A favorite Friend talks about how love, loss, and David Fincher prepared her to direct her first feature-length movie, the indie dramedy Just Before I Go.
I’ve always felt a kinship to Courteney Cox. I think we all have.
There was the way she managed, as Monica Geller on Friends, to make the combination of neuroticism and rabid energy seem warm, endearing, and fun. There was the middle finger she gave critics and industry suits who wrote off Cougar Town based on its misfire of a title by steadfastly guiding the little sitcom that could through 88 episodes and two networks, turning it into, at one point, the most consistently firing sitcom on TV and a showcase for her most nuanced acting yet.
She’s always seemed just the right balance of glamorous and goofy, that when you see her, you feel like you’re running into an old Friend. (Heh.) And, as she sits across from me raving in ecstasy about ranch dressing, all of the suspicions about how cool Cox might actually be in person are ever-so-blissfully confirmed.
“You’ve never seen the way I eat,” Cox cautions, dabbing dressing from the corner of her lip as we discuss Just Before I Go, her feature film directorial debut that premiered last week at the Tribeca Film Festival. But, as she begins to share the personal stories behind the personal film, all traces of vanity and self-consciousness goes out the window. “Ranch dressing is so good,” she coos. “Fuck yeah, Hidden Valley.”
You see, there’s a lot happening in Just Before I Go. In the grand indie tradition, the movie—part raunchy comedy, part family drama—chronicles the soul-searching that happens when Ted Morgan (Sean William Scott) returns to his hometown. Recently left by his wife, Ted is actually returning with plans of committing suicide, but only after checking off a bucket list of revenge against the people he feels have wronged him. Just before he goes.
But as he encounters these characters from his past, he learns that he’s not the only one whose life has dealt him hard knocks. His brother and sister-in-law (Garrett Dillahunt and Kate Walsh) hate each other. His nephew (Kyle Gallner) is struggling to come out of the closet. The girl he’s always had a crush on (Mackenzie Marsh) is now the unhappy overweight mom of five considering leaving her husband (Cox’s own ex, David Arquette). The grade-school bully who used to torment him (Rob Riggle) is widowed with a son with Down syndrome, and the teacher who made his life a living hell (Beth Grant) is practically comatose in a nursing home.
It’s an ambitious movie and a tricky one to pull off, particularly as the tone swings abruptly from heartrending scenes about one of the various “issues” it tackles to the more off-color comedy bits. (The most memorable of which, no doubt, is Walsh’s character’s tendency to masturbate in front of houseguests while sleepwalking.)
But broken down to its singular elements, there’s an abundance of emotion to be winnowed from the film. For example, and maybe it could be coughed up to the criminally early screening I attended without being properly caffeinated, one funeral scene and the coming out arc, in particular, had me blubbering in my seat.
“I should show this movie on the airplane,” Cox jokes. “What with the altitude…I mean, I cried like a baby at Rocky IV.” But then she gets serious as she speaks about why this movie was so personal for her, something that, regardless of how it is reviewed, absolutely resonates off the screen. “This movie really touches me, too,” she says. “I lost my dad. And this guy, Ted, so many things happened to him. He lost his dad. He was bullied. Things have just made him feel like there’s nothing to live for. He didn’t know that you had to try so hard in life. That being was enough. And it’s not.”
But not every personal connection to the film is a sad one for Cox. Just Before I Go begins with a lovely, hauntingly sweet cover of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender.” I ask Cox who sang it, and the answer surprised me: it was Coco, her 9-year-old daughter from her marriage to David Arquette. “Wasn’t it beautiful?” she asks. (It really was.) “It makes me cry, because it makes me so happy.”
Coco makes another cameo in the film, as one of Arquette’s five children in a quick scene where she sprays him with a fire hose. It’s a short, quick moment in the film. But, sun-soaked and nailing the comedy-pathos balance the entire movie strives for, it’s actually one of its most memorable. “That scene would have been in no matter what,” Cox says. “I had to keep that in there.”
Much has been written over the years about the always unexpected Cox-Arquette family dynamic since the couple first separated in 2010, but it soon becomes obvious that the dynamic is incredibly positive these days. After all, Cox cast her ex-husband in a pivotal role in her directorial debut.
“Isn’t he great in the movie?” she asks. “It was so great to direct him, because I know him so well. And I love the way his brain works. He’s got so much going on, but his heart is pure. That’s one kind human being, for sure.”
It’s one thing, of course, to be personally invested in a directing project because your family is also involved. It’s another when your money’s in it, too. Cox financed Just Before I Go herself, realizing the harsh reality of the business. She wanted to direct a film during her Cougar Town hiatus, fell in love with David Flebotte’s script, and knew it would take too long to get financing the traditional way.
“I wanted to tell the story now,” she says. “And to get a cast you have to have financing, and to get financing you have to have a cast. I couldn’t do it. So I was like, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to do this. I’m going to pay for it.’” Risky? Yes. And she knows it. “I know that’s not always a good idea,” she says. “And I financed other things before in this business that have not paid off too well. But that’s how much I believed in it.”
But she did her due diligence. She cut her teeth first directing episodes of Cougar Town, about 10 in all. She stepped behind the camera in 2012 to helm the Lifetime movie Talhotblond. She also, and most crucially, sought the advice of David Fincher (The Social Network, House of Cards).
“He really helped me establish how I wanted the film to look,” she says. “He always asks me questions that you go away thinking, ‘OK. I have to answer these before I know exactly what I’m doing.’ And with this one—he also helped me on Talhotblond—I actually sent him the movie afterwards and he helped me define the tone. Because it’s hard to get people to laugh, or cry, or think suicide would ever be funny. Because it’s not!”
But—laugh or cry—Just Before I Go does make you question whether that “reset” button we so constantly wish existed would really be so great. That, if it existed, whether we would actually want to press it. Cox herself is entering yet another phase of her career, this time as a director, a transition that typically has anyone reflecting on the past, and maybe even on regrets. But directing this film made her see that, again, maybe, there’s fruitlessness in all of that.
“We all have issues and there’s a lot of acceptance that has to take place,” she says. “God, I mean, with life—all the time you wish you weren’t the age you are. That if you know then what you know now… But you can’t live in the past.”
But then, just when we feared that the Cox we suspected we knew was about to get too schmaltzy, too idyllic, she adds a caveat. “OK, sometimes I say too many things, and then I really do want to push reset,” she concedes. “I just wish there was a time machine sometimes.”