Art of the Cut: Building the Story Anthony Bourdain Couldn’t Share
On June 8, 2018, world-renowned chef, author, and presenter Anthony Bourdain took his own life at the age of 61. It was a shock to everyone—particularly as he often spoke of having the best job in the world.
With the passing of such a public figure, it’s inevitable that stories of his life are told. Stories are a large part of what it means to be human, after all. But when you have over 100,000 hours of footage, how do you find the story that captures what it meant to be Anthony Bourdain?
In today’s Art of the Cut, I’m speaking to Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden, ACE, the editors of Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. We talk about working with Oscar-winning documentary director Morgan Neville, and how they built the story that we all wish Bourdain could have lived to tell for himself.
Check out the Art of the Cut podcast to listen to this interview, and stay up to date on all the latest episodes.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 or visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
HULLFISH: I wanted to jump right in and ask about the beginning of the documentary because I believe that the way a documentary starts is even more important than the way a feature film starts. It’s just so critical to set the documentary up with the right tone, with the right intent, and to get the audience pointed in the right direction.
This documentary does a great job. The opening credits sequence is pure rock and roll and is just a blast.
WICKENDEN: When we were crafting the opening, one of the things that Morgan Neville, our director, was interested in was establishing some of the aesthetic rules for the film.
We really wanted people out of the gate to understand that this wasn’t going to be a greatest hits assembly. We’re not going to be taking you through different episodes. We didn’t want it to look just like the show itself. For example, the story opens and Tony is having a conversation with someone off-camera about death. We had raw footage from any episode we wanted access to, particularly from later shows like Parts Unknown, so we had that covered beautifully.
There’s a shot, a reverse shot, a wide-angle. I think they had three cameras going. We had it all. And instead of cutting it in a way that you knew who he was having a conversation with, where you understood where he was, we wanted to kind of disassociate you from all of those things that are the aesthetics of the show.
So right out of the gate, it established that we’re in a very different kind of storytelling mode. That’s not something you’ve seen before. So that was really important for Morgan to be able to hook the audience and demonstrate right out of the gate that this is something new.
One other thing, and maybe Eileen could speak to this better, was that, Morgan was also really interested in the openings of films like Trainspotting, and it starts and immediately establishes this narrative tone where, in Trainspotting, you hear, Ewan McGregor, and he’s taking you through, meeting, different people in his life, explaining his kind of philosophy, and it’s all done to a really jamming song. I think it was Lust for Life, by Iggy Pop.
And so that was also a template for us. We wanted to establish right out of the gate that this is a film that was going to be narrated as much as possible by Tony, from his perspective. And so establishing his voice and having him bring you into his world was also really important.
HULLFISH: And in that opening discussion, you said, even though you had the coverage of him talking, you could have cut to his face. But instead, it was a shot of waves rolling up on a beach or something like that.
WICKENDEN: Yeah, you’re right. The scene was shot for Parts Unknown. It’s an episode where he’s talking to an anthropologist about death. And so they’re having a very deep discussion about different cultures and their attitudes towards death and Tony is reflecting on his own life, experience, his own ideas about his own death, which was something he talked about a lot throughout his whole career in all the different television shows and his books.
So the way it was shot for Parts Unknown was really this kind of traditional conversation on the beach between two people. But in the edit we did for the film, not only did we remove the sense of where we are and who he’s talking to, but we also resisted the temptation to cut between one of these other beautiful angles. We just stayed on Tony and then pushed in and jump cut. Because we wanted to avoid this feeling like we were in the show.
HULLFISH: The whole opening credit sequence is super rock and roll. It’s very fun, upbeat and gives you a great sense of what you can expect to come. Can you two talk to me about assembling that and the decision to say, “Hey, you know what, we have all this footage from the show, but we’re going to cut to samurai movies and Steve McQueen movies and all this other stuff.”?
MEYER: Yeah, I think this is a great opportunity to give a shout-out to our associate editor, Alannah Byrnes, who is an amazing editor and she actually did the first assembly of the opening credits. Before I even came on to the project. It was the very first thing that got built as a proof of concept.
Then Aaron really refined it and worked in those film clips in really creative ways. But really Alannah’s initial pass on it didn’t change that much because Morgan always knew he wanted to use the song Roadrunner by The Modern Lovers from the very beginning of the idea for the film.
