How the Director of ‘Our Friend’ Adapted Real-Life Grief Into a Moving Film

Gabriela Cowperthwaite's film is a movie about "heroic," true acts of caregiving. Making it was not easy.

Jason Segel and Dakota Johnson in Our Friend, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Claire Folger/Gravitas Ventures

Less than a year after losing his wife, Nicole, to terminal cancer in 2014, veteran journalist Matthew Teague published a stunning 6,000-word piece in Esquire that detailed the worst years of his life—and the friend that stopped him from falling into the dark abyss of his own grief. Titled “The Friend,” Teague’s raw and candid essay tells the heartbreaking story of Nicole’s battle with cancer and the ultimate sacrifice that their best friend, Dane Faucheux, made by moving in with the couple and their two young daughters to become a secondary caregiver.

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After winning a National Magazine Award, Teague’s story was later turned into a major motion picture, which premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and is now available in theaters and on demand. Directed by Blackfish’s Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Brad Ingelsby, the film stars Casey Affleck as Matthew, Dakota Johnson as Nicole and Jason Segel as Dane.

Having read and written about Teague’s article when it first appeared in the May 2015 issue of Esquire, Cowperthwaite jumped at the chance to bring the writer’s moving story from the page to the screen, as she felt that her background as a documentarian would allow her to tell his story in a way that was both authentic and accessible.

In a recent telephone interview with Observer, Cowperthwaite reflects on the opportunity to work with a star-studded cast in southern Alabama, the non-linear nature of life and grief, and the universal lessons about love and friendship that she hopes viewers are able to take away from this film.

Observer: You obviously loved Matt’s original story, but there was a period of two to three years between when Matt first wrote the piece and when the script first landed in your hands. What was it about this story that really left such a lasting impression on you?

Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Oh, that’s such a good question. I think it was one of those articles that really moved me—and it’s only been all these years later that I can finally make sense of why it moved me—and that’s because its portal of entry into grief is so unique. It represents grief as something that we should not do alone, but that it’s something that you should do alongside people.

Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite attends AFI Fest 2019.

I was watching this other [new] movie that I loved called Another Round, and there’s a scene with pallbearers. [It shows] the idea that it takes multiple people to be able to uphold somebody’s memory and bearing that burden shouldn’t fall on one person. Basically, we all say to people who have suffered a loss, “you’re not alone,” when, in fact, you’re really alone. What that person meant to you and the chasm that they have left is absolutely unique to you. I guess Matt’s piece and the subsequent script tell you that just because you’re the only one grieving in that particular way doesn’t mean that you’re alone in your grief. That, to me, was what Dane represented for Matt.

It’s very rare to have three huge stars at the emotional core of such an intimate movie. What do you think made Dakota, Jason and Casey so perfect for their respective roles?

I think for Dakota, she felt like Nicole for me. Nicole is a musical theater actress and she’s kind of larger-than-life, and then she’s going through this incredibly tragic event in her life and still trying to be strong for her girls. Dakota embodies all of those traits naturally. But in her acting, she knows vulnerability and strength, and she’s able to channel both of those things in the exact same moment, and it’s so beautiful to watch.

Jason was the first person that I wanted for Dane. It was really because of his natural ability to light up a room, which is what Dane did for Matt but also for Nicole, Molly and Evie (the two Teague daughters). He knows how to come in, light up the room, but not have it be about him. He’s constantly listening to everybody in the room, and he’ll come in and have this big comic moment where everybody will laugh, but he’s paying attention to everybody’s needs even while he’s serving them. Even if he’s doing a good job of making everybody laugh, he’s still thinking not about himself but he’s thinking about what their next need will be.

Casey is an accessible actor; you feel like you understand him and like you want to be around him. And that’s something we needed for Matt. Matt is the cornerstone of this piece, so you needed to feel like you knew who he was and like he was an access point. Casey does this thing that’s almost like a spiritual experience. You’re seeing sadness and vulnerability, but he’s not openly displaying those [emotions] for you. You’re almost intuiting them, and that’s what he did for me.

Casey Affleck and Jason Segel in Our Friend, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Claire Folger/Gravitas Ventures

How involved was Matt in the adaptation process?

On set, he gave me complete freedom. It would always be nerve-wracking when he would come on set because even though he never gave notes or shared his thoughts beyond really positive affirmations, it’s always nerve-wracking because [it was like] he just gave me his newborn. I just wanted to do right by [him]. I always joke that it’s like having your dad come to your prom. (Laughs.) He’s always like, “What are you talking about?” And I’m like, “It’s this feeling of: ‘I know you’re there for me, I know you want the best for me and everything that I’m doing, but I’m still feeling self-conscious.’” (Laughs.)

This film beautifully highlights the need for openness and vulnerability in male relationships, even if it’s in a purely platonic sense. Was that something that you really wanted to highlight on the screen?

