Why Steve Martin Documentary Director Morgan Neville's Steve Martin Film Became Two Steve Martin Films

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If you're going to tell the story of Steve Martin, which story do you tell? The one about the "wild and crazy guy" who became a comic sensation busting out an extended "Excuuuuuuuuse me"? Or the one about the closed-off movie star, who was effusively romantic in his screenwriting but a mystery as a person? The banjo player? The art collector?

When Morgan Neville set out to make a documentary about Martin, he quickly realized one film wouldn't cut it. The Steve Martin that Neville met when he embarked on the project a few years ago was not the same Steve Martin he’d loved in the 1970s.

"I first became a Steve Martin fan through his albums, because I'm that old," Neville says. "And at the same time, there was this guy I met who was Steve today, who is so different from who he was then. Whereas the first story had this engine to it, the second was more of a hang. It had such different energy."

So Morgan split his film up. The end result, now streaming on Apple TV+, is STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces. The first piece, titled "Then," is told entirely through archival footage, and chronicles Martin's ascension as a comedy icon until his decision to quit standup in 1981. "Now," as one might expect, follows Martin in the present day as he preps for a tour with Martin Short and the release of his book Number One Is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Diversions, a collaboration with the cartoonist Harry Bliss.

Together the movies paint a picture of an artist whose success was defined by persistence and loneliness. The Steve Martin of "Now" is a much happier person—with deep affection for his wife and child—than the Steve from back "Then," but they are both characterized by their never-ending searching.

Neville, of the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom and the Mister Rogers biodoc Won't You Be My Neighbor?, first thought about making a documentary about Martin about 15 years ago after reading his memoir Born Standing Up. However, Neville had long heard that Martin had no interest in participating. That changed when a producer who lived in Martin's New York apartment building—the same one that inspired Only Murders in the Building—broached the idea with the comedian, who turned out to have changed his tune. (Neville wouldn't reveal the name of said producer.)

A lunch at Martin's sealed the deal. "He emailed me multiple times before I got there saying, 'Do you like salad? Is salmon okay?' I just thought, 'God—Steve must have people who could do this for him,'" Neville recalls. "But that's actually very Steve, to be very hands on and considerate." When it came to the making of the films, however, Martin was actually hands off, deferring to the director.

Neville worked with different editors on "Then" and "Now" and didn't want them to look at each other's works in progress. The two films are tonally and visually very disparate, but together they tell a story of a man opening up. Neville sees "Then" as a "cerebral, solitary, search for voice," while "Now" follows a man finding happiness and partnership late in life—both with his wife Anne Stringfield, a former New Yorker fact checker, and his professional teammate Martin Short.

In the films that Martin wrote—including Roxanne, L.A. Story, and even Bowfinger—Neville identified the thread of a desire for romance in his work that, initially, didn't seem to exist in his personal life. These days it does.

"I think Steve, in that way, worked his way past the longing to the actual romance part of it," Neville says. "It's kind of cliché to say 'happily ever after,' but what I tried to convey is you don't just find happiness accidentally. In Steve's case he worked very hard to find it."

STEVE! isn’t a tell-all on Martin's part. He remains private. When his daughter wanders into frame she's illustrated by an animated cartoon stick figure to conceal her identity. The scenes where Martin is at his loosest tend to feature Martin Short as they prep on material for their show, bouncing insults back and forth. Neville describes that too as a "special" relationship.

"I think for a lot of Steve's career people would be like, 'Okay, you're a funny guy, now be funny for us,'" Neville says. "You know, kind of 'Dance, monkey.' And he was not interested in doing that—but I think with Marty it happens in a way that is very effortless and actually fun for both of them."

Still, in Martin's mind there was one major takeaway when he saw the final product. Neville explains that Martin's main reaction to "Now" was "how great his wife was."

"He's like, 'She's the star of the film, not me.' I think he is so deeply in love with his wife that he was just like, 'I'm so glad that Anne comes off so well,' because she is so great in his mind.' That's his very subjective reading of it, because that's what he sees."

Originally Appeared on GQ