WICKENDEN: Yeah, of the ideas that we get to pretty early in the film is this idea that Tony was a cinephile. Before he became known as this person who was traveling the world, experiencing food and culture—and crafting this unique voice—he really hadn’t traveled that much particularly outside of the country.
One of his friends talks in the film about how all of his references for what the world was like were these romantic visions that came from movies. So we were looking for opportunities throughout the film to pepper in those romanticized visions of the world.
Films that we knew he loved and talked about were films that we tried to weave into the movie. For example, late in the film, there’s footage from The Searchers which Eileen cut, which is really beautiful. All of these references were an attempt to kind of bring you into this romanticized vision of the world.
HULLFISH: At the beginning, there’s also a great promise. I think in movies you always set up a promise to the audience—this is what I’m going to give you if you stick around until the end—and Anthony says, “What am I doing here? I shall endeavor to explain.” A great little soundbite to start the thing off with.
Can you talk about how much you were handed a script and how much you were creating the script? Because documentaries are done in many different ways of course. Sometimes the editors say, “Oh my gosh! I just found this great soundbite of him saying ‘I shall endeavor to explain.’ This has got to go in someplace.”
MEYER: We had a really amazing post team. We had an associate producer, a co-producer, and an associate editor, and the three of them started on the film six months before I even came on to the project. Then I came onto the project first and Aaron came on about four or five months into the edit.
Our associate producer, Chloe Simmons, started the process of going through all of the episodes of all of Tony’s shows. She was the first one on the project. She was sitting in a basement, just watching and watching, taking down every single note about every episode, and putting it into a massive spreadsheet.
At the same time, Morgan was collecting all of the music references and film references that Tony ever talks about or that were important to him. And then they created a soundbite bible of everything that Tony ever said or wrote that was relevant to the concepts we wanted in the film.
That was all in a spreadsheet. So it was just a massive preparation getting ready for the edit. By the time I came onto the project, they already had a board with note cards of the scenes and concepts that were emerging from all of the material. So there was somewhat of a basic structure idea in place when I came on to it.
HULLFISH: I loved a moment early in the film before you formally introduce Joel Rose, you cut to this moment of him sitting in his interview waiting to be interviewed, and then there’s some verité footage, and then you actually see the interview that the previous shot was from.
Then throughout the rest of the movie, that’s a style that you use every time, if not, almost every time. Can you talk to me about deciding to do that and what the purpose of that was?
MEYER: That was also an early idea that Morgan and I talked about trying. The idea behind it was to highlight and acknowledge the importance of each person in Tony’s life that we included in the film. So you see them and then you see them in archive at the moment where they are interacting with Tony in some way. It was a way of getting into the interviewee’s memory of their experience and then the film is like a firsthand account of that memory.
HULLFISH: As an audience member, one of the things it did for me after the first one was, it let me know that whoever I was about to see next, whatever I was about to see next was important and we’re transitioning to something new. “Oh, here’s a new person.” So as an audience member, it was also cool to have that foreshadowing.
WICKENDEN: One of the things I love about the way that Morgan staged the interviews for this film is that he talks often about how he gets his toolkit of ideas of how to approach a subject from the subject that he’s doing a documentary about. For example, with Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the film about Mr. Rogers, all the interviews are shot direct to camera. People looking right into the lens.
With this film, he really wanted to also create a sense of intimacy, which reflects on this editing technique that we were using. And he did it by having all the interview subjects sit across a table from him in restaurants so that the physical proximity was also really close.
So you had that real sense of the warmth of sharing a story with a friend. And because they’re restaurants, they’re often lit with candles. I think the combination of those techniques and those ways of creating a dynamic in the interview, which is really different from how most interviews are done.
Plus this editing element really combined to create a real sense of someone coming into Tony’s story, into the film, and giving a testimonial in a way. There is a sense of honoring him, which I really liked about how these elements all work in tandem.
HULLFISH: When Joel describes the email in Tokyo and the email is read by Bourdain, is that the AI technology that people talked about this film using?
WICKENDEN: No, that actually isn’t. That’s something that Tony recorded for an episode of Parts Unknown. So from the get-go, one of the concepts that Morgan had for the film before he had shot a single interview, was the concept of having Tony narrate the film as much as possible. So that was going to be pulled from all these different elements, whether it was the episodes of the show, raw footage that hadn’t been used, the audiobooks that he recorded, and so on.
And in the instances when he wrote something—he was a prolific writer—and there wasn’t a recording of it, this idea of using AI to create the audio of what he actually said was something that we had talked about. I think part of the creative concept was all linked to this idea that Morgan was excited about, which was, creatively reflecting a movie like Sunset Blvd. where everything is narrated posthumously.
