Good Grief – A meditation on the redemptive power of art, especially through the expression of grief

Good Grief marks Daniel Levy’s debut as a feature-film writer and director. “For me, writing is one of the most meaningful ways of exploring and understanding my own feelings,” says Levy. Levy deftly moves beyond his Emmy-winning work as an actor and writer on the hit TV series Schitt’s Creek. For Good Grief, he stepped into numerous roles and took center stage particularly as a writer.

“This was the first time I had worked completely by myself on something, which I normally don’t like to do. I love the companionship of writing,” Levy says. “I love creating something with somebody. But I felt really determined to do this on my own because it felt so personal and I didn’t feel like I needed anyone’s help to tell this story.”

“When you’ve got someone who is going to be at the center of the story, not just as an actor, but also as the writer and director, when they have a clear vision for what they want to do, that really gets you excited as an actor,” says Himish Patel. “

“What excited me about the script when I first read it was its originality,” Patel says. “It brought to mind some of Nora Ephron’s and Richard Curtis’ movies, but it was also wholly original, modern, and really refreshing to see a film that centered on grief. For Dan to have written such a wonderful story and told it with such intelligence and vulnerability, I think it is really beautiful and honest.”

“It’s a very thought-provoking film and story,” adds Evans. “Reading the script for the first time made me giggle out loud several times, but it also made me cry. It reminded me how important friendship is, and how important it is to cultivate and hold dear your nearest friends and deal with their shit. Grief is portrayed so beautifully in this film. It shows people can get through it and be resilient. I’m very proud of Dan for creating something so special, and it’s very unique.”

Good Grief. (L to R) Daniel Levy (writer/director/producer) stars as Marc and Luke Evans as Oliver in Good Grief. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023.

“For a movie about grief, I think there’s a lot of hope and joy to be found in it,” Levy says. “I hope it asks questions of the audience, while at the same time comforting them with this understanding that grief is all around us. And as isolating as it can feel at times, there is comfort in the understanding that it is a universally shared experience. It also acts as a springboard for us to tell a really lovely story about friendship, front and center. That is the romance in this film.”

“The film is about three friends in their mid-30s who have come to a point in their life where they’re deciding how to move forward, what they need to leave behind, and what avenues they wish to take in their lives now that they are considered adults,” says Ruth Negga. “There are many layers to this story. It’s actually a quite serious interrogation of friendship and loyalty and what we tolerate within our friendships and how our friendships can inform our other relationships.”

Good Grief. (L to R) Arnaud Valois as Theo and Daniel Levy (writer/director/producer) stars as Marc in Good Grief. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023.

Producer Megan Zehmer takes pride in how the film reminds us that love and loss are universal themes.
“Our hope for this film has always been to make those who watch it feel a little less alone, and we felt strongly that the only way to do this was to make these characters feel like real human beings,” Zehmer says. “Grief is an inevitable part of the human experience, but there’s hope in knowing that it’s so often preceded by love. “From the script phase all the way through the final edit, Dan and I had countless conversations about each character’s relationship with loss and love and friendship,” she adds, “because we needed to understand each of their motives as human beings before we asked our audience to do the same.”

Good Grief is the kind of love story about friendship that we rarely see portrayed with such poignancy and pathos. Levy’s character, Marc, has found his chosen family in his longtime best friends, Sophie (Ruth Negga) and Thomas (Himesh Patel), who support him following the sudden death of his husband, Oliver (Luke Evans). While saluting their bond, the movie never shies away from depicting the vagaries that only our closest confidantes can draw out of us. Adult relationships can be messy, and Good Grief revels in unraveling that hard truth.

Good Grief, which takes its name from a common expression meant to convey surprise or disdain, is an exploration of the complexities and nuances of grief and a celebration of the things that make us human.

Good Grief. (L to R) Jamael Westman as Terrance, Himesh Patel as Thomas, Ruth Negga as Sophie and Daniel Levy (writer/director/producer) stars as Marc and in Good Grief. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023.

Before the cameras started rolling, Levy had an idea to bond the principal actors

“Because we were shooting in London, I booked us into Soho Farmhouse and took us to the countryside – Ruth, Himesh, Luke Evans, and I – in those early days to build some chemistry that didn’t even really need to be built,” Levy says. “It was already there. We had the loveliest time, and we rehearsed for two weeks, and there was just such love and warmth there. And it really made the editing process easy because you see it, you feel that chemistry, you feel their love for each other.”

Good Grief. (L to R) Daniel Levy (writer/director/producer) stars as Marc, Ruth Negga as Sophie and Himesh Patel as Thomas in Good Grief. Cr. Credit: Chris Baker / Netflix © 2023.

