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Morgan Neville – Steve!

Was the Steve Martin you expected to meet different from the Steve Martin you met?

Steve was famously very private and very serious off-camera. So, I didn’t know exactly who Steve was going to be. And I think, oddly, Steve is less silly onstage now and less serious offstage now than he used to be. He’s relaxed a lot. The fact that he decided he was willing to do a documentary, which he had said no to for years and years, was indicative of him being in a different place in his life — and just being happy. The Steve I met is sweet and loving and so besotted with his wife and child in a way that I think probably would’ve been unrecognizable to the old Steve.

Is that a difficult concept to unpack — this comedy icon who isn’t all that comedic when the cameras aren’t rolling?

I think Steve is kind of a writer at heart, and I think his approach to a lot of comedy is writerly. Famously, if he would go on Letterman, he would spend weeks coming up with a bit to do that was very thought-out. His wife told me, “If somebody asks him to present an award or say a few words, they think they’re only asking for five minutes of his time. They’re actually asking for a week. He’s going to spend a week working on those five minutes.” So, I do think there’s part of that where Steve’s like, “I can write funny, but I don’t necessarily have to be funny.”

And yet, he’s such close friends with Martin Short, who is a comedy machine onscreen and off . . .

Marty is so different from Steve in that way. He is so loose and so improvisational, that when Marty’s in the room, Steve is funnier — because it loosens Steve up and gets him to start playing in that way that I think he really likes, but does not naturally gravitate towards . . . Steve never had a brother, and Marty has such a great, brotherly energy with him, in that they give each other s*** endlessly [laughs]. I think Steve loves that.

Just what was it about Steve’s work that was so revolutionary?

If you look at great comedians like Carlin and Pryor and others [of the 1970s], they’re doing comedy that has a message. Steve’s comedy was willfully stupid, but it was very smart at being stupid. What’s interesting about it is, it worked on multiple levels. I think of Monty Python in that way too. You don’t have to really understand it to think it’s funny, but the more you understand it, the more you appreciate it . . . To me, the genius of what he was doing is this idea of not really having punchlines, and trying to build the tension in the act so that people would laugh just to release the tension — but he wouldn’t give them the indicators to laugh.

What’s your general strategy for getting people to open up on-camera?

My main technique is I listen really hard. For people who have been interviewed a lot or, in Steve’s case, people who see interviews as a somewhat adversarial situation, I just had to make sure it wasn’t an interview. It had to be like, “I really hear what you’re saying and I’m really curious and I have no agenda. I’m not here to ‘clickbait’ you in some way.”

I’ve started other films where I’ve felt like the subject was not really going to “go there.” And then I quit. It’s not worth either of our time. They don’t have to bare their soul about every single thing, but I have to glimpse their soul . . .

Steve!, streaming on Apple TV+


One of the world’s most revered and accomplished documentarians, Morgan Neville is the keen eye behind such films as Mister Rogers bio Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain and Oscar-winning music doc 20 Feet From Stardom.


His latest project, now streaming on Apple TV+, is a two-part film delving into the life of comedy legend Steve Martin — tracking his evolution as a man and an artist via never-before-seen footage and intimate interviews with Martin and those who know him best. “The first film is about self-creation,” Neville tells TV Week, “and the second film is about self-discovery.” Read on for more of our one-on-one with the filmmaker.

Just what was it about Steve’s work that was so revolutionary?

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