Even before he took his own life in June 2018, Anthony Bourdain had a particular fascination with celebrity suicides. "Tony was kind of a suicidologist," says Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville, whose latest feature, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, chronicles the eventful life and sudden death of the world-famous chef and TV host "He was somebody who always knew who had committed suicide and how, and had this kind of dark fascination with it." (Watch our video interview above.)
Bourdain wasn't unique in that regard: there's an entire subculture that's drawn to stories of celebrity suicide. And the New York-born chef, who was 62 when he died, has become a focal point in that community in the years since his death, joining such gone-too-soon artists as Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain, both of whom are still immortalized on murals or internet tributes.
But Roadrunner, which opens in theaters on July 16, pointedly rejects that kind of gauzy iconography, instead focusing on the anger of the loved ones that Bourdain left behind. In fact, the film ends with one of the chef's friends — artist David Choe — defacing a spay-painted Bourdain mural in a defiant rejection of what Neville calls the "romantic idea" of celebrity suicide.
"There can be this kind of romantic idea about [suicide] — you know, live fast and die young," Neville explains. "And I just wanted to show that's utter B.S. There's nothing romantic about it."
"I spent time swimming in the sea of grief he left behind," the director continues. "That part of it is brutal, and there's no way around it. Something that became really important is understanding just how damaging suicide is, because it leaves people with these complicated emotions of shame or sadness that they could have done something and they can't talk about it. Even if intellectually people know that it's not their fault, emotionally is a whole other matter. That's something I wanted people to feel in the film, because I felt it making the film. At the very least, I hope it opens the door and gives people permission to talk about one of the more unmentionable things in our society."
Bourdain's own fascination with suicide may have grown out of the addictive behavior that he wrestled with all his life. The chef described his bout with drug and alcohol abuse in his bestselling memoir, Kitchen Confidential, but Roadrunner illustrates how he continued to find new addictions even after he kicked those habits — whether it was jiu-jitsu or a punishing work schedule.
"Tony absolutely transferred his addictive tendencies," Neville says. "Part of why the kitchen worked so well for him was the rigor of it. And his show he kind of ran the same way. When he wasn't shooting the show, he was doing book and lecture tours. It was just incredible how much work he put in front of himself at all times. He was always all-in, and that's part of what made him great to watch, but it's also a very tough way to live."
Even though Roadrunner expressly avoids romanticizing Bourdain's life and memory, Neville does feel the film offers a nuanced portrait of its subject — one that will win over viewers who might be resistant to feeling sympathy for someone who achieved so much success. "To say that just because somebody has success means they should be happy [is wrong]," the director notes. "Tony never really wanted to be famous, and in fact, he became agoraphobic later in his life because he was always kind of a shy person, which I think people don't really know."
"Being Tony Bourdain out in the world was a tremendous responsibility," Neville adds. "Part of me feels like maybe he should have been more jaded and self-protecting. Part of being jaded is actually knowing how to prioritize what's important in your life. That was the thing Tony could never gauge: there were no boundaries, and that's a really hard thing to do, particularly once you're in your sixties and you should have made priorities about what's actually important in your life by that time."
Neville's approach to telling Bourdain's story has drawn some criticism, though. In a recent New Yorker interview, the director revealed that he used an A.I. model of Bourdain's voice for three specific quotes heard in the film that the chef wrote down, but never spoke out loud. That revelation immediately sparked controversy, with some questioning the ethics of Neville's choice.
Speaking with GQ, the filmmaker said that he sought the approval of Bourdain's widow, Ottavia Bourdain, as well as his literary executor. "They were like, Tony would have been cool with that,'" Neville said. "I wasn’t putting words into his mouth. I was just trying to make them come alive." It's worth noting that Ottavia Bourdain quickly issued a corrective to that version of events on Twitter.
Coming into Roadrunner, the big question viewers will likely have on their minds is "Why?" But Neville hopes they leave the theater with the answer to a different query. "I feel like the film is less about why he committed suicide and more about how could the guy we thought we knew — the kind of funny, smart guy we had a relationship with [on TV] — how do you reconcile that with somebody who would commit suicide? Making that connection is the kind of thing I was looking for. Tony's curiosity and seeking are all great things, but done in extremes they become dislocating. It was hard for him to feel love and emotion, really. There's never a tidy answer to why anybody kills themselves, but at least we can start to understand how that possibly could have happened."
— This story has been updated to reflect the recent news about Neville's use of A.I. in the film.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain premieres July 16 in theaters.
— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Jason Fitzpatrick
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