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Interview: ‘Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie’ Editor Michael Harte Discusses the Film’s Unique Editing Style

The Apple TV+ documentary Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie focuses on the life and career of the beloved actor; from his early days in Canada to his private and public battle with Parkinson’s disease. The film has received critical acclaim and has earned seven Emmy nominations, including  Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series, as well as Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction, and Outstanding Picture Editing For A Nonfiction Program.

The feature doc also scored nominations for cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing and music for John Powell’s score. The film, which combines archival footage, recreations and new interviews with Fox, was directed by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) and was edited by Michael Harte, ACE (Three Identical Strangers). 

We had the opportunity to speak with Harte about his work on the documentary, including the film’s unique editing style, setting the tone of the film, and what he took away from Michael J. Fox

First gratulations on the film and the Emmy nomination. 

Michael Harte:  Thank you.
I’d like to start with how you got involved with the project.

Michael Harte: I was editing a film called “Three Identical Strangers,” and the first 20 minutes that movie feels a bit like a Michael J. Fox movie. It has an 80s movie feel. Me and the director were watching a lot of Michael J. Fox movies to kind of get that vibe. As we were watching them we thought, “Michael J. Fox would be an amazing subject matter for a documentary.” So, the director, emailed Michael’s agent and said, “Any chance we can have a meeting or conversation?,” and they said, “You’re too late, the brilliant director named Davis Guggenheim is already up and running with that, but he needs an editor.” So, we got in touch and the rest is history.

The narration for the film was taken from Michael’s audiobooks. How early in the process was that decision made? Was it was it always intended to be a visual representation of his autobiographies?

Michael Harte: No. When we started the project, we started in the edits. Davis hadn’t shot anything, but we wanted to explore the archive first, just to see what material was there. And we realized that when we listened to his audio books, especially “Lucky Man,” we were like, “This is incredible.” The way he’s telling the story is great, and he recorded it in 2002, so there’s a different tone to his voice. The kind of the humor feels very dry. So, we used that as a starting point. Otherwise, we would have been lost. There is so much material, so we started with his audiobook and I kind of created an hour and a half assembly to start with and then took it from there.

Having a line on which to hang a narrative of a film isn’t all that common for documentary. Did it create challenges in constructing a story or did it make your job a little easier?

Michael Harte: Having the book made it much easier. I mean, I still wanted to go through all the material; all the movies, all the documentaries, the behind the scenes stuff because truth be told, I’m a huge Michael J Fox fan. I have always been. I grew up in the 80s. When I was a kid I used to love “Back the Future.” I loved “Teen Wolf.” I went to Comic Con and got my picture with Michael J. Fox and then a Delorean. So, that’s  where I’m coming from in terms wanting to watch the material so I knew his stuff inside out.
When I came on board the project, they just paid me to watch it all over again. I asked for two and half months to look at all the material. We didn’t know what we were going to do with it yet, but what we knew Davis wanted to make a wild ride. He wanted to make a Michael J Fox movie that wasn’t sad. It wasn’t a pity party and Michael didn’t want that either. His his only note that he gave Davis was no violence. So we watched a lot of material and we started to play.  Davis was very clear that we need to do something unique with the material because Michael is such a unique character. His story is so unique. We’re gonna go above and beyond to make this work. And I think we did.

You used existing footage from his from his films and television series to recreate the narrative from his his memoir. Now, you said you went through that footage and you listened to the books, so did you find footage that matched the memoir or did you try to match the memoir with the footage that you found? Which came first in the process?

Michael Harte: The audiobook came first. So in our heads we were like, “How are we going to visualize this?” But I knew the material so well, I thought, “Okay, we could maybe put the pre-existing footage into the film, but I hadn’t I hadn’t committed to that idea yet. Davis was more into that idea that I was. But what we decided to do was to shoot recreations. And I wasn’t sure about the recreations either. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I always worry that seeing the back of someone’s head for so long can be distancing. 

This is the best example as to how we kind of cracked the code of the movie. Michael was talking about reading a script for a movie with Steven Spielberg. He doesn’t give it away, but it’s “Back to the Future.” I had two screens in my edits. One of them was “Bright Light Big City” where he’s literally holding a piece of paper, and the other one was the audio. I put the two of them together, so he’s talking about reading script for” Back to the Future” and he’s reading a piece of paper from “Bright Light Big City,” and that was kind of cool. Then I took the third element, which was the soundtrack to “Back to the Future” that little piano tingle that you hear.   So we were teasing the audience that this is “Back to the Future” without ever saying it.  I got very excited about it, but I was like, “Will anybody go with us? Is this too geeky? I sent it to Davis in L.A,, and I had a bad feeling about it. He may fire me at the end of this because this silly idea. I got text from him in the morning telling me to call him. He said, “We’ve got to go for it. Trust me. This is gonna work. Let’s do it. Let’s commit to this idea.” 

So then we started developing a thing in the edit where we had a guy in Barcelona named David Navas, who was a storyboard artist, drawing storyboards for us in real time. Davis is in LA, and I’m in London, and we’re building scenes through storyboards, but using using clips from his movie as a starting point. So we draw and build the sets around those clips. So what what we realized was that we can shoot the back of his head if we want, as long as we have the reverse angle that we can use from a movie that will so that you’re connecting to Michael in the scene. It was just trial and error.

I think documentaries are traditionally an editor’s medium, by and large, but you’re working with Davis and the recreations. I felt there’s there’s a real happy medium that is met with this film.

