Steve Martin Remains ‘Sentimental’ As ‘LA Story’ Turns 30

The unabashed romance of ‘LA Story’, which marks its 30th anniversary this year, stems directly from the worldview of the writer and star, Steve Martin. Growing up in the shadow of LAX, he fell in love with magic and performing in Los Angeles venues — and even theme parks. So instead of simply sifting through the excesses of his hometown in “LA Story,” he looked beneath the surface to find the heart of it.

No one knew exactly what to think of the film when it was released in 1991, but the times have been kind for a film that is now considered part of Los Angeles cinema history. A vision that blends magical realism, romantic comedy and even Shakespeare with a voice that could only belong to Martin, “LA Story” finally gets a Blu-ray release on November 9, followed by a live table reading of the script presented by Movie Independent on Nov. 13.

Martin discussed the inspiration for the film, the big heart, modern comedy and the overwhelming success of his latest series, Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building.”

The film finds joy and optimism beneath the surface of Los Angeles. Where does that come from?

I think in my heart I am very sentimental. Hopefully that’s a good thing. And romance has always meant a lot – the magic of romance. LA wasn’t exactly romantic for me, but over time I came to understand that it has these secret locations – we even used them in the movie – these beautiful Moroccan courtyards in the middle of Hollywood. It is a city of charm if you pick and choose where to go. The idea came when I was driving down a highway and I saw these highway signs and thought, “What if it spoke to me?” The city helped me. The idea that they were all connected – not divine, but guru-like – inspired me to think romantically about the city.

How did LA define your career and who were you then?

Everything that was good at the beginning of my career happened in LA, or at least Southern California. There was Knott’s Berry Farm, where I first appeared on stage for three years, from 18 to 21. There was Long Beach State College, which changed my thinking so much. I’m not saying it was a grandiose education, but I studied a lot and it made me doubt everything. I can start again. You can throw away everything you know and try to rebuild it.

Then there was the Troubadour, with all these young performers – Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, etc. There was essentially no comedy scene. The Comedy Store came much later. There weren’t really places to perform like that, which was actually good for me. I wasn’t around other comedians. There were clubs in Orange County and Los Angeles. And there was driving, which was already romantic. You could get in your car and go somewhere. And of course CBS Television, where I got my job with ‘The Smothers Brothers’.

A man in a tuxedo stands by a velvet rope in front of Oscar statuettes in a suitcase.

Host Steve Martin backstage at the 92nd Academy Awards held at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood on February 9, 2020.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

All of this affected my comedy, but the real effect, the biggest influence, I think on “LA Story,” the story of “LA Story,” was gripping Irish music. Growing up in stand-up comedy, I was very isolated and driving around. I had a road manager and I loved Irish music. I was a banjo player and I liked Irish music on the banjo, and I liked little melodies. And I think it’s part of melancholy. There was one particular song besides all the songs with such a romantic melancholy called ‘The Maid of Coolmore’.

While I was formulating the story for “LA Story” – meaning the elements like LA and the parody side – I was also formulating the romantic story side. The song tells the story of a man in Ireland, in Coolmore, who passes a young woman three times. The first time he passes her, he just thinks how sweet she is. They look at each other. The second time they talk to each other. But the third time he passes her, she says, “Goodbye,” and he says, “Why?” She says, “Because I’m sailing to America,” which many Irish did in the late 1800s. And he says, “If I had the strength the day she sailed, I’d turn the wind.” That’s what happens in LA Story. The weather and LA conspire to stop her from leaving.

You said earlier this year that “the real story of a movie isn’t written for 10 years,” so what’s the real story of this movie after 30 years? Are there other movies in your history that you feel like the story has changed after ten years or more?

Definitely “Three Amigos.” There are some movies that were good when they came out, but that doesn’t mean they stay good. (laughs) But there are films that have held up well, such as ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ or ‘Little Shop of Horrors’.

This movie, when it first came out, was a big disappointment to me. I remember Mick Jackson, who was the perfect director for it because he came to LA with an English eye – he provided me and Andrew Dunn, the cameraman, with many of the mystical, romantic elements. It was almost the only time this movie could have been made when romance was positive, when these things could happen and were happy to happen. Much cynicism followed, at least in music.

So Mick showed me the movie and I was sitting with four people and saw it in a movie theater, and I was blown away. I loved it. I’ve had this so many times in my life that I think, “This part is going to kill them.” And then it’s not at all. (laughs) And I thought it was so different and unusual and people will really react to this. And that night there was a screening, and I was waiting outside in my car because I didn’t want the audience to see me, but I definitely wanted to be there. An hour and a half later, I’m in a meeting with, “What can we cut?” (laughs) So that there is some resonance today is very good.

Wish you had stuck with that original version?

No no. Every film needs cutting. There’s nothing missing that I regret. I don’t even remember what was cut – I should look back at the script. There is no director’s cut.

Do you think it can be made today? Are we romantic enough for it?

Yes! First, when “LA Story” was made, there was only one outlet: the theaters. And I’m not even sure if there was Betamax. Now you can go to the Lifetime Channel! There are so many outlets and ways to find these things. And in a non-competitive way. It used to be that if you put a show on television and you were up against a powerhouse, that show was never seen again. Now you are not in competition. You only compete with trying to make it known that it is there.

You had a hit with that kind of word this year with “Only Murders in the Building.” Why did it become the biggest Hulu hit of all time?

(laughs) I’m very pleased. I’m 76. You’re just not getting a hit right now in your life. I had the idea five, six, seven years ago and I’ve always wanted to do something in crime. I’ve parodied it in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” and stuff like that. To solve a crime, it keeps an audience engaged. Of course it has to be a good one. It’s on a basic level – “Who did it?” And then something strange happened where there was a click between me, Marty [Short] and Selena [Gomez] – and it turned out that we write at the highest level. I look at some of these things and think, “Where did that come from?” Good lines, good jokes, good twists. I do not know. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps, in a strange way, it is compelling and comfortable at the same time.

A woman and two men look shocked as they look side by side through a door.

Mabel (Selena Gomez), left, Oliver (Martin Short) and Charles (Steve Martin) in Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building”.

(Craig Blankenhorn / Hulu)

Do you look back on your work?

I can not bear. For some reason I can’t. (laughs) I might be able to watch a scene. I want it to be that good. Nothing can live up to that level of really good.

Because you see things that you would like to change?

It’s not that. I’m just not going back.

Who do you watch in comedy?

I’m looking at Bill Burr. I like Jerry Seinfeld. I tell him that all the time. But that’s a bit older now. I’m not on it. My interest is elsewhere, but I’m not exactly sure where it is. Do you know what I think it is? When I look at a stand-up, whether they’re in pain or not, I imagine it. I go back to when I did it, almost like I identify too much. These young comedians – I don’t know how they do it. I worked on one act for 18 years. These comedians have an hour and the following year they need another hour. It’s impossible.

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