Anthony Bourdain never wanted people making a fuss about his death. “What actually happens to my physical remains is of zero interest to me,” he once said. “I don’t want a party.”
That blunt comment appears at the start of Roadrunner, a new documentary that memorializes the chef-turned-author-turned-travel-host’s vivid life and painful end in the summer of 2018, at the age of 61. (It opens in theaters on July 16th.) Since then, many have struggled to come to terms with his passing, and the movie is awash in their shock, hearing from associates and loved ones who speak about the complicated man they knew. Interview subjects collapse into tears. Some refuse even to talk about his suicide. Bourdain may have preferred not to be remembered, but his death provoked the exact opposite response: Those around him can’t let him go.
Morgan Neville admired Bourdain but never met him — it was the deep sorrow expressed by Bourdain’s friends, like restaurateur David Chang, whom Neville was working with on the Netflix series Ugly Delicious, that really clued him into what a loss this was. “Everybody called him Uncle Tony,” says the Oscar-winning director of 20 Feet From Stardom, who specializes in profiling iconoclasts — whether they’re rock stars (Keith Richards: Under the Influence) or Fred Rogers (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). Trying to sum up the reaction to Bourdain’s suicide, Neville can only say, “Just the grief, the crater that [act] left in their lives.”
But when CNN, which produced Bourdain’s acclaimed series Parts Unknown, reached out to Neville, it was precisely because he didn’t know the late host personally. “CNN said, ‘We are going to make this film, and we want somebody on the outside — because we’re all way too close to it — who can just take everything and go away and make a film,” he says. Neville ultimately signed on because, “I had questions: How does this happen?”
Roadrunner looks back at Bourdain’s impact through interviews and archival clips as it delves into his battles with mental health, addiction and the quest to find contentment. But now that the film’s done, Neville doesn’t necessarily believe his documentary can clear up the mystery of why he took his life. Talking to Rolling Stone, the filmmaker says he’s comfortable living in that uncertainty. “I’m such a big believer in questions more than answers,” Neville admits. “I have my own interpretation of what happened and why he killed himself. But I can’t say I’m a hundred percent right.”
Where were you when you heard Bourdain died?
I was home. I was shocked, like most people, because it just didn’t compute. The thing that I’ve learned is, nobody knows where to put those feelings about suicide — [especially] with somebody who people felt they knew, who seemed so smart and funny and successful. It just doesn’t make sense.
He was this complicated character. And I felt like Bourdain was a fellow traveler — he was kind of a documentary filmmaker. What he was doing was using his platform to tell stories about people on the far side of the planet, and helping us understand how, through culture and food and music, these are real people with their own hopes and dreams and loves. That’s something that I felt like I’ve been doing forever.
[His show] was a real public service. I can’t think of anybody who showed more of the world to Middle America, ever. We live in this time of where there’s a divide between people who are curious — who have passports, who want to experience more, learn more — and people who are totally uninterested in trying to understand other people more. That is such a dangerous divide. I feel like Tony was the guy who was bridging that, as much as anybody could.
It’s easy to see why CNN would approach you because of your track record with documentary profiles. But each profile must have its own unique challenges, right?
I knew this would be hard with somebody like Bourdain — there’s no shortage of people telling you, “Don’t fuck it up.” But I remember, before I even started the film, when I first sat down with [Bourdain show producers] Chris [Collins] and Lydia [Tenaglia] just to meet them, we ended up having this three-hour conversation. I was saying, “I think Tony was really important. He was this person who was mirroring culture around the world and helping us connect, using his platform for good.” And they said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let me also tell you: He could be such an asshole.” [Laughs]
Why do you think they wanted to tell you that in the first meeting?
I appreciated them giving me permission to not put him on a pedestal. Frankly, I think that’s the most Bourdain thing I could think of: Don’t put anybody on a pedestal. Don’t be hagiographic about anybody. Everybody’s flawed and fucked up.
I really think in Tony’s case, his flaws are his superpowers. That is a dangerous thing, because you don’t want to fix your flaws if they’re also your superpowers. I remember they said to me in that first meeting, “He could be a 14-year-old boy, so immature. When he would fall in love, it was like the first time you ever fall in love. If he tasted something, it’s like the first time you ever tasted it. If he traveled, it was like the first time you ever traveled.” But that’s part of what made him so great on television: It was like a kid experiencing these things.
