Our Friend, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is based on the Esquire article “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word” written by Matthew Teague. It tells the story of how his family survived his wife Nicole’s terminal cancer diagnosis, with the help of their best friend Dane, who put his life on hold to help the family get through the impossible time in their lives.
The Illuminerdi had the opportunity to speak with the director of Our Friend, Gabriela Cowperthwaite about why she wanted to tell this story, working with the star-studded cast, and how her experience a a documentarian helped her.
The Illuminerdi: I thought the film was really incredible. I was crying by the end of it.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Oh my gosh. I never, I’m always like, I’m sorry and thank you all in one. All at once, that’s a good sign, but I’m sorry.
The Illuminerdi: Why did you want to tell this story specifically?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: So, I had read Matt’s original article years before I saw the script and was so moved by it. Was moved by his way into grief and how he just spoke about how he lived his grief, and that was with the help of a friend. To me that was just such a unique and fresh, and just beautiful way into what it means to lose somebody, and it sort of spoke to me.
I had lost a friend, awhile back and remember it was very, very fast and I never got a chance to say goodbye. And I think, hearing somebody in this experience, somebody have an experience with grief where they were, it was the opposite, where they were saying goodbye every single day for years. And then hearing how he got through that, through his best friend Dane.
I guess, it just helped me tap into just what it means to grieve and how it’s so universal. And we feel it, and the bottom drops out from the bottom of your life, but you have people to hold onto, hopefully, and you have friends who are there to cushion your fall. But I guess, it just sort of opened that up for me, and started making me realize that we all go through this thing together. Each of us finding, hopefully, a port in a storm, a unique and powerful way to get through it.
The Illuminerdi: Can you tell me a little about the process of adapting the original article into a film because obviously there are pieces of that don’t make it to the screen?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Yeah, so Brad Ingelsby was the writer. So, I had read the article years before, fallen in love with the article, and then, I got the script and was like, wait a second, I know this article. I posted this on social media, and read the script. And the biggest one for me was really Nicole. In the article, Nicole is, she’s already sick. And really, the article involves Matt dealing with that, and what he has to, and how Dane kind of swoops in and helps.
And really that to me, the movie felt like it needed Nicole to have her own voice and to have her own perspective on her own death, as a mother, as a wife. And I think that was one of the bigger changes that we made. Nicole was this larger than life, brilliant musical theater actress, loved, beloved by friends. And she was just so much more than just a woman lying in a bed.
That, that was something that you know Brad felt strongly about and I felt strongly about, is really just having Nicole be more present and having this film be more about the three of them, not only at the end of the day, at the end of days, but at the beginning.
And so, we could understand the friendship, really not only just between Dane and Matt, but between Nicole and Dane. And what she was like as a friend to him when he was awkward and searching in life. And so, to me that sort of filled out the third party more. So, I think that’s the biggest, I think kind of addition from the article.
The Illuminerdi: So was that decision to make Nicole more of a, like showing her before the illness was that why you decided to tell it in a non-linear way?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Yeah, so Brad had written it that way. And to me that was the only way to tell this story. What happened was, there was a version, a draft where it is not told in a linear way. It’s chronological and you feel this heaviness, this impending heaviness, like you’re marching towards the end. And I think that, that’s not how these things happen.
So, it’s sort of hard to describe, it’s like when you are, you know, we all know that we’re all going to end up in that place, right? And so, but life is about a memory, about being completely present, about “oh my gosh, remember when we did that back in college” and sort of, it’s not like every day foretells the next day, really.
And so, sort of this to me, felt more, like a more sort of truthful and genuine path to what it means to lose somebody, is you’re revisiting what made you love them. You’re revisiting your lowest moments with them, and your fights, and then how you got through that, and how you healed together.
And so, to me, that was a way of telling the film, not only where it felt more sort of genuine and authentic, to And so, to me, that was a way of telling the film, not only where it felt more sort of genuine and authentic, to just how we do life, but also a way of not making you feel like you’re marching towards this predetermined end, that’s going to be dark, and going to be hard. So anyway, just made the thing feel more alive in some way.
GABRIEAL COWPERTHWAITE TALKS ABOUT THE CAST OF OUR FRIEND
The Illuminerdi: Yeah, and the cast did just an amazing job can you tell me a little bit about working with Jason Segel, Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Yeah, so they were what I love most about the film, for sure, aside from the story, Matt’s story and the script, it’s the three of them. You know, and Jason was the first, the person I had to have. And I sort of fought for him. I was like, that is my Dane.
You know, it’s a combination of him in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and in End Of The Tour. You know, that guy is the guy who can do both those films and can tap into both those extreme emotions. Are exactly who I felt, who I saw as my Dane. So, and he was just a magnificent person to work with.
He’s funny, he’s so caring. He keeps saying on set, that you know, he’s there for me to mold and me to direct. And that he has ideas and suggestions, but ultimately, he wants to make my vision come to life. And he’s just so grateful and giving, in that way, for somebody who’s been doing it as long as he has. He could have all the answers, but he doesn’t act like he does.
Dakota is just this effervescent personality. She’s hilarious in person, and she knows how to do comedy and make things light and natural. And yet, she has this depth of emotion that’s just sitting right behind her eyes. And I just felt that she was, she brought that to bear in so many scenes, that made them so, so much more tragic and beautiful to watch. Because she’s so real, but also because she’s just she’s so vulnerable, and so strong, in the same take and that was a special person to direct in that way.
