By Bliss Bowen
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
The news that Anthony Bourdain had hanged himself in a hotel in France in June 2018 landed like a bomb. Why would the 61-year-old author and globetrotting gourmand — who had a beloved 11-year-old daughter, a cultishly devoted audience and an Emmy Award-winning career that fed his hunger for far-flung locales and cultures — do such a thing?
Good friend John Lurie voices the pained bewilderment of many in Pasadena-based filmmaker Morgan Neville’s thoughtful documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” opening Friday at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 and Glendale theaters: “How does a storyteller check out without leaving a note?”
Answering such questions was not the impetus for Neville, who won an Oscar for his 2013 documentary “20 Feet from Stardom.” But they unavoidably color his discussions with Bourdain’s brother Christopher, ex-wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, longtime co-workers and close friends (chef Eric Ripert, artist David Choe, musicians Josh Homme and Alison Mosshart) as he constructs a “psychological portrait” of Bourdain to “understand why he was who he was.” Was three years enough time and critical distance?
“I didn’t know him, so I felt like I was always objective about it,” Neville said, coffee in hand, during an early morning Zoom call. “The people in his life are another matter. I don’t think it skewed their views about him, but I think it made the emotion hotter than it would have been.
“When I showed up, I was confronted with this sea of grief of people in his life trying to process what happened, so I just reflected that back in the film. It’s the part of the story that Tony maybe wouldn’t have liked and maybe shouldn’t have liked, which was confronting the selfishness of his act. It’s the first time I had really been up close to suicide in that way. There was a certain moment in making the film where I realized I was also making a film about suicide.”
It’s also a story about transformation, addictive personalities, friendship and profound loyalty. The scope of Bourdain’s shows expands well beyond food as he and his “pirate ship” of trusted longtime crew crisscross the world to Congo, France, Hong Kong, the Saharan desert, Tokyo, Vietnam and conflict areas such as Beirut. To an amputee they meet he says, “It’s the least I can do, to see the world with open eyes.”
“I think Tony ultimately saw that it was just food,” chef David Chang said. “There’s suffering in this world … you spend time with people and you empathize with their plight; how does that not change you fundamentally?”
Neville chuckles a bit when recounting his first meeting with Bourdain’s longtime producers, Chris Collins and Lydia Tenaglia.
“I was saying that to me he was somebody who was fighting the good fight, and was really an ambassador for curiosity and culture and was showing the world what people were like on the other side of the planet in a humanizing way. They said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, but you have to remember, he could also be such an asshole.’”
Other colleagues echo that sentiment, tears choking their words. Neville said he did not ask for an interview with actress/director Asia Argento, who Bourdain dated the last year of his life, “because her part of his story is incredibly complicated, in a way that I don’t think is entirely enlightening … [and wouldn’t] make me understand Tony any better.”
Charismatic and fiercely cynical, Bourdain represents a steep challenge for a filmmaker. Like Mr. Rogers, the subject of Neville’s 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” he was a globally adored icon who followed a private compass. Unlike the polite, soft-spoken Rogers, Bourdain could be a poet of profanity and borderline pathological about not letting anyone speak for him. Neville built a linear narrative arc from 20,000 hours of footage from Bourdain’s various food and travel shows, TV appearances and iPhone videos. He lucked into 60 hours of footage from an unfinished documentary shot when Bourdain’s 2008 memoir “Kitchen Confidential” exploded across bestseller lists. (During a promotional tour, a gangly Bourdain marvels at his good fortune: “My rent is paid — that alone is spectacular!”) Even then, he seemed to be looking for rules to rebel against. The book’s success sparked a life transformation that was “incredibly exciting,” Neville says. But the fame it brought was brutal and, over time, isolating.
“I asked a number of people what they thought would have happened if ‘Kitchen Confidential’ had never happened, and several said they thought he would have killed himself a long time ago,” Neville said. “Fame is obviously a toxin. But just to be clear, Tony’s problems existed before the fame.”
Asked what he hopes audiences will take away from “Roadrunner,” Neville pauses before referencing a scene on a cloudy beach between Bourdain and Iggy Pop. “What thrills you in this day and age?” Bourdain asked. Iggy’s answer: “It’s embarrassing, but to be loved, and to appreciate the people giving it to me.”
“Trying to appreciate the people that bring us love is actually the thing that Tony couldn’t do that was the most tragic part of his story, because he was so loved by people,” Neville said. “We talk again and again about the momentum he had … There was always this [attitude] of, ‘There’s something around the corner that’s gonna fix me or make everything better.’ But [he was] always leaving things behind.”
Morgan Neville’s “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” opens Friday, July 16, at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 (673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena) and Glendale (207 N. Maryland Ave., Glendale) theaters; go to Laemmle.com or call 310-478-3836 for screening and ticket details.