When explaining how he was able to capture the spirit of Anthony Bourdain in his haunting new documentary, filmmaker Morgan Neville said he felt it was vital to have the whole film in the voice of the acclaimed chef, who died by suicide in 2018. To do so, the director used artificial intelligence to create three sound bites with Bourdain’s voice — a process, Neville said, that was approved by the late celebrity chef’s widow and literary executor but it has come under fire after the release of the documentary,
The editorial decision to deepfake Bourdain’s voice has come under fire from critics who have questioned the ethics behind using AI for the film, which opens in theaters over the weekend. Among those critics is Ottavia Bourdain, his widow, who disputed that Neville approached her about re-creating her husband’s voice through AI in the documentary. Here is what Ottavia tweeted following the controversy:
I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that. https://t.co/CypDvc1sBP
— Ottavia (@OttaviaBourdain) July 16, 2021
Neither Neville nor Focus Features, the documentary’s distributor, immediately responded to requests for comment when this news broke and Neville emphasized Thursday to "Variety" that the decision to use AI technology was made “with the blessing of his estate and literary agent.” Neville went on to say, "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."
Anthony and Ottavia Bourdain married in 2007 after his first marriage, to Nancy Putkoski, ended in divorce. They had a daughter, Ariane, and the couple later separated in 2016, but they never finalized their divorce before his death. The film, which comes three years after Anthony Bourdain’s death, has been met with mostly positive reviews since it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last month.
Neville recounted to the New Yorker that three written quotes of Bourdain’s are now in his deepfake voice in the film. One of the lines, as reported by the New Yorker, was from an email Bourdain sent to a friend before his suicide: “You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?” The filmmaker claimed that he got approval from Bourdain’s estate and that he “wasn’t putting words into his mouth.” “If you watch the film … you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the AI, and you’re not going to know,” he told the New Yorker. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”
While technology has regularly been used in films to bring back actors such as Carrie Fisher and Paul Walker who appeared posthumously, critics have noted that those instances did not involve someone who was the subject of a documentary. Part of the backlash to the deepfake technique, in this case, was because of how devastated fans were over Bourdain’s death. There is a line that probably shouldn’t be crossed and some think that Neville certainly did, even if his intentions were pure.