There are points in Anthony Bourdain’s posthumous documentary, Roadrunner, in which it appears as if the late chef and television personality is speaking from beyond. The truth of the film’s narrative is proving perhaps more puzzling: The director used AI to recreate Bourdain’s voice.
“There were three quotes there that he wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of,” said director Morgan Neville. The New Yorkeris Helen Rosner. Working with a software company, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind 20 feet from stardom provided hours of recordings of Bourdain to recreate an artificial model of his voice.
Apparently the feigned voice was only used to voice the words Bourdain wrote, but he never spoke aloud, including emails to friends, with Neville saying, “He probably doesn’t know what the other lines were that were spoken by the AI. And you won’t know. We can have a documentary ethics panel on that later. “
Due to its strangeness, if not chilling, and those ethical issues, the use of AI has drawn the most pushback from film critics and social media in general. The remainder of Bourdain’s narration throughout the film was “joined clips … drawn from TV, radio, podcasts, and audiobooks,” according to The New Yorker.
“At first, I went and gathered everything he said about his life. I went through all the books, podcasts, and voice-over sessions, and put together a binder of, like, 500 pages of him talking about his life. There was a time when even I was like, ‘Wow, I could do the whole movie with her voice,’ even though I stopped instantly, “Neville explained in an interview with GQ. “But then I came across some things that he wrote but never said. So, I had the idea to create an artificial intelligence model of his voice, which we did.”
“I checked, you know, with his widow and his literary executor, just to make sure people agreed with that,” Neville said. “And they said, Tony would have been fine with that. He wasn’t putting words in his mouth. He was just trying to bring them to life.”
“It was certainly NOT me who said Tony would have been fine with that,” Bourdain’s ex-wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain tweeted in response. In another tweet, he said about his participation in the documentary: “Besides the interview I gave and providing some of the images, not really.”
In a statement after Variety, Neville said instead that he had “the blessing of [Bourdain’s] Estate and literary agent “to use AI by calling it” a modern storytelling technique that I used in some places where I thought it was important to bring Tony’s words to life. “
In ET’s own interview with Neville, he spoke of screening the film for Busia-Bourdain and certain members of Bourdain’s inner circle “just to see if there were any kind of serious mistakes.”
“I was certainly curious to see what Ottavia would think,” he said, also revealing how Bourdain’s brother Chris responded when seeing the film for the first time. “His brother came over and gave me a hug at the end of the movie. There were a lot of tears, and it’s a difficult movie just because it’s a difficult story. There are big ups and downs in it, and I think you just have to go for a walk. Because that’s what Tony always took you. “