Morgan Neville's 'Shangri-La' explores the world of the enigmatic music producer

By Sarah Rodman
July 12, 2019 at 08:43 PM EDT
SHOWTIME

Morgan Neville knows a thing or two about singular visionaries.

Having directed documentaries about everyone from Orson Welles to Johnny Cash to Fred Rogers (the latter in last year’s sob-inducing portrait Won’t You Be My Neighbor?), the L.A. native is eternally interested in creativity. His latest project, Shangri-La, a four-part Showtime docuseries premiering Friday, continues this investigation with an inventive, engrossing examination of the world of enigmatic music producer Rick Rubin and the legendary Malibu studio that gives the documentary its name.

This is not your typical talking-heads chronology in which a subject ticks off items on a laundry list, reminiscing about the hits and misses of their career. Instead, the prodigiously bearded Rubin, who’s also an executive producer on the series, can be seen interviewing others about their lives and art, and revealing something about himself in the process. Neville, who won an Academy Award for his dynamic exploration of the world of back-up singers in 20 Feet From Stardom, also interpolates music, film clips, and re-enactments of earlier eras of Rubin’s life — with young actors standing in for Rubin, including a little boy sporting that beard — to illuminate what is truly an engrossing story encompassing early hip-hop, pro wresting, magic, heavy metal, and transcendental meditation. It is trippy and delightful but also deftly manages to provide insight into the life of a man who has produced a wildly disparate range of artists — Cash, Run-DMC, Slayer, Tom Petty, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Adele, the Dixie Chicks, the Beastie Boys, Neil Diamond, Jay Z, and Slayer, to name a few — who swear by the ineffable magic of his decidedly hands-off (the control board) approach.

EW caught up with Neville recently to discuss Shangri-La, the only docuseries this year, we’re guessing, in which you will hear David Lynch proclaiming his love for ZZ Top.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve worked in TV before but primarily have been a feature doc director. Why did Shangri-La make more sense as a four-part series than a film?
MORGAN NEVILLE: It was never supposed to be a feature doc, and a feature doc would have played by different rules too. I feel like a feature doc, I would have felt the pressure to tell a more complete story. And with this — and I have to say, Showtime is amazing about this — we were given license to experiment. This is by far the most experimental thing I’ve ever done. I feel like it was a hybrid of a whole bunch of different ideas, and I feel like in many ways this whole show has been kind of an extended conversation between Rick and myself about not just the creative process, but a lot of ideas about creativity and about identity and history. And it’s been great. I think ultimately he pulled me far away from my comfort zone and I pulled him far away from his comfort zone. And I think it’s with a format where we could kind of play with something and not know where it was going to go and feel safe about it, which was great. I also should just say that I always have to give credit to Jeff Malmberg, my co-director, who actually edited Won’t You Be My Neighbor? He was my partner in trying to figure out how to tell a story that is essentially a reflection of a reflection in [Rubin’s] hall of mirrors.

There’s this incredible meta quality to the whole project where you are examining “What is this about?” as a question as it pertains to Rick himself, as Rick is saying to artists in the studio “What is this about?” when trying to help them find their voice. It’s like a weird combination of magic pixie dust and therapy and raw creativity.
The thing is, that’s Rick’s process, so I think the one thing that Rick and I agreed about in the beginning was that if he could come away from this and know what it’s like to be produced by Rick, then we’ve succeeded. And I feel like that’s what we tried to do. I mean, you realize very quickly that music is a small part of what it means to work with Rick, and that most of the time when you see Rick working, it’s really being part therapist, part philosopher, part Zen master, in addition to being a music producer. And so I feel like when you work with Rick, it really is about readjusting your head space and reconsidering your creative approach. And so in that way, I think I was produced by Rick too.

Indeed, it’s clear in the rawness of this that he did that voodoo that he does to you; it’s another fascinating layer.
And as we would get lost in production, all we had to do was look at the thing we were making and it explained how to make it, you know, the assembly instructions were inside the box. So as we were editing, the things they’re talking about are the things that are telling me how to edit it. So it became an interesting circle in that way too, which I really appreciated. But that idea of embracing the not knowing and the jumping off the cliff and not trying to hang on to the stuff you normally hang on to. That’s something that I appreciate at this stage of my career, just being able to make a music program that is unlike any other music program that’s been done. Because so many have been done. So how do we approach, it in a way, and I think that was really exciting.

There’s a mixmaster element to what you’re doing, and whatever habits or tricks that you like to use or whatever your normal aesthetic might be goes out the window here. Was that because you were being produced by Rick, or did you know going in that you wanted to approach it with these different flourishes with the clips and reenactments?
I knew I wanted to try new things. And Rick really had no interest in doing the same old thing either. He said in the beginning, “I’m not going to be a talking head. I’m not going to sit down for an on-camera interview. I’m not going to do the things you’ve seen, because it’s just been done.” I think a thread that runs through all of Rick’s work is always looking to do the next thing or to hear the sound you haven’t heard before, to be completely uninterested in what’s been done. Rick often doesn’t know where he wants to go. He just knows he doesn’t want to go back. So I think he set a lot of limitations. To use a metaphor: It’s like we, Jeff and I, were a rock band who came in to work with Rick and he said, “Okay, you can’t use drums, you can’t use guitar, you can’t use vocals, but you can use bass and a theremin, and you have to make the best double album of all time.”

