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Morgan Neville on Steve Martin and the Glut of Celebrity Documentaries: ‘We Are Emerging From What Was Peak Production of All Things’

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Unlike many celebrity-driven documentaries, Morgan Neville‘s “Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in Two Pieces” about the writer and comedian wasn’t deliberately made as a marketing device tied to a new TV series or movie. The two-part docu is also not your traditional career-encompassing overview of Martin’s life. Instead Neville, who garnered an Oscar in 2014 for “20 Feet From Stardom,” created feature-length installments called “Then” and “Now” that are told from two points of views using two different formats. “Then” chronicles Martin’s early struggles and meteoric rise to revolutionize standup before walking away at age 35. “Now” focuses on Martin’s present day life, retracing the transformation that led to newfound happiness in his art and personal life.

Neville began filming “Steve!” in spring 2021 after meeting Martin for lunch to discuss the possibility of making the docu. “We had a great conversation,” says Neville. “I think one of the advantages of having made films for a long time is that he had seen a bunch of my movies. I made a documentary years ago called “The Cool School” about the birth of the modern art scene in Los Angeles and he had seen that. So we ended up talking about art a lot. It was a sniff test – can I trust you with my story?  At the end of that first meeting, he was like, “Okay. Let’s do it.”

Variety spoke to Neville about “Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in Two Pieces,” which will premiere on March 29 on Apple TV+.

Did Steve Martin serve as a producer on this doc or get paid to participate?

He did not get paid and he was not a producer. He did not have editorial control. He does share in any profit that’s made afterwards.

In the second part of the docu, Martin is very candid and at times gets emotional. Did you show him cuts to make sure that he was OK with it?

I only showed him the film when it was pretty much finished. At some point he said, “I’m just worried that there’s something that’s going to be really hurtful in there and I just want to know.” I said, “Well, what if I showed it to a director who I’m friends with and who you are friends with? Somebody impartial.” Steve said, “The problem with that is they are going to have an opinion and the only opinion I care about is yours.” That was really great to hear.

In the doc, Martin says that the reason he wanted to make the documentary was because, “I see it as an antidote to the sort of anodyne interview, generic things I’ve talked about a million times.” Do you think he also wanted to make it as a legacy piece or a historical document that he could show his young daughter?

I had no sense of him having an agenda about it other than what he says, which is, his career was so all over the place that there’s never been a chance for him to even process it and put it all together into something that makes sense. My sense is certainly when you get to a certain age you start to look back and look at everything you have done and Steve having a daughter and saying, how is she going to understand everything I’ve done? Another part of it was actually COVID. That’s when this idea for the documentary came up.

When was the film’s structure developed?

When I started the film it was what does (this project) want to be? And basically I kept having these two different paths. One path was his whole standup career, which I’m obsessed with and I kept finding incredible archives of. So that story was like this fast archival train and the second thing that was happening was I was just hanging out and filming stuff with Steve and all of that felt very emotional and relaxed. The energies and the feelings of these two paths were so different. So I thought rather than trying to just feather them together, which people often do in documentaries, why don’t I just let everything be what it wants to be? 

In his review of the docu Variety critic Peter Debruge wrote, “Cultural tastes change so quickly, especially when it comes to what makes people laugh, that there’s a built-in challenge to recapping any comedian’s early career — which no doubt explains why Neville steers clear of “King Tut” (a song that younger listeners find problematic).” Do you agree with this assessment?

To bring it up, then you have to have this modern discussion of what was Steve trying to say with it? That would be narrative quicksand. The reason Steve wrote that song and the context around it, which was totally lost, was that he was actually making fun of the consumerization and fetishization of ancient cultures in the West and all that. So that’s another documentary. But again I was concerned with his standup story and where he was at that time. As opposed to what’s our 2023 reading of something at that time? So honestly, King Tut wasn’t at the top of my list of things to put in the film. It was never a scene in the film even before the internet (controversy).

Although it looked like it was a fun shoot, celebrities can be hard. They have crazy schedules and oftentimes numerous handlers. Was it a difficult production?

I’ve done a lot of stuff with celebrities and it can definitely be harder. But the relationship I ended up having with Steve had nothing to do with celebrity in a way. Steve as a storyteller understands where you have to go to tell a story and he understood that’s what I needed. At every shoot there were never handlers, or assistants or a PR person.

Martin Short, who plays a big part of “Now,” is also the subject of an upcoming docu directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Where do you think celebrity doucs are heading? Are audiences getting sick of them or is the genre’s popularity only increasing?

It’s not going to go away, but I feel like we are emerging from what was peak production of all things. There was this sense that I felt more a couple years ago than I feel right now, which was like every band, every celebrity, had to have a documentary. When it started to become something that people and their handlers felt like, “This is going be good for our new album, tour or brand.” That’s when a documentary was seen as an extension of a brand, and that’s when you should run away.

That was so not what Steve was invested in. He wasn’t selling anything. I really responded to this (project) because it seemed like it was more of a psychological journey that he wanted to go on.