EXCLUSIVE: When the Gabriela Cowperthwaite-directed drama The Friend premieres tonight in Toronto, the film’s tough subject matter – Dakota Johnson plays Nicole Teague, who at 34 was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer – was made more bearable by the presence of two classic Led Zeppelin songs. “Ramble On” and “Going to California” were cleared only days ago to be included in the drama, tunes that would have been impossible for The Friend‘s indie budget to bear were it not for the good graces of the band and in particular its legendary lead singer Robert Plant.
The Friend is an unusual and true love story which Brad Ingelsby scripted based on a 2015 Esquire article written by Nicole’s husband, Matthew Teague. It told the story of his wife’s brutal demise, and how her college friend Dane Faucheux made it somehow bearable when he insisted on leaving his job and girlfriend behind in New Orleans to move in and help the Alabama couple handle her illness, his pending loss of the love of his life, and care for their two daughters. Casey Affleck plays Matthew Teague, and Jason Segel plays Dane.
Led Zeppelin was a touchstone band for Nicole, and those songs in particular mattered greatly to her. So Cowperthwaite baked the tunes right into the narrative, hoping for the best. Then came the difficult moment: asking the band for permission and hoping the price wouldn’t break the film’s modest budget. The way it works is you send Warner/Chappell music a bid, and if they accept, you have five days to pay what would have amounted to about a third of the entire budget.
Here, they were helped by having Ridley Scott, who is executive producer of the film, write a personal letter to the band’s three surviving members. So did the director. And Kevin Walsh, who produced with Michael Pruss, Teddy Schwarzman and Ryan Stowell.
That moved Plant, and possibly more members of the band, to watch the cut of the movie. Plant responded quickly. He wrote that while the film was a tough one to sit through, it was beautiful and strong. He congratulated the filmmakers and added he felt that the positioning of the two songs was poignant, sensitive and beautiful. Soon after, the band gave them a break and made it possible for the songs to remain in the film as Schwarzman – whose Black Bear financed – upped its music budget a bit.
Cowperthwaite had readied a backup version of the film with different music that didn’t pack the same emotional punch, and it wasn’t until last Friday that she got the band’s official approval to use the tunes in the film’s final mix.
Teague will be on hand for tonight’s premiere at the Princess of Wales Theatre, and then Endeavor Content will try to stay up all night and make a domestic distribution deal.