And that’s actually a movie that Tony would creatively quote from on episodes of the show. He recreated Sunset Blvd. in shows. So we thought that this was a really great way to pay homage to him, and his creative life.
So the idea of using that additional technique to have things be as seamless as possible, and to really give the viewer an immersive experience into his voice and his perspective was where we were coming from when we used that technique.
HULLFISH: Where was it used if it wasn’t used in that Tokyo footage?
MEYER: There are two emails in the film. The second email that he writes to Dave Choe where he’s like, “You are successful. I’m successful. Are you happy?” During that email where it transitions from Dave Choe reading to Tony’s voice reading later in the film.
HULLFISH: And that’s a beautiful segment. You could imagine a cheap shot editorial idea of, “Let’s just have it typed out on the screen and shoot the thing.” But what you guys did, it’s very cinematic the way it was done, there are beautiful shots that make you feel like he’s actually thinking about the words that he’s saying. It’s really beautifully done.
MEYER: Thank you. Yeah, I, think there are a few other spots in the film where we did use it as well. They’re very short and all totally verbatim things that Tony wrote. The entire time building the film, we didn’t even know if it would work. It was just one of the many things we were trying out as a creative tool—and it wasn’t working for a very long time—it’s actually a really difficult technology.
HULLFISH: I talked to Jabez Olssen who did the documentary The Beatles: Get Back and although it’s not the same technology, they used AI to be able to separate the voices of a mono recording. So somehow the AI is able to say, “I recognize John’s voice and I recognize Paul’s voice and I recognize the sound of guitars and I can split those things out into three separate tracks, even though it was a mono recording.” It’s amazing!
And they didn’t have that until the last year of the documentary. There were scenes that they didn’t think they could use because the guitars were too heavy against the voices until they used this technology to salvage those moments.
Tell me about the choice of some B-roll shots to deliver character and personality and mood or tone.
Anthony goes into this dive bar and you cut to a camera shot pointing down at the floor with a cable dangling in the shot, which I thought was rock and roll. And shortly after that, there’s a new interviewee who is introduced and there’s a shot of an alarm clock hooked to a bundle of TNT.
Talk to me about finding those great little shots and going, “Yes. I’m going to use this shot of the floor. I’m going to use this shot of this TNT.”
MEYER: Using all of those behind-the-scenes type shots, like the shot of the floor, gives you a certain vibe that makes you feel like you have special access to this material. This is the raw material that no one has ever seen before. So you get a sense of the access that we had to the material. Which is very different than watching the episodes of Parts Unknown which are all very slick.
Like Aaron was saying, we did everything we could to make it not feel like the show. To make it feel as though it was something different.
The shot of the alarm clock is just one of my favorite things. We had all kinds of amazing little nuggets and just really cool stuff—especially in that early archival material that no one had ever seen—it was shot by a guy who was making a documentary about Tony at that time and filmed him quite a lot right in that one time period, but then never did anything with the footage.
So it was an amazing treat that we had that. Then we also had the raw material behind all the shows, so it was just a wealth of material. So we were constantly just finding the most amazing stuff to use.
HULLFISH: Do you have any idea how much material you had? Did anybody say, “Okay. It is truly 800 hours of material.” or something crazy?
MEYER: I think Morgan said we went through about 10,000 hours of material, but there was 20,000 hours or something. There was no way we could ever get into all the materials.
WICKENDEN: One of the things that was so unique about the edit is that this edit happened around the beginning of the pandemic. Having something this massive it really would have been nice to all do it in one place, but because of the pandemic, we were scattered. We all worked from home.
I worked from Chicago, Eileen worked from Los Angeles, among other places, Morgan and our assistant editors were in Los Angeles. But we all were working independently, so the media management for this was crazy. It wasn’t just one show that Tony had done during his life, it was A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, Parts Unknown. So we weren’t just dealing with layoffs of episodes.
At the very least, it was an episode with split tracks and then sometimes additional footage for episodes. But then with later shows we had multi-camera coverage. So it was just a massive job going through all this material.
Going back to one of your earlier questions about a script, while we had these kinds of organizing concepts, how any given concept is articulated is something that, in a large part, is what Eileen and I bring to the table. How it’s articulated through ideas that are expressed in interviews and how those dovetail with archival clips and then the even tone, how all those things fit together. There’s a loose idea, but Morgan is also very open to us bringing all kinds of creative ideas to the table.
