Academy Award winner Davis Guggenheim, “Inconvenient Truth,” like many creatives at the top of their game, always worries about staying put. When he read Michael J. Fox’s 2002 “Lucky Man: A Memoir” three years ago, he knew he wanted to produce a film about the brave 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 moving drama.
“I was like, ‘wow,'” Guggenheim said. “Because I’m 59 years old. Well, she’s a few years older than me. My children are leaving the house. 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 find yourself in a rut. You convince yourself that life is shit. And then I’m like, ‘Well, how come he has this other surge of optimism when he has a crappier circumstance?
Guggenheim, whose Concordia studio has a first look deal with AppleTV+, presented the studio with “a documentary that looks like an 80s movie,” he said. “I want to have great songs. I want a big Hollywood score. I want to do ambitious reenactments. I want to make a complete archive and take the public for a ride. It was time, time and money. And they didn’t bat an eye. They were like, ‘Great. Let’s do it.'”
Guggenheim knew he had a great deal of material to play with. Not only could he build a solid narrative from the audio of Fox’s four books, but he and his editor Michael Harte (“Three Same Strangers”) drew on a rich collection of behind-the-scenes footage from Fox’s hit TV series. star “Family Ties”, films such as the 1985 back-to-back hits “Back to the Future” and “Teen Wolf” and the 1988 flop “Bright Lights, Big City”, real footage of Fox and his family, seven interviews from Interrotron with Fox and finally , re-enactments with actors filmed on the old Fox grounds near Vancouver, Canada.
The director’s first challenge was to skip the clichés of the celebrity film. “The two clichés are: the guy’s fame, ‘it’s so hard,'” Guggenheim said. “And the other is handicapped: ‘Aren’t they noble? It’s wonderful? And brave?’”
What sucked Guggenheim in was the quality of Fox’s writing. The opening of the film comes straight from the book: after a night of partying with Woody Harrelson, Fox wakes up in a fog to see his little finger shaking. “This is the voice of him from reading the book on tape,” Guggenheim said. “So there’s strong storytelling… good set work. And then I realized it would be fun. The big surprise was just the unexpected, true life wisdom that he has. This spoke to me.
The film shows the diminutive budding actor on the go from the start, convincing his conservative father at the age of 18 to take him to Los Angeles for auditions. When he landed a few roles, his father left him behind to fend for himself. “Family Ties” arrived just in time. Gary David Goldberg hired Fox over the objections of NBC chairman Brandon Tartikoff, who said he couldn’t imagine seeing Fox’s face on a lunchbox. Years later, after the top-rated show won five Primetime Emmys, including three for Fox, the actor sent Tartikoff a lunchbox signed “Family Ties,” which the network czar kept in his office for years.
In piecing together Fox’s life and career, Guggenheim and his editor Michael Harte enjoyed finding clips that matched what was going on in his life, like a first date with his future wife Tracy Pollan picked from “Bright Lights , Big City”. In real life, she was jumping out of her skin with parties. “She met him when he had the two highest-grossing films of the summer,” Guggenheim said, “and the number one TV show ‘Family Ties.’ And they meet and she’s an actress on set. She “she Says, ‘I was being an asshole.’ And she calls him and says, “You’re a fucking asshole.” And he says, ‘I fell in love with her right away.’”
The editor also cleverly interspersed behind-the-scenes footage from a documentary ‘Family Ties’ with ‘Secret of My Success’ and Fox’s account of Goldberg which gave him the script for ‘Back to the Future’. Goldberg had originally told Steven Spielberg that Fox could not be released to make the film, but after Spielberg wanted to replace Eric Stoltz, Goldberg relented. The sequence showing Fox being picked up in the morning to go to “Family Ties,” then taken to the set of “Back to the Future,” then home for some rest, which goes on for two months, is a brilliant mix of sources. “It was like chop salad,” Guggenheim said. “Add some salami and mozzarella and some diced Romaine. You go by him buttoning a shirt during the reenactment and through the backstage door and then he opens the door to ‘Family Ties’ and then we shoot him in Vancouver with a Teamster.
First, Guggenheim threw the cards on the wall for 20 scenes using audio narration from Fox that she knew would be the arc of the film. (He had to get Fox to record some material inexplicably left out of Hachette’s abridged audio version.) “And we edited the film together, but we didn’t shoot the recreations until the end,” Guggenheim said. “I would storyboard those scenes. And there was a tremendous amount of trial and error. I would storyboard stuff, Michael the editor would throw it away. I storyboard them again, he would throw them away. He played scenes from “The secret of my success”, I threw them away. It was like this. And we would find out.
The other key ingredient was actual footage from Fox’s life, using a locked camera. “In most documentaries, you’re held up because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Guggenheim said. “And you’re falling, running down corridors and getting on planes. And, since he’s always moving because of Parkinson’s disease, and he shakes, I figured he should be moving and the camera shouldn’t. It was a strange instinct. I would just pick a frame, close it, and let it be within that frame. If he’s shaking, the camera shouldn’t be shaking.
And most importantly, Guggenheim filmed seven days (shot over a year) of five-hour interviews using the Interrotron, a device that allows the subject to look directly at the camera. The effect is that Fox’s big blue eyes stare straight into the audience as he speaks. Thanks to a tip on a commercial job from cinematographer Clair Popkin, Guggenheim learned that you can set up the Errol Morris Interrotron rig at an angle so the interviewer and subject are only four feet apart, looking at each other, but it seems that Fox is looking into the lens. “I came home saying, ‘the soul of the movie is to see Michael up close.'”
Ultimately, however, Guggenheim felt that something was still missing. So he arranged one last interview with Fox. During the year that Guggenheim documented the actor, he kept missing shots because he was recovering from a fall, broken arm or hand. In one scene he is applying makeup to a broken cheek that is held together with pins. After all the interviews, Guggenheim realized she hadn’t asked Fox about his pain. “He went through hell that year,” Guggenheim said. “More time in the emergency room than at home. Yet he never complained or complained, you know? ‘Dude, you gotta 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 Guggenheim asked him directly, Fox admitted, “I’m in a lot of pain.”
“It was wild,” Guggenheim said. “Because he broke his hand, they put pins in his hand, with Parkinson’s, and his shaking hands meant the pins couldn’t settle and the wounds would never heal. Every tremor is like an earthquake. But he never says: ‘look how I suffered’ ”. Guggenheim then interrupted the last interview with a final physiotherapy session which reveals Fox’s physical suffering.
What Fox experiences for his time spent with his family and helping others cope with incurable progressive disease The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research. Fox also hopes to convince people not to be ashamed of having the disease, which he has been hiding for seven years. For Guggenheim, the Foundation has helped modernize understanding of Parkinson’s by tagging the disease with a test: “He IS revolutionary. So through the celebrity of him, she drew attention to that.
Guggenheim edited the film down to a tight 94 minutes. His mantra, learned producing and directing the first season of “Deadwood” with David Milch, was “’How do you take this character on this journey? And how do you not let the audience go?’ And so when the scenes did, we kept them and when the scenes didn’t, we threw them away.
The theme that came up during filming was the run of Fox. “She’s running,” Guggenheim said. “She is always on the move, always on the move. Let’s start with that sentence: “Before Parkinson’s, what was it like to be still?” And he says, ‘I don’t know. I was never still.’ And then boom, it’s a kid who runs, steals a candy bar and runs, runs. And so we had this basic structure, which is the first half of the film: he’s running towards something, which is the golden thing, fame and fortune. And then he gets Parkinson’s. And then he’s running from something. And then what he ultimately gets is something very different, which is the title.