“An Inconvenient Truth” Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim, like many creative creatives, is always afraid to stay there. When he read Michael J. Fox’s 2002 “Lucky Man: A Memoir” three years ago, he knew he wanted to make a movie about the star. But when he met the actor, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 29 and is now 61, Guggenheim began to see what he could do with this poignant drama.
“I was like, ‘Wow,'” Guggenheim said. “Because I’m 59 years old.” Well, he’s a few years older than me. My children leave home. I feel older, more fragile. I spent a lot of time saying “poor me, poor me”. My family’s glory days are over. My best films are behind me. You will be embarrassed. You convince yourself that life sucks. And then I say, “Well, how is it that you have another boost of optimism when you have worse circumstances?”
Guggenheim, whose Concordia studio has a first-look deal with AppleTV+, has “set a documentary in the studio that feels like an ’80s movie,” he said. “I want big songs. I want a big Hollywood score. I want to do ambitious remakes. I want to create a complete archive and take the audience for a ride. It was time, time and money. And they didn’t even flinch. They were like, “Great. Let’s do it.'”
Guggenheim knew he had a lot of material to play with. Not only was he able to build a strong narrative from the audio material of Fox’s four books, but he and his editor Michael Harte (“Three Strangers”) shot a rich video material from behind the scenes of the star’s “Family Ties” series. ,” movies like 1985’s hits “Back to the Future” and “Teen Wolf” and the 1988 flop “Bright Lights, Big City,” real footage of Fox and his family, seven Interrotron interviews with Fox , and finally , reenactments with actors filmed at Fox’s old stomping ground near Vancouver, Canada.
The filmmaker’s first challenge was to avoid the clichés of the celebrity movie. “The two clichés are: The boy’s reputation, ‘so hard,'” Guggenheim said. “And the other is a disabled person: “Aren’t they noble? And amazing? And brave?’”
What attracted Guggenheim was the quality of Fox’s writing. The film’s opening scene is straight from the book: After a night of partying with Woody Harrelson, Fox wakes up in a fog to find herself shivering pink. “This is his voice reading the book on tape,” Guggenheim said. “So strong storytelling…good scene work. And then I knew it was going to be funny. The big surprise was just the unexpected true life wisdom that he possesses. It spoke to me.”
In the film, the tiny budding actor is on the move from the start, convincing his conservative father at age 18 to take him to Los Angeles for an audition. When he got a few roles, his father left him to farm alone. “Family Ties” arrived just in time. Gary David Goldberg hired Fox over the objections of NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, who said he couldn’t imagine seeing Fox’s face on a lunch box. Years later, after the top-rated show won five Primetime Emmys, including three for Fox, the actor sent Tartikoff a signed “Family Ties” lunch box, which the network czar kept in his office for years.
In piecing together Fox’s life and career, Guggenheim and his editor Michael Harte had fun finding clips that corresponded to events in his life, such as a first date with future wife Tracy Pollan from “Bright Lights, Big City.” In real life, he was out of his skin with partying. “You meet it when you had the two top-grossing movies of the summer,” Guggenheim said, “and the No. 1 TV show, ‘Family Ties.’ And they meet and she’s an actress on set. “He says, ‘I was a dick.’ And he just calls her and says, “You’re a fucking asshole.” And she says, “I fell in love right away.”
The editor also artistically cut footage behind the scenes of the documentary “Family Ties” with “The Secret of Success” and his narrative about Fox Goldberg, who gave him the script for “Back to the Future”. At first, Goldberg said Steven Spielberg could not let Fox shoot the film, but after Spielberg wanted to replace Eric Stoltz, Goldberg relented. The series, which shows Fox being picked up in the morning to go to the set of “Family Ties” and then “Back to the Future” and then being taken home for a two-month sabbatical. sources. “It was like a piece of lettuce,” Guggenheim said. Throw in some salami, some mozzarella and some diced Romaine. He goes from buttoning up his shirt in the reenactment to walking through the door backstage and then opening the door in “Family Ties” and then we get shot in Vancouver with a Teamster.