HULLFISH: I want to get into tone shortly, but first I want to ask: there’s a Bangkok segment which was one of the places where I really felt a score moment. It’s very cinematic and it was definitely not telling you how to feel. It was unsettling, but it was kind of like a choir of angels, dark angels, but angels. Can you talk about, not the Roadrunner-type sound, but the score and the temp that you might’ve used to create those moments?
MEYER: The way that we did this score for this film is really different than any other film I’ve ever worked on. We ended up licensing a lot of the temp music that we used because we just fell in love with it as we were going. And we had three different composers making different tracks for the film in addition to licensing the temp music and the needle drops that we ended up using.
The music in the film is very eclectic. It comes from a lot of different places. The one track that you’re talking about is from another film and we just licensed it. People actually pointed it out because, in the other film that it’s from, it’s a very different vibe situation, but the track works in two very different ways, so people get freaked out about it if they know the other film that it’s from.
WICKENDEN: Well, it’s Hereditary, right? It’s this track Reborn by Colin Stetson. I haven’t seen Hereditary, so I don’t actually know. How does it play in Hereditary?
HULLFISH: I should have known that because I cut a film and I used temp music from Hereditary.
MEYER: It’s an amazing track.
HULLFISH: That’s why I downloaded that soundtrack. This whole thing is amazing. But I didn’t recognize it in the doc. Especially in that context, I was not thinking about that. That’s so cool.
Editors know what they need for a specific moment, either pace-wise or shot size-wise. Going into 2006 Beirut, it starts with a series of explosions at an airport runway, I’m thinking it’s news archival footage, not something that they shot for the show, but then there’s also footage of that that was shot on a TV screen.
It’s super macro where you see pixels. Is that something where you guys felt, “I want to up the pace.” Or “I want a close-up and I need a closeup and I’ll just generate it by shooting the screen.” Or was that something that you had access to without creating it?
MEYER: All of that material was from the show actually. The show that they created about that experience was very different than a lot of the other shows and included a lot of archival footage. I don’t think we used anything that was not from the show for that part.
A lot in this film, we tried to play with juxtapositions and subtle—and not so subtle—references or metaphors of what was going on in Tony’s life. And that episode comes right after he was talking about his divorce and blowing up his life. Then we cut to the explosions and the bombs. So there are a lot of those types of edits in the film that are very deliberate.
HULLFISH: He’s coming to a realization at that point in the documentary—and in his life—of, “Is making cooking shows what it’s all about when there seems to be so much more going on in the world that needs to be dealt with? People are suffering.” And it gets pretty profound and pretty deep in that segment.
There’s a great “held” shot of the wake of a ship as it’s departing. I loved that moment and that you guys held that after something profound has been said so the audience can absorb it. Can you talk to me about pacing those moments and saying, “I feel like the audience needs this moment. Let’s just let it breathe here.”?
MEYER: I think that particular moment actually came from Tony. That was the actual end of the episode. It’s Tony’s actual reflection on the whole experience. So when we found those sort of artistic decisions from Tony, from his work, it was really important to show some of that as well.
Even though we didn’t want the film to feel like we’re in the show it’s still important to really define what made Tony’s such a great writer and TV creator.
HULLFISH: Yeah, a lot of the documentary is about him discovering that making a TV show can be so much more, it doesn’t have to be Rick Steves’ Europe. It can be him, it can be something unique and special and creative and fun.
WICKENDEN: I think one of the other things about that episode that was so important to highlight was that Tony was kind of a coming into an understanding that there aren’t easy answers, that things are complicated, and that the gray area that things exist in and the complexity of situations was something that he was drawn to.
So this is also a real turning point in the film. So when you talk about allowing time for that to sink in and breathe, it was also deliberate in terms of the edit to highlight for the viewer this is a real turning point in Tony’s understanding, an important moment in his story.
We actually used one of the technologies that you were talking about earlier that was used on The Beatles: Get Back for this purpose because this was one of the early episodes that we didn’t have split tracks. So they had their own musical score over the whole ending and it really was not the tone we were going for, and we didn’t really want to quote directly from the episode to make you feel like you were watching the episode.
We wanted it to mesh with the film. So we used that same technology from The Beatles: Get Back to be able to separate Tony’s voice from the musical score that they had in the piece, throw out that score, and use our own score.
