Roadrunner, Morgan Neville’s documentary about Anthony Bourdain, features narration by the chef and No Reservations host. While most of that audio was recorded by the actual Bourdain, Neville took on the ethically questionable approach of using stitched-together clips, taken from TV, radio, podcasts, and audiobooks, to create an AI model of Bouradain’s voice to recite emails and text. “If you watch the film, other than [Bourdain reciting an email he sent to his friend David Choe], you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the AI and you’re not going to know,” said Neville to The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner in an interview published on Thursday. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”
Neville also told GQ that he checked with “his widow and his literary executor, just to make sure people were cool with that. And they were like, ‘Tony would have been cool with that.’” But turns out Ottavia Bourdain, the widow in question, was definitely not. On Friday morning, she tweeted, “I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that.”
The day before, Twitter user @rcisneros1233 reached out to Ottavia Bourdain, asking if she had “anything to do with the documentary.” “Besides the interview I gave and supplying some of the footage, not really,” she responded.
Neville has given a follow-up statement to Variety, though it doesn’t address why people might feel uncomfortable with the director using an AI to essentially deepfake Bourdain’s voice. “There were a few sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke aloud,” Neville says. “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.”