Roadrunner, directed by Morgan Neville, features a digitally produced version of Anthony Bourdain's voice

By Vanessa Etienne
July 19, 2021 01:21 PM
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Anthony Bourdain in Roadrunner
Credit: Focus Features

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain — which premiered in theaters on Friday — offered an emotional look at the life of the food world's favorite bad boy, who died by suicide in 2018, and his impact on those close to him.

The new documentary directed by Morgan Neville set a pandemic box office record but has also sparked its fair share of controversy involving the use of an A.I.-generated version of Bourdain's voice. 

Editors of the film pulled hours of archived clips of Bourdain and teamed up with a software company in order to generate three lines of the late chef and television star's voice. In the film, Bourdain's A.I. voice reads an email sent to friend and artist David Choe saying, "My life is sort of shit now. You are successful, and I am successful, and I'm wondering: Are you happy?"

Neville explained the decision to The New Yorker, saying, "There were a few sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke aloud. With the blessing of his estate and literary agent we used AI technology. It was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I thought it was important to make Tony's words come alive."

Despite Neville telling the outlet of his obtained consent, Bourdain's estranged wife Ottavia Busia quickly shut down the claim on Twitter, saying she never gave permission: "I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that."

The director followed up by telling the outlet that the use of A.I. was a part of his initial pitch for the documentary.  

"I didn't mean to imply that Ottavia thought Tony would've liked it. All I know is that nobody ever expressed any reservations to me," Neville said. 

Busia also revealed to The New Yorker that she recalls A.I. being mentioned in a conversation but didn't realize it would be used in the film, saying via email that she "took the decision to remove myself from the process early on because it was just too painful for me."

roadrunner
Credit: focus features

Following the documentary's release, many fans and critics found the use of Bourdain's fake voice to be "questionable" and possibly unethical, leading to backlash online. 

One film critic, Sean Burns, told his Twitter followers that he wasn't made aware of the artificial voice before writing his review. 

"When I wrote my review I was not aware that the filmmakers had used an A.I. to deepfake Bourdain's voice for portions of the narration. I feel like this tells you all you need to know about the ethics of the people behind this project," he wrote.

But Neville didn't see the matter as an issue, telling The New Yorker, "We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later."

Using technology to bring digitally-produced versions of stars back to life has been increasingly common over the past years, famously for Star Wars' Carrie Fisher in The Rise of Skywalker. 

"People are more forgiving when we use this kind of technology in fiction as opposed to documentaries," Meredith Broussard, NYU professor and author of Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World, told Quartz. "In a documentary, people feel like it's real and so they feel duped."

"The thing about ethics is that it's about context," she continued. "Three lines in a documentary movie—it's not the end of the world, but it's important as a precedent. And it's important to have a conversation about whether we think this is an appropriate thing to do."

A representative for Focus Features, which produced the film, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.