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A Documentary That Feels Like an '80s Movie: Davis Guggenheim on STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie

As we begin to look back on the lives of the late 20th century, documentarians have unprecedented treasure troves of images, videos, and audio to help tell the story. Davis Guggenheim’s “STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” is especially innovative in its use of footage from Fox’s television and movie appearances to provide context, contrast, and commentary. In an interview, Guggenheim talked about Fox’s early fame, Fox's diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease while still in his twenties and making this film into an “'80s movie.”

At the beginning of the documentary, we see Michael J. Fox walking on a Manhattan sidewalk with his physical therapist who reminds him that when he gets stuck due to Parkinson’s he needs to “stop and reset.” That seems to be one of the themes of the film.

There's a theme in the movie where Michael's always moving. It's in his books. It's in how he writes. He talks about at the beginning of his life, he's running toward something. And then when he gets Parkinson's he's running away from something. That's a really powerful theme that's not only true to his life but true to a lot of people's lives. It feels true to my life where you're racing and racing and racing, and you think you have to conquer the next project or the next hill. I think what Michael learned through Parkinson's is to slow down, and to be present. And I think that's a message that we can all learn from.

We see that when he says he was not present as a father before he became ill, and then we see him now with his family, having such a joyous time.

Oh, my God. He's a wonderful dad. I've seen him with his children, not just when we have cameras there, but also when we're just hanging out. They love him so much. He exudes joy when he's around his kids, and they feel it, and they love him. They're a very, very tight family. Tracy's a wonderful mother.

Like their dad, they can be very honest but in a humorous and loving way.

He talks about this. That when he's with his family, they don't pity him. They're not like, “Oh, poor you, you've got Parkinson's.” They take the piss out of him. He just wants to be treated like any other dad and you see that in the movie. You see a kind of ease with them and a joy with them when they're together.

Were you a fan of his work in the '80s? 

I would call myself a casual fan. I saw “Back to the Future,” I saw “Doc Hollywood,” I saw “Casualties of War.” But I didn't see all his movies. I was sort of a casual, “Oh, I like him.” But to be candid, I think I underestimated him. I thought, “Oh, he's that funny guy from ‘Family Ties’ and ‘Back to the Future.’ I didn't realize he was such a great writer. I didn't realize he had such wisdom. I think one of the things you get from the movie is how wise he is and how perceptive.

Choosing the archival footage must have been a monumental effort because there is so much of him on film. 

Well, one of the things that we did was use footage from his movies as a way to describe the moments in his life in a way that I've seen a little bit in other movies, but not the way we did it. The editor, Michael Harte, who's a genius, really is sort of my co-storyteller. He really pushed that hard so that when Michael and Tracy are dating in real life, we show a scene with the two of them in “Bright Lights Big City.” When we describe him getting the script for “Back to the Future,” we use a clip from “Secret of My Success.” I've never seen it done this way before. We really pushed the boundaries of what you could do in a documentary. 

What I pitched to Apple was, “Could you make a documentary that feels like an 80s movie?” It has these big ups and big downs and big music. We got John Powell, a composer from feature films who's never done a documentary before. He did “The Bourne Identity” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” And on the soundtrack we have 80s music from Guns N Roses and Beastie Boys and Joe Walsh and Kenny Loggins. When people start watching the movie, they're like, “Oh my gosh, this is a wild ride.”  

Michael's story is a Hollywood story. This short kid from Canada from a small town called Burnaby, near Vancouver, and he's got a very tough military father and he's like, “Dad, I want to go to Hollywood and become a star.” It's kind of a big surprise when Dad says “Sure.” He puts it on his credit card. They drive their Dodge Aspen down to Hollywood. And he said, “This will never work.” And in two years Michael becomes one of the biggest stars in the world. And that's part of the story, the wild Hollywood ride and all the ups and downs that come with it. And so, to tell that story you really have to use music from that era to capture those moments.

Unlike most documentaries, especially those with medical issues, you didn’t have a lot of experts on camera.

I really didn't want to do typical sit-down interviews, talking heads. I wanted to tell the whole movie using movies as archives. And then I said, “Well, let's do one interview with him.” Just like this one shot, one interview, and see what happens. And the thing that hasn't changed about Michael is he still has that twinkle in his eye. He's still dropping really funny one-liners. He says, “I'm a cockroach. You can't kill a cockroach.” 

I asked him, “Is this a story about a sad sack guy who gets a chronic disease, and it crushes him?” He takes a long pause and says, “That's boring.” And when the movie plays in an audience, it's a huge laugh. Huge laughs and the way he is now. But I think it's also shocking for us to see how Parkinson's has really changed his physicality. How he walks and how he looks, and how he speaks. I think it's hard for us to imagine Alex P. Keaton or Marty McFly to be like that right now. But what's sort of wonderful is how his spirit endures. He's still that puckish guy who wants to win.

“Still” is such a meaningful title because we see Michael constantly moving, usually very fast, going back to his earliest childhood, hurtling headlong into his career, and then getting a disease that does not allow him to be physically still because of his tremors, but forced him to be emotionally and mentally still for the first time.

It's a beautiful idea to be still. I think it's an aspiration. I'm still running really fast. I'm still racing to the next thing. I still have family obligations and work obligations, and things I want to do. And I'm scheduled too tight and always running, running, running. I think a lot of people feel that way. And he was that way for sure in his life for years. He talks about Parkinson's as a gift that keeps on taking. And the gift part is, is that it's reminding him to be grateful for the things you have. And I think it's a beautiful lesson for us. Michael was fearless in wanting to come across as he is. He said, “I'm an open book. I'm a total open book. But no violins.” Which is like, “I don't want to be pitied. I don't want you to make this a melancholy, sappy movie about a guy who's struggling with a disease.” That's not who he is.

The remarkable thing about Michael and what's happened to him is he's found something very special, even though he has this disease that's chronic and relentless. And, as he said, it's going to win. He still has this sense of gratitude. When I met him and started telling the story, I realized that I want what he has. And how could that be? I don't want Parkinson's. How could that be? I don't want to get older. I don't want to have these horrible challenges. But there's something in the movie which tells you that, wait a minute, those challenges are things that makes us stronger. And so, I want people to feel what I feel, which is that I want what he has. And that maybe there's something that rubs off of him that rubbed off on me and maybe that rubs off on the audience.

"STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie" will be available in theaters and Apple TV+ on May 12.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

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