Cinematographers C. Kim Miles, Julia Liu, and Clair Popkin discuss the making of Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, streaming now on Apple TV+.
When you have a subject as magnetic as Michael J. Fox, any documentary you make automatically becomes appointment viewing. What further elevates Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie is the dynamic energy that pulsates through the film, moving the viewer through Fox’s early days as a struggling actor, to television star, box office champion, an unexpected Parkinson’s diagnosis, and now, his status as a national icon and philanthropic hero.
The film cuts together interviews, archival acting clips, and reenactments of core memories to piece together Fox’s life story. The film’s trio of cinematographers C. Kim Miles, Julia Liu, and Clair Popkin worked closely with director Davis Guggenheim and each other, to create a feeling of intimacy that came across on set and on screen.
Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, Miles, Liu, and Popkin recall candid moments with Fox, trying new things, and what it was like working on a documentary that bent the rules of filmmaking.
Awards Daily: The film is divided into three different visual components. You have the interviews with Michael, the archival footage, and the recreations. How did you approach those distinct elements and bring them together so cohesively?
C. Kim Miles: Well, first of all, Julia and Clair had gone out months before I came aboard and did all of that amazing interview footage and the B-roll, which laid the foundation for how the movie would be cut. That inspired Michael [Harte], the editor, so much that the roadmap for how the story was told was laid primarily from that footage.
Julia Liu: Davis wanted to have a very intimate feel on set so that Michael could feel as comfortable as possible, and they could be two people having multiple-hour conversations over multiple days. There are only a couple of ways to do that, to get that direct to the lens eyeline.
One is EyeDirect, which nobody really likes to use; the other is Interrotron, which Errol Morris created. But that takes another camera, and it’s a huge footprint, and we didn’t want to take up that much space and time. And there’s this barrier of intimacy. So, Davis had a good idea. Clair, was it something you had done with him on a commercial? Where do you strip away everything on the camera so that his eyes are just above the lens?
Clair Popkin: Yeah, I had just done a sequence of commercial campaigns with Davis where he wanted a direct-to-eyeline look, and, again, he didn’t want to have anything in between him and the subject. So, we just fiddled around, and we stripped everything off the top of the camera. We found suitable lens sizes where we could do the eyeliner cheat of Davis looking right over the camera to the subject with the subject looking back. But it doesn’t look like they’re actually looking over the camera. It’s all about finding the right focal length where it’s intimate enough but doesn’t give away the cheat.
JL: We yanked that idea and brought it to this documentary, and it worked, and it was awesome. It made for bizarre behind-the-scenes, though, because you look at this camera, and it looks horrendous; it’s got a taped-on filter and nothing on it. It looks so weird. And sometimes I had to show it to the gaffer and the key grip to explain something, and they were like, ‘What’s up with that?’ But it looks great. But that was how we achieved that interview. And I think it shows in how free-flowing the conversation is. There’s really nothing between them.
CKM: It sets the tone for the whole movie. It sets up that intimacy. You’re in his home and being told the story by Michael in his own words. So once Clair and Julia had done all of that stuff, Davis had an assembly he brought to Vancouver so we could shoot on location in Michael’s hometown of Burnaby.
And for me, it was easy because the assembly was already done, and storyboards were done, and we just had to fill in the blanks by shooting the particular memories that [Michael] was talking about in the cut. We had some fun running around shooting. Davis thinks so visually, which is great. It allowed us to take some chances to make things look more interesting. And stray a little bit from your standard documentary look. We got to do some fun stuff, like recreating the Back to the Future backlog. It all came together under Davis’s very steady hand on the wheel. The credit should be his for how the movie came together.
CP: As you said, Davis is a very visual director; he was also not afraid to take risks on this one. He had a very planned approach. Julia shot the majority of the verité footage and the majority of the interviews. I stepped in for some West Coast shoots and stuff she wasn’t available for. I had a shorthand with Davis already, having done a bunch of commercial work and a Netflix series on Bill Gates with him, too. But the approach to this was very different from everything else we’ve done.
Davis shot this in a way where we were planning how to get in and out of sequences that Kim was going to shoot later on or that we’re going to cut to archival footage that already existed. So there’s a lot of planning, more so than many documentaries I’ve worked on, which was quite interesting to me and gave us the freedom to try new things. It was a unique approach, and Davis should get a lot of credit for how it all pulled together. He and Michael Harte, the editor, really seemed to string it together nicely.
