San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)

Director tries to make sense of Bourdain’s exit ‘Roadrunner’ was emotional challenge, says Morgan Neville

- By Cary Darling

Morgan Neville is no stranger to wading neckdeep into other people’s lives.

The documentar­y director, who lived a stint in San Francisco, has made films about Mister Rogers (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”), Orson Welles (“They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead”), Keith Richards (“Under the Influence”), Johnny Cash (“Johnny Cash’s America”), Sidney Poitier (“Sidney Poitier: The Defiant One”) and previously unheralded backup singers (the Oscarwinni­ng “20 Feet From Stardom”).

But immersing himself in his latest project, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” (opening Friday, July 16), left him particular­ly at sea. Bourdain, the chef turned bestsellin­g author and globetrott­ing host of such popular culinary and culture TV series as “No Reservatio­ns,” “The Layover” and “Parts Unknown,” died by suicide in 2018. It was an act that shocked even Bourdain’s closest friends and left strangers flummoxed as to why someone who seemed to have it all — money, fame, rockstar swagger and a keen sense of adventure and observatio­n combined with an unlimited travel budget — would end it all.

“Emotionall­y, it was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve made a lot of, I guess you’d say, lighter films or films that are kind of darkly funny, but this …,” he says, his voice trailing off during a recent phone interview. “I “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” (R) is in theaters now. colorful life story etched in pain and loneliness. One of the many haunting moments in the film is learning how drawn Bourdain was to Saudi Arabia’s vast, aweinspiri­ng Empty Quarter, where he “felt whittled away … feeling something bigger than him” that wasn’t about him.

In order to portray this elusive emotional state, Neville threw himself into all things Bourdain.

“In the beginning, all you’re trying to do is infuse their energy into your life,” Neville says of his process, “to the point where I put together a playlist of every song I could ever find him mentioning.”

That playlist ended up being 18 hours long.

Indeed, music played a big role in Bourdain’s life, and Neville wanted to include as much of it as possible in the film. One memorable sequence is set to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s mournful theme from the film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” To get the rights to use it, Neville had to write a personal letter to Sakamoto.

“Then I watched the movies he loved, and I read the books that influenced him,” Neville continued, “and I watched footage of him endlessly.”

Yet coming to terms with the dead is quite different

from dealing with the living.

“The hard part for me was the spending time with all the people in his life in those interviews,” Neville says. “It’s one thing to watch (Tony), it’s another to sit across the table from somebody who’s in deep pain and try and comfort them, not just in interviews but in phone calls and meals and things that continue to this day.”

Those interviewe­d for the documentar­y including chefs Eric Ripert and David Chang, as well as Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, who sometimes appear as if on the verge of breakdown. (The one notable who doesn’t talk is onetime Bourdain girlfriend and actress Asia Argento.)

In fact, it was Bourdain’s friends who came to Neville with the idea of making a movie. Neville had worked with Chang previously as a director for the Netflix food series “Ugly Delicious,” and a Bourdain doc was something that intrigued him immediatel­y.

“I had questions. I think it’s as simple as that,” Neville says. “He was somebody who I respected and felt like he was a fellow traveler. There was part of him that was like a documentar­y filmmaker, and I thought he was somebody who was providing this profoundly public service of showing the world to other people.”

But Neville found out that Bourdain also battled agoraphobi­a in his later years.

“For somebody who had so much swagger, he really had a hard time being a public figure in a certain way,” he says. “But the thing that motivated him … is that he had impostor syndrome.”

At one point in the film, Bourdain says, incredulou­sly, “One minute I was standing next to a deep fryer, and then the next I was watching the sunset over the Sahara. What am I doing here?”

As Chang says in the film, Bourdain’s shows were less about eating and more about Bourdain’s efforts to become a better person.

“In his best shows, he’s trying to learn about the world in a totally nonjudgmen­tal way and totally own his biases and his own shortcomin­gs in a way that just makes you trust him,” Neville explains. “I think of him as one of these rare cultural figures, like Johnny Cash, who people from every age, gender, demographi­c, political stripe respond. … It’s such a rare gift.”

And so Neville scoffs when people ask who will be the next Bourdain.

“Well, there isn’t,” he says matteroffa­ctly. “People have been trying since he died — since before he died. There are great people doing shows, but it’s not David Chang, it’s not Stanley Tucci. … He was a flawed person who shared those flaws with us. And, then, because of that, I think we all trusted him. That’s really the essence of it.”

 ?? Focus Features ?? “Roadrunner” explores the life of Anthony Bourdain, a chef turned bestsellin­g author and globetrott­ing TV series host.
Focus Features “Roadrunner” explores the life of Anthony Bourdain, a chef turned bestsellin­g author and globetrott­ing TV series host.
 ?? Evan Agostini / Associated Press ?? Director Morgan Neville immersed himself in music and films loved by Bourdain.
Evan Agostini / Associated Press Director Morgan Neville immersed himself in music and films loved by Bourdain.

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