Marti Noxon on Turning Her Personal Eating Disorder Battle into the Movie To The Bone
by Paulette Cohn
Ten years ago, the subject matter of eating disorders was all over the media, but not so much in recent days, despite the fact that the problem hasn't diminished. So UNreal and Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce executive producer Marti Noxon, who has personal experience with the disease, decided the time was right to take another look at ED in movie form. The result is the Netflix movie To the Bone, premiering July 14.
Noxon used her writing skills to fictionalize the story of Ellen (Lily Collins), a 20-year-old anorexic girl who has been in and out of a variety of recovery programs, only to find herself several pounds lighter each time.
With her life on the line, her family takes one last shot and sends her to a group home led by a non-traditional doctor (Keanu Reeves). Surprised by the unusual rules—and warmed by her fellow patients—Ellen is aware that this might be last chance to save her life — but can she take it?
Parade.com spoke to Noxon about the controversy around the trailer that was released for the movie, why Lily Collins was the right actress for the role, how she convinced Keanu Reeves to take the part of the doctor, and more.
When I Googled To The Bone to see what was out there, there's a lot of controversy over the trailer with people saying that its full of triggers. Is it possible to tell a story about ED without including that information?
What's interesting is we really made an effort to avoid stuff that would be overly activating in terms of how people, who potentially are struggling with this, would respond. I really understand that we have to be sensitive to people's feelings and to their sensitivities but you also can't be muzzled to tell a story. The great thing about all of this is people have the choice of what to consume or not to consume, no pun intended. The reason I told this story is because it's very close to my own story and it has a really hopeful ending. Things turned out good.
One of the things that people were commenting on is the mention on calories. Is that a trigger for everybody? Is it really hard when you're trying to do a movie about this subject to avoid triggers because they are so varied?
We had professionals in the recovery community around eating disorders read the script and vet it. There were certain things that we ended up avoiding showing, or some lines we changed, but in terms of people who treat this, they did not feel we were showing anything. The truth is every story is unique.
This story is really reflective of my own experience of recovery, so what's true is that there are as many stories as there are people who suffer from these illnesses. Unfortunately, there's not been a lot of talk about it of late. There's a lot of competing space for important issues right now but this one affects a tremendous number of people of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
I had thought that by the time I was older and had kids of my own that things would have changed... that I would have seen progress made. So I think it's still an important story to tell. Ultimately, it's really good that we're having a conversation ahead of time. That way people know that they might not want to watch it or that they do want to watch it.
When you were researching it did you discover new information or insights into ED that maybe we didn't have 10 years ago?
I think the science around mental illness is always evolving. There's always new kinds of thinking. My story of recovery is really unusual. The doctor who helped me, who's still alive, decided on a treatment plan for me that was different than it was for other people. What worked for me is sort of what's portrayed in the film of not focusing on food, not focusing on my weight, but just focusing on my own reluctance to be in the world and my fears around it. We focused on what I could be, what my life could look like rather than where it came from.
It's really powerful to share now that that worked for me when I'm in my 50s and have a career beyond my wildest dreams and two beautiful kids. But the most important thing is to recognize that help is out there. We partnered with an organization called Project Heal, which actually gives grants for people to get into recovery.
Both Lily and I, when we were at Sundance, we had their cards in our pockets because we both know we're not equipped to give advice about how someone should get better but we can direct people to real resources. Hopefully, it will be a positive thing.
Casting Ellen had to be difficult. What made Lily right for the role?
Lily is a magical human. She's incredibly intelligent. She feels really deeply and then, on top of it, she had had her own experience of this and was also on the other side. Like me, she had some time away from it, some perspective, and was really ready to tell the stories. She was able to really understand Ellen and bring an authenticity to it that was remarkable. She was in a place in her life where she could do that faithfully.
I'm curious about the shots of Ellen's body, since I'm sure you didn't ask Lily to lose weight again so how did you create those?
We used a combination of visual effects, makeup. It was movie magic.
Your name was Martha and you changed it to Marti, and Ellen changes her name to Eli, so you did use a lot of personal stuff in writing this. But, that said, the tone of the movie doesn't take a kid gloves approach.
The only films or television that I remembered on this subject were television movies and they were always pretty dark without much lightness in them. They certainly didn't show that people going through it have a sense of humor about themselves. It was a breakthrough for me when I remembered that we did. You have to laugh through this stuff. Me, my family and other people that I've met who've been through this, we find our moments of levity and light, so I really wanted to be able to offset the darker things with moments where you can laugh, or moments of beauty where you think this is a pretty great place, this world, and we should stay.
You also put a male with anorexia in the home because it's not just a female disease, which a lot of people probably think.
That is something that has changed since I was sick because that was well over 30 years ago. There are a lot more men in treatment now and, doing my research, I found that out. That really helped the movie because I thought, "Let's see how she deals with intimacy." Not so well.
Keanu's doctor character says Ellen has to reach bottom. I was wondering for you personally, is that what happened? Did you go into cardiac arrest?
No, I didn't. What happened was I was having a day where I was not doing well, I was in really intensive therapy, and I had a day when I was feeling palpitations. When I went to bed I felt like — and I don't know if anything happened — but I felt like my heart stopped and I left my body. I had a pretty textbook out of body experience, which is what inspired the sequence in the film. But that was my turning point. That's when I started to fight and get better.
We think of Keanu Reeves as Neo from The Matrix. How did you get him to do a role like this?
He read the script and I think he found it really compelling. I think he saw that the role was different for him. He and I met and talked it through. To my great delight, he decided to do it, so it was really fun working with him. It was really lovely to be able to do something with him that was out of his usual... sometimes, I could tell he was wishing that he could shoot something.