Marti Noxon’s raw and funny directorial debut, To the Bone, begins streaming Friday on Netflix. Based on Noxon’s own experiences with anorexia and bulimia, the film follows Ellen (Lily Collins), a young artist who finds herself in and out of treatment for anorexia but seems to find hope in her latest group home and a doctor played by Keanu Reeves.
The movie debuted at Sundance earlier this year to strong reviews and was picked up by Netflix. TV veteran Noxon, whose impressive resume includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, and UnREAL, gives To the Bone a unique blend of tragedy and dark comedy.
Noxon talked to EW about bringing her own experience with eating disorders to the screen and what she hopes people take from To the Bone.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: To the Bone is based on your own experiences with eating disorders, right?
MARTI NOXON: Yeah when I was around 14 I went on a diet and next thing I knew I was pounds and pounds and pounds underneath my goal weight and before I knew it I was in a hospital. I went on with anorexia and bulimia for about 10 years, so it was a dark time in my life. For years, people said you should write about it and I was always like, “Ugh, who wants to see that movie?” Eating disorders are A) not fun at parties, and B) they’re not very fun in movies.
So what made you move forward with it?
I was working on an adaptation of a book that had a lot to do with childhood and semi-traumatic things in childhood. For years I said I don’t remember that period of my life. It’s sort of a big blank. And as I was working on this other project, I found these other memories coming back and many more specifics. A few of them are so weird, like the hamburger cake [Ellen’s stepmother gives her in the film], that I had to check it. Sure enough, there’s a photo of me with the cake [laughs]. I think the most important part was that I remembered I was still a person and I still had my personality. I think sometimes when you’ve gone through something so intense you sort of think of it as I was just a disease back then. And I remembered that I still had a sense of humor and my deflection techniques of being sarcastic, and once I remembered I was a person I could see a way into the movie that wasn’t so bleak.
Tell me about casting Lily Collins. To me, this is the role where I really saw the actress.
From the moment she sat down, it was sorta like being on a date where you already know you’re going to fall in love with that person but you’re kinda trying to keep it cool. Like yeah, yeah, it’s cool. To add to it that she was also in recovery [Collins has admitted she too struggled with an eating disorder], and one of the first things she said was, “I knew whoever wrote this had been through it.” So we were talking the same language. We both apparently left and got in our cars and called and were like, “I think she liked me! I think it went good!”
Since you both went through eating disorders in real life, did filming make it harder? Or was it cathartic?
I think I had more fear about it but when we actually got into doing it, it actually felt really nurturing because we were just surrounded by the ethos of recovery. Sometimes it was eerie to look at that and think that was me and that was her. It’s easy to forget that it really was life and death. There was also a lot of gratitude that we’re both alive and well and we get to tell this story.
Lily’s transformation in this is pretty striking — how did you achieve the dramatic body changes her character experiences?
She wanted to lose some weight. We had talked about that that wasn’t necessary. But to get in the mindset, she wanted to prepare. We set her up with a nutritionist who not only worked with her through the filming but worked with her through months after to help her gain the weight back in a healthy way. So she had a nutritionist who helped her until she was back at her normal weight.
Then, on top of it, she’s surrounded by a bunch of female producers and we were checking with her all the time! We used prosthetics and make-up and wardrobe and all kinds of stuff. When she finally gets her fingers to meet around her arm, that was a paper towel roll. Yup, not her. Not her.
One of the most interesting storytelling choices is we hear about Ellen’s father but never see him. Why did you do that?
I think I was really trying to think about the feeling of that period in my life. It felt like whatever reason I was sort of left to the women. It just felt truthful to me. Then there were certain people who said I really feel like he should show up. And I felt like it could become too reductive, like he’s the problem.
I loved Keanu in this role. It’s very unexpected although I do fine Keanu Reeves very soothing. How did he get involved?
He loved the script in part because he had someone close to him who suffered from anorexia, so he got it. When you have such an important but small role for what you hope will be a name actor, it’s sometimes hard to cast because they have other stuff to do — they gotta go be the Hulk or something. So we always knew it had to be someone who was gonna do us a solid because they thought the film was important, and that was Keanu.
13 Reasons Why received backlash from some who thought it glamorized suicide. Do you worry at all about getting the same criticisms for To the Bone and eating disorders?
Well, I think in a way we were very fortunate to come after 13 Reasons because it ignited this conversation not only internally at Netflix but then there’s been a certain amount of talk about it in the media, which I think hopefully it will make people aware that if it’s personal to them and they’re at a place where it could be difficult or bring stuff up to them, it might be a good idea to wait. You can never guess what’s going to be activating for somebody. There will be a card before the film letting people know that it can be super emotional.
What do you want people to ultimately take away from this?
Ultimately, I thought long and hard about what helped me and I hope in a way, whatever you struggled with or are struggling with, the best thing this doctor did for me was teach me how to be brave. He used to say, “I want you to run towards the things that scare you because it’s worth it.” So I hope people take away that overarching message of the film which is life can be hard but it can be beautiful.
You’re also adapting Gillian Flynn’s book Sharp Objects for HBO with Amy Adams. What can you say about that?
When people are like UnREAL is so dark, I’m like, hahahahahahahahahaha! Wait ’til you get to Sharp Objects. It’s such an incredible experience and Gillian is such an intense and specific kind of writer. The minute I read that book I thought I hope they don’t make this into a movie, it’s a show. It’s such a world and it has so many nuances and so many interesting characters. So it’s been really gratifying to see it realized on this big scale. It’s sort of the right moment and then Amy Adams came on so that was cool! [Laughs].
And then you’re also adapting Sarai Walker’s 2015 novel Dietland, which could go into production this fall for AMC?
We’ve already written six episodes and we find out next week if we start prep. I keep joking it’s like being pregnant with a baby…or a balloon! It’s either everything or nothing! We already did a talent search and we have a hold on an actress for the lead role so it’s exciting. I can’t say much more about it.