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Steve Martin Talks New Documentary, Early Days in Comedy

Growing up in Los Angeles, Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville was a “huge fan” of Steve Martin. At 12 years old, he begged his father to drive six hours to Las Vegas so they could see one of Martin’s last stand-up performances at the Riviera Hotel.

Forty-five years later, Neville shared the NeueHouse Hollywood stage with his comedy hero to promote their new Apple TV+ documentary “Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in Two Pieces.”

“My main goal going in was just to listen,” Neville said. “We just talked in the beginning and I recorded conversations with no agenda. Then slowly, shape started to come out of that and I started to think about what a story could be.”

“Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in Two Pieces,” chronicles the life of the legendary filmmaker and funny man in two 90-ish minute halves. Part one follows Martin from his days working at Merlin’s Magic Shop in Disneyland to his final stand-up set in 1980. Part two explores Martin’s movie career and his life today as he approaches age 79. Comedian Nick Kroll joined Neville and Martin on Monday at the FYC event to discuss how they crafted the sprawling examination of one of America’s most influential comedians.

The first half of “Steve!” is presented through photos and archival footage overlayed with testimony from Martin and his contemporaries, which comes together in a cinematic collage of the comic’s early years. Initially, Neville “didn’t know if [they] would have enough archive” to tell the story that way. But as he and his team dug deeper into Martin’s collection, they realized there was “a lot more” than initially thought.

“Slowly as we got into [Martin’s] basement archive and went through storage vaults, it started to come out that we can do this,” Neville explained. “We started finding all of [Martin’s] old cassettes where [he] recorded [his] act year by year and you can hear that forensically [in the doc].”

Martin added that when he started saving relics from his past, he “saved all the wrong things. When you’re in show business, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m on the cover of this,’ and you save the cover. ‘Oh, I’m in an article,’ and you save that. But what I really wanted were photos of friends, where I was and a diary.”

Throughout the documentary, Martin explains that he felt overwhelming loneliness in his youth despite his success. In part two, Martin listens to one of his old stand-up tapes, and only gets a few minutes in before shutting it off. Although he was “very happy” with the three-hour documentary, reliving his early days as a struggling comedian would sometimes prove uncomfortable.

“I have a hard time walking into comedy clubs because of the memories. I can still taste the cheap wine in my mouth,” Martin told Variety on the red carpet. “So reliving that, you go back to a lot of memories, and not just about the material, but also about when and where you were.”

Martin became an avid art collector in his later years, often gravitating toward paintings of isolated figures. One of his favorite works is “Captian Upton’s House” by Edward Hopper, which depicts a lonesome seaside home attached to a lighthouse. What was initially interpreted as a solemn image, would later be re-understood by Martin as full of hope and life. When Neville first heard Martin speak about the painting, he thought “it spoke volumes” about his journey from a tortured young artist to finding peace in his old age.

“There’s this painting called ‘Captain Upton’s House,’ which looks like it might be a lonely, isolated home. But the closer you look at it, it’s alive. The windows are open. The breeze is going through. You can almost imagine furniture in there,” Martin said.

“You came up with that metaphor, that it in some way reflected my life. I never saw it that way,” Martin told Neville.

“Ya, well that’s my job,” Neville quipped.

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