In real life, one of Nicole Teague’s favorite bands was Led Zeppelin. But “The Friend,” an adaptation of her last years battling terminal ovarian cancer alongside her loved ones, almost didn’t include a single song by the legendary rock band and only got final clearance to do so a week before the film’s Toronto premiere.
The Gabriela Cowperthwaite-directed tearjerker premiered Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival with two Zeppelin songs: “Ramble On” and “Going to California.” The music plays an important role in the narrative and development of central characters Nicole (Dakota Johnson) and Dane (Jason Segel).
Cowperthwaite’s cut of the film included the songs, but producers knew it would be all but impossible to get the rights for the big-ticket tracks given the film’s $10 million budget. So Ridley Scott, whose Scott Free produced the film with Teddy Schwarzman’s Black Bear Pictures, and Cowperthwaite made personal appeals to the band and persuaded its members and representatives to watch the movie, according to sources close to the production.
The Zeppelin team, including frontman Robert Plant, were so moved that they cut a back-end deal with the production that would allow the film to include the songs without paying an extraordinary amount up front.
At the insistence of her producers, Cowperthwaite had backup songs ready, but there was no true replacement for Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin has historically been very picky about how and when it’s music is used on screen. The ticket price for use of its songs is reportedly multiple millions of dollars.
With “Argo,” director Ben Affleck told the Los Angeles Times he had to be persistent to get clearance for “When the Levee Breaks.” When the band finally signed off on the song, it came with an ask for Affleck to digitally change the shot to look like the character was putting the tone arm down at the correct spot on the record.
“The Friend” is based on the Esquire essay penned by Nicole Teague’s husband, journalist Matthew Teague, about how their best friend Dane moved into their Alabama home to help them and their daughters through Nicole’s emotionally and physically tolling battle with cancer. In the film, Matthew is played by Casey Affleck.
Cowperthwaite, known best for her 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” said at the post-screening Q&A she was familiar with the real-life story before reading the script and signing on to direct the film.
“I remember reading Matt’s article in 2015 and being completely moved by it,” she said. “The way he discusses grief by discussing the anger that was with him the entire time, I just found compelling and so moving.”
The real-life Matthew Teague said the process of being involved with making a film about the loss of his wife and his daughters’ mother was difficult.
“It wasn’t easy, but it was rewarding. It was meaningful,” he said. “The girls are good, they’re strong. I’m going to show them selected parts of the movie.”