Dan Fogelman Gets Candid About 'Life Itself' and the Rawness of Emotional Storytelling (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
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Warning: This interview contains spoilers from the film, Life Itself. There will be another spoiler warning when you reach the spoiler-heavy part of the chat.
In Life Itself, the message is laid very clearly: Life itself is the only reliable narrator -- and even then, life may also be an unreliable narrator.
This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman wrote and directed the globe-trotting, decades-spanning film, inspired loosely by his mother's unexpected death during a routine surgery and meeting his wife one year later. Starring Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin and Annette Bening, Life Itself interweaves five seemingly disparate stories across several generations in New York City and Spain, connecting them all in a rather surprising way. There are several parallels from Fogelman's real-life experiences infused into Life Itself, though his personal anecdotes aren't as heightened as what the characters, namely Isaac's Will Dempsey, go through.
"I've always been fascinated by, and you can see it in my television show, the power of memory and subjectivity as it relates to the telling of stories. We could have all grown up with brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers, but when you sit down and talk about the same holiday dinner that everybody remembers, it's almost like four different people were living in four different houses. That's always been something that's interested me," Fogelman said.
"In my life, I've had a very normal existence. I'm struck by how you can be sitting somewhere one moment and think you have a handle on your entire life and with a snap of a finger, everything changes. And it can be the smallest of things: getting fired from a job, falling down a flight of stairs and breaking your wrist and screwing up your life for six months -- all the way to the biggest thing. A sudden loss, a meeting of somebody who you marry and it changes your life," he continued. "The most ordinary of lives, like mine, is so remarkably spectacular because of how any given moment can change the complete course of a life that's existed for 40 years up until that point. Life is the most unreliable narrator; you don't know which way your story is going to go and you can't predict it."
With Life Itself now in theaters, ET recently sat down with Fogelman for a frank discussion about his fascination with the mundanities of everyday life, the scene that affected him the most emotionally, the stellar Spain storyline and what his late mother would have thought of his new movie.
ET: You've said that Life Itself was inspired by your mother's death and then meeting your wife almost one year later. Has the process of writing this script and making the movie been therapeutic for you?
Dan Fogelman: I hope so. It's funny. I didn't sit down to say, "I'm going to explore my mother's death," or anything like that. It was something that came out from inside of you. Despite the fact that people seem to be crying at my TV show and my film, I'm a pretty regular guy. I watch sports. I don't cry. Once, after my mom passed away, I tried to go to therapy for a couple of months because somebody said it might be a good idea for me and it was a complete waste of time. I found myself creating a persona who didn't feel like me and it didn't work for me; it wasn't something I was that comfortable with. In a way, yeah, it is therapeutic because I channeled some of the stuff into characters and into the writing. It is the closest way I have of expunging some of it, I think.
Oscar Isaac's character, Will, goes to therapy and he goes through several life-changing moments that you have as well. How much of that character is you?
I think quite a bit. There's a lot of Oscar's character that I identify with. With Oscar's character, he's a guy who loves fiercely. I would say I'm nowhere near as charming or charismatic as Oscar Isaac, but I do love my wife the way he loves his wife in this film. That was always the starting point for me. A lot of people love their wives, a lot of people like their wives, but I really do adore her and I'm far from perfect. At the movie premiere [last Thursday], even though I'm doing all these interviews saying how much I love my wife as much as Oscar does in the film, I was anxious, I'm really sharp with her. Our marriage, by far, not perfect; no marriage is. But I do love her that intensely. I identify with a lot of the experiences his character goes through in the film. I've been blessed to have extended families that sit around a dinner table and have genuine laughs together and enjoy one another. You feel that in this film as well. There are pieces of his life that I borrowed from my own.
Like This Is Us, the film relies heavily on moving back and forth through time. What was the most challenging part weaving together all these seemingly unconnected stories?
Trying to always stay in a tonal space where it all fills parts of a big whole. There's no main character in this movie; everyone's the main character, everyone's the supporting character. There's no main storyline. You have to be conscious to weave all of that in a way that clearly you're shifting stories. There are different chapters in the film. It shifts continents and it even shifts language. But hopefully, it all feels part of a big story, which is life is hard and the world is really difficult right now -- not just with tragedy to a family beset by tragedy, but the world is cynical, dark and scary right now. The big message of the movie is that even in a life filled with darkness and loss, in any direction you look at that experience, it is surrounded by love and hope and optimism. The state of affairs right now makes it very easy to forget about the good stuff and just lean into the really scary, dark stuff, but I choose to believe that human beings are inherently good and not inherently bad and that no one wakes up in the morning -- except maybe for a few politicians -- and says, "How can I be a terrible person today?" I think most people wake up in the morning and they say, "I'm going to try and be a better husband, father, son, mother, daughter, wife," and then we usually fail and at the end of the night, we're pissed at ourselves because we didn't do better. We wake up the next day and we try again. We can forget some of that because, amidst the darkness and the sadness, you can get overwhelmed by he vitriolic trolls and forget about the good stuff.
STOP! You are about to head into the spoiler-heavy part of the interview. If you have not watched the movie, please do not proceed (unless you want certain moments to be spoiled for you). If you have seen the movie, you may continue...
Is there a specific scene or performance that affected you the most emotionally that you didn't expect?
One of the scenes that I'm proudest of in my career is the scene that ends the film between a young Spanish mother and her child. I knew that was the high point of the movie and I knew it was a conversation I never got to have with my own mother. I was surprised to find myself affected by it because I was so clinical and it was so important to me in the film. The actress, Laia Costa, is so good that I found myself -- in a scene I've thought about a million times, that I was looking at analytically -- I was surprised to find myself transported watching her do it on set and go, "Wow, she's spectacular and I'm moved by what she's doing right now." That caught me off guard.