So, so much. One of my favorite things about this story is this male friendship being so open and so mutually vulnerable and beautiful. It’s interesting that sometimes people see the character of Dane as being listless and not having much of a life of his own, and those are things that are intentional. He was searching and had the propensity to feel lost at times, but I want the idea that he poured himself into this family to be seen as a strength. I want it to be seen as just as heroic as slaying dragons on behalf of your loved one. This is heroic, but it’s so, so quiet. And it’s something that we’re not used to seeing men do, putting themselves out on the line like that.

I want the idea that he poured himself into this family to be seen as a strength. This is heroic, but it’s so, so quiet.

You filmed this production in 2019 over the course of six weeks in Fairhope, Alabama—the small town where the Teague family still lives today. Do you have a local story about Nicole that has really stood out to you after all of this time?

I remember being on a location scout one day and having an older gentleman take me aside and, with tears in his eyes, tell me what Nicole meant to him. They were in the same congregation, and he told me how she had listened to him and what their friendship meant to him. It was so profound. He didn’t tell me any specifics, but he didn’t have to. I just knew that Nicole touched people everywhere she went and that she was present in Fairhope. And I think, as a result of that, Fairhope embraced us and this film and just told us that they would be there for whatever we needed. The same responsibility I felt towards Matt and Dane, I also felt towards that town to uphold her memory in the mightiest way.

Given your work as a documentarian, you’re obviously no stranger to authenticity, but it must have been terrifying to bring this screenplay to life. What was the most difficult part of putting this film together?

I think understanding when to push and when to hold back. There are parts that are unbearable to folks that have gone through loss, but I have to show some of that. I have to show that this reality is unfathomable to a lot of us, and yet it’s real. For me, I think pacing was the most difficult part. When do I hold back? When do I push audiences forward and into some gritty realism? And when have they had enough?

There’s gonna be people who say, “You could have gone further and we wanted to see how cancer physically racks the body.” And there’s some people that said, “I could barely even take what you did; it was difficult enough for me to sit through the entire thing.” You just have to go with just your internal barometer of pushing and pulling, and when to let up on an audience that can’t take the emotional toll anymore. You’re never gonna win [with] everybody.

One of my biggest takeaways from the film, apart from the incredible power of friendship, is the fact that grief is not linear—it comes and goes in waves. Was it a conscious decision on your part or the screenwriter’s part to give the film a zig-zagging structure? What was the particular reason for that creative decision?

That was definitely Brad’s call, and I loved it. If you’re gonna tell a film chronologically and it’s a film about an impending death, you’re really headed in one direction, and that [direction] is down. I didn’t want you to feel like you were sinking into a narrative abyss slowly over two hours.

With grief, there are some days where you think to yourself, “I’m going to be able to get through this,” and there are other days when you can’t get out of bed. There can be another day when you just completely live in the joy of your memories, and there are times when you’re thinking about the not-so-great memories. In life, one day doesn’t foretell the next. To me, life is non-linear and grief is the same. It ebbs and flows, and the non-linear aspect of the script hit that for me so profoundly.

For example, halfway through the film, when Dane goes on his hike and wants to be away from everybody and is falling into his own darkness, you understand what that one phone call from Matt meant to him at that very pivotal moment in his life. And in some way, you understand why Dane comes back to care for the family because that family brought him back from his own darkness. To me, that’s one of the beautiful things that you discover in a non-chronological film.

How has this project changed your own outlook on grief and friendship?

Grief is something that I had been through myself, having lost someone really close to me years ago, and I’m not sure that I completely came to terms with it. I realized a lot of that is because I didn’t have anybody grieving alongside me. Even though people were taking care of me when I was grieving, there wasn’t anybody to share memories with and to uphold the memory of the lost person. It’s something that we should do together. When Matt was plummeting and falling into darkness—that’s inevitable and, of course, that’s gonna happen—Dane can’t prevent that, but he can cushion the fall. I guess that’s something that you do when you’re grieving together. You can’t alleviate their pain, but you can just sit next to them and not leave. That’s something that I want to do for other people, and that’s something that other people have done for me.

The themes of love, loss and grief seem particularly pertinent after the traumatic year that we’ve all experienced. I know this movie has probably taken on a new meaning during this pandemic, but what universal lessons do you hope viewers are able to take away from this film?

It sounds so simple but just calling a friend that you haven’t talked to in a while and making sure that you’re checking in on people. These small moments of reaching out and touching each other [emotionally] when we can’t touch each other [physically] mean everything. We’re missing each other, and my hope is that we sort of come back from this stronger than ever.

When I think about what I want people to take away from the film, the night after you see it, [I want people to] hold each other close. Remember that life isn’t fair, but it is beautiful. And then wake up the next morning and call someone that you haven’t spoken to in a while. It’s just starting with these little things because that’s what this movie said to me. It’s not grand acts of heroism. It’s these tiny brush strokes of being present and being there for each other.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Our Friend is now available in theaters and on demand.

How the Director of ‘Our Friend’ Adapted Real-Life Grief Into a Moving Film