The seeking part of Tony was great, but it was also dangerous. If you’re constantly moving forward and [searching for] what’s the next experience that’s going to blow my mind or make the world make sense, then you’re not hanging on to the things you already have.
In the public’s mind, a person like Bourdain is reduced to having “demons,” which is such a simplification of his struggles. How did you approach discussing those complexities?
The film doesn’t give you any tidy answers. Tony hated tidy answers — I think Tony said, “Most of the world’s problems are attributed to people trying to find a simple fucking answer.” He had mental health issues and addiction issues. And what was bad for him emotionally was the thing that was good for him creatively. We talk about “love” and “normal” a lot in the film — he maybe didn’t trust [those concepts] because they felt too down-the-middle, and Tony believed that life should be lived on the edge. Which made his show good: “Creatively, I’d rather fail tremendously with the show than do something safe.”
There’s this moment, to me … it’s the most important moment in the film, when he sits down with Iggy [Pop] and says, “At your age, what just thrills the shit out of you?” Iggy says, “Being loved and appreciating the people that give that to me.” God, if that isn’t what Tony needed to hear — I just don’t think he was capable of hearing that. The story [of Roadrunner] is what happens when a guy, middle-aged, is suddenly given everything he always wanted. Does it actually make him happy?
Bourdain’s story should have been inspirational: Here’s someone who finally found success after overcoming all these obstacles.
I think that’s really the film in its essence: [Success] made him happy until the point where that happiness was fleeting. All of his unresolved issues around addiction — he never went to rehab — and around his mental health, he just papered over. He never worked on any of that stuff.
He could have success and money and a wife and a kid, but I think he was really afraid of actually embracing that and trusting that. He never slowed down working. It wasn’t money. It was just Tony feeling like if he slowed down, something was going to catch up with him.
You’ve talked about your decision not to interview his ex-girlfriend Asia Argento, with whom he was having a rocky time before he committed suicide. You must have known that people would ask why you didn’t.
I knew, every single interview, I’m going to get “the question.”
You also must have realized, “If I don’t have her in the movie, it might seem as if I’m suggesting she’s the bad guy.” How did you reconcile the fact that viewers may think that?
I do think I accurately portray what happened. I want to be clear: I don’t think Asia made Tony kill himself — somebody even says that in the film. She was a fiery character, and Tony was looking for that. He says [to someone] in the film, “I’m dating a crazy Italian actress, and it’s not going to end well.” That was something he told a lot of people.
Believe me, we thought a lot about [whether to include Argento]. I looked at everything that she had said publicly in the wake of his death, including an autobiography she published in Italy, and interviews she gave in England. It’s all a version of the same thing, which is kind of, “People don’t understand me and our relationship. I loved him.” I just felt like I was going to end up in this she-said/he-said litigating what happened and who was right. It was narrative quicksand.
People think they want to hear more — believe me, you do not want to hear more about it. It’s not going to make you understand Tony any more, I swear to you — it’s just this thing that’s salacious and kind of like, “Oh yeah, but what about that?” Somebody can make a film about their relationship or about the last year of his life, but I just felt like [that was] throwing the whole balance of the film off. I’m really happy with the decision I made, but I understood that I was going to have to defend it along the way.
It touches on another challenge: How to make peace with his suicide in the film.
I think the bigger thing was, having spent a lot of intense time with a lot of people in Tony’s life, I wanted to honor the crater he left behind. I think if I made this film in five years, it would be different, but the rawness of it right now is so evident that I couldn’t ignore it. I had to stay in that uncomfortable space just to feel that and understand it.
I saw all the different stages of grief while we were making the film. Kim [Witherspoon], his agent, when we first met she said, “Right after Tony died, [a suicide organization] approached me about using his name for a campaign, and I said, ‘No, Tony would have hated that.’ They came back to me a year later and asked again, and I started to say no — then I stopped and said, ‘You know what? Tony doesn’t get to say anymore.’ ” And, you know, there’s part of the story that Tony shouldn’t like, you know? I guess I just wanted to honor that because it’s the experience I had just sitting across the table, talking to those people.
