The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.
You chose to make this film fairly soon after Anthony Bourdain’s death. Did your perspective change over the course of shooting?
Morgan Neville: Well yes, it changed because there was so much I learned. The first time I sat down with Chris [Collins] and Lydia [Tenaglia], his producers, we were just talking about the possibility of this film. I was talking about all these ideas about culture and how important it was and going on and on, and they stopped me and said “but yeah, you have to remember he could be such an asshole.” They said he was the nicest asshole they ever met, but I think what they were saying is that it’s important to not puff him up too much, giving me permission to not put him on a pedestal. I think Tony hated that and I believe he was willfully ignorant of his own influence and importance. As he says in the film, “I’m not a journalist, I’m not here to inspire, I’m not into politics,” but of course he was all those things. He really willfully tried to pretend that he was doing a little show on cable that no one needed to pay attention to. I think it was his own survival mechanism of feeling like he didn’t have the kind of reach he did. When he died, everyone in his universe was utterly flabbergasted by the range and the depth of the outpouring of grief over his death because he willfully tried to keep everyone in a bubble. There’s that part of it.
I started shooting about sixteen months after he died, and I filmed over a course of a year. During that time, I stepped into a world with a lot of people experiencing every stage of grief—anger, denial, you name it. And I could see people processing what was happening even while I was shooting interviews sometimes. There were a lot of people I spoke to that said they hadn’t talked about it until they sat down with me. For me to sit down with someone and tell them we can talk for hours about everything that happened and what they are feeling, it was an invitation that people don’t often get particularly in the wake of something like a suicide, which people can bottle up. Suicide is tied to these feelings of shame or guilt, all kinds of complicated feelings that can make it hard for people to discuss. I remember his agent told me that shortly after Tony died, an American suicide prevention society asked if they could use Tony’s name on a campaign for suicide prevention. And she had said no, Tony would have hated being a poster boy for anything like that. And then they came back to her while we were making the film, a year later, and asked again to use his name for a similar campaign and she said you know what, Tony doesn’t get to say anymore. To me, that was so revealing of the kind of evolution of how people in Tony’s life were dealing with it and I feel like this film was made in the middle of these shifting emotions. I think the film reflects a lot of that and if I made the film five years from now, it would be different. I don’t know if it would be better or worse—it would be less raw, but it would also be less immediate. I think the rawness of the film is reflective of what I experienced while making the film. My thinking about the film and Tony and who was the film for was changing while I was making it. It started being about Tony and then my own thinking was well, there’s part of this story that Tony shouldn’t like. There’s part of the story that was dealing with the crater that he left behind. And who knows; he might have liked that too. The one thing about it was that he believed in a brutal honestly about all things, and he was pretty good at self-loathing too. If you go back and look at all his books, he beats himself up almost always first and foremost before he’ll beat up others. He always takes himself to task.
He was someone who was always about chasing the edge
We do get a bit of his backstory, but the film really begins with Kitchen Confidential. Why did you choose to begin the story at the point?
MN: Part of it is that I was trying to make a film and not a miniseries. With someone that had a big life and with the amount of footage we had, you could’ve made something really expansive. But I still love the feature-length mode of storytelling to digest something down. I’m not writing a book, I’m not Wikipedia, I’m just trying to find an essence of understanding of who the subject is. And I felt like all of his early years, he wrote about them so well in Kitchen Confidential. And if I were to try and tell those stories, it would be a little like trying to put out a greatest hits album, like oh remember that story and this guy that Tony wrote about that one time? There’s also virtually no archive of that period and so much of it would have been based on Tony’s recollections and other third-party perspectives. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that the extraordinary story here is that someone in middle-age, who has been a chef for years—an unspectacular one at unspectacular restaurants—is suddenly given this life-changing opportunity. All these things he dreamt about his whole life are suddenly given to him and it completely transforms his life, and what that does to him with the both the good and the bad things that come along with it. As I was thinking about shaping it as a film, the first act of the film is really the end of his old life and him working in kitchens. And then the middle part of the film is the new guy that has it all, with the fame and the ability to travel. He has a wife, he has a kid, he has this life that would have been utterly unimaginable to himself even a few years before. And then we have the third act of the film, which is him coming to terms with the fact that the life he had, the kind of have-it-all life wasn’t making him happy. He couldn’t reconcile the things that he liked about it with the other things that gave him his edge. And he was someone who was always about chasing the edge and pushing himself creatively. He had all of these great attributes… extreme wanderlust and extreme curiosity and extreme open-mindedness and he was an extreme seeker. Those were the things that made him great but they were also the things that made him unable to just sit back and enjoy things. He had a very hard time feeling content. It’s ultimately the kind of psychological issues that he had all along and they weren’t going to go away. He’s someone that was never able to figure out boundaries in life. I think a lot of people of a certain age think well maybe I’ll push myself creatively professionally, but in my personal life, it’s okay to stay at home and be fifties TV dad. To not worry about being cool or living up to expectations. I think there was this completely restless part about him; it was the thing that always gave him his energy and it was both his superpower and his fatal flaw.
We know the end of the film is moving towards his suicide. How did you approach and navigate that whole subject?
MN: It was hard. We spent a lot of time working on it. The question I kept asking myself in every scene was “what is Tony thinking in this scene?” and what I kept seeing and learning about was Tony’s change in behavior. He always had depression and manic episodes; he’s talked about that. It’s said in the film—his ups became bigger, his downs became bigger and there was this sense from everyone in his life that he was becoming unmoored. He started therapy ten weeks before he killed himself. This is someone who had never gone to therapy except for once on camera (which we had footage of), and in high school when he got caught with pot. So he understood that he was out there on the edge somewhere. I wanted people to understand where he was at, and I wanted to get at that question of why would someone that has the life of Anthony Bourdain ever kill themselves. And without giving a tidy answer, because there isn’t one and he hated tidy answers, but to at least give a sense why all those threads that connect his life, the threads that connect his depression and addiction and obsession were there all along. I think trying to put those into a context was probably the most important part of it for me. It was not about trying to give answers but ask a lot of questions and present the messiness of who Tony was, particularly at that time in his life. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever edited. Especially from the beginning of the film where there’s so much energy and hope and excitement about his life taking off and all these opportunities to where it goes. Tonally we tried to get the whole film to reflect where he was going tonally, and where his emotions were going. It was a big feat and the other part of it was me wanting acknowledge not only that he killed himself, but what he left behind in his wake. And that was me just reacting to getting to know all these people on and off camera, and experiencing that impact through them.