Making a Michael J Fox film with the films of

Making a Michael J. Fox film with the films of Michael J. Fox

When Davis Guggenheim approached Michael J. Fox three years ago in hopes of making a film about his life, the director, alongside his previous success with documentaries on other luminaries including Al Gore (the Academy Award-winning “” An Inconvenient Truth”) and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai (“He Called Me Malala”). Guggenheim’s wife, actress Elisabeth Shue, previously worked with Fox and played his girlfriend in the second and third installments of the Back to the Future series. And Guggenheim had directed It Might Get Loud, a documentary about Jimmy Page, Jack White and The Edge, a fact that endeared him to Fox, a longtime electric guitarist.

Even so, Fox was initially reluctant to make a film, especially one centered around stories he’d already written about in four best-selling memoirs. “I told him my story was pretty self-explanatory,” Fox recalled. “I don’t know how many times you can say it.”

But Guggenheim persevered. He didn’t want to make a screen adaptation of Fox’s own memoir, which chronicles the actor’s life and career and his struggles with Parkinson’s disease, as well as he thought it was. And he didn’t want to make a standard documentary with talking heads and a dark narrative. Guggenheim wanted to make a film with as much life and humor as its subject, an entertaining, fast-paced endeavor not dissimilar to a film starring Michael J. Fox, for example.

“I wanted to take the audience on a wild ride,” Guggenheim said.

In the end, Fox relented, but with one request: no violins. “No sob treatment of a man with a terrible diagnosis,” Guggenheim said.

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (streaming on Apple TV+) brings together script re-enactments, behind-the-scenes archive footage, interviews with Fox and numerous clips from Fox’s four-decade career, including his seminal roles in Back to the Future ‘ and ‘Family Ties’, which made Fox one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

The result is a genre-bending hybrid that uses Fox’s own film and television work to creatively illustrate key moments in his life (more on that later) and even reveal long-held secrets – like how Fox managed to overcome his Parkinson’s disease hide years even when she starred in the ABC comedy series Spin City.

The film examines Fox’s career from its earliest beginnings when the actor was 16 but played the role of the 12-year-old on the Canadian sitcom Leo and Me. In a video interview from his New York office, Fox criticized his work on those early gigs. “Eventually I figured out how to act,” he said, “but at first I had no idea.”

Originally, Guggenheim intended to tell Fox’s story primarily through re-enactments, with actors playing Fox at various stages in his life. The film’s editor, Michael Harte (“Three Identical Strangers”) opposed the idea. “The problem is you can’t show the actor’s face,” he said. “What’s great about Michael is that he’s so engaging and he has these superstar qualities.” He felt that using a double of someone as instantly recognizable as Fox “would drive audiences out of the film.”

Instead, Harte thought they could use film and television clips of the actor to tell Fox’s story, sparking a “battle” (Guggenheim’s word) of creative will between the director and editor.

One day, on a whim, Harte combined a scene from Bright Lights, Big City, in which Fox is flipping through an article he’s supposed to fact-check, with an audio clip of Fox describing reading the script for the first time “Back to the Future.” Guggenheim loved the mix and encouraged Harte to find more. It wasn’t difficult. As Guggenheim noted, there were plenty of films and episodes to draw from.

In the end, the two struck an imaginative compromise, mixing script footage of Fox’s double, which was shot from behind so his face wasn’t visible, and footage of the real Fox, either from the actor’s films and shows or from behind. Scene excerpts from 92 VHS cassettes with “Family Ties” footage.

To find all of these scenes, Harte spent eight weeks watching every film and TV show Fox had ever been in. “The TV shows were Everest,” Harte said. He carefully tagged every scene he found useful: Michael drinking coffee. Michael walks down a hallway.

It helped that Harte had been a die-hard Fox fan since childhood. The first film he saw in cinemas as a young boy in Ireland was Back to the Future Part II (‘a game changer’); His absolute favorite film to date is “Back to the Future”.

Guggenheim, on the other hand, wasn’t that big of a fan of Fox or his films as a kid.

“I don’t think Davis had seen the Back to the Future movies before,” Harte said, “and his wife is in it.”

“I looked at different things,” Guggenheim said.

The filmmakers also dug through Spin City episodes for hours to find footage of Fox keeping his Parkinson’s disease a secret from the cast, crew and audience of the series, a fact Fox revealed in his wrote his first memoir, Lucky Man. In one montage, we see Fox brandishing pens, holding phones, checking the clock, rolling up his sleeves and doing anything to cover up the trembling in his left hand. “We used things that were scripted as archives,” Guggenheim said.

While Harte sifted through thousands of clips for material, Guggenheim set about casting actors for the reenactments, including stand-ins for Woody Harrelson, a longtime friend and former co-star; Fox’s no-nonsense but ultimately supportive father; and, of course, Fox himself. To find someone who could match Fox’s lithe physicality, creators had actors jump up and slide over the hood of a car — or try. The only actor who could do it, Danny Irizarry, got the job. “I loved the actors who played me,” Fox said.

When the first rough cut was complete, the filmmakers screened it for Fox. “It was absolutely terrifying,” Harte said. “Here’s someone I watched and adored as a kid and as I first meet him, we’re not having a few drinks in a bar, I’m presenting what I see, 90 minutes of his life. Here’s what I think is relevant, and here’s what I don’t think is relevant, so I left that out.”

Fox was happy with the finished project. “I think they did a great job,” he said.

Not that it wasn’t painful to look at moments from his life story, especially many moments about Tracy Pollan, Fox’s wife of 35 years and whom he first met on the set of Bonds. “I married this girl who had a young career and was doing well, and then she married me and was like this single mom,” he said. “I’ve done movies, she’s been home with a baby, and I’ve joked about it on talk shows.” In colorful language, Fox lamented the horrible thing he had done to her.

“And she stood up for me when she could have escaped,” he continued. “She could have said, ‘Parkinson, that’s not for me.’ But she didn’t, she stayed here. To see that on film was a privilege.”