Michael Harte: I think so. You know, I’ve worked on films where it’s essential to use the recreations because you don’t have anything else. Other films I’ve worked on, we didn’t need it, but we just did it because we wanted to. We did it here in order to create a Michael J. Fox movie. We could have told this documentary through very strict documentary techniques, and it would have worked and would have been okay.  We did a version of it where it was just archive, but it just didn’t work as well as a Michael J. Fox movie should work. When we started to play with recreations and the movies, there was just a magic about it. The main one I think is when Michael and Tracy are falling in love with each other on a movie set on “Bright Lights, Big City,” and they’re walking down the street together. You’re watching a movie, but we are also seeing two people literally falling in love with each other at the same time, and the documentary is breaking through the movie that you’re watching. It’s verité. You’re watching two people for real. Then we started to look at his movies in a completely different way.

Did you have any issues getting rights to any of those clips?

Michael Harte: Oh, I don’t know. Because I locked myself in an edit and I go mad doing what I want. Once I have that in my head, I won’t be as creative as I need to be. So, I let the producers or the even Davis deal was that. But I do think it was a huge amount of work trying to get the rights.

I was reminded of “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” the documentary about Robert Evans, but to me this film took that editing style to the next level.

Michael Harte: I agree. So there’s a tiny scene and a “The Kid Stays in the Picture,”which was directed by Brett Morgan, who’s a friend of Davis, that Davis pointed that out to me at one stage of the process very early. I think they use “Marathon Man” with Dustin Hoffman, and they’re using that movie to tell a story in a similar fashion that we were, though we cranked it up to 88 miles per hour. I remember seeing that thinking we could play with that idea. I love “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” It’s a real reference point for me.

Did Michael’s books set the tone for you then as far as the editing process is concerned?

Michael Harte: Yeah, the books did. The other thing to know is that we didn’t plan to shoot any interviews with anyone, and we just assumed we weren’t gonna shoot with Michael J. Fox, either. We were going to do a different type of documentary and thought a talking head interview would maybe make it very conventional. And we haven’t cut that was working for the longest time without his interview. It was good. And we watched it in storyboards, and recreations and a lot of archive and Davis decided one day too. And the tone of it was playful.
When Davis shot the Interview with Michael, he sent it to me and he said, “You got to look at this.” It was supposed to be like an hour, but I think they shot for four hours. I will never forget the day that I watched that interview. Normally I’ll watch an interview, and I’ll be like 20 minutes, take a break, have a cup of tea, come back, watch another 20 minutes, take notes, take a break, because I’m kind of lazy. I watched the whole thing in one go for four hours. It was the funniest interview I’ve ever seen. It was funny, it was honest, it was brilliant, it was playful. And that stuff that happened in between the questions was amazing. And that set the tone for the film. The way he told his story, the the tone of his storytelling, his humor, the rhythm, the comic timing. I was like, “This is the heart of the film.” All this fancy editing and the fancy recreation stuff has to be secondary to this because Davis literally found the heart of the film in that interview. And then he shot like six interviews, and they just got better and better and better.

This is a very honest portrayal of Michael. He was very vulnerable and you see him in very vulnerable situations. Did you feel fear at any point that you you’d be exploitive?

Michael Harte: I don’t think so. Michael had the ability I think to make three or four different changes to the movie if he wanted, but he didn’t even want that. Whatever he gave us, we were allowed to put in there. He’s a very honest person. Those are his currencies- honesty and being optimistic. Whatever he gave us, we went for. I think if we were honest as filmmakers, it’ll work, you know what I mean? No, I don’t think we’ve ever felt exploitative, unless you watched it and felt that it was exploitative.

No, not at all, which was due to how open he was and how he let himself be vulnerable, which I think as an audience, you relate to.

Michael Harte: You watch a lot of documentaries, and sometimes you do think, “Did they go as far as that they as they could have? Did they really open up? And I think he really did. I think that’s who he is. And you know, we’ve only got one shot to make this movie, and it’s an incredible legacy and incredible character. And I think he knew that deep down that this is our chance to tell the story.

Can you talk about working with Davis Guggenheim?

Michael Harte: He’s amazing. He’s so good at what he does, and he could have been way more strict with me. I’m not young, but I don’t have as much experience as Davis. He let me off the leash on this one, in terms of editing, and normally directors can be very, “This is my movie, and this is exactly how I want it,” but he wasn’t. He’s very clever and he knows that collaboration is very important. I hadn’t worked with him before, and I was nervous. The great thing about Davis is that he had such a strong vision for the movie. He never worried about what anybody thought. He knew what this would be like. On a number of occasions, I thought, “I’m not sure this is going to work,” but he was excellent at keeping my confidence up and making sure that we were making the right decisions at the right time. I’ll definitely work with him again. 

Do you did you take anything from this that you feel you will apply going forward in your career?

Michael Harte: I think there are two things I will take from this, In terms of filmmaking, I’ve learned to take risks with the process. If it fails, it fails, We’ll try something else. Within the documentary industry, I find sometimes there’s a pressure to to get it done on time and to not take as many risks. But you’ve got to play with the material. You’ve got to look at it in a different way or else. We’ve got such a mass audience, so as documentary filmmakers, and we’ve got to try new things all the time. But what I’ll take from more than anything is the Michael J. Fox way of life. I’ve just become a father in the last three years. I have two kids, and I see the way he has relationship with his children.  I feel like I’m kind of ready for anything when I see the way he approaches his adversity. That’s what I’ll take more than anything. The way he navigated through certain things, more often than not through humor and, and leaning into his family and, and finding, as the film says, stillness in his life.

“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” is currently streaming on Apple TV+. 


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Written by Jeff Heller

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