When Michael J. Fox that he’s hurting during the final moments of the documentary Still, director Davis Guggenheim, seated offscreen, responds with audible concern. “Really? Why didn’t you say anything?” he asks.
“I’m in pain all the time,” says Fox.
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie makes Fox’s stillness especially effective, harnessing the physical effects that the 61-year-old Canadian-born star has endured since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 29. Guggenheim positions Fox squarely in the frame for seated interviews that comprise much of the documentary. Sitting still isn’t easy for Fox, literally and figuratively.
“That was the last interview we did,” Guggenheim tells POV over Zoom ahead of Still’s Canadian premiere at Hot Docs. “This was the last day of shooting we did. In the two years since I had met him, he never once mentioned ever being in pain. He never once mentioned the struggle or how hard it is having Parkinson’s.”
While Fox speaks about fearing that his career would be cut short when he was given his diagnosis, and then worrying again when he “came out” in 1998 during the height of his success with the sitcom Spin City, he reflects to Guggenheim that sharing his experience improved his life in ways he hadn’t imagined. “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” Fox says.
“That’s an interesting part of the tone of the movie, because he’s such an optimist,” observes Guggenheim. “Yet in that moment where we talk about his pain, I think his optimism is waning or is failing him.” Guggenheim says he took a cue from the actor’s perseverance, and adhered to the one rule that Fox laid before filming: “No violins.” As Guggenheim says, “He didn’t want a sappy movie about a guy with a disease.”
A Hollywood Story
Although Still takes audiences on an emotional ride, it’s an upbeat tale true to the spirit of its subject. The film casts Fox as the underdog in his own story. He recalls the frustration of always being the shortest kid in his class and having a little sister who was a head taller than he was. When Fox tells Guggenheim about landing early acting gigs, like the Canadian series Leo and Me, he shares how his diminutive size became an asset. Casting directors could tap him to play young characters with maturity and confidence beyond their years.
As Fox details his early career, there are serious lows en route to the life-changing moment when he lands the lead of teen smart-aleck Alex P. Keaton on the sitcom Family Ties. To Guggenheim’s amazement, Fox remembers days when he ate nothing but packets of Smucker’s jam pinched from restaurants and craft services. The director admits that, growing up as the son of the late four-time Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, he approached Hollywood with a different energy.
“I remember, after college, driving to LA in my Volkswagen Jetta at 100 miles an hour because I got a job, but I didn’t really know what was going to happen to me,” says Guggenheim. “My plan was never to make a documentary, because that’s what my father did. I started by directing a lot of television, shows like ER, NYPD Blue, Alias, and all that kind of stuff. I learned a lot. It was very formative for me. Television directing is very fast.”
However, Guggenheim says that he learned a lot from his father, both for his dramatic and documentary work. “His work was in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s—much more ‘traditional’ documentaries,” notes Guggenheim. “It was a time before Netflix, a time before streaming, but he would always talk about storytelling and narrative. In some ways that was very forward-thinking, because at the time people thought non-fiction was more closely aligned to journalism, to facts, to making it accurate. He was always talking about character, story, and narrative. I learned a lot about storytelling and narrative—from my father, first, and then in television. Then I brought it back to a new version of documentaries.”
Despite working with a figure as notable and influential as Michael J. Fox, Still doesn’t fall into the growing trend of docs that tell the stories of the rich and famous while allowing them to be uncomfortably close to the production. Guggenheim’s work navigates the subject/story relationship objectively, as he did with documentaries about youth activist Malala Yousafzai (2015’s He Named Me Malala), U2 (2011’s TIFF opener From the Sky Down), and American presidents like Barack Obama and Joe Biden, to name a few.
“In this case, I had final cut,” notes Guggenheim. “Michael was saying, ‘make the movie you want to make,’ which is a dream. That’s not always the case. It’s amazing, this surge of celebrity documentaries. I know that’s happening at the same time, but I didn’t really look at this movie that way. I looked at this movie as a great story.”
One could liken Guggenheim’s portrait of Fox to the biographical docs of Barbara Kopple, in which familiar faces serve as accessible vehicles for considerations of larger issues. Fox’s relationship with Hollywood and Parkinson’s in Still recalls Kopple’s music docs, like Miss Sharon Jones! (2015), in which a portrait of the titular diva is less about a dying woman than of a singer who became a star despite embodying the all-too-familiar tale about a woman who was “too Black, too fat, too short, and too old”; and Shut Up and Sing (2006), which used a political statement in the Dixie Chicks’ tour to explore the fight for free speech in America. Steve James’ Roger Ebert doc Life Itself (2014) is also an obvious comparison for its frank portrait of the late film critic’s battle with cancer.
For Guggenheim, it was all about following his father’s emphasis on character and story and telling it with the dramatic drive he learned in TV dramas. “I really thought, ‘What if we could make a documentary that feels like an ’80s movie?’” says Guggenheim. “A wild ride that has big music, big songs, great energy, big ups and downs.”
Wild Ride through the Archives
Still captures Fox’s hunger with the rousing spirit of a Spielbergian blockbuster. The film finds its cinematic punch by drawing upon Guggenheim’s dramatic sense with an ingeniously energetic incorporation of Fox’s archive into its design. Guggenheim says the film’s seamless ability to capture every beat of Fox’s ascent to superstardom through images of his previous work began with the actor’s memoir. For moments in which Fox wrote about the frenetic lifestyle behind the scenes, Guggenheim says they got creative in the absence of archives. “The editor of the movie, Michael Harte, aggressively used Michael’s movies—scenes from Family Ties, scenes from Back to the Future —in ways in which I don’t think movies have been used before,” notes the director.
