Why Morgan Neville’s Steve Martin Documentary Is Two Films in One

Morgan Neville has made documentaries about musicians (“20 Feet From Stardom,” “The Music of Stranger’s”), TV personalities (“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) and writers (“Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal”), so it makes sense he’d make a doc about Steve Martin, who has been all those things as well as a superstar stand-up comedian and an actor who received an Honorary Academy Award in 2013.

But Apple TV’s “STEVE! (martin)” is really two separate films: one that uses archival footage and voiceovers to chart Martin’s formative years as perhaps the first stand-up to reach true rock star status, the second a fly-on-the-wall look at a more contented man with a hit TV show (“Only Murders In the Building”) and a young family.

TheWrap: One of the things that may be eye-opening to people who weren’t around in the 1970s is just how unprecedented Steve Martin’s stand-up fame was — and how he became a huge star with humor that seemed totally silly but was carefully thought out.

Morgan Neville: Yeah, he was trying to understand the philosophy of comedy. He was so smart about being stupid. (Laughs) And I don’t think Steve really remembered what a phenomenon it was. He says in the second film, “I feel like my whole stand-up career was a blip or a footnote,” which is kind of crazy because he totally changed the business of stand-up.

How’d you come to this project?

There was a producer that lives in Steve’s building in New York. He would see Steve in the elevator every few months and occasionally he’d say, “Hey, Steve, would you ever make a documentary?” And Steve would say, “No.” And then three years ago he saw him in the elevator and Steve said, “Maybe.”

That producer called somebody I know who mentioned that to me. And so I met with Steve. And at the end of that meeting — which was not really about the documentary, it was like a sniff test on each other to see if we got along — he just said, “OK, let’s do it.” That was it. It was not a big thing, and it was all Steve. I’ve never met or talked to Steve’s agents or managers. It was just him.

Did you have an immediate sense that you wanted to make it as two separate and distinct films?

Not at all. It was me just gathering stuff. When I go into a project, I try to have no preconceptions and no agenda. I just want to talk as much as I can and film as much as I can and see what my experience is. It was six months of working on it before I realized, everything’s going in two different directions, so let’s it keep going that way rather than trying to hold it together. I told him, “Oh, by the way, Steve, I think I’m making two different films.” I think the extent of the conversation was Steve saying, “OK, if that’s what you think, sounds good.”

What was the initial process like?

I would go to his place with a tape recorder and just talk to him. I did that for hours and hours and hours, which is both me getting material but also seeing how he sees his story and how he talks. And building a relationship between us. I don’t go in with a list of questions. I have questions because I’ve been following him for a long time, but what I like about doing audio(-only interviews) is that we have time. If you want to talk about Aboriginal art, that’s fine. We can take the time to talk about anything.

So I did that for a couple of months before we started shooting. And then I think in July of ’21 we were coming out of COVID, and Steve said, “Marty (Short) and I are gonna go back on the road. We’re gonna get together and start to work on material again. Do you want to film that?” I said, “Yes, yes, I do!” That was the first shoot, and it was one of the most fun shoots I’ve ever done.

Over his career, he hasn’t been known for opening up about personal matters. Did you have to get through his guard?

Yes and no. I mean, Steve was famously private and reserved. But (New Yorker writer and Martin’s friend) Adam Gopnik says in the second film that Steve’s changed more than anybody he’s ever met. I do think Steve is very different now than he was 25, 35 years ago, and he seemed pretty willing to talk about anything. On a project like this, it does become like a therapeutic relationship, where you’re talking to people about their issues and the things they’ve worked on in their lives. And Steve, who’s done a lot of therapy, understands that.

This story first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

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