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‘This is Us’ Creator Dan Fogelman on the Wonders of ‘Life Itself’

September 22, 2018Ben MK

For This is Us creator Dan Fogelman, life isn't just about getting from point A to point B. Rather, it's about shared experiences and the connections we all have with one another, whether we realize it or not.

In his new film, Life Itself, Fogelman takes on what might be one of his most ambitious projects yet — telling a story that is not only about the interconnected set of relationships between characters and how the outcome of one relationship trickles down and affects others, but also telling a multifaceted, multi-tonal story that is inter-generational and which spans multiple continents and languages.

I sat down with Dan Fogelman during this year's Toronto International Film Festival to discuss the movie, and to find out more about about his writing and filmmaking process.

Whether it's Life Itself or your TV series, This is Us, you seem very interested with storytelling that deals with the complex tapestry of human relationships, across generations and across the other boundaries that separate us. What is it about that kind of storytelling that intrigues you?

Fogelman: I'm intrigued by family and the history of a family. I'm also intrigued by the notion that we get so wrapped up in our singular, individual lives — literally, what we're gonna eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, our stresses about our job on a daily basis, and about our immediate family — that we can lose perspective of the bigger picture and what we're collectively doing together, and how the world moves forward.

And so it's something that I think I've been really exploring lately, particularly with the last show and this film in different ways. I've experienced some pretty big loss in my life, and you get reflective on the bigger picture of the whole thing after those moments. You also get reflective because after you experience big loss, when the big things happen that are positive, it also causes you to go back, go forward, and try and think, "How does this all make sense and work together? How do I widen my lens and zoom out a little bit to try and make some sense of it all?"

In terms of writing, where does it all start for you? Do the characters develop out of the basic narrative through line, or do you build the story around the characters?

Fogelman: It's different for every project. A movie like Crazy Stupid Love, I had a general idea of what I wanted it to be; I wanted it to be a story about all these family members who are all in love with other people that are inappropriate — a kid in love with his babysitter, a babysitter in love with the adult, and then there's this one love story that's seemingly separate from it. So I had that conceit in my head, and I went off to write.

On this film, I just wrote. I had no idea what I was doing, I had no idea where I wanted to go. It was a much slower process, where the film evolved and came to me, and the characters were often driving it. But yeah, this was a strange, unusual process for me, in that I just let it come.

There's a moment in the film where, up to that point, the tone of the movie is quite comedic, and then everything just flips on a dime. Can you talk more about that scene? Was it a hard scene to write, and why was it so important to get right?

Fogelman: It was very important to get it right. It's a high-wire act for a film. It's not just in the writing; the writing's not that difficult. It's working with the actor to make sure that that feels not just like a surprise but like, "Holy shit, I didn't see that coming. But I also should have seen that coming."

And then it's a high-wire act executing the movie, because I built this film to be an unusual experience for audiences in the movie theatre. I wanted people to start and go, "This is funny, but what the hell is going on?" I wanted them to be shocked, I wanted them fall into a light romance and then be surprised, I wanted it to then go dark and heavy and emotional, I wanted it then to switch languages and blossom into a love triangle to ultimately deliver a final message.

And that was always the plan. That moment that you're referring to is the highest high-wire act in the movie, because you're asking the audience to really be challenged. And to really come back from something and last another hour plus of the film. And so as big of a challenge as it was in the writing and in working with the actors, it was a challenge editorially, more than anything — of saying, "Ok, I need to now give the audience a moment. I need to let them sit in this." But if it goes too long, it could be a problem with getting them back.

And there's a scene with Mandy Patinkin and the little girl, that to me was the most exciting thing the first time I started playing the movie in the theatres, because I said, "Holy crap, Mandy's getting them back right now. This little girl is getting it back." And people are slowly recovering, recovering, recovering, and building into the Spanish section of the film. So that was very much by design, but it's a very hard thing to try and pull off.

So in terms of the editing, was it hard for you to cut your own scenes from the film?

Fogelman: No, it's my favorite part of the process. I love gathering all this material from these actors and forming it and [seeing it] taking shape. I love it on the TV show, I love doing it on the film. When you have actors like these, it's a wealth of riches. Just watching four takes of Oscar Isaac being incredible and going, "Oh, which is the one I'm gonna use?" You really watch and you really see what they're doing. I find it so exciting.

And the other good part of this film was we were on such a tight budget and schedule that there was nothing to leave on the cutting room floor. We shot the script, and the script is the movie, and nothing was shot that wasn't used, really.

Speaking of the actors and going back also to what you mentioned about having the audience experience something unusual, I think having Samuel L. Jackson narrate the beginning is one of the highlights of the film. Did you approach him to be a part of the movie, or did he reach out to you?

Fogelman: I wrote it, not knowing Sam Jackson would be Sam Jackson doing it. And then I finished the screenplay and everyone's like, "We have to get Sam Jackson," and I was like, "Oh, crap." And we sent him the script, and I said, "Do you want to do this?" And he said, "Man, you wrote my name into the script. Of course I'm gonna do it." [laughs]

And that was it. It was a very targeted shoot. Sam's a busy guy, it was a small film, so he came to New York, we shot his on-camera portion really quick, we went right to a VO booth, recorded his VO. And he's the best guy, it was such a fun treat for everybody. So yeah, the goal of it was to tell the audience, "Listen, this is gonna be an unusually structured movie. It's gonna go places where you don't think it's gonna go." And even if you're not thinking that watching the Sam Jackson piece, it starts warning you subconsciously that it's about to take some kind of chances and do some stuff.

So what are you working on next?

Fogelman: I'm gonna finish the third season of the show, which we're deep inside of, and I love. And then after the third season, I think I'm gonna try not to add anything else to my plate right now. It's been a busy time, making a film and TV show at the same time. And so I'm gonna try and let the next idea come to me, and just sit down and write when the time comes. Whether it's TV, movies or a musical or a book, or whatever I decide to do next.

And last but not least, what do you want viewers to take away from this movie?

Fogelman: I hope it's the kind of movie that leaves them feeling what the theme of the movie is — that life can be challenging and often very difficult, but there is love if you move forward and look at it through the right lens, even during our darkest hours. I think if it leaves people feeling something, and hopefully feeling life-affirmed even through their tears and their emotions, that would be a goal.

And I hope it's one of those movies that sticks with them. We seem to be past the day when people went to the movie theatre and then sat and had a cup of coffee and talked about the movie afterwards. I hope it can be that type of movie for the people it appeals to.

Life Itself is now in theatres.

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