Of course it’s a double album, not just an album.
Exactly. Like, “Okay, here we go. Let’s figure this out.” Like, “Get that theremin working!”

And although he’s not a talking head, he does end up interviewing all these other people: Mike D from the Beastie Boys, Tyler the Creator, Chuck D. It seems like curiosity is part of his DNA.
Yeah, and what’s interesting is a lot of Rick’s own stories come through his conversations with other people because they’re curious about him too. But it’s very much a two-way street. In the beginning, Rick wasn’t even sure if he would be in this. In the very first conversation I had about this, the idea was to maybe just do a show about the studio. And I think it’s when Rick and I started talking that we started finding these areas that were interesting to both of us. And it kind of became this grand experiment for us. I feel like you get a pretty good sense of what his creative ethos is here. Which was really the goal from the beginning.

Where did the idea spring from to re-enact portions of Rick at different stages of his life? And what made you decide to give child Rick that current Rick beard?
Even though I didn’t do a talking-head interview with Rick, I recorded hours and hours and hours of conversations with him. And there were all these stories that I just felt I had to figure out a way to illustrate, and Jeff and I brainstormed about it. And we said, “Well, let’s just come up with these different Ricks.” Each episode has a new Rick in it. And in many ways, Rick has been a shapeshifter throughout his life too. So it felt in some ways appropriate, and again, in Rick’s magical-realism way of looking at the world and the creative process, it felt like there was license to kind of go that way. So I actually went and shot all of this stuff with the kid without even telling Rick. And then I was like, “Hey, do you want to check something out?” And he dug it. He thought it was cool. But it was just trying to kind of solve a problem. I often think of Orson Welles’ dictum that the absence of limitations is the enemy of art, and I think this project had many limitations, but it opened itself up to many artistic solutions. I feel like I learned so much making this show, things I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.

Araya Diaz/Getty Images

Another thread that weaves through the series is the concept of artists merely being a conduit for the art. At one point Rick says something that I think all musicians and music lovers can relate to about being awed by this thing that you cannot physically touch having so much emotional power. There’s magic in that. A lot of people ascribe magic to Rick. Do you think he’s magic?
You have to define magic.

Do you think he has something that is extrasensory or extra-special? Something that you and I don’t have, without being able to necessarily articulate what that thing is.
There are a couple of thoughts to come to mind about it. One is when you go see a magic show, you know that supernatural things aren’t happening but you still suspend your disbelief, and I think that’s what Rick does. I think that’s really important, but I think it’s something anybody can do. And I think Rick would also say, because we talked about it many times, what he does is not super-special. It’s something that we can all share in. I think Rick has an incredible belief in himself and an incredible ability to tune out what anybody else thinks. But those are things we can all aspire to. Those are very human things.

There is another interesting passage where Rick is discussing the mythology surrounding him, including the recurring theme that he doesn’t “do anything” in the classic sense of a producer manning a control board. Even the artists who revere him the most have trouble articulating what he “does.”
In each episode, there’s an artist who we interviewed who’s like, “What the hell does Rick do?” I think people were asking that question throughout the whole show because part of it is like, in many ways he doesn’t do much, but sometimes that’s enough. Plenty of producers are going to tell you what kind of keyboard to use on that overdub. But Rick is about trying to adjust something in your life that may affect your music. And for some people that works; some people need that and other people don’t. And I think ultimately what it comes down to is, if it’s real or not real, if he’s really doing something or not doing something, if it works it doesn’t matter if it’s magic or just sleight of hand. And I think that’s what’s important to Rick. It’s the lack of caring about if you really believe it or if you don’t. If you can’t tell if it’s real or not. That’s what Rick likes.

One common perception of Rick is as this aloof Zen master. But in the series he just comes off as a chill dude.
Yeah, in episode 3, it’s all about wrestling. Lots of wrestling. Because [wrestling] traffics in a lot of these same ideas of illusion and reality and persona, but it’s not high culture. I think that’s what’s so interesting is he’s not an elitist in any way. I’ve seen him hang out with a lot of really young guys who don’t even know who he is and talking about normal things, but he can work in multiple worlds. I mean, it’s part of what being a producer is, too — what Tom Petty needs is very different than what Lil Yachty needs in terms of a producer. Or in terms of a person, you’re a different person in your life, you know, different stages. You have to know how to connect with people regardless of how much you have in common with them.

And on some level, also, what Tom Petty and Lil Yachty need can probably be similar at the root of an artistic expression. That’s been true for your work also, skipping from Orson Welles to Mister Rogers to Rick Rubin. I bet you can see similarities among those very different people.
Without a doubt, and to me too. It’s something I feel like I’ve done so much throughout my career. It’s just exploring creative process. And creative process is universal. How you figure out what your voice is and how to express it in the world. That’s something that I thought back to again and again, and there are so many times when I’ve been working on something, and I think, “God, this is about me.” I think a lot of people in the audience might feel that way too.

It’s the reason why I’m less interested in conventional biography. I didn’t want to make Won’t You Be My Neighbor? just as a nostalgia trip for people. I wanted to speak to people who didn’t grow up with him. And in that same way, you know, Shangri-la, I think doing a Rick Rubin project is not to service hip-hop fans. It’s the idea that you don’t have to even care about music and this hopefully says something to you.

Shangri-La premieres Friday, July 12, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.

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