When Some Critics Reject the Film That’s About Your Life
Matthew Teague is a journalist who has traveled to remote corners of the world for stories. He covered CIA agents in Pakistan, famine in Somalia and double agents in Northern Ireland. But his greatest work could be the 2015 essay he wrote for Esquire magazine entitled “The Friend”. Teague dedicated around 6,000 words to the arduous two years he spent caring for his wife Nicole. She learned that she had terminal cancer at the age of 34.
The essay told the story of her deterioration and death through the prism of her friendship with Dane Faucheux, a rudderless soul who visited the Teague family for Thanksgiving and stayed two years to look after the couple and their two young daughters. In addition to winning a National Magazine Award, the article connected Teague with readers in ways that its dramatic coverage of Afghanistan or Sri Lanka never did. They shared their own painful stories with such overwhelming force that he was often “struck dumb” by the reaction. To this day he has received passionate, heartbreaking letters.
Hollywood also called quickly.
And Teague, now 44, knew the exercise. Two of his previous plays were selected by different producers, but no films were ever made. He swore things would be different this time.
What he didn’t take into account was how cruel Hollywood can be when a movie comes together, an experience he’s still grappling with.
At first he tried to write the script himself. When that didn’t work (“I realized I was too close to this,” he said) he signed on as executive producer and worked closely with writer Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back”) to create a film that who is both represented the realities of death and celebrated the life that came before.
Soon a roster of well-known actors (Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson, Jason Segel) came to Fairhope, Ala. To portray the Teagues and Faucheux. Gabriela Cowperthwaite directed the actors in scenes filmed in the hospital where Nicole was treated and in a house just three doors from the Teague residence. (The family still lives in the same house. Teague remarried and now also has a 3 month old son named Wilder.)
The script alternates between past and present and jumps headlong into the malice of Cancer and the banality of married life. It shows a portrait of a family that is both completely recognizable and shockingly unique. Young women should not die of cancer in their home while their young children are in the next room.
But Teague was associated with authenticity through both his deep reaction to his essay and his career as a journalist.
“The point is, I wanted my wife’s legacy and memory to have tremendous respect. I didn’t mean to get it wrong, ”he said. “And my mission is to tell the truth about that time and everything that came out of it.”
There are parts of Teague’s original essay that made it straight to the screen: the doctor’s words when he revealed Nicole’s diagnosis (“It’s everywhere. Like someone dipped a brush in cancer and flicked it around her stomach”), the friendship between Teague and Faucheux and Nicoles dying wishes (jumping into a fountain in the city center with all your family and friends and becoming Grand Marshal in their city’s Carnival parade). “What their lives lacked in length made up for in height,” wrote Teague in Esquire.
The more visceral parts that made the essay so memorable in part have been left out: in particular, Teague’s role in the grotesque art of wound-wrapping and the physical horrors that go with it.
“There are things I can write about in print and people can pick them up and find them honestly,” he said. “But when you see it on the screen, people are going to throw their popcorn and run away from the theater.”
Despite his carefully calibrated work, success in Hollywood is never a guarantee.
The 2019 Toronto Film Festival accepted the film and gave it a coveted opening weekend slot.
Sitting at the Princess of Wales Theater, Teague was a thrill held together by the sheer will and help of a friend and fellow journalist, Tom Junod, who was also the subject of a Hollywood film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” about his unlikely relationship with Fred Rogers.
“I was surprised how emotional I felt when I saw it,” said Teague. “But what really surprised me was how emotional the audience was. There were a lot of people who felt a lot of things. I felt like I got it right with Nicole. “
Actress Kristen Stewart was sitting behind him, and hearing her sniff was additional confirmation that everything would be fine. There were audible sobs from the audience, standing ovations, and a trip to the stage where the cast answered a serious series of questions. “There was nothing but love from this audience,” said Teague.
But when he returned to his hotel room later that night, early reviews from the trade publications landed like a slap in the face. The Hollywood Reporter called it “out of touch with the emotions it is desperately trying to evoke”. Variety struggled to turn his “devastating essay” into an “inspirational group hug.” In that review, critic Peter Debruge praised the actors’ achievements, but wrote: “So much unpleasantness has been removed from the picture until what remains is the very kind of dishonest, sanitary television movie that doesn’t help the version of death that Teague inspired to correct the record in the first place. “
Teague is still brimming with this criticism today. Despite having spent years in the newsroom and understanding the role of the critics, this particular criticism sounds unfair.
“I had just come out of a room full of people who had never read the essay, knew nothing about the essay and just took the film on its own terms and found it very moving,” he said. “It was really painful to make my own story beat up my own story.”
Cowperthwaite sensed the anger too, saying the early reviews “just blew my mind”. However, the director, who has made four films, including the BAFTA nominated documentary “Blackfish”, has more experience dealing with criticism. “It’s just one of the fucking truths behind our industry,” she said. “It never hurts, but I think the longer you are in this creative world, the faster you learn to metabolize the pain.”
The reviews felt unfair to Teague, but more importantly, he was worried about the impact they would have on the fate of the film. Films like “The Friend” appear at festivals in hopes of a hefty distribution deal, and the early trade reports lead to oversized imports when studios and streamers decide what to buy. Would the film find an initial critical response home that was so lukewarm?
“I panicked because I didn’t know what was going to happen to this thing that is so precious to me,” said Teague. “Are we sunk? Will people get a chance to see it? “
Ratings have improved. In Vanity Fair, Katey Rich wrote that the film “finds a more thoughtful way through the kind of story that often feels red on screen, regardless of how devastating it can be in real life.” The Rotten Tomatoes score is now at around 80 percent fresh. And producer and financier Teddy Schwarzman said the film left the festival with four offers, although an official deal wasn’t announced until January.
Delayed due to the pandemic, the film entitled “Our Friend” will be released in cinemas on Friday and on request.
Teague uses this experience as a growth opportunity in his career as a journalist. “The sheen of public criticism has helped me become more aware of how terrifying and helpless a subject of history can feel,” he said in a follow-up email. “It’s easy to forget, even for a writer who values empathy. Sometimes even a short story – or a hastily written review – can break someone’s heart for a long, long time. “
Still, he hasn’t given up on Hollywood either. The writer recently returned to the screenplay game and adapted his 2003 GQ article on the exaggerated North Carolina war games into a miniseries called “Pineland,” which is now available in stores.
“It’s not a soft industry,” he said. “But it has nothing to do with journalism – my first love – for hard blows.”