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

Anthony Bourdain documentary: 'Roadrunner' dives deep into its restlessness

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

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

“I feel like his death was such an unexpected thing for the public, that there’s just like this cultural rift in the newspaper for people,” Neville said.

“Roadrunner: a film about Anthony Bourdain” from HBO Max and CNN Films and published by Focus Features, examines the passions and inner struggles of the brash culinary traveler and combs through his final months with deeply personal memories of Bourdain’s friends and family.

Neville, whose films explored TV’s Mister Rogers in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and backing vocals in “20 Feet From Stardom,” thinks the film can offer viewers a more holistic understanding of Bourdain.

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

CNN spoke with Neville about what he discovered while making “Roadrunner,” which airs on CNN March 13.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NC: What intrigued you about this project? You hadn’t met Bourdain. What attracted you?

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

I watched the show from time to time, but I always really liked it when I saw it and liked it and found him to be a funny, complex, smart guy who is really a kind of a curiosity ambassador, I guess…I felt like the work he was doing was important work, you know, that what he was doing was humanizing people across the planet and showing commonalities and talking about breaking bread with people and what all those things mean.

So that was all I loved about him, but I also had…just had questions about him, as I think a lot of people had. And certainly in the wake of his suicide, I think the reaction I’ve had more than any other is how the hell is this going?

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

CNN/Focus Features

NC: You wanted to find out who Bourdain was. What surprised you?

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

You know, like it used to be. … The “Kitchen Confidential” version of his childhood is great and it’s funny and it’s fictionalized, but I don’t think you understand very well his shyness and his kind of geek, his gangrene too, just his physique and all that early.

And so that was part of it, and then just starting to see once the world opened up to him and he could travel all the time, how those things that he always wanted became kind of new principles defining his life. … He had been a heroin addict, he had written about it, and that the rigors of cooking had kept him on the straight and narrow…

Anthony Bourdain worked for decades in the kitchens of New York restaurants.

Anthony Bourdain worked for decades in the kitchens of New York restaurants.

Courtesy of Dmitri Kasterine/Focus

And he says in the movie, “Inside, I’m safe in the kitchen, but outside that door, that’s what scares me.” And that when he left the kitchen behind him, he was aware that he was suddenly wading through dark waters and he didn’t know what was going to be 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 some of those things he found along the way were really energizing and exciting, but part of it was that I felt like he never really found a new anchorage that stuck. I mean, he got married, he had a kid, he had those times where, oh, I can live that kind of life and I can be that kind of responsible person and I can really get into all that news things…whether it’s jujitsu or writing. But… there was a commotion that I think he really sparked that he could never extinguish.

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

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

Courtesy of Discovery Access/Focus Features

NC: So what is traveling for him in this context?

Neville: A drug. You know, definitely an addiction.

And again, travel is amazing, you know, travel is amazing, and so many of the things he espoused were amazing. But traveling 250, 270 days a year – at a certain point, that’s not traveling, it’s running away and I think that’s something he never really accepted. I mean, I know he thought about it…He negotiated a book deal to go and take a year off and take his family and live in Vietnam and write a book about it.

He had these kinds of escape plans or changes he could have made in his life. And he never did any. He never did one less episode a year. And that’s the thing that I think most people would have, 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 the feeling of maybe it’ll go away if I… don’t cling to it so much, and that there’s something about the addiction to travel and the experience that has become its own kind of self-fulfilling obsession.

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

Some of Bourdain’s good friends, including chef David Chang, appear in “Roadrunner”.

Courtesy of Focus Features in association with Zero Point Zero

NC: How is the film you made different from the film you were thinking of making? Where is it?

Neville: I think the main difference from how I first thought of the movie is that at the beginning, I saw Tony as my audience. In fact, I really wanted it to sound like him to the point where, you know, I went through every song he mentioned anywhere. And I created a playlist, an 18 1/2 hour playlist of songs that we listened to. And I went through all the movies he mentioned.

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

But what changed was that when I started doing the interviews and I started spending more and more time with the people in Tony’s life who were dealing with grief as a result of the suicide, I realize that there’s a part of Tony’s life that he was a bit blind and that’s it – that’s both the amount of love that people had for him, but also the amount of pain it caused.

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

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” reveals how Anthony Bourdain rose from the chef of a New York restaurant to one of the most important and beloved personalities in the world of gastronomy and beyond. Don’t miss the premiere on Sunday, March 13 at 9 p.m. ET.

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

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

I realize that this film will probably be one of the most viewed documentaries about suicide that has ever been made. And so I feel that responsibility and I hope it will have a positive impact.

I mean, I will say that we thought long and hard about exactly how to deal with all of this, so hopefully people find this somehow, if not curative, then at least some kind of treatment and discussion of these things and maybe just think about Tony in a more understanding way.

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

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