December 19, 2018

‘This Is Us’ Creator Brings Family Drama to Big Screen

The movie “Life Itself” is a multigenerational story, set in multiple time periods, with scenes playing out from different characters’ points of view. There are shocking twists and plenty of tear-inducing moments, stemming from both sadness and joy. If this sounds like an episode of “This Is Us,” that’s because the film’s writer and director is Dan Fogelman, creator of the hit NBC drama.

“I’ve always been fascinated how different people can have different perspectives of the same event, but also that life is wildly unpredictable,” Fogelman told the Journal. “In any given hour, your life can alternate between sad and joyous, mundane and important. It can change on a dime. This film is about life and regular people, but the most ordinary lives can be really romantic if you look at them through a wide enough lens.”

The film has an ensemble cast that includes Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas and Samuel L. Jackson.

“[It’s] a little bit darker but we explore some of the same themes” as “This Is Us,” Fogelman said. “It’s a group of people who are connected by difficulty and loss, but there’s a lot of optimism in the big picture.”

Fogelman began writing the film four years ago, “without much forethought or inspiration,” but came to realize that he had been unconsciously inspired by two incidents a year apart: the sudden passing of his mother 10 years ago and meeting the woman he would marry.

Fogelman also recognizes the tangential influence of a favorite writer, Philip Roth, in that his characters write or talk about writing, and that a comedic kitchen table scene “feels like it could have been a scene out of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ ” he said. “[Roth is] more in my bones than someone I’m trying to consciously emulate.”

“I’ve always been fascinated how different people can have different perspectives of the same event, but also that life is wildly unpredictable.” — Dan Fogelman

Fogelman said his second time directing a film  (his first was 2015’s “Danny Collins”) was quite challenging. “[The film] plays with tone. Going from romantic comedy scenes to tragic scenes is a real balancing act,” he said.

Half of the movie was shot in Spain, in Spanish with a Spanish crew, so Fogelman worked with a translator and took lessons to communicate with them.

“I enjoy working with actors but I’m more of a writer at heart,” he said. “Directing means a lot of time spent outside, being really cold or really hot, really early in the morning or late at night, none of which I like. I direct only when it feels important that I do it to tell the story.”

Fogelman said that while “Life Itself” reflects the darker side of life, it also depicts “a beautiful, romantic experience filled with love and family. Hopefully, it can be a reminder in these times that the human experience is not as divided and divisive as we see on the news. We all experience love and loss and joy and tragedy, and there’s something beautiful in that amid all the darkness.”

THIS IS US – Season: 3 – Chris Sullivan as Toby, Chrissy Metz as Kate Pearson, Mandy Moore as Rebecca Pearson, Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson, Justin Hartley as Kevin Pearson, Sterling K. Brown as Randall Pearson, Susan Kelechi Watson as Beth Pearson (Photo by: NBC)

As for “This Is Us,” 12 of 18 scripts have been completed and six have been edited for the third season, which has a “new beginnings” theme, Fogelman said. The premiere on Sept. 25 picked up on the Pearson siblings’ 38th birthday, “and they’ve reached a point where it’s time to move on to the next chapter.”

Kate (Chrissy Metz) will try again to get pregnant; Kevin (Justin Hartley) begins a romance with sister-in-law Beth’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) cousin; and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) “is still looking for a purpose in life,” Fogelman said. We’ll also see the courtship of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), Jack’s time in Vietnam with his brother Nicky (Michael Angarano), and go with Randall back to the future.

Fogelman promised answers to at least some big questions midway though the season, revealed in “a slow burn. You’ll be hard-pressed to know exactly where the storylines are going to go. People shouldn’t get complacent about paying attention because there’s stuff coming that will be water cooler-ish.”

The series’ success raises the bar, but Fogelman doesn’t feel the pressure.

“Our crew, actors and department heads are so good at what they do. We feel confident. We always had a plan,” he said. “We know what will happen to each character and roughly when. We’ve had that plan since the beginning.”

There are several new series this season in the “This Is Us” vein, but Fogelman chalks that up more to network marketing than what the creators had in mind. “Human family dramas are not new,” he said. “I root for those shows. That’s the kind of stuff I like.”

Describing himself as “a very secular Jew,” Fogelman stopped attending Hebrew school after he became a bar mitzvah, but he attends High Holy Days services and can “still follow along in Hebrew.” He remains close with the Jewish friends he met at summer camp. “I’ve created a Jewish community with them,” he said.

Launching “This Is Us” while promoting “Life Itself” has Fogelman dreaming of a vacation. “We’re going to do some press in Europe at some point and hope to get some time there. We’re talking about renting an RV and driving up the West Coast,” he said. “I shot the movie after the first season of [“This Is Us”] ended and edited it while shooting the second season.

“If I don’t take a break, my wife might leave me,” he joked, noting that he isn’t writing a new movie script. “I need to recharge my brain before I go off half-cocked and write something that I don’t really want to do.”

“Life Itself” is in theaters now. “This Is Us” airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on NBC.