HULLFISH: There’s a great montage. It’s a male French singer singing and Anthony is walking from behind in various exotic locales and it ends with a dry joke about Tom Vitale [the producer] being arrested for drug trafficking. Then you guys chose to do a split-screen of him reading from two separate cameras instead of just choosing one or the other. Can you talk about that decision and what that was about?
MEYER: The split-screen was definitely not from the show.
The montage of Tony walking in different places was also an idea that Morgan had that he wanted to try that because it was a really quick way of telling you how many places Tony had been in such a short amount of time. And the fact that we could match cut him walking in all these different places was a super-fun editing challenge.
But the split-screen was just a way of being playful with the different angles and the coverage that we had. And it also has the same vibe as the behind-the-scenes type stuff where we’re telling the audience, “We have all this stuff to use and why not use it?”
HULLFISH: And later on, it’s used again, he’s in a car with Asia [Argento], and it looks like two GoPros that are combined.
WICKENDEN: Hey, good eye! It’s two GoPros. So you had an angle on him and an angle on Asia and the movie is in 2.35 so we were able to take the two different GoPros and put them together and you get that moment, in sync, of the two of them driving together.
HULLFISH: Yeah, I love that. That was really cool.
Some various locales and shows are glimpsed like Laos and Haiti, but surely you had more of those edited into the show than the ones that made it into the final doc. Can you tell us a little bit about what guided those choices of what stayed and what went? What went on the cutting room floor and why?
WICKENDEN: We made a list of stuff that got cut out.
HULLFISH: Do you have a full list? Really?
WICKENDEN: Yeah, Eileen and I got together and we talked about some of the scenes that were cut out. So we just made a list.
MEYER: Yeah, there were a few favorite scenes that got cut that I still am sad about. But I think the reason that some of them got cut out was for time—we don’t want to make the film too long. Then also some of them were just double beats as far as concepts. There was an episode where Tony gets a tattoo that says, “I am certain of nothing.” in ancient Greek. And that was really profound.
That was Tony’s worldview. That’s why he was always searching. But we already understood that from other scenes. So it just ended up getting cut out at the very last minute. But it’s one of my favorite scenes.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about making changes in tone and the editorial things that you had to do to not be jarred or bumped by it. Cause I never felt like bumped. I just felt, “Now I’m in a different tone and now I’m in a different tone.” That must’ve been difficult.
WICKENDEN: One of the things that was really unique about this edit was how Eileen and I, our participation happened at different stages. When Eileen started, one of the things that Morgan talked about was that he didn’t want the film to be maudlin and just have a sense throughout the whole film that we’re talking about someone who died by suicide and that we’re going to be spending so much time in that feeling and that tone. He wanted to bring Tony back, in his own words, in a way that felt full of life and excitement, the way that it felt at that time with all the people.
And so, editorially, one of the rules he set up with Eileen was for Eileen not to look at anything that had to do with the aftermath of Tony’s passing.
So Eileen worked with the rest of the team and with Morgan and built up through to late in the second act of the movie. And then when I came on, five months or so after Eileen got started, my job was to jump into all of that material, the heavy portion of the interviews, and build out that back part of the film.
Then the two of us together went and found a way to have all the different elements integrated. At a certain point in Tony’s life, things did start to unravel. He started cutting ties to his friends, distancing himself from people, having more extreme highs and lows that people were noticing. So the film gets into that and reflects it as people are seeing it happen. So if you walk into the film late you do get a very different experience.
So tonally, as a whole, it was important for the first part of the movie to have that kind of enthusiasm and, that excitement. Tony talked about how everyone on his crew was like pirates and they were on a pirate ship together exploring the world and going on these adventures. And so that was important to capture and not have it compromised by this feeling of retrospectively looking at things through the lens of him having died by suicide.
HULLFISH: I felt like you needed that opening bit because you wanted to see that part of his life, too—that’s certainly how I remember him, as a TV audience member—but also you need that so that you’re buoyed enough that you can handle the dip at the end. If you just started the movie halfway through and went to the end, I don’t know what kind of experience that would be for the audience.
But because you’ve been set up with this great, high emotional, exciting, rock and roll, first two-thirds of the movie you’re able to appreciate the end of the movie.
MEYER: It was a really interesting “method editing” type of experience for me. Because I felt like it was my job to be as much in Tony’s mindset as possible—in the present tense of where we were at in his experience—without looking at it retrospectively or through the lens of the suicide or his death, or all the stuff that was coming at the end.
