Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Anthony Bourdain documentary Roadrunner features a surprise AI recreation of his voice

Director Morgan Neville won't say which quotes in the film aren't really Bourdain's voice

Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain
Photo: Jamie McCarthy (Getty Images)

Director Morgan Neville, whose previously films include Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, frames his new Anthony Bourdain documentary Roadrunner around clips of Bourdain’s own voice, allowing him to narrate the story of his own life, but a New Yorker piece on the film contains a surprising revelation from Neville: not all of the clips were made before Bourdain’s death. For three specific moments in the film, Neville wanted to use Bourdain quotes that he didn’t say out loud but wrote in emails or whatever, so Neville turned to “a software company” and used “about a dozen hours of recordings” to construct an AI recreation of Bourdain’s voice—and it’s not necessarily obvious in the film that some of the Bourdain clips weren’t really made by him, even if it’s clear that some of his narration was stitched together from other sources.

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It’s not quite as horrific and inconceivable as Kanye West paying to make a hologram of Kim Kardashian’s dead father that talks about how great Kanye West is, but it’s certainly unusual. And a bit creepy. And particularly bizarre, given how Roadrunner positions Bourdain as someone who was so uncomfortable with fame that he probably wouldn’t have been thrilled with having his voice used to say things he never actually said out loud when he was alive. That also bumps up against the fact that Bourdain died by suicide, so any discussion of what he would’ve done or would’ve wanted is all that much more prickly, which may be partially why Roadrunner doesn’t underline the fact that some of its quotes aren’t things Bourdain literally said out loud.

Neville seems to acknowledge how unusual it is in the New Yorker interview, saying “we can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later,” but he pointedly refuses to say which lines in the movie are actual Bourdain recordings and which ones were readings performed by this AI (other than one example that’s explained in the New Yorker piece). There’s also a moment in the interview where Neville touches on another potential sticking point in the film, which is its lack of focus on Bourdain’s relationship with Asia Argento—who is not interviewed and was not approached about potentially being interviewed—before his death. Neville suggests that the last year of Bourdain’s life is like “narrative quicksand” in that anyone he talked to would have their own things to focus on and “none of those things actually bring you closer to understanding Tony.”

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.