It’s always difficult to share your own story of pain. But if that story can encourage another who’s struggling, it may be worth the challenge.
After enduring tremendous suffering throughout his wife Nicole’s battle with cancer, journalist Matthew Teague opted to pour his soul into writing about his experience. After Nicole’s passing, Teague’s piece would eventually become his celebrated Esquire article, The Friend, which highlights the amazing impact that their beloved family friend Dane had on them during this painful season of life. While the process of exploring his grief in this way was an incredibly difficult process, he also admits that it was somewhat cathartic as well.
“I would say [it was] both [difficult and cathartic],” Teague recalls. “It wasn’t easy. It’s very emotional and sometimes a physical thing, but very cathartic at the same time. I mean, that’s sort of the way with all grief. It’s not fun. It’s not easy but you’ve got to work your way through it.”
When he first began sharing his heart through his writing, Teague had initially intended to speak about his journey with his wife. However, as the title suggests, eventually the article took a pivot to focus more on the incredible love shown to him by his dear friend during his time of struggle. Asked when he knew his story was really about Dane, Teague contends that the idea originally stemmed from his editor.
“I was talking with my editor at Esquire who knew Nicole had died and he’d heard me talk about my friend Dane before,” he remembers. “I’d never put all those together in my mind as a story but I was telling him how ill prepared I had [been] to care for someone right up to facing death, because we so rarely talk about it as a culture. When we do talk about it, we [often] do it euphemistically. We don’t necessarily talk about it in a very direct and honest way. And he said, ‘Why don’t you do that?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m a mess’. I feel like I was just flailing [as I] struggled throughout the whole process. Every story needs a hero and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you write about your friend, Dane?’ And that all sort of clicked into place that it was a story about three people and that’s when I knew I’d be writing about him.”
Now, with the release of the new film Our Friend, Teague has the opportunity to share his story onscreen. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Our Friend recounts Teague’s real-life journey during the death of his wife. After his wife, Nicole (Dakota Johnson) has been diagnosed with cancer, Matthew (played by Casey Affleck) struggles to balance meeting her needs and raising their daughters. Seeking to help, close friend to the family Dane (Jason Segel) offers to move in for a short stay to help Matthew get back on his feet. However, as time marches forward, his temporary gesture extends into an indefinite living arrangement at great personal cost to Dane.
With this in mind, if there’s one particular thing that he wants people to know about his dear friend, Teague points to Dane as a model of self-sacrifice.
“I think Dane tends to sacrifice,” he enlightens. “Faith is a big part of my life and I would say that the center of that faith is sacrificial love. I think that’s exemplified by what Dane did and continues today to be a true friend to someone—to be a true neighbor to someone—is to be sacrificially loving.”
Although there are many who have walked away from their spiritual beliefs during times of suffering, Teague argues that his faith helped provided a bedrock of hope for him in the most difficult of circumstances.
“[Nicole’s passing] didn’t throw [my faith] on the rocks,” he expounds. “It was sort of the lifeline that held on to, more than anything. Faith gives us a hope for something on the other side of that veil of mortality. It gives my daughters a hope that they’ll see their mom again, and that she’s in a place of great joy now. Without that, facing oblivion would be a lot harder, I would think.”
When the opportunity came to bring his story to life, Teague was thrilled to know that Casey Affleck had signed on to portray him within the film. While he has incredible respect for Affleck’s ability to immerse himself into any character, he also appreciated the fact that the actor did not try to ‘become’ him onscreen.
“Casey is just a fantastic actor,” Teague beams. “He could represent anyone. It’s deliberate on his part—and I’m happy for it to be—that he didn’t try to imitate me [by] talking like me or walking like me or any of that. I’m not Winston Churchill, right? ‘Oh, Matt holds his teacup just that way or whatever.’ Nobody’s going to know that sort of thing. What he focused on was exactly what I hoped he would which is to deliver the spirit of the [story] more than to try to pretend to be me.”
