Interview: Documentarian Davis Guggenheim on Still, Crafting a Film from a Life on Screen, and Collaborating with Michael J. Fox

After quite a few years of directing episodic television (including a multi-episode run on HBO’s Deadwood), director Davis Guggenheim turned nearly full time toward directing and producing documentaries, beginning with the Oscar-winning 2006 release An Inconvenient Truth, which encapsulated former Vice President Al Gore’s presentation about the dangerous state of global warming. In 2010, Guggenheim covered the education system in America with Waiting for ‘Superman.’ Clearly, he tends to favor weighty subjects.

But like many of us, Guggenheim also loves music. In 2008, he made his ode to the electric guitar, It Might Get Loud, in which the instrument’s infinite possibilities were examined by the likes of Jack White, Jimmy Page, and U2’s The Edge. Three years later, he worked again with the members of U2 on the terrific movie about making of the band’s Achtung Baby album, From the Sky Down. After his musical outings, he swung back to more heavy-hitting subject matters with He Named Me Malala, concerning the tragic events involving then-15-year-old Pakistani school girl, Malala Yousafzai.

His latest work, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, follows the life of beloved actor and Parkinson’s advocate Michael J. Fox, exploring his personal and professional triumphs and travails, and what happens when an incurable optimist confronts an incurable disease. The film might make you a bit sad, but more than anything, it’s designed to enlighten and uplift. I sat down with Guggenheim during his recent visit to Chicago to discuss how he got involved with Fox’s story, his unique approach to filling in the visual gaps to Fox’s younger years, and the life lessons Fox’s story can teach us all. Still is now playing theatrically at the Gene Siskel Film Center and streaming on Apple TV+. Please enjoy our conversation…

The last time we spoke, you said something I’ll never forget: Saying yes or no to something is the biggest decision you’re going to make in making a documentary. Was this film an easy yes?

I love that. I was just having dinner with someone last night, telling him it was such a huge part of the job, knowing if a movie has the stuff it needs, all the ingredients. I look at documentaries like feature films: do they have the requisite pieces to tell a good story. My first instinct with this film was that it was a great project for my company. Who should I get to direct it? I knew it was good, but part of me stupidly dismissed it as another celebrity thing. Especially now, there’s this rush toward celebrity documentaries. But as I read the story, I believed this is very different and should not be put in that category.

It’s also not a movie about a disease. It’s a huge part of their life, but that’s not what the movie is about either. Was it important for you to not make it about Parkinson’s?

It’s hard to answer that because it’s not like we’re shying away from Parkinson’s. The first thing I said to [Fox] in our first conversation, he asked one thing of me, I asked one thing of him, and I said I don’t want to make a Parkinson’s movie because I like the idea of wanting his struggle to be universal. His request was “no violins.” And that answers your question both ways, because there will be people coming into this that it’s going to be another celebrity doc, with all the cliches of the downside of Hollywood success. Another group will think this is a “sick” movie about a person who has a handicap—I hate that word—and overcomes something. Aren’t they noble? He refuses the be that way. He calls himself a cockroach; you can’t kill him.

I’m sure you’re getting asked about this a lot, but I need to know about using the footage from his other films to fill in some of the gaps where there just isn’t footage. I just re-watched Back to the Future II recently, and that film basically recreates parts of the first film but shows certain moments from different perspectives, filling in gaps.

That’s really interesting.

But when I saw that, I wondered if you got the idea from that film. You also do straight-up re-creations, but where did you get the idea to use clips from his films to represent moments in Fox’s life?

Michael Hart is my editor on this, and it was mostly his idea. We never talked about this, but he’s a huge Michael J. Fox fans and loves Back to the Future II and III, so maybe there’s an influence from those movies, but we never talked about that, because it is really interesting how it takes a moment and reshoots it, refashions it, which is kind of what we were doing. Michael Hart and I had this productive battle about how to portray these moments. I would do re-creations, so we would have these scenes that feature Fox’s voice, and I would do storyboards for the re-creations. Then Hart would go in and put a movie scene over top of them, like Bright Lights, Big City or Secret to My Success, and then I’d take them out and put in the stuff I shot. And we just figured out which technique won the moment, but he pushed it really far, much farther than I’d imagined, and it’s the thing that everyone talks about when they watch this film.

It also serves to remind us that this guy grew up in front of cameras. There’s footage throughout his life; it’s just not home movies. It’s real movies or TV series.

It’s a guy at work. He’s probably more in front of the camera than most people are with home movies. Even in Spin City, he’s doing this live show and hiding his hand; that’s also a guy in his life. It could easily be archival footage of a guy at work hiding his Parkinson’s. It just happens to be a TV show.

The montage you piece together of various times he hid his slightly trembling hand from the cameras, that was the only time this movie made me genuinely sad. I couldn’t stop thinking about what was going on in his head while he was doing that. He must have been terrified about what was happening to him and getting caught.

