With movies, we often wonder: Can I believe my own eyes? Did I just see what I think I saw?
With documentaries, we sometimes ask the same questions, but the contract is pretty clear between filmmaker and audience. Yes. You can. You can believe what you’re seeing, or hearing.
In a few crucial sentences of voice-over, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” falls short on that score.
Director Morgan Neville’s suddenly controversial documentary presents a two-hour chronicle of celebrity chef, “Parts Unknown” host and restless, haunted global traveler Anthony Bourdain, who died by suicide in 2018. It’s an otherwise compelling documentary by an Oscar-winning filmmaker. But the voice-over bits in question have become a swirl of a controversy. And they deserve to be, because they’re not playing fair.
Here’s what happened. In “Roadrunner,” Bourdain is seen and heard in decades’ worth of video and cellphone footage in every imaginable geographical context. When we hear Bourdain speaking in voice-over, most of the words he’s speaking come from a variety of podcasts, audiobook readings and media appearances.
Most, but not all. As recounted in a recent New Yorker story, at one point in “Roadrunner” one of the film’s interview subjects, artist David Choe, talks about an especially painful email he received from Bourdain at a low point in his far-flung life. Choe begins reading from the email, and then his voice turns into Bourdain’s, and it sounds like the movie’s subject is opening up in an unexpected, striking way about his depression.
We hear Bourdain asking his friend: “My life is sort of s* * * now. You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?”
Where did director Neville find that remarkable audio clip? Nowhere. So, Neville made it himself.
The Bourdain we hear in three separate narration instances in “Roadrunner” is the creation of artificial intelligence software, sounding alarmingly like Bourdain. It’s so good, Neville told The New Yorker, “you’re not going to know” it isn’t him.
The filmmaker added: “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”
Let’s move that panel up, shall we?
“Troublesome and scary”: That’s how “City So Real” and “Hoop Dreams” filmmaker Steve James sees the decision to fake Bourdain’s voice in that particular way.
“Creatively, I don’t understand the need,” James said Friday, acknowledging that he has yet to see “Roadrunner.”https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/jul/23/roadrunner-uses-ai-for-bourdain-soundalike/”Why not just let the guy reading the email keep reading the email? Why borrow trouble, as my parents used to say, by re-creating Anthony Bourdain’s voice that way?”
James met a similar narration challenge a different way in his 2014 Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself.” That film used excerpts from Ebert’s autobiography, written after the film critic had lost his physical voice to thyroid cancer treatments. “We had a published memoir that, under normal circumstances, Roger would’ve read for the audiobook,” James said. “But that was impossible.”
His solution was a conventional one: Hire a voice actor, Stephen Stanton, to read the excerpts. Stanton sounds a lot like Ebert, and the effect actually tricked a lot of people. But wisely and properly, Stanton is listed as “Memoir Voice of Roger” in the “Life Itself” end credits, just after the co-producers.
That’s part of the problem with “Roadrunner”: There’s no “thanks to our AI software” credit. I suspect an explainer of some sort will be added very soon, prior to the streaming premiere of “Roadrunner” later this summer, date to be determined.
There are other, more common controversies involved with Neville’s film — notably Neville’s assertion that he got permission from Bourdain’s widow, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, to interpolate the AI vocal version of Bourdain here and there in “Roadrunner.”
Busia-Bourdain denied that on Twitter.
“Despicable,” tweeted another celebrity chef, Nigella Lawson, not long afterward and in solidarity with Bourdain’s widow.
A documentary is not an objective, uninflected act of fact-gathering. No such thing. A documentary involves thousands of research, development, interviewing, editing, lighting and musical scoring decisions, resulting in a combination of perspectives within the director’s perspective.
Neville’s a big talent. If you need proof, you can see “20 Feet From Stardom,” his excellent love letter to backup singers who never quite became superstars. Or you can see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — the lovely documentary embrace of Fred Rogers and his universe of kindness.
You should see “Roadrunner,” too, with this caveat: The voice you sometimes hear? He’s a deepfake.
“I can understand Morgan feeling, ‘What’s the big deal here?'” James said. “But it becomes problematic when you’re talking about published vs. private words, and who’s allowing access to that content. And not being forthcoming is problematic.”
James added: “I think we do need a documentary panel on ethics, actually. The whole idea of deepfakes in our culture is something we’re increasingly wrestling with. It merits serious internal discussion among all of us as documentary filmmakers and as viewers.
“What feels legit? What feels invasive, what feels exploitative, and what feels appropriate? I think if (Neville) did it over again, he’d be clear about what he was doing. And what something like that could portend is much more troublesome and scary than this particular example. We’re at the vanguard of something that has serious implications. And they go way beyond documentary.”
Read More:‘Roadrunner’ uses AI for Bourdain soundalike