“I wasn’t putting words into his mouth,” Morgan Neville said. “I was just trying to make them come alive.”
“Roadrunner,” the Anthony Bourdain documentary from “20 Feet from Stardom” Oscar winner Morgan Neville, takes a page from documentaries like Alex Gibney’s “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All” in allowing the late chef and television personality to narrate his own story through the use of archival audio. Neville and his team culled through over a dozen hours of audio from Bourdain’s film, TV, audiobook, radio, and podcast appearances. But there are three instances in “Roadrunner” where Neville needed Bourdain narration that did not exist, so he turned to an artificial intelligence system that could recreate Bourdain’s voice.
As reported by The New Yorker in a recent interview with Neville: “There is a moment at the end of the film’s second act when the artist David Choe, a friend of Bourdain’s, is reading aloud an e-mail Bourdain had sent him: ‘Dude, this is a crazy thing to ask, but I’m curious’ Choe begins reading, and then the voice fades into Bourdain’s own: ‘. . . and my life is sort of shit now. You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?’ I asked Neville how on earth he’d found an audio recording of Bourdain reading his own e-mail….’There were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of,’ Neville explained. So he got in touch with a software company, gave it about a dozen hours of recordings, and, he said, ‘I created an A.I. model of his voice.’”
“If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the A.I., and you’re not going to know,” Neville added. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”
In a separate interview with GQ magazine, Neville confirmed his team “fed more than ten hours of Tony’s voice into an AI model” so that his voice could be recreated. “The bigger the quantity, the better the result,” the director added. “We worked with four companies before settling on the best.”
Neville continued, “We also had to figure out the best tone of Tony’s voice: His speaking voice versus his ‘narrator’ voice, which itself changed dramatically over the years. The narrator voice got very performative and sing-songy in the ‘No Reservation’ years. I checked, you know, 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. I wasn’t putting words into his mouth. I was just trying to make them come alive.”
The decision to use A.I. to recreate Bourdain’s speaking voice is already generating backlash on social media ahead of the documentary’s release. As film critic Sean Burns posted, “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.”
“Roadrunner” opens in theaters July 16 from Focus Features.