It wasn’t a hard sell for the Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville to take on a project about U2. The magic that happens in Disney’s Bono and The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, can be found in both the details and the happy accidents that occurred while filming.
In our conversation, Morgan explains his approach to the film, his love of the band, and what he and his team did to make the film far less conventional than it needed to be.
Awards Daily: Part of what’s going on right now with the band itself is a sort of post-pandemic reintroduction to the public with the album, the Vegas show, and the Disney special. Did you feel any extra responsibility being part of that reintroduction?
Morgan Neville: Not really. (Laughs). I’m not coming at it from where they’re coming at it. They have all their own reasons why they want to tell their own story. I do think had it not been for the pandemic, this moment wouldn’t be happening like this. They probably would’ve had an album of new music first and The Edge probably never would have undertaken the Surrender project. Bono’s book had been long in the works so I think that was always going to happen. When we first started, I knew that Bono’s book was happening, but it all seemed kind of distant and in retrospect it seems there’s a plan that came through. I really just try and focus on how to tell the best story I can kind of in a vacuum. What I was fortunate to do is catch them at a moment where they were retrospective. As Edge says, it’s not his favorite gear because he is Mr. Future. But it was a chance to do something different. It was different in many ways. It’s different from what I normally do, and it’s different from what Letterman normally does, and it’s different from what they do. I don’t know quite what to call it. It’s part concert film, part talk show, part documentary. It’s a weird hybrid of things and that was scary but ultimately totally rewarding.
I feel like it was a cooking challenge where somebody hands you some random ingredients and says make something delicious. All I knew is that I was up for taking the challenge. When I got the first call about it from Justin Wilkes at Imagine, I was in by the time he finished the first sentence. I’ve grown up a U2 fan and a Letterman fan. I think it was also a creative challenge too of how to do something that feels unique and different and bring all these people together. I’d talked to Dave on the phone, I’d talked to the band. Then I went and sat down with Dave and we just had a two hour conversation where I picked his brain on everything from what music’s on his phone to what the first record he bought was, and the fact that he played drums in college and his relationship with the band. One of the things that came through was that Dave didn’t really understand Ireland or kind of the roots of any of this. Bono made it clear from the beginning that they could do it anywhere, but there was just this idea of maybe showing Dave their turf. That instantly to me became a framework for this whole thing. It’s Dave’s trip to Ireland. When we premiered the film, to me it was trying to change the paradigm of Dave going from host to guest and trying to make that work, and that worked like a charm. I have to say, we were all nervous. Dave was nervous. The idea was to really do something different than his show and do something different than everything else and do a concert.
Basically I ended up thinking that there were three pillars to what the project was about. It was about the relationship between Bono and Edge, it was about their music, and it was about Dave’s perspective on the band in Ireland and his trip. Once I settled on that, it became much easier. There are huge parts of their story that I love, like Achtung Baby and all the expat projects and everything. I love that stuff, but that wasn’t part of this story. It was a chance to play off of Dave’s curiosity. We talked a lot before each interview about what we were going to discuss. Consistently Dave did his homework but would surprise me in interviews by bringing up things that we had never talked about, like the Super Bowl. Dave brought it up and it turned out to be a really powerful moment in their story. I was glad we were able to revisit that moment. So, it was something that took us all a little outside of our comfort zones, but I think we are happy for the trip.
Awards Daily: This could have been just a commercial for U2, but it’s so much more than that. Did you think about that when you were making it? How to avoid this looking like something that’s like a teaser sort of thing?
Morgan Neville: Oh, totally. That’s not what I do. I just think of myself as trying to tell the best story I can. I think
there’s one reference that Dave made to the fact that there’s an album coming out. Other than that, I don’t think there’s any other mention of the record or any of that. Again, that wasn’t really in my mind when I started making it. The thing that I really grabbed onto was this relationship between these two guys which is so unusual. I’ve made a lot of music projects and dealt with people who’ve been in bands for long periods of time. Normally when you’re in a band, you start when you’re teenagers and you’re kind of locked into a sort of adolescent relationship for the rest of your life and you resent it. Somehow these guys don’t. It’s really, truly unique from what I’ve seen in my experience. I think they actually like each other more now, strangely. Part of it is that they recognize just how perfectly they complement each other. Even when we started talking about the concert and how we were going to do it, we were on a Zoom and Bono was throwing out all these crazy ideas. He said I have to run and Edge said okay, well here’s what we’re really going to do. (Laughs). I felt like oh, that’s how this band works. Bono throws a lot of dust in the air with a lot of magical ideas and then Edge is left to sort through what’s actually actionable.
Awards Daily: U2 fans, the really hardcore types, can be very sensitive. The fact that Adam and Larry weren’t a part of the project, for really legitimate reasons obviously, has created a bit of backlash. Did it affect you at all in terms of how you were filming it?
Morgan Neville: It made it different. I’m a fan of Adam and Larry too. I’m a huge U2 fan. Not to take anything away from Adam and Larry, but I do feel like the engine of the songwriting really comes down to Bono and Edge. I’m a huge fan of songwriting and have made lots of projects about songs and songwriting and I think it was a chance to personalize the story a little more. I actually think part of the reason U2 is often not seen in the way the Stones or the Beatles or a lot of other bands are seen as songwriting teams is that they’re this kind of quartet of songwriters and they’re such a strong live band. They’re such a strong sound band that I feel like the songwriting can get lost. I will say sometimes I think it’s their own fault too. I think they sometimes lose the thread a little bit. I don’t know if they’d agree with me.