This ‘spirit of the story’ is what truly sets Our Friend apart from other modern ‘love stories’. At a time when the term ‘friend’ is used almost carelessly, this film takes the time to truly explore the depth of the word’s meaning. Whereas most narratives tend to lean on romantic relationships as the emotional core of the story, Our Friend demonstrates the power of what it means to truly love one another.
“As a culture, we focus so much on a primary romantic relationship,” Teague suggests. “This film is one of few that I can think of that focuses the way it does on friendship. Usually the gossip magazines are not full of tabloid information about who’s best friends with who [or things] like that. But I feel like friendship deserves a bit more about attention. I think it was Tim Keller who said that ‘Friendship is our only really deep relationship that’s not [based] in some way on biological imperative.’ You know, it’s not the love of a parent for a child, a child for a parent or mates for each other. All of which are part of the DNA stream. Friendship is just a choice where you’re going along in life and you see someone and you say, ‘Hey, I like you. Let’s go together’. That’s an extraordinary thing. So, hopefully people will think a little bit more about it in the future.”
Since the events take place over many years, the film’s narrative naturally takes several jumps in time. Although, in one of the film’s more unique story-telling devices, Our Friend moves forward and backward in their journey, allowing the script to offer more moments of levity throughout its runtime. In doing so, Teague suggests that the film better encapsulates their experience of Nicole’s cancer battle.
“[The film] stretches all the way from when Dane and Nicole met in college, probably 20 years ago through the end of the cancer…,” he clarifies. “That’s the reason that it jumps around so much [chronologically]. To have just told [it] in a linear fashion from a woman who’s diagnosed with cancer through to death would just be a straight downward march and would not be interesting to anyone to ride along with. Brad Inglesby, our screenwriter, made the call to have it leap in time around in our lives. That actually more accurately represented our experience [in that] two years of illness, because there are moments of levity and there are moments of reminiscence of the old days and things like that. So, that’s why we structured it for evidence.”
Friends for two decades, Dane had been considered a part of the Teague family for many years. However, as Nicole’s condition worsened and the everyday tasks became increasingly overwhelming, Dane stepped in to help keep the household running smoothly. For Teague, these small acts of kindness were the moments that reminded him how important his friend had become to the family.
“Long before the illness, we had been close for years and years and years,” he describes. “When [Dane] was in college, he would stay at our house, and sort of moved in half the time with us just because it was a shorter distance to get to school for him to get to class. So, I knew how brotherly our feelings were for a long time before that. But it became clear how much I needed him immediately during Nicole’s illness, when it was just those mundane, simple things. We had the absolute inability to do all the medical stuff and do things like washing dishes, run a load of laundry, get my girls to school on time, [et cetera]. I was falling behind and I just couldn’t keep up. You see some of that in the movie. So, he came in and did that.”
Despite the challenges of adapting one’s own journey for the big screen, Teague believes that the story hits on the right moments with the proper emotional beats.
“The original story was more graphic and the ability to describe the physical insult of cancer and, maybe really any illness, but it also addressed the psychological and emotional impact,” he says. “Because it is a visual medium… we really couldn’t put some of the physical stuff [onscreen] or people would be throwing up in their popcorn. But we tried to lay out and deliver the emotional and psychological quality as best we could. So, I feel good about it. I feel like it’s a story that says everything that I could want to say and an hour and a half.”
Though their family’s journey took the form of Nicole’s cancer, Teague recognizes that pain looks different for everyone. Especially given the social fallout of the current global pandemic, it is his hope that those who see the film will be encouraged to see that there is light on the other side of suffering.
Says Teague, “My great hope is that people who are going through the hard times—[and there] are many, many, many magnitudes more now than when we started making this movie. There are so many people experiencing loss and I don’t [only] mean cancer. I mean the loss of employment, the loss of dear loved ones. My hope is that as people who have experienced that will watch this and, at least for a couple of hours, they’ll feel like [they’re] not the only one. In a world flooded with Instagram perfect images, my hope is that this will be a solace to people to realize that [life can be] hard and, if you can just hold on, there’s some joy coming on the other side.”
Our Friend is available on VOD now.
To hear our conversation with Matthew Teague, click here.