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In 'Spoiler Alert,' journalist Michael Ausiello's heartbreaking memoir is adapted for the big screen

The new film, starring Jim Parsons, is based on a real-life love story that didn’t have the opportunity for a fairy-tale ending.
Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge in "Spoiler Alert."
Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge in "Spoiler Alert."Focus Features

“Spoiler Alert,” the new film based on entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello’s heartbreaking 2017 memoir, certainly doesn’t have a storybook ending. But it does look for the magic in a real-life love story with a very tragic final chapter.

The film, directed by Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”), closely follows “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies,” which Ausiello wrote in the wake of his husband Kit Cowan’s death from colorectal cancer, at age 42. Bringing the couple’s 13-year relationship to life on screen are actors Jim Parsons, as the TV-obsessed Michael, and Ben Aldridge, as the dashing photographer Kit. Together, they chart the highs and lows of the couple’s early romance, honeymoon phase, contentious later years and difficult-but-love-filled final days. 

“Writing the book was isolating. I had just lost Kit, so I was still deep in grief while I was writing it. It was a hard, lonely process,” Ausiello, who founded the popular entertainment site TVLine, told NBC News. “Making a film, you’re surrounded by all these other incredible artists, and it’s so much more collaborative. On top of that, having some distance from Kit’s death allowed me to enjoy the process. I do think there were moments of it that were cathartic.”

He added, “I didn’t feel a catharsis writing the book, but seeing what has come of it and being on set — just having this experience and being so grateful for it — it felt oddly healing.”

"Spoiler Alert" New York Premiere
Michael Ausiello attends the "Spoiler Alert" New York premiere.Michael Loccisano / WireImage

Ausiello said he didn’t initially intend to write a memoir about his life with Cowan, and he definitely didn’t expect it to turn into a big-studio feature. In the couple’s final year together, Ausiello began updating their loved ones about Cowan’s health via a series of Facebook posts. Those messages caught the attention of a friend who worked at Simon & Schuster, and she eventually reached out to Ausiello about writing a book. 

When “Spoiler Alert” was released two years later, Ausiello asked Parsons — a longtime acquaintance and the star of one of his all-time favorite comedies, “The Big Bang Theory” — to moderate a Q&A for the book’s debut. Right before the author and actor went on stage for the event at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, Parsons and his husband, Todd Spiewak, approached Ausiello about optioning the book through their production company. And, once again, Ausiello found himself compelled to tell Cowan’s story to an even larger audience. 

After it was decided that Parsons would take on the role of Michael, Ausiello, who is a producer on the film, said that he didn’t feel the need to dictate how he was portrayed on screen.

“There was never any discussion of him doing an impersonation of me. He was going to create his own version and put his stamp on the role. So I was never precious about little things,” Ausiello said. “Having said that, it’s still incredibly weird — in the best kind of way — to watch Jim Parsons play me. This is an actor I’ve admired for so long. Even watching the movie now, it’s still a bit of a head trip to see it.”

From left, Ben Aldridge, Jim Parsons, Sally Field and Bill Irwin in "Spoiler Alert."
From left, Ben Aldridge, Jim Parsons, Sally Field and Bill Irwin in "Spoiler Alert."Linda Källérus / Focus Features

However, Ausiello said, he felt significantly more protective about Kit’s storyline, as well as the portrayal of his in-laws, who are played by former Broadway co-stars Sally Field and Bill Irwin. For authenticity, Ausiello lent Aldridge, who is best known for his roles in the series “Pennyworth” and “Fleabag,” some of Cowan’s personal effects, including a camera that figures prominently in the film. And, Ausiello said, he remained a hands-on presence throughout the filmmaking process, ensuring that the movie remained as true to the source material as possible. 

“Going into this, there were two things that I was adamant about, that needed to remain true to the book,” Ausiello said. “One of those was that Kit was not a victim, and he wasn’t even during his worst days. He always looked on the bright side. He always felt like it could be so much worse and leaned into the positive. So it was important for me that Kit not be treated like a victim in the movie.”

The other, he added, was that the movie “needed to be true to the fact that Kit’s parents showed up for him when he got sick.”

“They didn’t run away from that experience, and this is their only child. As difficult as that was, they were there on the front lines to the end,” Ausiello said. “Just the immense bravery and courage that that took — I wanted the movie to be truthful to that.”

Michael Ausiello, left, Stacey Farish and Kit Cowan at a Deadline Hollywood party in New York in 2013.
Michael Ausiello, left, Stacey Farish and Kit Cowan at a Deadline Hollywood party in New York in 2013.Andrew Toth / Getty Images file

Although Cowan’s parents, whom Ausiello described as “incredibly private,” may never see the film, their grief was front and center in the writer’s mind during the filmmaking process, he said. So, too, were his own experiences with familial loss. As the film portrays, Ausiello’s childhood in suburban New Jersey was shaped by the tragic loss of both of his parents. His mother’s death from cancer, when he was just 16, was especially difficult for him, given how close the two were. And that pain is palpable in the film, which depicts a young Michael and his shrinking family in surreal flashbacks set on a 1980s sitcom soundstage.

“I had such a close relationship with my mom. Those flashbacks illuminate the relationship I had with my mother, that close bond, and the sadness of having her ripped away from me at such a young age,” Ausiello said. “I think Michael [Showalter] did a beautiful job telling that through this very unorthodox ‘80s sitcom lens.”

Like with the flashbacks, which poke fun at the quirks of late-20th-century suburbia, the film attempts to inject levity into scenes that explore the most painful memories. Among the more effective instances are those that revolve around Ausiello’s concerningly large Smurf collection.  

But, in general, these moments — and even the comedic stylings of Sally Field — aren’t able to distract from the inherent sadness of “Spoiler Alert” for very long. And perhaps that’s OK. Given the subject matter, it’s difficult to imagine how the film could be anything other than an outright tear-jerker. 

It’s not that Ausiello — or Parsons or anyone else, it seems — set out to make audiences weep. In fact, at the end of the day, the lifelong cinephile said, he simply wants what every creator wants: to entertain.

“I want them to have their own experience seeing the movie,” Ausiello said of audience members. “I don’t want to project any of my own messaging, expectations or hopes on them. I know, as a moviegoer and as a huge fan of cinema, I don’t like going into the theater with all of that noise in my head.”

“But, I will say, I hope that they’re moved,” he added. “I hope they’re entertained.”

“Spoiler Alert” debuts in theaters on Friday. The film’s U.S. distributor, Focus Features, and NBC News are both owned by Comcast NBCUniversal.