- LOS ANGELES
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite is no stranger to the festival circuit. Back in 2013, her documentary Blackfish made an auspicious debut at the Sundance Film Festival, arguably being the most impactful project to come out of that year’s stellar lineup, profoundly influencing public opinion and serving as a catalyst for progressive change.
A revealing, emotionally moving investigation of what being kept in captivity does to killer whales and the devastating results on their human interactions, Blackfish earned a BAFTA nomination, an International Documentary Association Award and made the Oscar feature documentary shortlist. Along the way the film spurred on legislative action and was a catalyst for SeaWorld’s ultimate decision to end its orca breeding program.
Fast forward to today and Cowperthwaite again finds herself at a high-profile festival, this time with her narrative feature, The Friend, about to be screened at the Toronto International Film Fest. Based on the award-winning Esquire article of the same title, The Friend introduces us to Dane (portrayed by Jason Segal) who puts his life on hold to move into the family home of his best friends, Nicole (Dakota Johnson) and Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck), and support them--including helping to raise their two daughters--after a diagnosis of terminal cancer for Nicole.
Cowperthwaite read the Esquire piece--penned by Matthew Teague--when it first came out. She posted it on Facebook, a rare occurrence for someone who is hardly a social media butterfly. Still Cowperthwaite was so moved by the story that she felt compelled to share it. She never expected that a couple of years or so later, the opportunity would arise for her to direct the film inspired by the magazine article. At the time Cowperthwaite was attached to another project at Scott Free Productions that got delayed. Her producer there, Michael Pruss, asked her to take a look at a logline for a feature script. She immediately recognized the story, showing Pruss a screengrab of her Facebook post some two to three years prior.
Her love of the original story resonated with the real-life Matthew Teague, which was among the factors that landed the gig for Cowperthwaite--her second narrative feature, the first being the 2017 release Megan Leavey (winner of Heartland Film’s Truly Moving Picture Award). Teague served as an EP on The Friend.
Among the prime creative challenges that The Friend posed to filmmaker Cowperthwaite was one she’s all too familiar with in documentaries. “My aim is to do right by the real people behind the story, asking them to love facsimiles of their lives. You want their blessing. You hope they feel you did them justice, that you reflected their spirit and their story.”
Cowperthwaite noted that she never went into Blackfish thinking it would end up having the impact it had. Her goal was simply to be disciplined and to tell a truthful story. Much was the same for The Friend. She didn’t want to be preachy. Instead she remained steadfast in the belief that if you tell a story the right way, holding people’s attention, being truthful, maybe they walk out of the theater thinking and feeling something. She’s eager to see how a real ticket-buying audience at the Toronto Festival will respond to her film.
Cowperthwaite wants to continue directing a mix of documentaries and narrative features. “It’s all story dependent,” she affirmed, noting that “some stories should not be documentaries, and others should not be narrative.” She hopes to be able to discern which is which as she is active in both disciplines, going back and forth from her documentary filmmaking roots to the narrative feature arena.
Also in the mix for Cowperthwaite is shorter form--including commercials and branded content. She is repped in the ad arena by production house Supply&Demand, and noted that her experience there has informed her documentary and narrative feature endeavors. For one, spots have afforded her the opportunity to experiment with new technologies, including varied digital cameras and other toys which have sharpened her filmmaking acumen and broadened the resources she can tap into. But perhaps more importantly, commercialmaking--when she has to realize somebody else’s creative vision, and the essence of a brand or product--has helped her “to better learn the art of listening and keeping the artistic ego in check.” Learning to be collaborative and a better listener has helped her longer-form pursuits as Cowperthwaite observed that she is more open to others’ ideas and how they can positively impact her own vision for how to best tell a story.
As earlier reported in SHOOT, Supply&Demand gravitated to Cowperthwaite long before Blackfish and her successful diversification into narrative feature filmmaking. Tim Case, founder/owner of Supply&Demand, sought out the director after seeing her documentary City LAX: An Urban Lacrosse Story. Premiering in 2010, the film introduced us to Erik Myhren, a teacher/coach who helps disadvantaged kids at his school find an outlet and positive influence through the unlikely sport of lacrosse. The documentary chronicled the lives of six 12-year-olds in inner-city Denver as they try to come together as a lacrosse team while they and their families struggle in a gang-ridden neighborhood.
City LAX was developed and co-produced by Erik Myhren’s brother, Tor Myhren, who at the time was chief creative officer at Grey New York. Tor Myhren later became Grey’s worldwide CCO and is now Apple’s VP of marketing communications. He entrusted Cowperthwaite with City LAX in part because he saw her talent and commitment firsthand when they were classmates at Occidental College.
The Friend makes its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 6, with a repeat screening scheduled for Sept. 7. This marks Cowperthwaite’s first film at the Toronto fest. The Friend was produced by Black Bear Pictures and Scott Free Productions. Exec producers are Teague, Ridley Scott, Ben Stillman, Michael Heimler, Ted Deiker, and Brad Ingelsby (who is also author of the screenplay). Producers are Pruss, Kevin Walsh, Ryan Stowell and Teddy Schwarzman. The Friend was lensed by cinematographer Joe Anderson and edited by Colin Patton.