Documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville is hard to pin down. While he made his name with music docs, from Oscar-winner “20 Feet from Stardom” to Yo-Yo Ma concert film “The Music of Strangers” (HBO/The Orchard), he’s moving away from music subjects. “There are a handful of music docs I’d love to do, including David Bowie,” he said in a phone interview. “But at the moment I’m interested in stretching myself on projects on design, food, and art.”
Over the last year, Neville jumped into the debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley for “Best of Enemies,” (Participant/Magnolia) and took an unexpected ride with Chelsea Handler on Netflix documentary series “Chelsea Does.”
Netflix approached Neville after working with him on “Keith Richards: Under the Influence.” Said Neville, “I’d worked on music docs for years. It felt like writing a novel. By the time I got to Keith Richards, it felt like making a sketch. It went right onto Netflix and was done!”
Added Neville, “I feel like like Netflix is great if you’ve got a project ready to launch itself into the world rapidly. If you’ve got someone like Keith Richards or Chelsea Handler, they have fans. So you can go from 0 to 190 countries instantly, that’s great.”
With the Yo-Yo Ma documentary (which is screening at the upcoming Los Angeles Film Festival), “that’s a tougher kind of film,” said Neville. “It needs to seep into the culture. Netflix doesn’t do that in the same way. When you’re doing a more traditional documentary like ‘Best of Enemies’ or ‘The Music of Strangers,’ you must allow for a longer conversation with think pieces, so people can hear and talk about it. You let people find it. I was at the San Francisco International Film Festival with afternoon appearances at high schools and an evening screening — great conversations, that’s what that film’s made for.”
Netflix approached him on “Chelsea Does” soon after they began the project. “Netflix hadn’t figured out what it was,” he said. “At the Spirit Awards afterparty last year, they said, ‘Have you any interest in Chelsea Handler?’ They needed someone to help shape what this thing was going to be. Because it was so different, that’s what attracted me to it. I’m a huge comedy fan, this seemed like it would need different muscles.”
So Neville came aboard as an executive producer. Working with longtime Kirby Dick documentary producer Eddie Schmidt, who directed all the episodes, they started from scratch.
They picked four subjects—marriage, racism, Silicon Valley, and drugs— that Handler might want to dig into because she had questions about each topic. “There was no map,” Neville said. “So part of the fun of the project was that while most celebrity documentary projects tend to fall into a specific model— more of a hosted voiceover approach with Morgan Spurlock or Bill Maher or Anthony Bourdain— Chelsea said she hated voiceover. I said, ‘Great, we hate it too.’”
Handler learned to trust Neville’s team. “Once she had tested us, she completely deferred to what we wanted to do,” said Neville, who left it to Schmidt to stay on top of the shoots.
“Eddie directed all the episodes,” he said. “I didn’t want to direct them. It’s not my voice, it’s about channeling her voice. It’s not my brand.”
“Chelsea Does” puts Handler into provocative situations and then documents them in hour-long episodes: “We’re not telling you what she thinks,” Neville said, “but watching as she’s learning and changing her mind. Everything in the film were our ideas, some things she’d veto if she was uncomfortable.”
But she went ahead with some of the most dicey material anyway, including the marriage episode confessional between her and best pal, actress Mary McNamara, even after Handler had asked, “Why are we doing this?”
“It became a crucial scene for the doc because it’s honest,” Neville said. “When she’s uncomfortable we know we’re after something real, not mugging for camera. The more we could do that in the series the better.”
Nor did Handler want to get together with her old boyfriend, rehashing why they broke up. And she heard from her father in a session with her siblings that her mother never expected her to marry because she was “difficult to live with” and “ambitious.”
“Most people wouldn’t want to do that,” said Neville. “What I appreciated was her willing to be vulnerable on camera, which not a lot of people would do. We were really trying to do something more documentary than a lot of this stuff ends up being, trying to make it as real as possible.”
The diciest episode sent Handler into a conference room with serious representatives of almost every ethnic group, who talked about racial stereotypes and what can and cannot be done as a comedian on the subject of race. “It was bold of her,” said Neville. “I don’t agree with Chelsea on certain issues, which is fine. Everybody respected the fact that she went into that room and took on what she had to say. That’s my favorite scene of the entire series.”
While many of the show’s reviews were strong, clearly many critics were reviewing Handler and her sense of humor. The show also served as a way to introduce audiences to Handler ahead of the launch of her new talk show on Netflix, which has yet to renew “Chelsea Does.”
While the Netflix algorithm will send Handler’s fans to the show, Neville’s goal “was to take somebody like me who didn’t know her much and be pleasantly surprised by it. As a producer, I never want to preach to the converted— I knew Chelsea fans would see it and find it and like it.”
Netflix can be a tad frustrating in that it’s difficult to measure success, Neville admitted: “You don’t know. You try and ply the execs there with drinks. Your only sense of the audience is anecdotal. You follow things on Twitter to find out how people are paying attention.”
A member of the TV Academy who’s been nominated for some of his “American Masters” episodes, Neville plans to keep making docs as his day job. He’s in pre-production on another Netflix series from Wired Magazine and Radical Media, described as a “Chef’s Table” for design.
But he is also developing a movie for Focus Features from a blacklisted first script by Zander Lehmann (“Casual”), the son of Michael Lehmann, “a really smart, sharp, young guy,” he said. “It’s a black comedy in the vein of ‘Election.’ Black comedies are my favorite movies.”
He’s been taking acting courses to prepare. “At the same time I feel that docs leave me better prepared than most,” he said. “If I’m writing a script when I’m making doc I ask, ‘What would the movie be, the three-act structure?’ As a writer, I think about films I work on in a traditional Hollywood kind of a way. I’m curious to see how it translates.”
Whatever his next project may be, Neville doesn’t consider awards. “I don’t think about [the Oscars], having been there, and had that opportunity. I won the lottery, whether that’s luck or skill, you can’t determine. I’m not expecting that to ever happen again. It’s irrational, you can’t think that way career-wise. All you can do is try to make films that are both important and entertaining—or smart and entertaining.”