“Every story deserves a space to be told in.” Marti Noxon on To the Bone
Marti Noxon discusses getting beneath the surface issues, writing based on your own life, and leaning into your idiosyncrasies.
Netflix has been pushing the envelope with their new releases. And after 13 Reasons Why, which shined a light on teen suicide, comes the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-nominated movie To The Bone, which highlights the brutal truth about eating disorders.
To the Bone is written and directed by Marti Noxon. Perhaps best known for her work as writer and producer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in To the Bone she explores issues that she herself once dealt with. The result is an oft-times dark, sometimes funny story about Ellen (Lily Collins), a young woman battling anorexia.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Noxon about getting beneath the surface issues, writing based on your own life, and leaning into your idiosyncrasies.
This is a very personal story. How long have you been developing this film?
Honestly, in the world of independent film, it’s a pretty quick one. I mean, on the one hand, I’ve been thinking about writing about this for years and years and years. But I didn’t actually try to write it until I had a pretty good idea of what the film would look like.
So, I wrote it about four and a half, five years ago. Then we took some time before myself and the producers were ready and I had a break in my schedule, and then it fell together pretty quickly.
I read in another interview that you said you wanted the film to be truthful, yet not exploitive. How did you kind of walk that line with the writing?
I wanted to show not only what the disorder looks like, but to really get to the why of it. So it wasn’t just, “Look what this looks like!” but, really to get to the next level.
Too often, most of the things done about it have been TV movies, and they kind of deal with the surface issues of control and body dysmorphia.
To me, those were parts of the symptoms, but the true causes are much more interesting. Like, why does somebody choose to be so divorced from what’s going on in their life, so as to kind of pull themselves out of the stream of life? Which is, in effect, what this does. You’re not really one of the living any more. So why?
There’s been some online backlash. Why do you think so many people are worried that the film about anorexia might romanticize the disorder?
I think that we’re in this really interesting moment of extremes. On the one end, we have extreme insensitivity, where people in public life are saying things and getting away with them, and where you’re just like, “That shouldn’t be OK.” And then, on the other extreme, there’s this concern that we need to police everything in case it’s in any way offensive to any single person.
And, really, in making this film, I think we tried to find that middle-ground. Every story deserves a space to be told in, and this is, as you know, really personal to me, it’s related to my story. And the truth is that no one has to watch it.
On the one hand, it feels like some things are held to no standard, and on the other hand, things are held at such an extreme that you sometimes feel you’re not supposed to talk at all. And I think that’s one of the problems with eating disorders, that people don’t understand them.
So for me, I wanted to tell my story in the hopes that it might shed a little light on what it was really like for me.
How did you go about casting the actors and actresses for the film? Lily Collins has spoken publicly about having a disorder in the past, as well. Was it important to find someone to connect with in that way?
I didn’t even know that Lily had been through it, so it was, actually, just a surprise, on meeting her, that she had such a personal connection to the material.
I mean, this was a part for an actor who could relate to it, but I never thought that it would be or should be somebody who’d been through it. The fact that she had, and that she was well into her recovery, and felt like it was something she could do and do safely, was obviously wonderful because we could speak that language of having been there together.
And also, we were both in recovery, so we could talk about recovery and check in with each other and make sure that, even though we were touching on some difficult things, that we both felt OK.
Did you base any of the writing or the story on other addictions?
Yes. Well, I mean, I could relate it to other struggles I’d had with other substances. And I felt like, for me, part of the question I was asking as a writer was sort of what I talked about before: like why, at certain moments, was it so hard for me to be in the moment, and why was I trying to create some barrier between myself and my feelings?
And then I started to think, “Wow, this isn’t really that different.” Denying myself food is not that different to using something else to distance myself from the world. So I thought it was a way to help people understand that it isn’t very different than other substances that people abuse in order to, you know, block out some feelings.
Are the methods used by Keanu Reeves’ character, Dr. Beckham, based on real group sessions and treatments that have been successful?
It was all based on my own treatment. Many of the things that I showed really happened, in different ways. What he thought was best for me was to sort of take the focus off eating or not eating, you know, what I was doing around food, and really focus instead on who I wanted to be and how that behavior was standing between me and the rest of my life. So that was what he did for me, yes.
Without giving too much away, in the end it seems that like those with any type of addiction, they really need to want to get better. Are there some steps that people around them can take, or is it kind of a lost cause until they make the decision for themselves?
I think that there are all kinds of recovery. At least, for me, I needed to have my own drive and moment of clarity. I couldn’t do it only for other people.
I knew my parents were suffering, I knew that the people around me were going through stuff, and it made me feel terrible. But that wasn’t enough. I had to find my own will to fight this thing.
But I don’t think that’s the answer for every single person. I just know that’s what worked for me. I think the important part is that if people start talking more about this, then if someone needs help, that that will encourage them to seek some answers and talk about it.
Tell me about the dream sequence and the tree in the third act.
I had kind of a textbook out-of-body experience when I was kind of at a turning point [in my life]. I had a…you know, I don’t know if it was a vision or a dream, of being able to see myself and being aware that I wasn’t going to be alive for much longer, and making a choice to stay and fight.
So, when I thought about that cinematically, I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to show somebody floating through a tunnel towards a light.”
I loved the imagery of the desert, and then this kind of lushness coming to the desert. So, the tree in the desert felt to me like a lovely symbol for this space where change could happen.
How did Luke’s character come about? He seems like a really pivotal point in the story.
I’d done some research, and an interesting thing I’d read is that more men than ever are going into treatment. So I was really intrigued with exploring the idea that this is not a disease that only affects women
And I was also just intrigued with putting Ellen in a situation where she might have to confront her issues with intimacy. I didn’t want there to be just one reason why she was sick, or reduce it to something simple. So I thought that by showing how hard it was for her to get close to somebody, that would really be a good catalyst for her having to make a decision about what she wanted.
Again, without saying too much, do we feel optimistic about the protagonist, Ellen, at the end of the film?
I sure do. I didn’t want to just say that the next part of her journey would be simple, but that it could begin. That there was a beginning to something new.
Did you find it more difficult or less difficult writing a personal story like this, versus some of your other television work?
I think this was harder. It was harder to untangle things that really happened, and [deal with questions such as] how real did I want to be, and how much did I want to expose other people in the process, like other people in my family?
All the characters are somewhat like people I knew, but they’re not the people. And so, it was harder, but ultimately, you know, it was really gratifying. It was just different.
In terms of writing, have any of your methods changed over the years, or do you have any advice where novice writers might waste time in the beginning of their careers?
Oh, boy! I mean, for me, that “wasted time” was learning through my mistakes.
But, I think that whatever your particular idiosyncrasies are, the things that you’re really interested in, if you lean into those as opposed to what you think other people want, you’re going to find your way to being more authentic quicker.
It was really when I got more specific, and more about just writing something that I felt was honest, that it got more universal.
So I’d say lean into who you are, not who you think you’re supposed to be.
That’s good advice, just in general.
To the Bone is available now on Netflix
Featured image: Lily Collins as Ellen in To the Bone © To the Bone Productions LLC. Photo credit: Gilles Mingasson/Netflix