Anthony Bourdain documentary: ‘Roadrunner’ dives deep into his restlessness

(CNN) — Feelings for Anthony Bourdain are no less raw, nearly four years after his shocking death.

Director Morgan Neville’s moving documentary chronicles Bourdain’s journey from New York chef to celebrated author and beloved globetrotting television personality, and tries to shed some light on the mystery of his suicide in 2018 at age 61.

“I feel like his death was such an unexpected thing to the public, that there’s kind of a cultural tear in the newspaper for people,” Neville said.

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” from HBO Max and CNN Films and released by Focus Features, examines the passions and inner struggles of the impetuous culinary traveler and examines his final months with deeply personal memories of Bourdain’s friends and family .

Neville, whose movies have explored TV’s Mr. Rogers in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and backup singers on “20 Feet From Stardom,” he believes the film can offer viewers a more holistic understanding of Bourdain.

Fans who felt they knew Bourdain through his television work, most recently on CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” will likely find it cathartic and heartbreaking.

CNN spoke with Neville about what he found out while making “Roadrunner,” which airs on CNN on Sunday, April 10.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CNN: What intrigued you about this project? You didn’t know Bourdain. What attracted you?

Neville: I had questions about him. I think I was like a lot of people, I was a fan. He had read a couple of his books starting with “Kitchen Confidential” when he came out.

I watched the show from time to time, but I always liked it a lot when I watched it and liked it and found him to be a funny, complex, intelligent guy who is really an ambassador of curiosity, I guess… It felt like the job. I was doing important work, you know, that what I was doing was humanizing people on the other side of the planet and showing the common ground and talking about breaking bread with people and what all these things mean.

So that was all that I liked about him, but also… I had questions about him, like I think a lot of people did. And certainly in the wake of his suicide, I think the reaction I’ve had more than any other is how the hell does that happen?

Bourdain traveled tirelessly for his television series, including “Parts Unknown.” He especially loved Vietnam.

Features of CNN/Focus

CNN: You wanted to find out who Bourdain was. What did you think that he surprised you?

Neville: The first surprises were that he was a shy, nerdy boy who read books incessantly and worked in the kitchen on his feet 12 hours a day, six days a week for 20 years.

You know, like he was before. … The version of “Kitchen Confidential” from his early life is great, funny and romantic, but I don’t think you fully understand his shyness and his kind of geek, his thinness too, just his physique and all that. Early.

And that was part of it, and then once the world opened up to him and he was able to travel all the time, he began to see how these things that he had always wanted became the kind of new defining principles of his life. …he had been addicted to heroin, he had written about it and that the rigors of cooking had kept him on track…

Anthony Bourdain worked for decades in New York restaurant kitchens.

Anthony Bourdain worked for decades in New York restaurant kitchens.

Courtesy of Dmitri Kasterine/Focus Features

And he says in the movie, “In here, I’m safe in the kitchen, but outside that door, that’s what scares me.” And that when he left the kitchen behind, he became aware of the fact that he was suddenly walking into dark waters and he didn’t know what he was going to find there. … So he was very aware of the fact that he was detaching himself from the things that had really anchored him for a long time.

And parts of that stuff that he found along the way was really energizing and exciting, but part of it is that I felt like he never found a new mooring that got stuck. I mean, he got married, he had a kid, he had these moments of kind of, oh, I get to live this kind of life and I get to be this kind of responsible person and I get to really get involved in all these new things. …be it jujitsu or writing. But… there was an uneasiness that I think it really sparked and could never turn off.

Bourdain's ex-wife, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, appears in "Roadrunner."

Bourdain’s ex-wife, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, appears in “Roadrunner.”

Feature Courtesy Discovery Access/Focus

CNN: So what was travel for him in that context?

Neville: A drug. You know, an addiction without a doubt.

And again, traveling is awesome, you know, traveling is great, and a lot of the things that he championed were awesome. But traveling 250, 270 days a year, at a certain point, it’s not traveling, it’s running away and I think that’s something she never came to terms with. I mean, I know she thought about it… he negotiated a book deal to take a year off and take his family to live in Vietnam and write a book about it.

He had these kinds of escape plans or modifications that he could have made in his life. And he never did any of them. He never did an episode less a year. And that’s what I think most people would have said, “Oh, my work/life balance is out of whack, maybe I should work less.”

But for Tony, I think it was both a feeling that maybe it would go away if I… don’t hold on so tight, and that there’s something about the addiction to travel and experience that became its own kind. of self-fulfilling obsession.

Some of Bourdain's good friends, including chef David Chang, are interviewed in "Roadrunner."

Some of Bourdain’s good friends, including chef David Chang, are interviewed on “Roadrunner.”

Courtesy of Focus Features in association with Zero Point Zero

CNN: How is the movie you made different from the one you thought you were going to make? Or is that it?

Neville: I think the main difference from how I first thought of the movie is that I initially thought of Tony as my audience. Actually, he just wanted me to feel like him to the point where, you know, I pored over every song he ever mentioned anywhere. And I put together a playlist, a playlist of 18 and a half hours of songs that we listened to. And I went through all the movies that he mentioned.

I watched them all. I went through all the books he mentioned and, you know, I went back and read or reread a lot of them. I feel like he wanted the movie to have his energy and the DNA and that if he saw it, I feel like there are Easter eggs in the movie, that if he saw it, he’d be like, “Oh yeah!” Like Tony would get what other people they wouldn’t get.

But what changed is that as I started doing the interviews and started spending more and more time with the people in Tony’s life who were dealing with grief after suicide, I realized that there’s a part of life from Tony that he was a little blind and that’s it, it’s both the amount of love that people had for him, and the amount of pain that he caused.

And I felt like that was something I owed to the people I interviewed. And that at a certain point, there is a part of the story that Tony should not like. And that became for me the way the film evolved in my mind. Which is both, but I definitely started to feel a lot more like I really wanted to honor the kind of honesty and vulnerability that people who spoke to me gave me because I know it wasn’t easy for anyone.

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” reveals how Anthony Bourdain went from being a chef in a New York restaurant to one of the most prominent and beloved figures in the world of food and beyond. Don’t miss the movie on CNN this spring.

CNN: Is there a mental health message in this movie?

Neville: I think so. … I feel like at the very least, the movie has already given people permission to talk about things like suicide, which is something that people rarely feel like they have permission to talk about because it’s so tied to feelings of embarrassment or embarrassment or guilt. or whatever.

I realize this movie will probably be one of the most watched documentaries dealing with suicide ever made. So I feel that responsibility and I hope it has a positive impact.

I mean, I’ll say we thought long and hard about exactly how to handle all of that, so I hope people find that in some way, if not healing, at least a way to process and talk about these things and maybe just thinking about Tony. in a more understanding way.

CNN: So what will fans like you find that they haven’t seen before?

Neville: I feel like there’s a sense of connection to someone you knew, but understanding them in a deeper way. I think there are all kinds of things that people will take away, but I think more than anything, it’s just a feeling of appreciating the complexity of who this guy really was.

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