So Morgan and I built the edit linearly. I started at the beginning and I just built it so that I was feeling the cumulative effect of Tony’s life and how things were changing. I was just very much in the present with Tony all the time.
HULLFISH: And that makes the back part of that film pretty difficult to edit, right? When you have to be in his headspace for some very dark times for so long.
WICKENDEN: Definitely. It was also a challenge to balance out that session with the rest of the film so it didn’t just feel like two totally different experiences. There were a number of ways that we were able to tackle that and one is by—once we had a full cut of the film—going through and balancing certain elements.
You mentioned that ticking time bomb shot in act one, things that are playful and tossed off like that, but also touch on the theme and this sort of idea of things leading towards the end. So I, think that was one way in which the film became cohesive.
Also, this is the third collaboration that Eileen and I had together. So there was also a tremendous sense of trust between the two of us as co-editors. We worked together on a film for Morgan called Best of Enemies about Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. and their 1968 debates. We worked on a film together recently that should be coming out pretty soon called Television Event. We actually finished that before Roadrunner, but it’s had a long award-winning festival run and it’s going to be coming out soon.
And through these different collaborations, we just developed a real sense of trust in each other’s style and a sense of familiarity with each other’s strengths, what we’re good at, and how to lean on each other and collaborate in a way that I think we all knew as a team that there was going to be something very seamless, cohesive, and emotionally powerful and funny.
One of the things I love about cutting with Eileen, in particular, is that there’s a real playfulness and sense of humor that she brings to the edit. I think that sort of vibrancy and vitality is something that you absolutely feel in the first part of the movie. And then, we maintain and kind of modulate through the end as well.
HULLFISH: I always think about these places where you can see where the audience can feel someone thinking or realizing something. There’s a great moment where one of Anthony’s friends says, “Nothing feels better than coming home, and nothing feels better than leaving home.” And Tony says, “Yeah, you got a point. Then he kind of spikes the camera and it holds.
Do you remember that moment? Because to me, it was a fantastic moment. You could have cut away immediately. “Yeah. I know what you mean. Cut.” No, it’s held as he realizes the importance of what he’s agreeing to or what this other person has said to him.
MEYER: Yeah, it was a good friend of Tony’s, Josh Homme. That idea was really why he and Josh were friends. They bonded over being people that were on the road all the time, but always longing for something else, longing for that sense of normalcy and stability of the home, and then longing for the excitement and travel and the road, and just having to constantly struggle with that in their lives.
That was just a huge thing in Tony’s life. That no matter where he was, he was never actually satisfied. It was a really important point to make about Tony.
HULLFISH: There’s a moment, it’s kind of like the famous edit in Lawrence of Arabia where he has the match and he blows the match out to the sunset. There’s a great cut from Tony, killing a pig and the blood running into the river, and then cutting to the red carpet. I love that. Tell me about that edit. That’s a great transition.
WICKENDEN: Yeah, I think that’s a great example of how our creative process can unfold when we’re all working together.
That edit happened all remotely. We were working on independent, hard drives. We were doing Zoom calls every day. We also used Evercast as the edit got further along, for Morgan to be able to feel the timing of edits and to be able to more quickly showcase for him, different options and cuts and shots.
But that particular cut was something that Morgan and I were talking about offhandedly. Like, “Hey, what if it was like this?” Almost as a joke. Like, “Oh, that would be an interesting cut.” And then Morgan was like, “Yeah. That’s great.” Then Eileen actually made the cut. But the way that we work is sometimes at its best is when we have these incredible exchanges.
There are these things that just happen and it’s through our interactions. It’s what I love about documentary editing. There’s so much freedom. There’s so much improvisation.
I remember on Won’t You Be My Neighbor? working with Morgan on the opening title sequence. He was hearing the music from the opening of Fred Rogers’ show, which has this kind of celeste sound that’s ascending and he’s like, “What if every letter appeared as you were hearing one of those sounds?” So we did that and it was fun. Then he was like, “What if the color was just shifting in the background?”
There are these things that just happen and it’s through our interactions. It’s what I love about documentary editing. There’s so much freedom. There’s so much improvisation. And one of the things that really missed through that in-person experience, but tried to create remotely, was opportunities for us to have these interesting “What if?” ideas.
And so that was one where we were like, “What if we show the extremes of Tony’s life? In one moment on one day he’s killing a pig and standing in blood in the river, and then another moment he’s getting a Peabody award standing on the red carpet. How can we show that in just a cut?”