Many sequences in Still tell Fox’s story through characters he’s played on film and television. For example, the story of landing Back to the Future is told not via a contemporary interview, but with a recontextualized snippet of Fox’s 1988 film Bright Lights, Big City. When Fox talks about zipping between the sets of Family Ties and Back to the Future, with the production staff making coffee and running his shower to ensure he stayed fresh between gigs, Still zips through scenes of Alex P. Keaton talking about balancing two jobs, feeling run down, and always being on the move.
“There are moments that were not captured: the teamster putting him to bed, him sleeping, him being late for the set. My solution was a recreation, like an actor playing a teamster or an actor playing Michael J. Fox,” adds Guggenheim. “Michael Harte’s solution was to find a movie where that happens or to find a scene from Family Ties where Michael’s talking about having two jobs or he’s bursting in because he’s late.”
The different approaches between the director and the editor yielded a third option: a blend of past and present that lends a sense of timelessness to Fox’s work. “There’s an iconic shot from Back to the Future where Michael’s sleeping in the bed with his legs like this [bent] in his jeans. We recreate that with an actor, but at night, so you have both in there: the shot from Back to the Future and the exact recreation with an actor playing him.”
Other moments tell the love story between Michael J. Fox and his wife, Tracy Pollan, through humorous clips of a love-struck Alex P. Keaton trying fast moves on co-ed Ellen Reed, played by Pollan, on Family Ties. Still lets audiences watch the magic of two people falling in love, both in a story and in real life. Footage from Bright Lights, Big City returns as Fox and Pollan play characters enjoying an onscreen date, but audiences may find themselves doing double takes to separate Hollywood romance from home movies.
Jumping Between TV and Film
While Guggenheim’s dramatic roots let Still imagine archival documentary anew, the director relates his own career to Fox’s, both having found TV to be an ideal training ground as young artists. “You jump from genre to genre: a cop show, a medical show, a spy show,” explains Guggenheim. “Some shows are just Steadicam and some shows are long lens. This film is as much an expression of my scripted work as it is of my non-fiction work. It’s the first time that those two have been as melded as they could be.”
Like Fox, Guggenheim has found considerable success in both mediums. Shortly after directing the Emmy-winning HBO western series Deadwood, he picked up an Oscar of his own for the landmark documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006). With a box-office gross of approximately $50 million worldwide, An Inconvenient Truth proved a Back to the Future-sized hit for documentaries and joined films like Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and March of the Penguins (2005) in proving that non-fiction films could connect with theatrical audiences.
Guggenheim navigates the contemporary demands of storytelling for the differing contexts of cinema and home streaming with the same ease with which he’s gone between documentary and drama and serial and feature forms. While An Inconvenient Truth marked a new era for documentaries in theatres, Still, which will be on AppleTV+ following its festival run, arrives at a moment when docs are all the rage for streamers. Guggenheim, however, says he doesn’t approach a production any differently whether making it for a streamer or for theatrical distribution. In part, the growth of bigger and wider HD home theatres makes the big-screen question moot, since it’s still a matter of character and story.
“Inconvenient Truth was a theatrical success, but what’s interesting is that some might say it’s a film about climate change,” says Guggenheim. “It is, obviously. On the surface, it’s a scientific, factual argument that climate change is real, but we looked at Inconvenient Truth as a redemption story.”
The “we” noted here is film editor Jay Cassidy, who cut An Inconvenient Truth and dramas like David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013). “We saw it as a story about this person who lost the 2000 election and was telling this story to prove something. He wanted the world to know about this thing, and people wouldn’t listen to him.” As with his work with Harte on Still, Guggenheim’s effort with Cassidy on An Inconvenient Truth pushed the story beyond Al Gore’s key presentation to invite audiences to listen to the former vice president’s message. “Even then, with a very factual documentary, we’re still thinking about character and narrative,” notes Guggenheim.
Story as Impact
For Guggenheim, the effect of a documentary like An Inconvenient Truth, which has clear action points for audiences interested in follow-through, differs from that of a film like Still. “Participant Media, which financed Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, and He Named Me Malala, did a lot in terms of measuring impact: what laws have been changed and how many minds,” says Guggenheim. For a film like Still, Guggenheim sees a different kind of impact. “I’m not sure you can measure impact because, to me, [it] is this intangible thing when a story washes over you,” says Guggenheim. “That’s what I’m going for, whether you’re inspired, whether you’re saddened, whether you’re fully immersed in this person’s story. My job is to tell a good story.”
The sense of immersion in Still comes full circle as the propulsive ride through the archive whizzes through Fox’s story quicker than the DeLorean races through time. The sense of constant motion within the film and the hectic energy of Fox’s life make the emphasis on stillness in the interview that much more effective. Fox’s life and career are always on the move, so stillness is not within his comfort zone.
Guggenheim finds this aspect of Fox’s story universal. “I identify with it a lot,” observes Guggenheim. “His movement is physical. As a kid, he was always running—you see it in the footage. You see it in Back to the Future. Even when he is standing still, it almost feels like he’s moving. But I think all of us can identify with how fast everything moves, how fast our lives are, and how we don’t stop. Stillness is something we might want or aspire to, but we can’t really achieve. I was really drawn to that theme.”
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie screens at Hot Docs 2023 on May 1, 5, and 7. It opens NorthwestFest on May 4.
It screens globally on AppleTV+ beginning May 12.