When we were talking about song choices to close the special with, Bono had suggested “Invisible” and I wasn’t sure. I went back and listened to the original version and I still don’t love the original version of “Invisible.” But what they did with it, it’s one of my favorite songs now. That’s always been kind of a thing with U2. Are these songs that you can sing around a campfire or not? Sometimes they feel like there’s no way you could, but then you understand that no, there’s a brilliant song hiding in there. More often than not, there’s a brilliant song hiding inside of every U2 song. Sometimes it’s more apparent than others. It was that stripping back that felt exciting to me. By making it less a democratic four-way U2 project, it just allowed us to get a little more microscopic.
Awards Daily: I do want to talk about “Invisible.” That’s one of my favorite sort of lost U2 songs. It got put out as the single by itself for RED, and it hit me at a time in my life when I needed it, which is the story of this band for me, to be perfectly honest. Closing with it was a fascinating choice. There is that sound and video edit from the performance in the auditorium to the bar that is so seamless. I’m getting chills thinking about it. Tell me about making that cut.
Morgan Neville: I love that cut too. Sometimes you end up in these situations where you have to make this Biblical choice between your children of what you’re going to use. We had this amazing live performance in concert and we had this amazing pub performance. I was just trying to have my cake and eat it too. I said I think there’s a way to do both. Rather than going back and forth, let’s just make a jump. And once we tried it, it was like magic. It made me so happy. It was one of those experiments. This project happened so quickly too. One thing you get having done this for a long time is you just learn how to think ahead. A lot of it was just thinking about metaphors and songs and everything, because we weren’t going to have a chance to go back and get anything new. So it was like, what are we going to get and thinking about ideas of this island nation and waves and “Every Breaking Wave” and thinking about time and looking back and forward and the idea of tradition versus modernity, which is something that they embody. Something that Bono had said early on is don’t give us the Irish Tourist Council version of Ireland. Americans are very used to a cliched, quaint, antiquated view of Ireland. Ireland is in many ways a very modern nation and in some ways, when it comes to sexuality, more modern than America. So that was kind of an interesting marching order from Bono. That was like his one request.
Awards Daily: There are two scenes that you seed very well in this show that I thought were pretty magical. One we talked about is “Invisible.” The other is the Forty Foot. You take Dave to the Forty Foot and he’s this stranger in a strange land who doesn’t want to get his feet wet. He’s cold. At the end, you do a loop back around with this new song playing and the shooting of both the rugged shots of the earlier part, and then the final shot is so beautiful. I have to tell you, my wife and I both wept just at the shot of the back of his head. It was so poetic and beautiful. And then just having him walk out of frame. Tell me about that final sequence.
Morgan Neville: Well, thank you. That was one of those things that I think the documentary approach helps, which is none of that existed when we went to Ireland to go make this other than, oh let’s go look at the Forty Foot, because it’s kind of a real Dubliners place and people swim. We went to a number of places with Dave, but the Forty Foot—it was freezing and gorgeous. People were jumping in the water and Dave got wet up to his knees with this wave. I had mentioned that to Bono and Edge later and then they brought it up on stage. The next day I’d said to them that we wanted to maybe talk about voice memos and more of how they write music. They went and worked on that song till 3:00 AM. They are hardworking rock stars. They presented that song and I had no idea that was going to happen. Dave was just really touched by it. That was our last day in Dublin when that happened. They played him the song and we went home.
This is mid-December, and then over Christmas I got a call from Dave saying how touched he was by that song, but that he felt like he needed to go in the Forty Foot. So that was not part of the plan. I loved the idea and it certainly occurred to me, but it was so ridiculous to say “Dave, can you go back to Ireland to go jump in the water?” But the fact that the idea came from him shows just how attuned Dave is to what the story needed. Dave fully embraced it to the point where we said do you want to go back and spend a couple of days? And he is like, nope, I just want to go, change into my bathing suit, jump in the water, and then I’m going to go home. By that point they had sent us the full version of the song and then we really just figured out how to shoot that sequence. I didn’t know how Dave was going to react either, and Dave was such a champ about it. But anyway, that’s just one of those things. That’s the documentary part of it. You just can’t predict that stuff when it happens, and you have to love it when it does.
Awards Daily: You’ve done a lot of music work and musical documentaries as you said. 20 Feet From Stardom—my mother-in-law sang backup for Bob Dylan in the seventies and she’s wondering why she didn’t get your call. (Laughs) But that’s another story altogether. Having done a lot of work in musical documentary, and this being a project that had a lot of eyes on it with the biggest band in the world, how do you feel now that it’s out there in the world?
Morgan Neville: I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled both for the experience of having made it, but it turned into something that was greater than the sum of its parts. I know because Bono and Edge have expressed to me how much it meant to them and how much it blew them away, and Dave did the same thing. Dave wrote me the nicest note that I want to frame about how thankful he was. He watched it too. Dave rarely watches things once he’s done them. I don’t think I’m speaking out of school to say he said it’s one of the best things he’s ever done. For me that’s incredibly rewarding. Sometimes projects just take on some magic pixie dust and everybody’s in the same direction and it just works. This is something that definitely could have not worked or could have been just okay, but it worked. Part of it was that we also did it fairly quickly. What I love about that is you’re just running more on instinct and sketching. There were a lot of players, but I think everybody was just like you’re onto something. Just keep going. And then we were done. They were like that was so much better than we ever thought it was going to be. You have to love those experiences when they happen like that.