This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman knows how to juxtapose emotional gut-punches with life affirmations, and that’s something that the writer-director plays with in Life Itself, a multigenerational drama that begins on a New York couple (Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde) but twists and transforms into something else.
“A lot of things we watch are one thing — they’re funny or sad or serious or light — but life is this weird mixture of all,” says Fogelman. “It’s a Thanksgiving dinner where the best bite of food is not just the turkey or cranberries or mashed potatoes or stuffing, but that forkful of all of it. That’s what the movie tries to capture.” Here, he talks about the challenge of shooting half of it in Spanish, wooing Samuel L. Jackson to “open” the movie, and why he’s not afraid to be sentimental in times of tumult.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Life Itself hinges on an unreliable narrator. Several, actually. Was that where the idea for the story originated?
DAN FOGELMAN: It was a weird one, this film. Usually when I sit down to write a movie, I know what the movie is, and I know what the beginning, and middle, and end are. On this one, I let the story go where it took me over the course of about a year and a half. The unreliable narrator fed into that, because I myself was finding as I was going. The way it started was I just sat down at a desk, I put on my iTunes, Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind” came on because I listen to it a lot. That became the soundtrack to this strangely structured movie I started writing over the course of a year and a half.
In terms of the film’s narrative ambition, did you set out to confound expectations of the romantic/family drama?
Honestly, I always find that one of the trappings of young writers particularly is focusing on what genre they want a movie to be or what type of film they want to be as opposed to just writing what they want to write. I wasn’t really thinking about anything in terms of subverting expectations or what genre of film would lead into how it would misdirect. I just started writing in a really weird almost spiritual way, even though I’m not a really spiritual guy. The movie presented itself to me as I was going.
The movie deals with questions such as: Who is worthy of being a protagonist? And are you the star or are you just a day player in someone else’s story? During the creation process, were there characters that you initially thought would be a star but ended up being a day player?
It’s always been a philosophical idea that I’ve always been taken by even if I wasn’t smart enough to fully understand it. The world exists as it exists to each individual through their own mind’s eye. I exist to you as a character in your own story. I found that it makes the human experience both really small, but then when you’re able to step outside of it and look at it, really big. It was all obnoxious philosophical stuff, but I think it’s really interesting to view your own life as one part of a really gigantic story that involved a lot of other people… Our own self-absorption and the pace of our own lives causes us sometimes to get trapped inside of our own existences and only see the world through our own eyeballs. When you’re able to step back and look at the entirety of your life story — the people who became before you, after you, et cetera, et cetera — your world expands and it gets a lot bigger and more beautiful. It was something I was always interested in trying to capture in a film.
How would you sum up this love story between Will (Isaac) and Abby (Wilde), which takes a lot of turns?
I wrote this film basically as I was getting married for the first time. Will became the handsomer, more charming cipher of myself. I love my wife like people love their wives in the movies…. Part of the way into the movie is exploring that kind of relationship, particularly a lovestruck guy who views his wife through rose-colored glasses and loves her with the intensity of a thousand suns. That’s the way into that movie. The movie takes a lot of twists and turns from there.
What was the greatest challenge in bringing this to life?
It’s a very complicated film. We made the film independently, and it’s got a gigantic scope to it. We were shooting very fast; half of the film is in Spanish. I’m not a fluent Spanish speaker so I was learning a language, and memorizing [dialogue in that] language, and working with actors for whom English isn’t always a first language. That was a gigantic challenge.
The whole movie is really complicated and the structure of it is very complicated. You’re walking a very fine line and trying to thread a very fine needle. I think and hope we did it. Everything about the movie was pretty challenging, except the actors who are all exceptional at what they do. That part of it, which is often the hardest part for a director, was actually the easiest part. Once the actors got on set and did their thing, I didn’t have to do very much.
You have an impressive cast, including Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderas. I’m guessing that Sam Jackson has been on your wish list. He works into the beginning of the movie in a surprising way.
I wrote it for Sam Jackson, like as a character in the movie. I had no relationship with him, nor any realistic idea that he would ever do it. We sent it to him and he’s the coolest guy alive, of course, and he showed up and did his thing. And I said, “Thank you for doing it.” He said, “You put my name in the script! How was I not going to do it???”
The film seems to be exploring similar themes to This Is Us — whether it’s how a random confluence of circumstances that happens to someone else can change your life — or to show how your story goes on after you die, like the painting speech in This Is Us. How much do you think the circles overlap on the Venn diagram?
I think the movie’s very different. They were done at different times, and it was done before or concurrently to the show first coming out. I think thematically I’m exploring some things that are important to me. I lost a lot of people who were very close to me. I had a strange confluence of events in my life where I lost my mom very tragically about ten years ago and then almost to the day, one year later, met my wife. It was this cycle-of-life kind of thing that I really wanted to try and capture. Frankly, I didn’t even realize I was trying to capture until I went in and made the movie. I was like, “Oh, that’s what I was doing and going for.”
It’s something that’s particularly important to me. I literally just this past week lost one of my best friends very young. We were at his funeral and I was giving a eulogy along with the other people and it was a gigantic celebration of this wonderful guy’s life. There were a ton of tears — but there was even more laughter. It was a bunch of people, particularly a bunch of 40-year-old men, determined that the sad end of our buddy’s human life was not the end of his story whatsoever, in that he continues moving forward with us. It’s something I’ve been interested in exploring for the last half a decade. I don’t see that going away from me any time soon, and I don’t think there’s any shortage of people who need to continue to explore that stuff.
It’s a theme of yours to find uplift in darkness and tragedy — and show everyone’s place in the greater story. What do you want people to feel as they walk out of this movie?
I’ve always been an optimist at heart. Life feels very complicated and often very difficult. I’m at an age in my life where I’ve lost people and I’m losing people. I’m watching people have marriages break up and a lot of very, very impossible things. Through it all, I continue to see and chose to see the optimism and the beauty of our world, even when we’re sometimes at our worst.
My hope is that adults can go into a movie theater and experience a kind of adult drama that takes you on a ride and doesn’t hide from the really hard stuff, but ultimately has you walking out of the theater feeling maybe a little exhausted and spent, but hopefully a little bit uplifted and seeing the bigger picture, and the optimism, and the beauty of the world. It all sounds a little highfalutin’ and we’ll see if it works. My hope is to put something that’s both challenging but ultimately uplifting out there into movie theaters.
Life Itself opens in theaters on Friday.