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Steve Martin Goes To ‘Pieces’ In Morgan Neville’s Emmy-Contending Doc About Comedy Great

Steve Martin is a man of many dimensions, and two pieces – at least to judge from director Morgan Neville’s documentary about the comedy icon.

Steve! (Martin) a Documentary in 2 Pieces, streaming on Apple TV+, splits the story in half, with piece 1 exploring Martin’s youth in Orange County, Calif., early career as a comedy writer and eventual rise to king of standup. Piece 2 spends time with Martin now, happily married, and the star and co-creator of the hugely successful Only Murders in the Building.

The inspiration to craft two distinct parts didn’t come right away, Neville says.

Steve Martin

“I was lucky enough to work on it for about six months before I decided what it was. I didn’t know, is it a single feature film? Is it a mini-series? What is it?” Neville tells Deadline. “On the one hand was this incredible archive and this origin story, all of that philosophy of comedy and stuff that I loved. And then it was hanging out with the guy I met — with Steve and his life today. And in many ways, it kept feeling like they were two different people.”

He ran with the idea, organizing the workflow so that each “piece” of the documentary would feel unique. “I came up with a bunch of rules. I got two different editors and I didn’t let them watch [each other’s footage] or talk to the other editor. And I ended up getting different composers and different graphics people,” Neville explains. “I really wanted each film, each half, to be self-sufficient that you could watch it and it feels like a meal… You as a viewer have to ask a lot of questions about how did the guy from the first film become this guy in the second film? And that becomes the driving question of the second film.”

Steve Martin

In the documentary, Martin declares, “I guarantee you, I have no talent. None.” The evidence would seem to completely dispute that, but what can be said with certainty is that Martin’s assent as an entertainer was gradual. Almost glacial. He started out doing magic tricks at Disneyland, in the theme park’s early days, then graduated to juggling and making animal balloons. Success came not overnight, but very, very slowly.

“He had was an incredible amount of perseverance,” Neville observes. “And the thing that spoke to me as a creative person was seeing somebody stick to their convictions for more than a decade where there was little evidence that anybody was ever going to care. But that perseverance is the thing that made him him, that a lot of other very talented filmmakers and comedians and everybody else just don’t [have]. They can’t survive that decade, or in Steve’s case, almost 15 years of struggling before he finally starts to connect with the culture.”

'STEVE! (martin) A Documentary In 2 Pieces'

Somehow, Martin instinctively understood that he was arriving at the tail end of the political comedy prevalent in the 1960s and that he had better figure out a new approach, or risk irrelevancy. Studying philosophy and logic in college opened a window onto how to deconstruct comedy. He would defy the expected setup and punchline routine and go for something off the wall – often silly and pointless, like wearing an arrow through his head or having his lower extremities, seemingly of their own volition, spring into a “happy feet” dance.

The first part of Martin’s career “is this kind of struggle to try and find his voice,” Neville says. “And he finally finds his voice and it connects with the culture and it gets bigger than he ever could have imagined… Steve becomes the biggest standup in the world at the time.”

Part 1 of the documentary ends with Martin walking away from standup, realizing there was nowhere to go but down. He would segue into movies, with some huge successes (The Jerk) and a number of misfires (Pennies from Heaven).

Steve Martin with his parents Glenn and Mary Lee Martin, late 1970s.

There’s a certain reticence to Martin’s public demeanor, a distance he keeps between himself and fans. He doesn’t wrap his audience in a big hug, like Robin Williams did (or if he does, it’s only for ironic effect). Neville manages to get below the surface to uncover the elements that formed Martin as a person, chief among them being a fraught relationship with his father Glenn, who was a frustrated performer himself and seems to have been stingy in showing affection to his son or expressing pride in him.

“There’s obviously something that made Steve as driven as he was. It’s this question you have all the time with comedians of what makes somebody want to work that hard to make people laugh. And there’s often a reason for that,” Neville comments. “And I think in Steve’s case, the essential version of it is you go into show business, I suppose, because an audience shows you love and you feel like, oh, that will be enough. That will nourish me. And what I found in Steve’s story is he becomes the biggest standup in the world. And guess what? As much adoration as you get doesn’t fix the problem. But because Steve actually tries to fix the problem as opposed to just papering over it or blotting it out in some way… Steve worked on it like a puzzle for years to really try and redefine that relationship in a way that is actually pretty amazing.”

Anne Stringfield and Steve Martin attend the 43rd AFI Life Achievement Award Gala honoring Steve Martin on June 4, 2015 in Hollywood, California.

Martin forged a bond with his father late in his dad’s life. Now, at 78, Martin is himself a dad, parenting with his wife Anne Stringfield, a writer and former fact checker at The New Yorker (the couple met at the offices of the magazine, to which Martin was a regular contributor).

“For years people had asked Steve about doing a documentary. He always had said no,” Neville says. “I think a combination of having a daughter and of Covid, perhaps, made him, like all of us kind of think about everything in our lives. And I think it just cracked the door enough that he was like, maybe, maybe I’ll do a documentary. And as soon as I heard the door was cracked, I was determined.”

Neville, who won an Academy Award for his documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, has directed several films on prominent cultural figures, including children’s TV legend Fred Rogers, musician Yo-Yo Ma, and political commentators Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. Whenever he’s pitched a “celebrity” documentary, Neville says his antennae go up.

“[If] I feel like it’s being driven by a manager or an agent or something, or a marketing plan, or worst yet the ‘brand’ of the artist,” he says he walks away. “There are times where it can feel almost like branded content.”

On the other hand, interesting possibilities can emerge when you’re working with the right celebrity, who isn’t trying to simply burnish their image.

“If you have been empowered to make the film you want to make, you can kind of make whatever film you want and in a way have the protection of the artist,” Neville says. “So Steve, for instance, I ended up taking a fairly, I think, unconventional approach to how to tell his story. It was the film I wanted to make, but it wasn’t what you would expect, I guess, in that way. But that’s because Steve and I were in alignment. He said, you’re a filmmaker. I chose you for a reason to collaborate on this. You do what you do, and I’ll be me. And so I think there’s also an opportunity to sometimes actually take big creative swings with things.”

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