Davis Guggenheim is one of the premier documentarians of our time. As the director of “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), he helped Al Gore alert humankind to the threat of the climate crisis. He has worked with the election campaigns of both Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and he examined the deplorable state of our public education system in “Waiting for Superman” (2010).
His father, Charles Guggenheim, was himself an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker. As a young man, Guggenheim thought he would steer clear of his father’s legacy by setting a path as a director of feature films.
With “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” he combines his two skills. To tell the story of Fox, the 1980s superstar (“Family Ties,” “Back to the Future”) who disclosed his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease in 1998, Guggenheim has made a love letter to the yuppie decade. Clips from Fox’s movies and TV appearances are skillfully deployed to show the actor’s years-long struggle to conceal his condition, and his eventual decision to own it. The film premieres May 12 on Apple TV+.
Q. What’s your own relationship to the ‘80s?
A. I graduated high school and college in the ‘80s. I remember thinking: Why was I given this [crappy] decade? [Laughs] I’m 59. You grew up with this sort of hangover from the ‘70s, which included kind of a lost sense of hope from the ‘60s. And then the ‘80s is . . . what? Corporate excess, bad clothes, cheesy music. A decline in what I thought was good culture. But now I look back and, as a storyteller, it’s a fun aesthetic to rediscover.
Q. Was it your idea to make this film?
A. I approached [Michael] after reading his book called “Lucky Man” (2002). I read an interview where he described this terrible fall he’d had. He’d just had an operation, had a tumor removed from his spine. Nothing to do with Parkinson’s, but he had to learn how to walk again. He’s feeling better, and he’s going to be shooting for one day on a Spike Lee movie. He flies back with his daughter from Martha’s Vineyard the night before. She says, “Let me stay. I’ll help you get ready.” And he says, “I don’t need any help. I’ll be fine.”
He’s the kind of guy who wants to be on time, wants to be the best prepared. He got his coffee, he feels great, and then he trips and shatters his arm. It’s so bad he can’t get up and reach the phone. He can’t call the set to tell them he’s going to be late. For him, this is the biggest nightmare.
But his writing about it is very surprising. It’s good storytelling. It’s witty, it’s self-effacing. And I read it during COVID. I was feeling a little bit low and was like, wow, there’s something to this writing that’s really appealing to me at this moment.
Q. Stories about his struggle have been out there for 20 years now.
A. I suspect I’m like a lot of people in that I said, “Oh, actor, got Parkinson’s. Sad.” When we first met, he only asked me one thing — “No violins.” I took that as “no pitying, no maudlin treatment.” He refuses to be seen as a pitiful creature. And what I said to him was I didn’t want to make a film about Parkinson’s. We didn’t want to make the cliched movie.
Q. How would you tell someone that it’s not about Parkinson’s?
A. [Smiles] That’s really hard. It’s like a drug company saying, “The side effects are not gonna be bad.” I just like to say it’s surprising, maybe because it surprised me. I underestimated him. And maybe that was always his secret power. His superpower. He’s this short kid from Canada, and you sort of count him out. Marty McFly is always a boy, a little underestimated. I didn’t realize how smart he was, and that he could carry such wisdom. I’m becoming 60. My life is getting smaller. I feel more fragile. What he has is a more extreme version of what we all have.
Q. Do you now feel like you’re a friend of his?
A. I do. And that’s not always the case. These interviews are pretty long, and they were spread out over a year. You get to know someone really well. He’s very special, very open. Not everyone is as open as him. I think that’s what’s special about the movie.
But if I interviewed him 15 years ago, I think there was still a fortress around him. To me, what’s interesting about the end of the movie is he’s liberated. He was running away from Parkinson’s, didn’t tell anyone about it. And then when he decides to tell the world, it’s liberation. He goes on “The Good Wife” and plays someone with a disability. He goes on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It’s like he can finally stop projecting that good guy and actually just be himself. It was a gift I don’t think he even imagined getting.
Q. We know he’s close with Denis Leary. Michael J. Fox has got to have a wicked streak to his sense of humor.
A. Yes. I did a short film when Michael was given the [Jean Hersholt] Humanitarian Award from the Academy. I said, Michael, who should I interview? “Well, Denis. Here’s his e-mail.” And Leary goes, “Anything. I’ll do anything for Michael.” Leary has a huge heart. He likes to project that guy, but he’s a sweetheart, and he loves Michael to the core.
I think Michael does have a wicked sense of humor. I think when he dropped out of high school there was a lot more going on there. Meaning he was a wild kid. So his childhood and Leary’s, their teenage years, were similar. Hanging out with hockey players, drinking a lot of Labatt’s.
Q. You went to Brown, and your wife [Elisabeth Shue] has connections here. Do you live in California?
A. We live in Venice, but we now spend four months a year on Martha’s Vineyard. Next year will be our 30th wedding anniversary. We got married on Martha’s Vineyard. Her brother lives in Dover. I’m in Boston three or four times a year, and we love it. We think we might, when we get older, move back. My father and mother bought a house on the Vineyard in the ‘70s, for nothing. We kept the house, and I’m building a little editing cabin so I can make my movies there.
Q. It’s almost the 20th anniversary of “An Inconvenient Truth.” Every year it must feel more monumental in your life.
A. We went to my son’s 21st birthday party at Brown. We were all having beers because he turned 21, and I asked his friend: “Do you think you’re going to have kids?” And he said, “Nah.” My son said the same thing — “I don’t want to bring kids into this world.”
It was an amazing film to be a part of. I remember Al, when we were doing the PR for it, saying, “We have 10 years to face this before we have irreversible consequences.” Now it’s been a lot more than 10 years. The message of the film remains as urgent as ever, and that’s a bit haunting. It’s on my mind a lot right now, actually.
Q. Your dad was a documentary filmmaker, and you started in scripted TV. Did it take you a while to come around to the fact that you too were destined to be a documentary filmmaker?
A. My father was my greatest teacher. He did a lot of stuff in Boston, for WGBH. When I graduated college, I was like, “I’m never gonna make a doc. I’ll never be as good as him. I’m gonna go to Hollywood and become a Hollywood director.”
I was going to make the movie “Training Day.” We were casting it, and I fought for Denzel Washington. He said yes, and then he fired me. Warner Bros. kicked me out, and I was devastated. I stayed in my pajamas for six months. Finally, I bought a little prosumer camera and decided to make a documentary about friends of mine who were in Teach for America [“Teach,” 2001].
My other teacher, David Milch, who I did “Deadwood” with and “NYPD Blue,” he said, “The best way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans.” [Laughs] Isn’t that great?