MEYER: And we did a similar thing when cutting from him in Haiti, seeing the destruction of the earthquake, to him pushing his daughter on the swing. These extreme, disconnected lives that he was living and always having to go back and forth between.
HULLFISH: During the favorite song section, there’s a part where they talk about Tony’s favorite song, and the visuals just match so beautifully. Can you talk about knowing that you had to cut that section and how it was built and how you found those great moments to illustrate that concept?
MEYER: Part of the process of going through all the material, and this was happening all throughout the time that we were cutting, our co-producer Victoria Marquette, our associate producer, Chloe Simmons, and our associate editor Alannah Byrnes, and our assistant editor, they were always looking at raw material and pulling things. Concepts, quotes, and then amazing visuals.
So all those ideas of what visuals could work for what concepts was always a group collaboration. We had a lot of different bins of that type of material to work with. There was just so much amazing footage—10,000 hours—it’s endless. So we had a great team that all understood what the film was about, and what concepts we were trying to get across.
So every time one of us would find one of those golden nuggets that fit so perfectly with a particular concept we would all talk about it and celebrate it and get excited.
WICKENDEN: That particular moment is David Chang. In his interview, he’s explaining to Morgan, “Tony seems like this guy on the outside who was rock and roll and it was all fun, but really his favorite song”—which David is revealing to us in the movie, says a lot more about Tony’s interior state—”is this heroine song.” It’s what David Chang calls it. It’s a song called Anemone by the Brian Jonestown Massacre.
And Dave is trying to let Morgan in on some kind of knowledge that we’re learning as viewers. A new idea in the movie. And in terms of the footage that we used to show Tony, there’s this beautiful footage like Eileen was mentioning that had been flagged by our team of Tony walking around at night, under a full moon and kind of staggering a little bit, and then he lays down in a field and is just observing the moon and moving around.
It sits with this idea of something evocative that evoked a kind of heroin experience. And so the dovetailing of this footage with that song, and with Dave letting us in, it all came together in a way that helped illuminate it.
HULLFISH: Another series of shots that I loved was when Tony says he’s desperate and it cuts to a white horse in a pasture and some bumblebees. There’s just something really profound about it. And visually, it just felt right.
WICKENDEN: That footage is from the actual episode that they were shooting in Alsace, France around the time that Tony took his life. That was very sensitive material. The executives at CNN screened all of the footage because they’d been filming for a few days, at that point, they screened the footage and they allowed us material.
The footage that we had access to didn’t include Tony. But it included all this beauty that was around him, all of the things that they were filming. It was amazing that we had the opportunity to use any of that material and didn’t have to try to pull from something that felt tonally different than the material that was being filmed for the show.
HULLFISH: Tell me about the order of the story. Addiction was mentioned early on in the doc, but it’s not really explored until the end. That could have gone a different way. Can you discuss how those ideas were structured throughout the film?
MEYER: Our initial idea for the structure was that the film starts with the publishing of Kitchen Confidential and act one is his rise to fame. So that’s very chronological.
As soon as we get into act two, where he starts traveling and becoming the creative writer and artist and host—he hates that word—but he’s becoming who we all know him to be all throughout act two. And we didn’t want to do act two chronologically.
We didn’t want to say, “He did this show and then this show, and then this show.” That’s boring, just a ‘greatest hits.’ “Remember this episode and that episode and then he went to CNN and then, and then, and then, and then…”
We really wanted to stay away from doing that. So act two was structured basically around ideas and concepts that became important to Tony. We had a section that was just about humanity or a section that was about the importance of family, and addiction was one of those concepts.
“He did this show and then this show, and then this show.” That’s boring, just a ‘greatest hits.’
His addiction is essentially what led to his death, but it’s not all of who he was. So we wanted to focus on what made him the artist that he was and all of the things that contributed to that within act two.
Then once we get into act three, where he is really struggling at the end, that’s when we really want to understand the addiction and how it was always there and how he never really dealt with that part of himself.
WICKENDEN: And while we don’t get into talking about heroin until later on in the film, the idea of Tony having an addictive personality is something that we did want to carry through the whole film. Even things editorially that Eileen did early on, where you see Tony constantly smoking, constantly lighting up cigarettes.
There’s a great edit Eileen made where Tony is sitting in this old footage early in act one. He lights a cigarette and then he starts to drop his hand. And then you see him walking outside of Joel Rose’s apartment in New York and he’s smoking another cigarette and his hand goes down.
