Marti Noxon spoke to us about "To the Bone," a film based on her experience with eating disorders
Marti Noxon has been a creative force behind some of the best projects the world of entertainment has to offer. She’s worked on — whether as a writer, producer, or director — episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Mad Men, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, Glee, and UnREAL. Honestly, we could have stopped at Buffy to prove that Marti’s made her mark on the world of TV, and that she has what it takes to expand her reach to the movie universe.
Based on her own journey with eating disorders, the Netflix film To the Bone is all Marti. She wrote and directed the film, which follows Ellen (Lily Collins), a young woman who’s coping with anorexia. On her journey as the heroine of this story, she ends up in a group home and under the care of a doctor with unconventional methods (Keanu Reeves). The movie, which premieres this Friday, July 14th, is as real as it is significant.
To get an inside look at To the Bone, we spoke to Marti herself.
HelloGiggles (HG): When did the idea for this film come to you?
Martin Noxon (MN): Well, this is loosely based on my own story, my own struggle with anorexia and bulimia, a little bit of both. I had told people various parts of it over the years and, being a writer, people would say, “Oh, you’ve got to write that. What are you doing?” I really just couldn’t find a way.
First of all, I think I needed more distance from the experience, and then I couldn’t really find a way to get into that story without it feeling too much like a standard-issue disease movie. It is a difficult topic, and it just took me a long time to find a tone for it that wasn’t too overly dark and sad but also stilled conveyed the seriousness of the disorder. Then, it was a few years ago, it finally dropped into my head that…as sick as I was, I wasn’t just a disease. I was still a person and I still had a personality, and that I could bring all that to the character. Just approach it more like a movie about a person who’s going through a journey and less like a movie about a person with a disease.
HG: Was there anything specific from your personal experiences that you really wanted to include in the film?
MN: It was almost more like I wanted to be as truthful as possible, and then there were fictional elements that sort of shored up the main story of Ellen’s recovery — which a lot of that is based on my own story. There were certain things that sort of surprised me. Like I didn’t realize I would do the scene, say, in the therapy room with Ellen, her mom, her stepmom, and her mom’s girlfriend. Something like that really happened and that went similarly sideways.
As I was writing, I kept discovering these things that I could take from my real experience. I think I always knew that I wanted to show the scene where Ellen’s mom tried to feed her. I recognized that as a real turning point for me in terms of realizing that I had to fix myself, that no one could save me.
HG: What made you want to work with Lily specifically?
MN: We met to discuss the film but it was really this instant bond we had, as someone who was also recovering from her own struggles with eating disorders, we really spoke the same language.
I thought she had a real depth and intelligence to her. I’d never seen her do anything like this, but I just felt confident that she could bring so much to it. And [that she’d] also do it in the spirit of hope and making something that might help other people.
HG: During the film, there were certain symbols that really stood out to me, like the moon and that wise old tree. I’m wondering, were any of those symbols important to you, personally?
MN: It’s funny you would mention that. One of the beautiful things about getting to do a film is that you…just like certain types of TV, but when something runs for a long time, you have less control of all the visuals. As a director, everything visual was incredibly intentional. One of the things that I had really gravitated towards when I was sick is this book called Siddhartha, which is a journey, a quest story. In the story, he goes and travels into the desert and fasts, and then there’s a boat man who helps him at a certain point. It turns out, in the end, that the boat man is the one who really brings him the wisdom that he’s seeking, and true enlightenment.
This idea of the desert and the parched, dry, palette and landscape was something we…If you look again, you’ll see that almost everybody is in pastels and sort of washed-out colors for most of the film, and that the color palette is really intentional until the very end when she has her sort of spiritual awakening, for lack of a better word. Her soul awakening. I had written the tree in the desert as a symbol of life…The moon and the tree…I’ve always found nature to be a real source of comfort and renewal, so this idea of something green growing in the desert.
The most incredible thing was, we went to our desert location…We only had one day to shoot, in Vasquez Rocks, which is all dry and scrubby. We were talking about, “What are we going to do about the tree? Are we going to have to superimpose a tree? It needs to be a tree they can sit in.” I saw a little green around the corner, way out of the way, and I made everybody walk over there. We turned the corner and there was almost exactly what I’d seen in my mind when I was writing it.
This big, beautiful tree. Yeah, with a branch that they could sit on. I know, it was amazing. It was just one of those moments where you’re like, “This is a movie that wants to get made.”
It was a pretty magic moment, and not the only one in making this. Really, there are times when in the creative process you feel like you catch a wave and we all felt it at various moments, like, “Oh, we’re just on a wave. It’s really, really productive and it’s helping us.”
HG: Why was it important for Ellen to have a love interest?
MN: Well, there were two things. One, it helped me in terms of expanding the scope of who this disease can affect. But also, I really wanted to show her struggle with intimacy.
When I was ill, getting close to a member of the opposite sex was really difficult, and in my case, kind of impossible. I wanted someone around her and in her world who would bring some of those issues to the forefront. I also just liked the idea of an incredibly awkward, kind of unlikely maybe-romance, maybe-friendship. I wrote this based loosely on some younger men I know who were not anorexic. The funny thing is, I made up [the character’s] backstory, and when I was talking to my actual doctor, who saw the film and is the guy who helped me, he said, “I had a case almost exactly like that. I don’t know how you …”
He said, “Because in my research, it’s not unusual for male athletes who’ve had some kind of hiccup in their career to then get body dysmorphia and get obsessed.” I just made it up and he was like, “Yeah, exactly. That guy exists.”
HG: What made Alexander Sharp the perfect person for that role?
MN: Well, I wanted somebody who was disarming in a way…I hope you feel like I’m not sure about him, he tries way too hard. Somebody who can embody kind of awkward charm. I’d seen Alex on Broadway in The Curious Incident of The Dog In the Night-Time. He was so incredible in that performance, and then we talked, and I just felt like I was…It wasn’t the way I’d necessarily seen the character, but then I was like, he has the kind of incandescence of his own that is going to make her want to be around him. He’s just a special actor.
HG: How do you want audiences to feel after they see the movie?
MN: I hope that they feel like they had a really complete journey and experience with it, just as a film. Also, if they were touched by it, I hope they feel seen and hopeful, that it can get better. If you know someone, but you’ve never really understood it, I hope you can have more empathy for it. Certain kinds of eating disorders are really hard to relate to because they don’t seem pleasurable to indulge in at all. If you’re an alcoholic, people kind of go like, “Well, I get having one too many drinks.” They just tell you to stop, but you can certainly relate to the mechanism. I was trying to help people understand that there’s a similar kind of impulse, at least there was for me, to shut down and remove yourself from your feelings and circumstances, so it isn’t that different from a lot of other kinds of disease.
HG: What’s next for you?
MN: Well, we find out this very week if we are going to get to make a show called Dietland based on the book by Sarai Walker, for AMC. If not, your guess is as good as mine.
I’m in production on another show for HBO, so we’ll be post on that, but yeah, I’m looking for the next movie. I’m looking for the next great story. Hopefully, it will find me soon.