Totally. Imagine you’re doing a live show, with an audience there, and you’re supposed to project this confident guy who has everything going on, and you don’t know if your hand is going to shake.

The other scene I wonder how people will react to is at the beginning where he trips and falls trying to say hello to a fan and his response to that. It made me laugh when I first saw it, but then I panicked because I realized he could be really hurt. Tell me about including that scene.

He never told me to change anything. I had final cut. I showed him the movie, and he was very happy with it. I think we aligned on how you portray someone who has Parkinson’s or any disability. The moment before that fall is very important. You see him wake up, and his legs are tight, he has a hard time putting his feet in his slippers, he’s putting toothpaste on his brush, and he can barely do that because he’s shaking so much. And the expectation is always “This is one of those movies.” Right? Then I ask him “Is this the sad sack story of a guy who gets a debilitating disease and it crushes him?” And he rubbed his chin and says “That’s boring.” Then immediately, you see him playing with his hair and being silly, and what that says to you is “Look at him differently. Don’t pat him on the head and tell him he’s noble during this time.” He doesn’t want that. And he can fall and still crack a joke. It’s a critical piece of setting the tone for the movie.

You have these interviews but you also have footage of him reading from his audio book, and I think you use portions of the audio book as well as narration.

Yeah, it’s both.

So you give him a chance to tell his own story, which is something you do in all of your documentaries. Why is that so important to you?

I don’t think I’ve had third-party interviews in a long time. My movies are generally portraits, and I like to pull out the stories from the people themselves. In this case, I had his books on tape, which are so well read and the storytelling is so strong. He did a lot of that great work for me. Weirdly, when they released the books on tape, his publisher only released parts of the books; there are scenes that he didn’t read. Some of the scenes [in the movie] where we see him reading the book were of scenes he hadn’t read, which I asked him to read for us. The Teen Wolf story, the story about seeing Zemeckis for Back to the Future. And that was his speech therapist in those scenes, by the way. They worked together to make sure he could be understood.

When you sit down to interview someone like Fox, do you have an idea of the themes you would like to bring out, or do you wait until the interview is over to craft the film around the themes that come up?

My father was this great documentarian, and when I was just out of college, he called me up and said there was this really important interview in Ohio and he couldn’t go, and he asked if I could interview this guy. And I was like “Oh my god, I get to do my first interview.” I stayed up all night and wrote copious notes, and I proved to him that I’d done it by showing him my questions. And he said, “These are really great. Don’t have notes. Do the interview, and follow what you’re curious about. Pull people out of themselves.” So I’ve always followed that, and if you do that, the themes come up anyway. If you force them or push the subject a certain way, it never works. How they’re feeling that day is what comes out. Generally, if you’re there long enough, you’l get the truth.

With that in mind, what were some of the things that came up in these interviews that you hope people take with them from this film?

When I first got interested in this as a subject, it was because of an interview in The New York Times for the release of No Time Like the Future, and in that, there were quotes from that where his optimism was failing. I’d always seen Michael J. Fox as someone who projected optimism, which is great, but when I saw his optimism begin to fail because he had this big surgery, because he’d had these falls, and that was interesting—not that he failed but that he’s struggling with it. So I attached to that, a person struggling with his optimism. I felt that way during COVID; I got very low. But the theme of stillness bubbled up; it wasn’t something that was on my mind. I knew that him always moving was something that was interesting in his books, even as a kid when he was running to steal a chocolate bar and him running in his movies. But the word “still” just kept popping up by chance. Sometimes the themes reveal themselves.

When I first saw the movie at Sundance, I remember feeling bad about his situation but I never felt sorry for him. Was that the tone you two were striving for?

Yeah, that was his thing. “I don’t want to be pitied.” He says in an interview, “I’m not pathetic; I’ve got shit going on.” So he doesn’t say “Don’t look at me as a person with a problem,” but he insists on how he behaves. “Look at me like a person. I’m complex, flawed, funny.”

You said he gave you final cut, but would you still call this a collaboration?

Absolutely. I like to have final cut and not have to use it. I showed him the movie twice; he loved it both times. It’s very much a collaboration because it’s based on his books; I’m interpreting his writing in a lot of ways. I take that writing and shape it and movie it in different directions. And it’s a collaboration between the two Michaels—Michael Hart, the editor, and Michael J. Fox.

How do you know when to stop filming and start assembling?

It’s not about stopping filming; it’s about stopping editing for me. I edited before I shot anything. We had the audio book, and I just edited those first, because I knew that was the structure of the film, so why shoot until I know that? So I edit for a long time, and when is the film finished? I see my daughter painting, and I say to her “It was good an hour ago, until you painted on top of it.” [laughs] You can’t shoot too much.

Davis, best of luck with this.

Thank you so much. It’s good to see you again.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.