Showing that whether it was the writing that was the outlet for that energy or the smoking, or later when he becomes a father, everything that he does, he approaches with that same intensity and energy. So that is threaded throughout even though we don’t talk about heroin until much later in the film.
HULLFISH: Was there a discussion of, “How long can we afford to have the audience in this space, but also not to feel like it’s skated over?” You’ve got a tough boundary to set between not discussing it enough and discussing it too much.
WICKENDEN: I worked on that part originally and then we worked on the whole film collectively, but when I was working first building that, a lot of it was much longer. I think part of that has to do with the fact that Morgan did the majority of the interviews within two years of Tony’s passing.
So for a lot of the people speaking, who were very close with him for decades, this was one of the first times they’d ever discussed it publicly at all. So Morgan created these really intimate interviews and built up trust with everyone so that there was a lot of sharing about how they were processing things, the complexity of trying to deal with Tony, and his life at that time.
Morgan gave a lot of time—these interviews were some of the longest interviews he’s ever done for a film. Normally his interviews will be close to an hour and they’re very targeted and precise in what he wants. Unlike someone like Errol Morris who films over the course of many days with a subject, normally Morgan is there for about an hour.
“Morgan created these really intimate interviews and built up trust with everyone so that there was a lot of sharing about how they were processing things.”
These were a couple of hours, two, maybe three sometimes, and extremely emotional. He said that for a lot of people they’ve talked to him about how they were very therapeutic. So wanting to honor that same space, the edit also needed to slow down a bit and allow space for those experiences and expressions. But when you have collectively a lot of space devoted to slow emotional expression the overall weight to the film feels off and the end of the film felt long.
There were even things that we explored as we were talking about addiction and heroin, like the idea of Tony joking about death throughout his life, that were additional scenes that were cut completely from the film. There was a story that he told in a radio station in Alaska to a reporter where he talked about an earlier time in his life when he was about to take his own life.
Over time, as we sat with the film, we would watch it, and a real litmus test was, “Are we ourselves feeling emotional? Is this impacting us? Are we able to reflect to the audience how we’re feeling when we see the raw material?” Eileen and I would have conversations about if we were to make each other cry from the material.
So that was really important to us, honoring the lived experiences of the people going through a really traumatic and probably still traumatic experience in their lives. But still not burdening the audience with so much that it just overwhelms the experience itself. So, “Can you distill that material down in a way that retains the original emotional experience, honors people’s experiences, and doesn’t throw the balance off completely?”
HULLFISH: Did you guys do screenings outside of the team to make some of those judgments?
WICKENDEN: This is another downside of the pandemic. Typically on Morgan’s films, we have a handful of in-person screenings. Every film I’ve worked on with him there’s at least five. They always start out at Morgan’s house with people he trusts, his innermost circle. The film is probably at its roughest stage at that point. And we get incredible feedback from people and then it goes out to a different kind of group that’s maybe people that work with us that are other editors and filmmakers and on out until it’s like people who maybe don’t know Morgan so much at all who wouldn’t be giving notes based on a relationship with him.
With this film, because of the pandemic, we only have one of those kinds of screenings. It had to be outside. Everyone had to be separated and masked. So the experience that you get as a filmmaker watching people watch your film, being in the same room as people, it all was diluted and dispersed. It was really hard to get a real sense of what it felt like for people to stay in a room and experience this film together.
So we were left with the option of sending people links and getting their feedback. Which was really helpful, you get a sense of what’s confusing to an audience. But for a real sense of how it played, we had to rely on our own judgment more than we would on other films.
MEYER: I still haven’t seen it in a theater with people. Which is really sad because that’s one of my favorite things to do. When you’re sitting outside and people are masked it is really impossible to get all of those subtle nuances that you get from those tests screenings of facial expressions or even just feeling the energy. If you’re so spaced out that you don’t feel the energy of the person sitting next to you, it’s really difficult.
One gift of doing this film during the pandemic though was that we were all stuck in our houses. We couldn’t leave, yet we were able to travel all over the world with Tony. That was just such a gift for all of us. And we would talk about it all the time. Like, “Thank God we have this film right now.”
HULLFISH: That is a great place to wrap this up! Thank both of you for joining me and really sharing some great insight into editing documentaries for the Art of the Cut audience!
MEYER: Thanks so much! Really appreciate it!