That organic dynamic was apparent to the rest of the cast, too.

“Between myself, Dan, and Ruth, we spent hours just hanging out,” Patel says. “Really going through the script, going through the key scenes, talking about our characters, the histories, the dynamics, how those play out in each scene, but also how things have been going on for them for years. Being afforded time to rehearse and spending time together was one of the important things about the process of this film.”

“It changed everything for us on that first day of filming where we are supposed to be old friends,” Evans says. “We are supposed to have a history together and feel comfortable together. That’s hard to do when you turn up on a scene. It was a wonderful thing that Dan gave to us. Immediately Dan had done something that in my 15 years in movies I had never experienced. He was someone who cared enough about the actors to allow them some free time to bond and suss each other out and find common ground.”

“The intimacy and humanity were a real thing during the filming,” says Arnaud Valois, who plays Theo, Marc’s budding love interest. “The atmosphere within the cast, crew, and everyone was super nice, and Dan was responsible for that.”

Chemistry, particularly among the three lead actors, was paramount for casting director Jessica Ronane.

“We had to ensure we cast actors who could match Dan’s pace and rhythm comedically and who had the chemistry we needed for the relationships throughout the film,” Ronane says, adding that Negga and Patel were the obvious choices for Sophie and Thomas, respectively.

“Ruth enters a room and everyone wants to be near her. She is mesmeric, magnetic and like a beautiful nymph,” says Ronane. “Of course there are deep wells beneath the surface and we knew Sophie could be Ruth and Ruth Sophie.

“Himesh, by contrast, is considered and serious,” she adds. “He seems to observe everything in detail and then when he speaks, we all lean in to catch what emerges. He is very witty and charming and handsome. He won us over as Thomas.”

A Conversation With Daniel Levy

Your grandmother’s passing sparked the idea for this film. How did writing a script help you process your own grief?

For me, writing is one of the most meaningful
ways of exploring and understanding my own
feelings. Schitt’s Creek, for example, allowed me
to grapple with so many questions I had about
my past relationships with men and my own selfworth issues. At the time of this film, I had lost my grandmother and my dog and was questioning
what grief was and whether I was feeling it appropriately, whether it was moving me to the degree that I expected it to. There was an interesting conversation that was going on in my head between my heart and my mind trying to reconcile why I wasn’t feeling more. The question became: What does it all mean and is there a correct way to grieve someone?

At the same time, I was using the grieving process
as a means of exploring the significance of friendship.

Good Grief – BTS – (Center) Writer, Director, Producer, Actor Daniel Levy with crew members on the set of Good Grief. Cr. Credit: Chris Baker / Netflix © 2023.

Using Marc’s loss as a Trojan horse to really shake up the relationships of these three best friends who, for the majority of their lives, had just accepted each other for who they were without ever holding each other accountable. And it wasn’t until this tragic event happened that each one of these three friends were forced to question who they are and what they mean to each other.

Good Grief. (L to R) Himesh Patel as Thomas and Daniel Levy (writer/director/producer) stars as Marc in Good Grief. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023.

Was this the first film script you’ve written?

It was. I was terrified. Funnily enough, I look back on things that I’ve written and it was always poetry or TV ideas. The idea of writing a film script was always so daunting to me. I don’t know why. I’ve spoken to friends of mine who are screenwriters and they say the same thing about writing numerous episodes of television shows. They think, “Well, I don’t know how you write thousands and thousands of pages of a story.” But I needed to do this. I needed to crack the seal on a screenplay, and this felt so personal to me. It all kind of flowed quite naturally, and I was very lucky in the sense that I had friends who came to my house and I’d sort of brainstorm with them and they’d help me rejigger things. It’s an amazing thing
when you challenge yourself and actually produce something that you love.

What do you think Good Grief draws out of you that we might not have seen before in your previous work?

Good Grief – BTS – (L to R) Producer Debra Hayward, Writer, Director, Producer Daniel Levy and Cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland on the set of Good Grief. Cr. Credit: Chris Baker / Netflix © 2023.

One of the strangest things that has come out of the success of Schitt’s Creek is this feeling that a lot of people think I’m a comic. I don’t think that I am. I love writing and performing comedy, but I wouldn’t say that I’m in comedy, necessarily. My dad [Eugene Levy] is a great comedian who came up in sketch comedy. It’s always just been about the storytelling. If it happens to be funny, great.

But I love drama too. And I’ve always been a slightly more… emo person than people realize. So I’ve had to reconcile this outward persona, the David Rose persona that everyone seems to think is me, with who I actually am.