AD: I got to interview Davis and Michael Harte, and the first thing I said was that the documentary feels like a magic trick. What was your initial reaction to hearing, ‘Okay, I have all these different ideas that will bend what a documentary can look like.’ How did that inspire your work?
JL: For me, it was really exciting because I mostly shoot docs and some of the scenes that we shot with Michael very much shot like a narrative where we had storyboards and beats.
Actually, the first shoot of the production was this waking-up sequence where he gets up from bed, then goes to the bathroom, brushes his teeth, and does his whole morning wake-up routine. We had a stand-in for Michael; we had rehearsals. It was just refreshing and exciting to work in that way.
Obviously, it’s a documentary, but this is one of my generation’s most seasoned, celebrated, and iconic actors. He knows way too much! It was definitely a different experience. And there would be times when I felt like Michael wanted to break the fourth wall. Sometimes, he would look at the lens and make a funny face because he couldn’t help himself. And I was like, ‘You’re not supposed to do that!’ [Laughs].
It was a breath of fresh air for me.
CP: I thought something really interesting about this is that I feel a lot of people are used to seeing documentaries where it’s a verité, on-the-shoulder, follow doc. This film is called ‘Still,’ but the approach was very planned. Davis didn’t want to have that shaky camera. It’s about Michael’s movements and Michael’s progress. And having the camera as more of an observer was the key to that. Even the film’s title, ‘Still,’ played through with the visual, the way we shot it.
Davis’ choice to make a lot of choices ahead of time was a bold approach. And it was a really fun way to shoot a documentary. It’s a little bit outside the comfort zone of just following the action all the time, too.
AD: Tell me about your favorite moments in the film.
JL: The moment that I like the best, that has nothing to do with me, but I think it was interesting, and I was there to witness and capture it, was when Michael walks out of his apartment. And it’s a very smooth following shot. I’m on a gimbal, and I’m tracking with him and his physical therapist, and he’s walking down the street. It was supposed to follow him, then he walks off and turns the corner, which would be the shot. But a woman walks by and says ‘Hi’ to Michael, which kind of throws off his equilibrium, and he falls. Everybody on set held their breath at that moment because we were all like, “Is he okay? Like, What’s up? That wasn’t supposed to happen.’ And then Michael just bursts out with that great response, ‘Oh, you knocked me off my feet.’ And everybody laughed. I think the woman felt horrible, but that made her feel better. And it was just quintessential Michael J. Fox; him being able to change the energy in the room with humor and joy. That’s my favorite part of the movie. It was such a stressful moment that turned into an amazing cinematic moment.
CP: I feel like that moment is really special, and it encapsulates Michael and his personality— being a person for others.
In terms of the moments I shot, I really liked the way the film ends on the beach and with Michael and his son talking. We were shooting at this house on the West Coast in Southern California. And I went and scouted it ahead of time. I knew we had about a 20-minute window where the sun would be perfect with the umbrellas. I didn’t have to fly any big rags to control the sun. And can we do this in a documentary? Things never go according to plan, but somehow, we ended up right on schedule. I just had one reflector, and I love how we shot that scene in French overs. It just plays super well. Michael and his son go for this walk down the beach, and that was improvised with two cameras on sticks, and it just, I don’t know, I’m super happy with how that turned out.
Obviously, I’m in love with all the beautiful narrative sequences you two shot, too. But that was interesting, technically, because I’d planned to, if it went wrong, I’d add more light, but then it just went perfectly.
CKM: That sequence is so poignant. That wasn’t in the cut that I first saw. And I remember seeing that in the color correction for the first time and going, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s such a poignant scene with his son on the beach. And the French Overs decision was so great because it’s intimate, but you have the horizon out there. It’s emblematic of the whole story and such a great ending because the entire world is out there in the frame.
For me we had a lot of fun kind of doing everything. I was really humbled to be entrusted with building some of his memories and trying to capture some of his memories. We had fun running around with the little kid who played Michael as a child, not knowing what he would do next because he was a little unpredictable, but he was awesome.
Recreating Back to the Future was a lot of fun, and I tried to make it look as authentic as possible. That was a chance to use some of my normal day-to-day work skills. We had big blue screens to composite everything together. So, that was a blending of worlds for me—documentary and my normal work.
I’m proud of everything that’s in the film. I’m proud of everything that Clair and Julia did because it all comes together amazingly. I mean, it’s lucky that that we all got to participate in it.
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie is streaming on Apple TV+.