Marti Noxon had concerns but never any doubts.
The prolific writer, director and producer knew tackling the topic of eating disorders in “To the Bone” would take her back into a pain that she battled through in her teens and early 20s. Noxon knew she could handle picking at the scars of her own wounds because her deep connection to the topic was the fire she needed to give her the strength to make a movie to move and educate her audience.
The story inspired by Noxon’s life has Lily Collins playing Ellen, a young artist who’s been kicked out of numerous rehab facilities. There’s only one last person who can help her deal with her eating disorder, the unorthodox Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves). Ellen reluctantly agrees to give the facility a try.
In the few efforts by mainstream TV and film productions of the past to touch on the topic, Noxon saw problems because there was a lot of misunderstanding when it came to a disease like anorexia. Because of her own long battle with eating disorders, Noxon knew that she could write a film that offered an insider’s perspective. It just took her a long time to find the right approach that felt grounded while still allowing for some humor.
“It was both hard at times and cathartic,” Noxon says of making the movie that opens theatrically July 14 and debuts on Netflix the same day. “It was also incredibly powerful and ultimately was another part of recovery in a way.
“Part of the way we try to help people is to tell our stories and also tell the hopeful part of it. I’m a healthy grown woman with an amazing career and two beautiful children.”
Over the years, Noxon, 52, would tell people about her battles and they would always say she should write the story as a script. When she started writing, Noxon was sure to use a lot of details from her own life. She’s certain that this is the right time to make her story into the movie because she has a daughter who is growing up and the comparisons and contrasts to her life gave Noxon the perspective she needed.
She’s happy that the story is now being told.
It’s not bragging when she describes her career as amazing because of the string of hits on her resume where she has been a producer and/or writer: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Glee,” “Unreal,” “Mad Men,” “Angel,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice,” “Brothers & Sisters” and “Code Black.” She again turned to her own life for inspiration as the creator and executive producer of Bravo’s first scripted drama series, “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce.”
The UC Santa Cruz graduate found that once work started on “To the Bone,” those who were involved with the project or heard about the subject matter were very supportive. Part of that came from how the film didn’t just focus on the battle by one young woman but showed people of all races – and men and women – dealing with eating disorders.
The male perspective is shown through Luke (Alex Sharp), a ballet dancer who is battling his own eating disorders while also waiting for an injured knee to heal so he can return to the stage. Luke becomes Ellen’s main supporter and confidant.
Sharp says: “It was really important to me because there really hasn’t been a representation in a character in film that fully shows the male side. ... Before the film started, I hadn’t had any experience with men who have gone through it but since then I have. It was a beautiful element of the job that I got to shed light on that because it is very relative and very important.”
Sharp, the Tony-winning actor for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” drew on Collins and Noxon for the background information he needed to find the right frame of mind to play Luke.
“Lily and Marti are these two, incredibly brave women going into a part of their past that was very painful for them in order to tell a story they hope will start conversations and shed light on a taboo subject,” Sharp says.
Casting Collins not only gave Noxon a Golden Globe-nominated actress with credits such as “Mirror Mirror” and “Rules Don’t Apply” as her star but also brought to the production an actor who understands the subject matter very intimately. Collins has faced her own battles with an eating disorder in the past.
“It was incredible to meet someone in recovery who understood what that experience was really like. Meeting Lily was really kismet as she was in a place in her life where she was far enough away from it that she felt like she had the perspective to do in and it would be helpful for her to do it,” Noxon says. “She also felt like she could really bring herself to the role.
“I think you see in her performance that she was completely fearless about showing what it was like for her and what it was like for all of us.”
Collins lost weight – under the guidance of a nutritionist – to play the role. The gaunt looks she eventually reaches were also the work of special effects, wardrobe and makeup.
The images of the super thin actress aren’t meant to shock. Noxon wants those who see the film to come away with more compassion for those who are dealing with such challenges.
“Too often … people tend to think it all comes from a point of vanity or weakness,” Noxon says. “What I wanted to really show people is that this is a mental illness like any other. This is not that far away from substance abuse.
“It’s a different kind of substance abuse. You are abusing food as a way of coping with something that’s an underlying a problem. It’s just a symptom to an underlying problem that a lot of people can relate to. I also wanted to show that it’s not how we look but what we have inside that is the predictor for happiness.”
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