First, Guggenheim threw a 20-scene card on the wall with Fox’s voice-over narration, which he knew would be the film’s arc. (He had to get Fox to include some material that was inexplicably left out of Hachette’s shortened audio version.) “And we cut the movie together, but we didn’t shoot the recreations until the very end,” Guggenheim said. “I would rotate the storyboard, what would these scenes be. And there was a tremendous amount of trial and error. I would write storyboard stuff, Michael the editor would throw them out. I would storyboard them again, he would throw them out. He put in scenes from the movie “The Secret of Success” and I threw them out. That’s how it was. And we would figure it out.”
The other key component was the real footage of Fox’s life with closed camera. “In most documentaries, you’re in control because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Guggenheim said. “And you fall, run through the corridors and get on a plane.” And because he’s always moving and shaking because of Parkinson’s, I thought he should move and the camera shouldn’t. It was a strange instinct. I would just select a frame, close it, and leave it in the frame. If it shakes, the camera shouldn’t shake.”
And crucially, Guggenheim filmed five-hour interviews over seven days (over a year) using the Interrotron, a device that allows the subject to look directly into the camera. The effect is that Fox’s large blue eyes look directly at the audience as he speaks. Thanks to a tip from cameraman Clair Popkin about a commercial job, Guggenheim learned that the Errol Morris Interrotron could be set up at an angle so that the interviewer and subject were only four feet apart and facing each other directly—but it looked like Fox. looking into the lens. “I went home, ‘the soul of the film is to see Michael up close.’
In the end, however, Guggenheim felt something was still missing. That’s how he did one last interview with Fox. During the year that Guggenheim documented the actor, he was constantly missing footage because he was recovering from a fall or a broken arm or hand. In one scene, she makes up a broken face that is held together with pins. After all the interviews, Guggenheim realized that he had neglected to ask Fox about his pain. “He went through hell that year,” Guggenheim said. “You spend more time in the emergency room than at home. And yet he didn’t whine or complain, you know? “Come on, man, at least let me teach you how to talk about your pain.” Because I’m really good at it. He just doesn’t want to be pitied. He says “pity is a benign form of abuse”.
When asked directly by Guggenheim, Fox admitted, “I’m in terrible pain.”
“It was wild,” Guggenheim said. “Because he broke his hand, he had pins put in his hand, he had Parkinson’s and the hand tremors meant the pins couldn’t sit and the wounds would never heal. Every tremor is like a seismic shock. But he never says, “look how much I suffered.” Guggenheim then interrupted the final interview with a final physical therapy session that reveals Fox’s physical suffering.
Fox lives to spend time with his family and help others cope with the incurable, progressive disease. The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research. Fox also hopes to convince people not to feel ashamed about the disease, which she kept a secret for seven years. Per Guggenheim, the Foundation helped advance the understanding of Parkinson’s disease by labeling the disease with a test: “Breakthrough. So he drew attention to it through his celebrity.”
Guggenheim edited the film to a tight 94 minutes. His mantra as a producer and director, learned with David Milch in the first season of “Deadwood,” was, “How do you take this character through this journey? And how do you not let the audience go? So when the scenes were doing that, we kept them, and when the scenes weren’t doing that, we threw them out.”
A popular topic during the shoot was the Fox run. “Run,” Guggenheim said. “Always moving, always moving. We begin with this line: “What did it mean to be immobile before Parkinson’s disease?” And he says, “I don’t know. I was never at ease. Then boom, he’s a kid running and stealing a candy bar and running, running. And so we had this basic structure, which is the first half of the movie: he’s running towards something, which is the golden thing, fame and fortune. Then he gets Parkinson’s. And then he runs away from something. And then what you end up with is something completely different, which is your title.”