Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, the new documentary that’s celebrating the life of the title celebrity chef, is receiving backlash from audiences over its use of an AI-recorded voiceover from the late star. Film critics and documentarians are expressing their concern over the ethics of the artificially generated voice on Twitter.
In response to the backlash, Morgan Neville, who directed and produced Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, defended the decision to include the AI voiceover. He spoke to Variety to explain his intentions behind using the technology in the movie, which Focus Features released in theaters this weekend. He said, “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.”
For the film, editors Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden weaved together narration from from audio clips, show outtakes, video interviews and audiobooks that feature the Emmy Award-winning travel documentarian, who had shows on Food Network, Travel Channel and CNN. Neville, who also spoke to the New Yorker about the documentary, said that he used the artificial intelligence to create three quotes that feature the voice of Bourdain, who tragically died by suicide in 2018.
“I created an AI model of his voice,” said Neville, who previously garnered fame for directing and producing the acclaimed 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which chronicled the life of Mr. Rogers. “If you watch the film…you probably don’t know what the lines are that were spoken by the AI, and you’re not going to know.” Representatives for Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain added that the AI voice technology was used for less than 60 seconds.
Neville also gave an interview to GQ magazine, during which he explained the process of how the AI voiceover was created. He said, “We fed more than ten hours of Tony’s voice into an AI model…We also had to figure out the best tone of Tony’s voice: His speaking voice versus his “narrator” voice, which itself changed dramatically of over the years.”
The filmmaker also claimed that he “checked with (Bourdain’s) 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. I wasn’t putting words into his mouth. I was just trying to make them come alive.”
But the celebrity chef’s widow, Ottavia Bourdain, responded her disagreement to Neville’s comment on Twitter. “I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that,” she tweeted.
Critic Sean Burns wrote, “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.” Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel tweeted the excerpt from the New Yorker interview and commented: “Thanks I hate it.”
Neville’s fellow documentarian, Lindsay Beyerstein, questioned whether the use of AI was disclosed to viewers. She tweeted: “There’s no real problem with using AI in the place of a soundalike actor in a non-fiction film, as long as the creators are upfront about what they’re doing.”
Before the backlash over the AI voiceover began, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain received strong reviews, as well as a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 81/100 on Metacritic. Following its theatrical release, the otherwise acclaimed documentary is expected to air on CNN and HBO Max at a later date.