For her feature directorial debut, Marti Noxon goes deep. Her Sundance premiere “To the Bone” is based on her own experiences with eating disorders and recovery, framed around the darkly funny journey of a young anorexic named Ellen (Lily Collins) as she attempts a radical treatment that offers her what is likely her last chance at survival. (No, really, it’s funny.)
Noxon is already a major name in the television space, best known for writing and producing series such as the beloved “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (where she was mentored by Joss Whedon) and recent smash hit “UNreal.” She’s dabbled in film before, including penning scripts for Rick Rosenthal’s late-’90s romantic comedy “Just a Little Harmless Sex” and the 2011 remake of “Fright Night.” But she’s never done anything quite like “To the Bone.”
Noxon struggled to get the deeply personal (though not entirely autobiographical, she’s quick to note) film made for many years. Despite her obvious passion for the story and plenty of goodwill built up from her years in the industry, a lot of doors slammed shut in her face.
The hardest one, however, was the one she nearly closed herself.
“I think that there’s sort of two parts of that,” Noxon said when asked why the film took so long to be made. “The first part is knowing that you have a story that you could tell, but not knowing how to tell it. That went on for a long time: telling various tales from my experience being anorexic and bulimic, and having people say, ‘You’ve got to write this, you are a writer,’ and me not knowing how to approach the material.”
When Noxon finally cracked the material by allowing herself the freedom to expand the story and to add more humor, she found Hollywood gatekeepers just didn’t get it.
“It seemed like male producers didn’t understand,” she said. “I was told a number of times that it was just too small a topic. I was like, ‘What? Really?’ Half the movies that get made are about some really talented white guy who understands jazz, you know? So many of the indie movies that get made are not about topics that touch millions and millions of people.”
In early 2016, Noxon hooked up with people who did get it, producers Bonnie Curtis, Karina Miller, and Julie Lynn. “Then, it kind of took on a life of its own, and it all happened really fast,” she said. “Once we had financing, things started to rock and roll.”
Casting the feature was a particular joy for Noxon, especially once she met Collins. “I also suffered from eating disorders when I was a teenager, so when I read it, I automatically felt very attached to the subject matter,” Collins said. “I’ve wanted to get all this off my chest for a long time. This was my way to be able to tell this story for the greater good, for a greater purpose, to open up communication.”
Collins’ affection for the project only grew once she met Noxon. “When I met Marti, the passion was kind of mutual,” she said with a laugh.
Although the film is based on Noxon’s own experiences, perhaps the most refreshing thing about the feature is Noxon’s ability to let all that go and craft a film that feels real and honest without verging into biopic territory. Once Collins came aboard, Noxon and her lead actress worked together to build out Ellen from their own experiences.
“She was massive on collaboration,” Collins said. “If there were any ideas that I had of my experiences, I would say, ‘Oh, well I didn’t used to do this, but this was something I used to —’ and then, you would mold it. It very much captured most of my essence.”
Carrie Preston, who plays Ellen’s stepmother, was given similar freedom from Noxon to build out her character as she saw fit.
“Working with somebody who is telling a story that’s so personal to them, there’s a clarity of vision, and as an actor, you just want to make sure that you are helping deliver that vision for them,” Preston said. “Also, bringing my own interpretation of the words on the page made it a real, fun collaboration.”
Even Keanu Reeves, cast as Ellen’s radical new doctor, the kind of role that could easily slip into parody, found a true collaborator in the filmmaker. The actor showed up at their first meeting with script and notes in hand, but Noxon still surprised him.
“I didn’t know it was semi-autobiographical when I read the script,” he said. “I think it speaks more to the focus and clarity of her vision. You certainly felt like you had freedom, but you were being directed, which is a cool spot.”
Noxon’s drive in making “To the Bone” has always been to breathe life into a story and an experience that millions share but often remains misunderstood.
“There are a lot of men – more men than women, I would say – who have expressed to me that they think it’s an issue of vanity,” Noxon said. “I was writing to try to help people who don’t understand, who can’t relate to why someone would starve, or throw up, or just spend their life obsessed with food, or obsessed with their body size.”
Response has already been very positive. “What’s amazing is people who’ve been through it know what we’re talking about, and people who haven’t finally say, ‘Oh, I get it,’ Noxon said.
That sort of audience reaction meant the film found its own happy ending at Sundance, where Netflix snapped it up for a cool $8 million, one of the biggest buys of the fest.
Days later, Noxon was still beaming about the wild turn of events. As she introduced the film to a packed audience at Sundance’s MARC Theater on Friday night, she couldn’t help but mention the sale.
“When I heard the news, I actually had to sit down,” Noxon told the crowd. “I don’t mind talking about [the purchase amount], because it shows that female directors can make commercial movies that people want to buy.”
She was greeted with a burst of applause, one that only settled down when it was time to watch the movie Noxon had so long wanted to put in front of an audience. They got it.
“To the Bone” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix will release it later this year.