Speaking of parts of Roadrunner that Bourdain might not like, you include interviews with grieving friends who express anger about what he did — they’re mad he left a young daughter behind.
I’m a father, it’s the first thing I thought about: “How the hell do you commit suicide if you’ve got a teenage daughter?” That’s the thing that I will never be okay with. I think a lot of people in his life felt that way, too.
I mean, I understand for somebody to be in a lot of pain, to feel like maybe people are better off without them. But I think suicide really, to me, is about people losing perspective. It’s what people talked to me about again and again — it’s like Tony just didn’t understand what he meant to the people around him and how much people loved him.
I know it was a very unpremeditated act. He was giving notes on edits that afternoon. He was making lunch reservations with a friend for the next week. People say that when people go into a suicidal episode, they last about 90 minutes. I just think he was in a remote part of the world, by himself, and he had a depressive moment and just did something that … I know he had those thoughts before. He wrote about it. He had been talking about [killing himself] forever. I just don’t think anybody ever thought he would actually do it.
You went through a lot of unaired footage from his shows for Roadrunner. What was that Bourdain like?
Often when he would sit down to shoot a scene with strangers, he would just instantly talk about himself in this very open way. I remember David Simon told me that the first time he met Tony was years ago at a book fair, and Tony said to him, “Oh, you’re from Baltimore? When I was a junkie, I tried to score heroin in Baltimore and I couldn’t.” David Simon said, “Well, then you must have been a terrible junkie, because it’s everywhere.” But that was part of Tony’s opening people up: “I’m just going to throw it out there at you.”
In the raw footage, there was a lot of him [talking about himself]. They always cut all that stuff out in the shows, but it was his technique of just being very open. That vulnerable Tony is in the [cut] footage — the insecure Tony is in that footage. We have a little shot of him dancing in there, shirtless, and he’s dancing with these people. His longtime director Tom [Vitale] saw that, and he said, “God, I wanted to put a shot of that into the show, but Tony said he would have killed me.”
Was Bourdain that concerned about protecting his TV persona?
I don’t think he wanted to look uncool. I think “cool” is actually a really interesting point that comes up — we talk about it in the film when he becomes a dad. He’s like, “I’m so far from cool now. There’s nothing cool emanating from anything around me.” It’s this idea of “What is cool?”
Having made films about Iggy Pop and Keith Richards, they’re very different from Tony. They have a kind of a zen to them about really not caring what people think of them and how they come off and being very comfortable in their own skin. Tony, I think, was enchanted by that. But Tony gave a fuck about everything; he cared about everything. He was not zen. I think he liked the idea of trying to be cool like that, but he could not get out of his own way. His brain just was hanging on to it.
In some ways, Roadrunner contends with the age-old notion that artists need to suffer to make great art. But you don’t come across as someone who has these terrible dark demons.
It’s funny because Tony’s crew … I’ve gotten to know them, we hang out now. But I remember when I first met them, they were all like, “You’re too nice. What really pisses you off?” They visited me in the office, and they were talking to people who work with me: “When does he really become a dick?” [Laughs]
I think part of it is the atmosphere Tony always ran [on the show] was the atmosphere of an old-school kitchen, which is you get criticized for everything. The only way you can understand if you’re doing a good job is if you’re being nitpicked over it. It’s all this negative reinforcement. I mean, that was how kitchens worked — and still work, to some extent — and it’s how Tony worked, it’s how the show worked. It’s not how I work.
I am, by nature, an optimistic, positive person. I’m not a haunted person. I think part of the invisible job of what I do is I’m emotionally investing in [Bourdain’s story] and in the people in his life. If people are being vulnerable with me, I have to be that back to them. I like that part of the process. [The idea] that one has to be in grave pain to make the best work, I don’t believe that. I think, yes, lots of great work is made by tortured people, but I feel like the work I do, it’s not a tortured thing — it’s like a pure thing. I’m trying to be just open and truthful and vulnerable and present and listening — all those things are the things that I think make me good at my job. Those dark emotions just get in the way for me.