Sr., plus the haunting theme from the 1983 David Bowie-starring film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.”
His death hit especially hard for Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, who reveals in his interview that he hadn’t been able to make any music since Bourdain’s death. Neville asked him to write a song for the film, which was the first song he had recorded since.
Also incorporated are Bourdain’s foreboding Instagram stories, which give a glimpse into his dark thoughts at the end of his life. Since the stories had already disappeared, they weren’t widely disseminated after his death. “I don’t think anybody’s ever publicly made that connection. Until this film. So that will be something for the viewers to discover for the first time,” Neville says.
However, Neville didn’t speak to Asia Argento, whose two year-long relationship with Bourdain was much dissected after his death. “I just felt like at the end, I wasn’t going to get closer to him by talking to her because she has her own very clear point of view about things,” he says. “She says the same thing in every interview. I felt like once you start to get into the details of the complications of the relationship, it just begs 10 more questions. And those questions don’t give you any insight into him.”
Among the many factors that indicated his state of mind, Neville found one of Bourdain’s tattoos illuminating. It read in Greek, “I’m certain of nothing.”
“That can be a good thing when you’re a seeker of experiences, but the flip side is it means you’re sure of nothing,” Neville muses.
“At the end of his life, he lost perspective of his story,” the director concludes.
If you or anyone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.