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Anthony Bourdain's widow denies saying 'Tony would have been cool' with AI voiceover

Ottavia Busia-Bourdain said that she did not approve the use of an AI model of her late husband's voice in Morgan Neville's documentary "Roadrunner."
Live CNN Talk Show "Parts Unknown Last Bite" Hosted By Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain and Ottavia Busia-Bourdain at a film screening in 2013. Isaac Brekken / WireImage
/ Source: TODAY

A new documentary chronicling the life and death of Anthony Bourdain is receiving blowback after the film’s director said that he had used artificial intelligence to make it appear that Bourdain had said several things the late chef had only written.

Morgan Neville, director of "Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain," said in an interview with The New Yorker that he had found "three (written) quotes" that he "wanted in (Bourdain's) voice" despite there being no recordings of them. To create the audio recordings, Neville used a software company to create an "AI model" of Bourdain's voice.

The backlash was swift, with many criticizing Neville for the choice. The documentary does not indicate the difference between Bourdain's narration and the AI voiceover, and Neville told The New Yorker that viewers "probably don't know" which lines are spoken by the AI model.

Neville told GQ magazine that he had received the approval of Bourdain's estate and his widow, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain. Bourdain and his widow separated in 2016, two years before his death in 2018, but never officially divorced, and share one child, Ariane Bourdain. Busia-Bourdian was his second wife.

"I checked, you know, with his widow and his literary executor, just to make sure people were cool with that," Neville said. "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."

On Twitter, though, Busia-Bourdian said that she had never given such permission.

"I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that," Busia-Bourdain wrote.

Neville told TODAY Food that the quotes were given with the approval of Bourdain's estate and literary agent, and did not mention Busia-Bourdain.

"There were a few sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke aloud," Neville said in an emailed statement. "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."

Representatives of the documentary told Variety the voiceover was used for less than 60 seconds in the film.

Busia-Bourdain did not respond to a request for comment from TODAY Food.

Neville was also criticized for his choice to discuss Bourdain's girlfriend, Asia Argento, and their relationship in the film, but not interview her. Neville told Thrillist that he did not ask Argento for an interview because he thought the complexities of their relationship would overshadow Bourdain's story.

"I feel like if I even had one more minute of her in the film, it would throw the balance of the whole film off because I don't know if it would bring me closer to understanding him," Neville said, adding that he didn't "want to get into that game of he said, she said, they said."

Some viewers said that it felt like the movie portrayed Argento as a villain or blamed her for Bourdain's death by suicide.

Argento did not respond to a request for comment from TODAY Food.