“I Never Realized How Gifted He Is With Comic Timing”: Editor Michael Harte on STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie
The life and career of Michael J. Fox is told through recreations of his most iconic acting roles in STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie. Editor Michael Harte tells Filmmaker about working on the latest film from Davis Guggenheim.
See all responses to our annual Sundance editor interviews here.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Harte: I grew up in the 80s so like a lot of people my age I loved Michael’s movies as a kid. They were on loop in my house. I ended up developing a pretty unhealthy obsession with Back to the Future. I try not to think about how many times I’ve seen it. A few years ago, I cut a film called Three Identical Strangers with director Tim Wardle and during the edit we watched a lot of Michael J. Fox movies to help us create the 80s vibe in the first act of that film. And we got the idea of making a documentary about Michael. Tim contacted his agent who told us that, unfortunately, they were already in development with Davis Guggenheim. So I thought that was that.
Fortuitously, Davis was a fan of the editing in Three Identical Strangers and asked would I be interested in cutting it, which was a no brainer for me. I think I said I’d think about it, just so I didn’t seem too keen.
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Harte: It seems funny to say now but we initially didn’t plan to have any sit down interviews from Michael in the film. Davis really wanted to immerse the audience in the wild rollercoaster of Michael’s life, and we thought that a sit down interview would push the viewer out of that experience. So our first assembly consisted mainly of archive, audio recordings from Michael’s memoir Lucky Man and a few storyboards for potential reenactments. It was pretty watchable but we had some gaps in the story. So Davis decided to do an audio interview with Michael to fill in those missing beats, but then late in the game he opted to shoot it on camera just so we’d have the option to see him if we wanted. But then I heard that they’d shot for hours.
And when I watched his interview in the edit for the first time, I was blown away. He was electric, self deprecating, incredibly honest, refused to feel sorry for himself, and very very funny. The way he told his story was infinitely more immersive than any of the storytelling devices I was employing up to that point, and it became clear that we needed to let it lead the film, and everything else had to be in support of that interview. As our composer John Powell said, it’s one of Michael’s best performances.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Harte: Davis is a brilliant interviewer. Michael and him had such a great rapport, and I wanted the audience to feel that. The back and forth. It’s a nice way to reveal Michael’s character. It feels like he’s interacting with us. So I kept leaning into the moments in between his answers as much as possible. It’s where he was at his funniest. I tried to make the interview feel more like verité, so you weren’t just hearing the story of his past, but you’re getting to know the Michael of today, which is just as compelling. He’s been in front of cameras all his life so isn’t phased by them. He comes alive in front of one.
In terms of feedback, it seems counterintuitive to allow our subject into the edit and give feedback but in this case it really helped. Michael has worked closely with directors such as Robert Zemeckis, Stephen Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Brian De Palma so he knows how to make a good film and how to be really productive in the editing process.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Harte: I worked in Dublin for years under an editor called Bob Caldwell who basically let me help him cut material as soon as I started working for him. I was around 21. So I honed my craft early on which I think was a big help. Then I moved to London and got just lucky working with some amazing directors and producers. Three Identical Strangers was a hit when it came out but Don’t F**K with Cats was when I started to get noticed.
Bart Layton’s The Imposter had a big effect on me in terms of thinking outside the documentary box, but also films like American Movie and The King of Kong really opened my eyes as to how much humour you can inject into a documentary through editing.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Harte: Avid Media Composer. I’ve used it for years and it makes it very easy for me to organise and search for huge amounts of archive. I can get obsessive about spending time organising my material before I cut a frame, which can freak a director out in the short term but usually pays off in the long term.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Harte: We called it the ‘moonlighting’ scene, where Michael jumps between shooting Family Ties and Back to the Future. The scene had to illustrate his excitement, disorientation and anxiety, and that was a tough rhythm to figure out.
Davis challenged me to be as creative as possible with the archive material to make this work. We were playing around with reenactments but I was always wary about the audience not buying into this, as Michael is so well known you can’t show the actor’s face and the viewer usually ends up looking at the back of a head for most of the film which can be distancing.
But then I saw an interesting close-up of Michael’s face in the movie Bright Lights, Big City and thought what if we try and repurpose this footage by cutting it into a reenactment scene. So we worked backwards from this shot and storyboarded a scene around it. Once we decided this could be part of our language, I spent months combing through every film he’d acted in, 170 episodes of Family Ties, thousands of hours of Spin City and other TV series. To be honest I knew most of the material already. Someone recently asked me how long did the edit take. I told them I’d been trawling through the rushes since 1985.
The ‘moonlighting scene’ is the most extreme version of this.
Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?
Harte: I was surprised by how funny Michael is. I never realized how gifted he is with comic timing. But after studying all his films, TV shows and even his interviews, I really got a sense of how he used his body movements, and facial expressions, pauses etc. for comic effect. I kept noticing Michael trip over a lot in his movies. It looks really goofy and random but it’s actually very controlled.
Obviously when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, his control over this was compromised. But what is amazing is how he eventually leaned toward his condition and not away from it, finding a new way to make us laugh.