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Michael J. Fox: When being an eternal optimist becomes the great tragedy of your life

Davis Guggenheim’s Apple TV+ documentary about the ‘Back to the Future’ actor’s rise to stardom also addresses his stubborn denial of the reality of Parkinson’s

Michael J. Fox
Michael J. Fox, pensive during one of his meetings with Davis Guggenheim.Apple TV+

The story of Michael J. Fox’s rise to fame could well be a script for a teen movie from the 1980s, the period that he dominated and that took him to the top. This is how Davis Guggenheim pitched a genre-breaking documentary about the actor to Apple TV+. The director had already made a name for himself with other dazzling documentaries like He Called Me Malala and An Inconvenient Truth — for which he won an Oscar in 2007. “I wanted to construct a youthful, adventurous story, with many ups and downs and a great soundtrack (from Guns N’ Roses to Beastie Boys), so that people would forget that it was a documentary,” the director recalled in March during our interview. His wife, actress Elisabeth Sue, was also one of Fox’s co-stars.

But, Guggenheim goes on to explain, when you shoot nonfiction you can’t get a predetermined idea of what the tone of your film will be, because reality always prevails. After months of sharing time with the actor, emotional and physical pain began to gain ground in The Life of Michael J. Fox. The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and is now available on the platform’s catalog of on-demand content.

“His optimism, which may seem like one of his strengths, may end up being one of his weaknesses. The guy takes it too far,” he says about the star of his film. That charisma was about to ruin the tone of his narrative. In his last interview for the documentary, the director was able to show Fox some things he was already editing. And it was then that he realized that they had never clearly addressed the pain that was so present in Fox’s daily life. “I felt a bit stupid for not asking him about it sooner. But Michael is a person who is programmed to always seem cheerful. At his age, he still maintains that attitude of ‘I’m a short boy who is going to conquer the world’ and makes you forget the less luminous aspects of his life, however obvious they may be,” the experienced filmmaker says. “I was about to let him get away with it, until I realized I had to take that mask off and show that side of him on camera.”

A moment from the documentary ‘The Life of Michael J. Fox’.
A moment from the documentary ‘The Life of Michael J. Fox’.Apple TV+

And, although The Life of Michael J. Fox effectively takes on how a boy without the makings of a movie star, raised on a military base in Canada, became a huge Hollywood star in the 1980s, it also explains how his life was changed by his unexpected diagnosis with Parkinson’s, a disease with no cure. Fox was diagnosed before he had even turned 30. By then he was already a husband and an absent father, more concerned with achieving fame, as he himself reveals in his confessionals for the production.

Without wanting to fall into tragedy, Guggenheim slightly diverted the prism towards a place where the viewer and he himself could identify with Fox. The director admits that, despite the successes he achieved as a documentary filmmaker, when this project came to his hands he was at a point in his career where he no longer enjoyed his work. “Getting older is a chore. And it’s also something we tell in the film through Michael. There comes a time when you stop running to achieve certain goals and start running to get away from certain things,” the director confesses, a few months before turning 60, only a couple less than the star of the Back to the Future saga. “I also experienced that feeling of invincibility, of thinking that you were going to live forever, that your next movie was going to be better than the previous one... Sometimes it was, but there came a time when I stopped believing it,” he confesses. Therefore, this is not the story “of that heroic guy who battles Parkinson’s, but of someone who does just the opposite... tries to run away and not face the problem.” And that’s where Guggenheim found a story that he found “truly interesting... and intimate,” he says.

Before he started working with Fox, he wasn’t a big fan of his work. “Let’s just say I knew his greatest hits. And, when you don’t know someone well, sometimes you fall into that cliché of believing that if a person is funny, they can’t be deep at the same time. Little by little, I discovered his intelligence and wisdom and revealed it in the film,” he says.

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