Casey, I just think the way he can access, the way he can make this man’s journey, and this man’s feelings and his love for his kids, and his love for his wife. He can make that so accessible. He’s just, an accessible actor. You look at him and you know what he’s feeling. And you feel like you’ve felt that way before.
And, he also does what I love best, and he and I are both, kind of come from this school, I think and that is, we love to feel like, we love agility on a set. Try something different, go off script, play a little bit. Let’s see if we can’t make this unique, and even more real, and even more genuine. Instead of so lived in. And that is something, I come from documentaries, so that’s, staying on the balls of my feet as a director. That’s what I come from and that’s my job in documentary.
And so, him being able to also kind of do that, and play in that world, was just an ideal situation for me. And was something I was very comfortable with. So yeah, and they’re both just completely different actors. They come in at a scene in completely different ways. What they can bring on set is, and to me it’s sort of magic, when they’re all an ensemble together.
The Illuminerdi: Yeah, I definitely felt that. You brought up your background in documentaries. I was wondering did that kind of help you make a film like this, that is based in a true story?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Yeah, yeah, I think it does. I mean the one thing that I feel that documentarians have, is they know what real looks like. What, quote unquote, real looks like. And for me, in order for film to work, or the films that I make, to work, they have to feel like they could actually be really happening. And so, that to me was something I knew I could bring to this.
I felt like because this is a story that we’re all in some way shape or form dealing with, whether you know someone who’s sick, or who has cancer, who has COVID, or any of that, I think this is so, so universal, that it has to feel like an experience that people can recognize.
Because we can all tell you immediately if it’s genuine or not. If it looks and feels authentic or not. And so because, we’ve all been, because so many of us have been have been through this, to me that was just really paramount, is that this feels as real and authentic as possible.
The Illuminerdi: Yes, yeah especially now.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Yeah, exactly.
GABRIELA COWPERTHWAITE ON FUTURE PROJECTS
The Illuminerdi: Can you tell me anything about some of your upcoming projects?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Yeah, so, I’m actually filming right now in North Carolina. I’m filming a space station thriller.
The Illuminerdi: Very cool.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: I know, it is very fun. So, we’re in preproduction right now. And that’s my next film. I’m working on two documentaries. One I’ve been working on for about four years. And another one, I just started. And then some things that I’m attached to in the future, a horror movie, an action movie and a sort of real-life drama. All of them hopefully will go at some point. But yeah, the one that I’m doing now is a space station movie here in North Carolina.
The Illuminerdi: That’s very cool. And then just one more question so, in film right now it’s all very much superheroes and larger than life heroics, but this felt like real life heroism in tragic situations, you have Dane and you even have the hospice worker Faith, or the hiker Teresa, why do you think it’s important to show that kind of heroism today?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: That’s a good question. That’s a really good question. You know, I think, interesting. I think for me, it’s sort of like, you have these very personal stories that we’re all experiencing. And whether we’re in lock down, we’re alone, some people have lost people. All of this is happening, during a year that’s been crass and rough and tumble.
And so, it’s like, we’re all kind of, in some way, kind of licking our wounds right now. And just sort of like gosh, are we getting through this? And how much longer? You know, just taking deep breaths, and trying to figure out how to get through some of this. And I guess, that’s not unlike what grief is like, right?
What it’s like to just endure some tragic incident in your life. And I think, what’s beautiful about this film, that maybe can speak to what’s happening now, is that like really, when you lose somebody you are the, I guess, own it, the responsibility of having to uphold their memory by yourself is so hard, and what you want right is a Dane, right? Someone who, you know, Matt experiences Nicole’s death as a husband, but Dane gets to remember her as a friend.
The daughters get to remember her as their mother. You know, friends get to remember her as a musical theater actress. Like we all, if we jointly all as a community, uphold people, and uphold memories, and it’s just not so heavy a burden on any one person. And so, I think that to me that’s heroism. It’s just not one person, right?
It’s all of us, kind of coming in as this safety net. Holding memories of somebody and keeping that person, like sort of the totality of that person alive. And so I think I guess now that we’re sort of alone, and all locked down and everything, just the thirst for that friend and the thirst we have for that community, of just a bunch of people, who all are loving the same thing or loving the same person, is I think, something we long for.
And so, I think sort of seeing that happen in the film, maybe can kind of be like you’re going to watch the film and think about, in my heart of hearts I hope people watch the film and sort of hold the people that they love close that night. And then, the next day I hope everybody just calls a friend you haven’t talked to for a while.
And, that’s just, gosh it’s a small story, right? It’s a small story, but it’s so universal right now. And is that, some sort of heroism in that, right? You know, in reaching out to somebody, and sort of saying, by the way, how are you doing? I’m here. I think it is, I think there is heroism to that.
The Illuminerdi: Yeah, 100%. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Absolutely. Absolutely thank you so much.
Our Friend is based on the Esquire article written by Matthew Teague about his wife being diagnosed with terminal cancer and how they managed to handle that with the help of their best friend, Dane, who put his life on hold and moved into the family’s home in order to help the family get through the impossible situation. His actions would have a much greater impact then any of them expected. Our Friend is written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Our Friend stars Dakota Johnson as Nicole Teague, Jason Segel as Dane Faucheeux, Casey Affleck as Matt Teague.
Our Friend is in theaters and on demand January 22, 2021. Will you be seeing Our Friend? Are you excited about Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s future projects? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on our social media.