In ‘Our Friend,’ Jason Segel Helps Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson Through Dark Days
A pair of young parents find themselves dealing with a devastating diagnosis in “Our Friend,” a touching drama based on “The Friend,” an award-winning Esquire article by Matthew Teague. Casey Affleck stars as Teague, a globe-trotting journalist who has to hit pause when his wife, Nicole (Dakota Johnson), develops an aggressive form of cancer. But the focus of the story is not so much on Matt and Nicole as it is on Dane (Jason Segel), a longtime friend of the couple who leaves behind his own life in New Orleans to be with them in Fairhope, Alabama, offering emotional support while also helping with the care of their two young daughters.
“Our Friend” is the second narrative feature from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. She recently spoke with Entertainment Voice about her journey in bringing to life this touching true story. “For me, it was a unique way into thinking about both grief and friendship. We tend to see stories like this through the eyes of the person who’s sick, or the person who’s grieving, We’re actually, in some ways, sort of experiencing it through this port in the storm, this anchor who’s sort of keeping things afloat, this third perspective. And it’s just such a unique and really life-affirming way into experiencing a story about going through our darkest days.”
But the film is not all cancer and sadness. The narrative is non-linear, and it begins with a heavy opening scene in which Matt and Nicole prepare to tell their daughters, Molly (Isabella Kai) and Evie (Violet McGraw), that Nicole is dying, and Dane waits on their porch. Flashback to 13 years prior in New Orleans, and we see Matt and Nicole blissfully happy in the early years of their marriage. Nicole, an actress, has just made friends with Dane, who is also involved in a play that she’s in. Soon, he becomes also close, perhaps even closer, with Matt, and subsequent scenes show the trio remaining tight throughout the years, even as their lives go in different directions and Matt and Nicole hit rough patches in their marriage. In the middle of the drama, there are plenty of moments of levity, and the viewer gets a full picture of who these three people are.
Both Cowperthwaite and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby had the opportunity to spend extensive time with Matt and Dane before and during production. Matt was also on set most days, which was a blessing and a curse for Cowperthwaite. “I liken it to having your dad come to your prom,” she explained. “You know that they mean well and they want what’s good for you, but you’re really self-conscious as soon as you know they’re there. He just entrusted me with the most valuable gift someone can give you, and that is their story… Dane visited once, but Dane, in typical Dane fashion, he sort of stayed out of the limelight. He was less of someone who weighed in on every single moment, but I did cherish the first time I met him and the days we spent together, so that was really helpful.”
There was also a third person to whom Cowperthwaite felt a responsibility, someone who wasn’t there physically, and that, of course, was Nicole. She explained that while she and Ingelsby set out to present an authentic portrait of someone struggling with terminal cancer, they wanted to stay away from some of the grittier parts that were described in Teague’s article, and instead focus on the emotional beats rather than Nicole’s physical deterioration. The film does, however, depict her journey until the very end when Matt, Dane and an incredible hospice nurse, Faith (Cherry Jones), witness her final breaths. It’s a part of the life cycle that we rarely see in films.
“There was a little bird on my shoulder the entire time that also wanted to make this a film that Nicole would want to be out there in the world representing her, so I wanted to just be incredibly careful with all those brush strokes,” revealed the Cowperthwaite.
Initially, Dane only planned to help out Matt and Nicole for just a few weeks, but he ends up moving into their home for over a year, sticking by them after their other friends pull away. Those who do not know Dane as well as Matt and Nicole see him as something of a lovable loser, as he works a retail job and holds onto a dream of doing stand-up comedy. In one memorable scene, Matt tells off Aaron (Jake Owen), the husband of Nicole’s best friend, after he suggests that Dane is taking advantage of Matt by staying at his house rent-free.
But the truth is, Dane does need Matt and Nicole almost as much as they need him, not because he’s broke, but because they give him something to live for, and Cowperthwaite and Ingelsby manage to get this across without being overly melodramatic or sentimental. Prior to Nicole’s illness, Dane battles depression and even considers killing himself, but an encounter with an empathic stranger (Gwendoline Christie) and a voicemail from Matt and his family save him.
Even with the well-written script and Cowperthwaite’s top-notch direction, “Our Friend” could not have been the moving film it is without stellar performances from Affleck, Johnson and Segel. “It was just a beautiful experience,” said the director when asked about working with the trio. “They were three very, very different actors in terms of their techniques and how they go about a role. Yet, all three of them have the ability to access vulnerability, strength, serious pain, drama and humor. They all come at those strengths in different ways, but they all know all those feelings so intimately, and they can make you feel those same emotions when you’re watching them.”
Cowperthwaite’s experience making documentaries, including “Blackfish,” also brought an authenticity to “Our Friend.” Her previous narrative feature, “Megan Leavey,” was also based on a true story. She revealed, “I think all documentarians, we would probably say the same thing, and that is that we know what real looks like. We know what authenticity feels like, and we spent the bulk of our filmmaking careers in real situations and accessing parts of the world and cultures that a lot of people have never encountered. So, we understand the responsibility to bring real stories to life. I think that’s what guides me. Look, I know when a line sounds scripted and when a line sounds real.”
“Our Friend” releases Jan. 22 on VOD and in select cities.