People often say never meet your heroes, but “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” editor Michael Harte absolutely couldn’t wait to meet one of his. When Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) ended up needing an editor for AppleTV+’s in-depth film profile of the Parkinson’s cure advocate and “Family Ties” and “Back to the Future” star, Harte accelerated his interest almost to the tune of 88 miles per hour.
“I was working on the documentary “Three Identical Strangers,” and we wanted the first act of that to feel like a 1980s movie,” said the BAFTA-winning Harte of that 2018 Oscar-nominated doc about a notable group of separated male triplets who reconnect later in life. “So, we were watching a lot of Michael J. Fox movies, because we just wanted to get the same vibe.”
One of the most striking aspects of “Still”—the most nominated nonfiction project represented at this year’s Emmys, with a whopping seven nods—is that the movie unfolds much in the very same way Fox moves through life, with mammoth enthusiasm and childlike ardor, until his lifelong disease puts him in check, much like in one of the very first scenes of the movie where a too-eager Fox takes a nasty spill on a NYC street while on a simple walk.
“Michael has such a specific way of moving when you watch his movies, he leans into his movement,” something Harte very much the filmmakers wanted to capture. “I was worried there would be a lot of shots in our movie with the back of an actor’s head, walking you through scenes. And after a while that can be distancing if you use too much. I sometimes describe it as being in a movie theater with somebody very tall in front of you.”
So, Guggenheim, Harte and the documentary team devised a way to do both, partially with expertly rendered recreations of key scenes on Fox’s life shot with stand-ins from behind, and also front-and-center with the star, in no-holds-barred interviews with Fox where he is the entire frame, as witty and funny as ever, while entirely candid about how Parkinson’s has drastically changed his day-to-day living, sometimes seen in real time where Fox struggles with medical timing and speech. And the most startling aspect of the latter might be that the film was almost not going to contain those powerful interviews.
“It seems silly when you look back now that we didn’t think to shoot with Michael, but Davis wanted to try it”, said Harte, who culled his contemporary footage from seven different interviews conducted by Guggenheim. “We wanted to see If he could last for a couple of hours in an interview space and how that would work, and every time Davis did it, it got better. Normally when you interview a person over and over again, you get the sound bites that you want, but the energy of the interview starts to deteriorate over the course of time. But with Michael, it got better every time. And it got funnier.”
And that levity is what distinguishes “Still” from most documentaries, its rhythms play like a feature with the raucous song score and Fox’s “GoodFellas”-style narration (Harte is especially pleased with this association, as it was, along with 1997’s “Boogie Nights,” a strong influence on the movie’s storytelling), though the documentary manages to tell a momentous amount of story in a tight 95 minutes. Yet Harte indicated they never had a running time in mind when editing the feature.
“I never set out a goal at the start saying, ‘This has to be 90 minutes’, I just like to play with the material as much as possible,” Harte said. “I always seem to end up at around the 100-minute mark and then I usually spend six months tweaking and changing and moving stuff around and tightening stuff up.”
And what helped the process was the subject’s insistence that they make one type of film. Harte said: “Michael had one rule for us. And he was very clear about it with Davis. His rule was no violins. He didn’t want it to be a sad film about Michael J. Fox. And once Davis started interviewing Michael, there was nothing he wouldn’t give us. He’s such an honest person, you know? And the film is infinitely better because of it.”
“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” is now streaming on AppleTV+