You're talking about the goodbye scene between Isabel and her son, Rodrigo.
We know what Oscar and Olivia are capable of as actors, but the Spain portion of the film was revelatory. How did you find Laia Costa and Sergio Peris-Mencheta?
With this film, we cast all the parts of the American actors. You don't audition Oscar Isaac and Annette Bening. You ask them if they'd like to do it and you're thrilled when they say yes. In Spain, I was determined to use an entirely Spanish cast and crew, and so I figured those would be people I'd audition. Finding those two was such an exciting thing. They're very well-known actors, they just weren't super familiar to me. I was ready to go to Spain and look at all the biggest Spanish actors in the world and Laia had gotten her hands on the script. With her husband, she, from her home, taped herself on a camcorder filming every scene in the movie that she was in and got the tape to me. I was on the cusp to go to Spain to cast the role and I got the tape and it started with that final scene of the film. I called the producers and I said, "I saw it, I'm done." And I never looked at another actor.
What did Laia and Sergio bring to the table that brought their characters to life?
All three of the Spanish actors of the film, Banderas, Laia and Sergio, there is something so soulful in their eyeballs, which I always think is the most interesting thing for an actor. I was doing a film with Al Pacino and you put him on camera on Day 1 and oh my god, his eyes. The camera photographs him in a way that it doesn't photograph other human beings. There's a vulnerability and an openness in his face that you can't teach and it's a part of acting. All three Spanish actors have that. What you're watching is a love triangle, but of these three really vulnerable people who are exposing themselves on camera in such a real way. You don't dislike any of them. You don't root for any of them. You want everybody to win and everybody to lose. They're very gifted, all three of them. Depending on which prism you view from, many of us have had divorces or bad relationships. The villain of one person's story is the hero of another's, and I always found that completely interesting.
Were there any crucial scenes that were improvised?
I like to loosen people up, especially when you're doing charmed love. Antonio Banderas enters the movie with a 12-minute monologue. That's very heavily, precisely scripted. When you've got Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde in bed together and you're trying to capture an intimate portrait where you almost forget that you're watching two actors and you think you're watching this cool, attractive married couple. I loosen up their language. They're always staying on script but they're weaving in and out of it. Oscar is genuinely making Olivia laugh in that scene and vice versa, and you feel that, and it doesn't feel like a movie as much because you're allowing them the flexibility. A lot of the stuff we shot with the Spanish cast in New York as they're going about the city on vacation was allowing them to improvise and filming them as a family walking around the city.
I have to ask about one specific scene from the movie: Will's abrupt suicide. Did you wrestle with having Will die in such violent fashion -- by a gunshot -- in his therapist's office?
When you do this for a living as I have, you know you've created this incredibly winning, likable guy and something happens to him that people are not going to like in the most horrific of ways. I would have wrestled with it if that wasn't exactly the point. If you're going to make a movie that says, I'm going to have a lesson about love and hope and optimism and a life-affirming lesson, even when it's surrounded by people who are shaped by severe tragedy, I didn't want to pull punches when it came to what the hard stuff was. I wanted the audience to really have to go through something uncomfortable, something they didn't like, something that really took their breath away -- not just to shock people but also to say, "Holy sh*t." The path of the film is to have things happen that knock you for such a loop that you're shocked by the fact that you come back from it over the course of the film. That's life. I've experienced terrible, terrible tragedy in my life and I'm perpetually shocked when two years down the line, I'm able to function as a human being despite it all. It tests the audience and it challenges the audience.
You are now leaving the spoiler zone! The rest of the interview is spoiler-free.
You're clearly comfortable in emotional storytelling. What do you find valuable in continuing to mine that space?
Clearly people want it. The kind of stuff I'm interested in -- what's being called emotional storytelling -- is far more human and common in our everyday human experience than the stuff that is not. These awesome -- and I love them all -- hard-edged cable television shows or these very Oscar bait-y movies that come out at the end of the year that are bleak and withholding, I don't recognize my existence in them. I love them, I watch them, I vote for them, but do I see my life in them? No, I don't. Do I see the average person's life in them? I truly don't. When I occasionally get framed as an emotional storyteller, I always want to say, why doesn't it interest more people? Our lives are ultimately not that serious, not that dark. There's moments of great darkness, there's moments of huge emotion, of huge joy. Little things becoming big things -- that, to me, is how I see the world. I think it's sometimes strange that that's such a thing that gets talked about.
Have you thought about what your mom would say or think about this movie?
No one's asked me that. My mom passed away 10 years ago in a surgery, which was a serious surgery but it wasn't supposed to be life-threatening. After that, I remember very vividly going to her condominium in New Jersey and I thought maybe there would be a note under her pillow. Would there be some kind of closure? Some kind of message? And there was not because that's not how life works. I had to start cleaning out her condominium, which is a terrible thing to have to do for a parent -- suddenly a life spent being built starts getting deconstructed very quickly -- and I found this bin in her closet and it was one of those plastic bins you get at The Container Store. My first live-action film had come out. My mom had collected -- she never really showed a great interest in my life, she was equally proud of me for putting my dirty towels away as she was making a film -- but she collected every review of the movie from every local paper from the tri-state area and she had highlighted every time my name was written. The movie, Fred Claus, was critically massacred. My mother had highlighted over and over again, "This movie is an abomination due to the terrible screenplay by first-time screenwriter Dan Fogelman." In answering your question, how would my mom have liked this film, which I'm so proud of? The great part about my mom, and my dad for that matter, is they were the kind of parents who were proud of you no matter what you were doing. I don't think it would have had that much of an effect on her as Fred Claus. (Laughs.)