With Good Grief, I felt the need to tell a story that
reflected the more sensitive side of who I am. This
industry has a tendency to put people in buckets:
You did one thing that was funny, so you’re going
to be a comedian for the rest of your career. It’s
important to be given the freedom to do things
that are unexpected and to stretch your skillset a
little bit. I’ve always wanted to do more dramatic work. In this case, I wrote something for myself
because I wasn’t getting the work that I was seeing my peers get.

I wasn’t scared of doing something that people might not understand because they just want me to keep going down one path. I knew that if I didn’t make the things that I really wanted to make, if I didn’t explore the sides of myself that I found important as a writer and an actor, I would regret not at least trying. I will always value integrity over anything else in this industry because once you lose that, it’s hard to get it back.

Friendship is the linchpin of this story. How do you describe Marc’s dynamic with Sophie and Thomas?

I think they all have different relationships with each other. Marc’s relationship to Thomas is so different from his relationship to Sophie because he and Thomas have this history of loving each other and being together and then breaking up. And then Marc very quickly found Oliver and started a life with him. That almost forced a level of closure for Thomas that was so concrete in a way. Any feelings that he had for Thomas, obviously they linger. But I think the fact that he met someone, married and moved in with that person, almost expedited Thomas’s healing process of saying, “I have the choice to cut this person out
of my life or become his friend. There’s no in-between.”

Whereas Marc and Sophie have such a comfort with each other. There’s no history of romance, so they’ve always had this brother/sister dynamic. She was the life of the party since they were in their early 20s, and I think Marc has always felt lucky to know a side of her that was a little bit more than what she allows people to see. His relationship to her is slightly deeper, and yet I don’t think it’s rooted in having hard conversations. It’s rooted in company, in fun, in the comfort of knowing that someone will always come around to your house on a Sunday morning hungover from the night before and ask for breakfast.

How did playing Marc challenge you as an actor?

He’s the opposite of who I am. He’s way more passive and troubled and scared than I am. He’s gone through a lot more than I have emotionally. In terms of trying to stay afloat, I’m a very practical person. I like to get things done. I’m very clear. I’m very honest, and he is the opposite. Marc doesn’t want to ruffle feathers and feels a tremendous amount of embarrassment and shame, especially once he finds out
what happened with Oliver and suddenly has to consider, “What am I supposed to tell my friends?” That to me felt like a very real situation. I wanted to tell a story of someone who was very different from myself, and his reactions are very different from my own, and even his calmness is very different from my energy. It was really exciting to write, and it was a really exciting challenge to play against type.

What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

I hope that people will feel comfort in the way that the movie talks about how grief is something that doesn’t necessarily come to you how you think it does, and that you don’t have to feel like you have to be a certain way in relation to grief. I hope that people find some comfort in the way that we’ve tackled that conversation and the messiness of it. I hope that friends feel recognized in the stories that we told between these three characters. They certainly did for me. It’s a very meaningful thing for me to be able to see something on screen that reflects the kinds of friendships that I have and the love that I have for
them – and the need and respect that I have for them. And I hope that it’s a movie that you’ll always want
to put on New Year’s Day to kind of feel things and laugh and cry and hug your friends and feel grateful for what you have in your life.

Filming in London and Paris with stark differences in tone, Levy enlisted cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland to imbue the film with a timeless elegance

“One of the things that was important for Dan was to make sure that it felt very different from Schitt’s Creek in the sense that he wanted to make a film that was cinematic and carried a lot of emotion,” Birkeland says. “Schitt’s Creek is obviously iconic in its own way, but it’s very televisual in its design, and he wanted something that clearly separated that. So we talked a lot about the arc of the story and how the characters would respond to different moods and environments.”

“We wanted to be as truthful and real as possible, so we made an effort to film a lot of the locations for real,” Birkeland says. “On a film like this, it’s always about making sure that you can really see what people’s emotions are. It’s about making sure that whatever the atmosphere is, you can read what the characters think and feel because it is a film about characters and feelings.”

That was right in line with Levy’s original vision for the film’s visual language.

“It was important that the movie have this aspirational quality that if you want to put it on a rainy Sunday afternoon, there’s something for everyone in the film in terms of you can watch it one time for the storytelling,” Levy says, “and then you can watch it a second time for the locations or for the interior design or for the costumes.”

“My favorite thing is world building and getting together a beautiful team and having them all work together to make a visual language that feels really special,” Levy says. “It was important for me that when people watch the movie, they can kind of feel that comfort and the warmth and the beauty of the world we were building.”