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Can you make a film about anorexia in a responsible way? Marti Noxon says she had to try

Lily Collins plays Ellen in
Lily Collins plays Ellen in "To the Bone," written and directed by Marti Noxon.

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It’s a common rule of thumb among Hollywood screenwriters is to “write what you know.” For Marti Noxon, one of the things she knows a lot about is what it’s like to live with an eating disorder.

"First with anorexia and then it morphed into bulimia for about 10 years, starting when I was around 14 and then going until I was in my mid-20s," Noxon says. "And that was many years ago. I'm in my mid-50s now. So it took me a long time to figure out how to tell the story."

Noxon wrote and directed the new film “To the Bone,” which is now on Netflix. In the movie, Lily Collins plays a young woman named Ellen. Her eating disorder has become so life-threatening that she's sent to live in a group home with other people struggling with similar eating disorders.

Even though the subject matter seems grim, Noxon, whose writing credits include “Mad Men,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer," has tried to make “To the Bone” a story with a sense of humor. The film co-stars Keanu Reeves as a therapist trying to treat not only Ellen, but also her entire family, who are largely unable and unwilling to do what’s best.

When Marti Noxon spoke with The Frame's John Horn, she talked about how she approached this difficult and triggering subject.

Interview highlights:

On what she learned from experts about telling this story in a responsible way:

There was some advice we got— for instance, don't talk about numbers. At one point in the trailer I think the main character says the amount of calories in something and later she's told, 'We really don't talk about that stuff.' And we never stay what weight she gets to. Initially in the screenplay, there was a weight that she got to that was her low, and we showed that. But that kind of stuff can be, for someone who's sort of in the grips of an illness, can become sort of aspirational. So there were certain things we tried to accommodate like that that didn't take away from the narrative or the truth of the story we were trying to tell. But again, I think it's also important when you put something out like this to just remind people that it is loosely based on a true story, and it's not meant to be advice about how to get treatment. So it's tricky. There's some school of thought which would have you not do anything at all. Like the safest thing is not to talk about it at all, but then what you find is there are thousands and thousands of people who are saying, 'Finally someone is approaching this who's been through it.' So there's a little bit of 'you can't win for trying,' but I would much rather try.

On her use of humor in "To the Bone":

One of my coping mechanisms has always been to try to make light through difficult times. And then one of the things I think I learned from Joss Whedon, when I was working on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," was how humor and genre elements can help you tell any difficult story. This doesn't have any vampires in it, but you know there's something to 'Trojan-horsing' content in a package that isn't all sadness. 

On working with an actor (Lily Collins) who also had personal experience with eating disorders:

Obviously we discussed it a great deal with her and her support network and we worked with a nutritionist. But we were also really careful there to just say, 'There's no goal here. There's just you getting to a place where you feel like you're in the character, where you feel prepared as an actor."

And we also used all the movie magic-- we used CGI [computer-generated imagery] and makeup and wardrobe and everything that was available to us to enhance the look. So what you see isn't actually exactly what she looked like. You know, it was obviously a concern, it was a concern even for me to go so deeply into that mindset again, but at the same time, we're both women in recovery and I really recognized in her a strength and a kind of hindsight about it that felt like she was prepared to tell this story in a way that was safe and thoughtful.

On how she thinks about working in an industry that can send unhealthy messages about body image:

I have a 12-year-old daughter. She's just coming in to her body and her self in a way. And the thing to do, I think, is to try to create work and films and television and books that encourage moms and dads and siblings and friends to discuss this stuff with young people in their lives – that take the air out of that stuff. Like when I'm watching TV with my daughter and there's some representation of happiness being linked to the way somebody looks, I'll just say, 'Pfft, that's silly, don't you think?' And we'll talk about it. Like, 'Suddenly she's all better and fixed cause she's got a makeover? That seems silly to me.'

I think that it's less about trying to police what the content is and more trying to help people find language and ideas that lead you out of all those falsehoods...Our business has so many layers to it. Like half of it is the dream factory, right? And it's not about reality, it's about pretty things and fast cars and superheroes. And I think when you try to apply this filter of responsibility to everything, you can get caught in a feedback loop that's just endless. The more important thing is how do we educate people to read media and read culture in a way that sort of takes some of the air out of the stuff that we know is fictional. 

To hear the full interview, click the blue player above. To get more content like this, subscribe to The Frame podcast on Apple Podcasts.

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