Marti Noxon is perhaps best known for her work on television, helping Joss Whedon steer Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel to a massive and vocal fanbase, and was a significant contributor to Mad Men. Her film To the Bone is a unique portrayal of a young woman (Lilly Collins) tackling her eating disorder under the supervision of an unorthodox doctor (Keanu Reeves).
Following the film’s screening at Sundance, Noxon gave a wide ranging Q&A to an audience clearly emotionally affected by her remarkable feature debut. Here are some of the highlights.
Reeve’s character is based on her own doctor:
It’s Doctor Richard Mackenzie who worked out of Children’s Hospital. He's 80 years old now and is still amazing and insightful. He looked at me and I thought he was looking right into my soul and I was like, ‘Oh God!’
On misunderstanding the disease:
I think there's a huge misconception and obsession around weight and eating disorders that it's a matter of vanity or weak will. In my case there's certainly a disease component. One thing I want people to start talking about that is it isn't a shame-based issue. Just like any mental health issue, we don't choose these things. If I could have chosen not to be a person with OCD tendencies, addiction problems and eating disorders, I REALLY would have. I hope this shines a light on how little we have advanced since I was that age, in terms of talking about healthy body image and presenting images to young women. How many years of your life do you spend criticizing yourself, hating the way you look, and thinking that if you had a better body you'd be happier?
On its political relevance:
While we were filming this movie [Trump] started criticizing a woman for being be fat and saying it as an insult that she likes to eat. Well fuck you!
How the needs of the story has to trump any autobiographical truth:
A common problem with writing something that is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical is that people think you have to be literal about it. But the burger cake did happen. My Mom did feed me with a bottle, which is why that scene is so important to me. I think my brain opened when I saw Fault In Our Stars and thought, "Oh this is genre!”, where there's an element of romance or elements of young people [and illness]. Once I was free from being so literal, then things came in and I was able to re-arrange all sorts of things and use elements from the truth.
On reliving her own past:
For years people had been saying to me, "You should tell your story" with the cake and the bottle and the hippies and the horses, you know all the nutty stuff. I really didn't think I could remember it. Then I worked on a project called The Glass Castle and in order to write that script I had to really start thinking about my own childhood and the sort of Babylon nuttiness of having these wild and interesting parents. And I started remembering all this stuff of when I was sick. Once the memories started coming back it became important. Writing has been a series of different journeys and watching it with people is like letting out this giant breath that I'd been holding.
On telling stories away from the mainstream:
So many people come up to me and say that they see themselves in the film or are curious about it. It's everything on the spectrum. But people know people and it's not an uncommon thing. One of the greatest things that's happening now is more access and more types of storytellers. I had male producers tell me that this is too small a story. And I said to one of them, "Okay, so maybe it's not about a prodigy jazz drummer who has a really mean teacher. That's way more universal!"
On whether the struggles of her past were retriggered by reliving it:
Yeah, it's been triggering but I still go and see somebody and get help. I am learning that no matter how I feel, I've got to take precautions. For me that's eating when I'm hungry. You know what, I'm 52 years old, that doesn't mean that I'm not lovable, you know? It's a constant battle. You get to a certain place in your career a lot of the time people think, "She's got it made!". But you know I lie in bed sometimes [counting calories], and then I'm like, "When is this going to stop? I'm old!"
On avoiding glorification of the disorder:
I went to great pains not to fetishize the way [Lily] looks. I showed the body very sparingly and then when I did, it was to make it impactful but not in a negative way. If we had gotten into filming it in a loving and beautiful way, that would have been dangerous. At one point we had the numbers she weighed in the script and we took it out. One of the true things is that therapy with people with eating disorders is that it got so competitive. I've actually had people say that, "I was bad. I was worse than you. I was this", and a little voice in my head goes, "Oh yeah? Okay. You're on!"
On “Trojan Horse” stories:
Joss Whedon and I used to talk about Buffy being a show about monsters that was really about the monsters inside of us, the monsters that we have growing up, and those were all metaphors. But it's also really cool to get to see vampires and monsters to kill and good versus evil. I definitely think that's a very useful device. Using humor is another way to tell a very sincere and earnest story but also to give it a little more life.