By Kathryn O’Kane
In the 1980s, Michael J. Fox was the definition of success in Hollywood: a teenage heartthrob with a hit TV show and the #1 grossing movie of 1985, Back to the Future, which launched him into “rock star” status. In that film, Fox plays Marty McFly with such genuine teenage earnestness and confusion. I love his repeated use of the word “heavy” that leads Doc to ask “Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth’s gravitational pull?” It’s a line that always gets a laugh but also could also foreshadow his own life challenges considering just a few years later, Fox would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which by all accounts would make his journey seem “heavy.”
NYWIFT Advisory Board Member Annetta Marion produced Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie that is premiering at Sundance this month. The film incorporates documentary, archival and scripted elements to recount Fox’s story of personal and professional triumphs and travails in his own words.
Annetta and I spoke about the film that explores what happens when an incurable optimist confronts an incurable disease.
I’m so excited about this movie – who didn’t have a crush on Michael J. Fox when we were young?! His life and career seem to have many different chapters. What was the approach to telling this story?
We had the advantage of having Michael J. Fox’s audiobooks available to us. This wealth of riches allowed us to craft the narrative structure of the film using Michael’s own words. The storytelling process is a journey, as all films are, and we learned more every time we interviewed Michael. It was a very collaborative process and we really honored Michael’s creative input along the way.
How involved was Fox in the storytelling?
He was completely involved, from the very beginning through production and post. The final movie is a definitely in sync with the path Michael laid out for us in his books.
This is described as a hybrid film. Tell me about the scripted elements that are woven throughout. What do you like about this approach?
Many of the personal stories in the film depict situations and events that weren’t covered by the media, so there’s no B-roll to cut to. When someone is telling you a story, you have to ask: what are we going to see on screen? Mood pieces and scripted elements or reenactments are ways to illustrate stories of the past, as well as internal moments. Plus, I think the scripted elements bring such an elevated sensibility to the movie. I just love them.
These scripted elements are the biggest scenes of this type that I’ve ever done. We had multiple sets in use simultaneously, and a large union crew. The scenes are beautiful, and we’re very proud of them.
We shot the scripted scenes in Vancouver. We chose a stage in Burnaby, which is the Vancouver suburb where Michael grew up. Once people learned that the film was about Michael J. Fox, they just wanted to work on the movie. That’s the kind of love we got everywhere we filmed, from New York City to Malibu to Vancouver.
Why do people love him so much?
He’s genuinely as kind and generous as he seems, and he’s trustworthy – a real straight shooter. As the world knows, he’s also incredibly funny. He comes from a good family; his parents were super supportive of his dreams. And in Burnaby, he’s a local legend – a small kid from a small town who made it in Hollywood. And after his diagnosis, he didn’t fade away into the woodwork. He used his celebrity to work on Parkinson’s research.
There is so much love around this project from his whole team and family, Concordia Studio’s team, the Apple team, from people we were reaching out to for archival materials, from old friends and new friends, and all the crew. Everybody loves Michael for very good reasons.
On our final shoot day in Vancouver, we arranged for Michael to Zoom in on a big screen to meet all the crew. He thanked everyone for their hard work, and crew members were able to ask him questions and talk about their experience of working on this film. People were so moved, so touched by that effort.
What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
It’s a celebration of Michael – his career, his family life and what he’s been able to accomplish. It’s a celebration of his talent, tenacity, and perseverance.
What’s next for you?
As my work as a director is mostly in network and streaming platforms, I am thrilled to be participating in the DGA’s prestigious Episodic Television Directors Program and charging down that path 100%.
Annetta Marion is a Primetime Emmy-nominated director and showrunner who has worked on shows for NBC, Netflix, ESPN, OWN, MTV, VH1, Apple+ and Investigation Discovery; working with premium talent like Michael J. Fox, Oprah and Dwayne Johnson. Annetta’s work has won multiple awards including NAACP Image Awards, Gracie Awards and NAMIC Vision Awards. She currently serves on the DGA’s National Board as an Alternate, the Eastern Directors Council and is a co-chair of the Focus on Women Committee. Annetta is originally from North Huntingdon township in western Pennsylvania and has credits on over 80 hours of television.
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