Original-Cin Q&A: Life Itself's Dan Fogelman on making people cry and being an 'unreliable narrator'

By Bonnie Laufer

Dan Fogelman is the writer behind the hit Emmy-winning TV series This is Us.  He knows how to push emotional buttons, and his latest drama, Life Itself (a TIFF premiere he wrote and directed) is about love and loss, with entwined stories ambitiously set across years and continents. 

The film initially follows NYU graduate Abby (Olivia Wilde) and her boyfriend Will (Oscar Isaac). Will loves her deeply, but the depth of his commitment can be overwhelming. We meet Will’s parents, and learn their stories, before the action leaps to Spain, where more is revealed about these interwoven narratives.

Our Bonnie Laufer sat down with Dan Fogelman to discuss the film and why it was so important and personal for him to tell this story. 

Original-Cin: You’re starting to be known as the man who makes us cry. Where does your sensitivity come from? 

Dan Fogelman:  “I don't know. I don't think I'm that rare as a human being sensitivity-wise.  I know that I seem to be making a type of material that is not getting made on a mass scale, but I look at my friends, male and female, and I look at their experiences, and I just try to relate what is real in our lives.  

“I'm a 40-year-old guy and I’m looking at friends dealing with losses of parents,  births of children, raising children, loss of jobs, change of careers, illness, and I see a lot of sensitivity in our world right now. Who’s not sensitive talking about life and death and their losses and their joys and their childhoods? I don't think that I'm not uncommon  I just think we aren’t seeing a lot of it in our movies and TV shows.”

Olivia Wilde and Oscar Isaac in Life Itself

Olivia Wilde and Oscar Isaac in Life Itself

OC: With Life Itself, the film is broken down into several chapters which weave together in Dan Fogelman fashion. Where did the idea for this narrative come from? 

DF: “I wish I had some great answer in terms of inspiration. I’m not that kind of writer really. I really do write from a stream of consciousness, especially on this one. I just started writing and let it unfold as I was writing. I’ve spoken pretty openly about this, but I lost my mom about 10 years ago and it was the body blow of my life at that time and to this day.  Then, a year later, I met my wife, and that completely changed my life.  I think these two women were the inspirations in some ways for this film.”

OC: When you are writing do you think of specific actors as you are creating your characters? 

DF: “I often do, but I did not with this film.  I did envision Steve Carell when I wrote Crazy Stupid Love, and the same with my very first movie (Danny Collins), I wrote with Al Pacino in mind. For LIfe Itself, I had no idea who we were going to cast in the film which is strange for me.”

OC: Olivia Wilde was eventually cast as your lead actress. Why her? 

DF: “She was my dream girl.  She is just an unbelievably smart  and cool person.  She’d just directed her first film, which I saw and it’s great. Aside from being a very famous movie star, she's also going to become a very important director. 

“Yes, she’s a knockout and exceptionally beautiful. But she is just so darn smart.  It's very easy especially with celebrities to get distracted when somebody is so physically beautiful. But the two words I would use to describe her are intelligent and cool. 

Dan Fogelman

Dan Fogelman

“She's also wickedly smart and you feel that in this film.  That's not something you can always act. That comes from her heart and soul and she wears them both on her sleeve.”

OC: Olivia’s character Abby write’s a university thesis about the reliable and unreliable narrator. Which one are you? 

DF: “I'm probably unreliable like we all are. The only reliable narrator is, of course, life itself. 

“I think as a result of doing what I do for a living, and specifically the type of stuff I tread in, is that there's a tendency when I do interviews to come off really sensitive and perfect and loving towards my wife. And I write all this sensitive, romantic stuff that makes people cry, right?

“But I'm deeply flawed, just like anybody else.  My wife, God knows, she wants to kill me half the time. And not in just a cute way. 

“So as I sit and talk about how I love my wife the same way Oscar Isaac loves his wife in this film, I mean it. But  I also know that  am a wildly imperfect husband and need to do so much better.”

OC: Nobody is perfect, Dan.

DF: “Nobody is perfect, that is for sure. But I think that makes me an unreliable narrator. When we are talking about ourselves or telling our own stories, of course we're unreliable. Because we're subjective, and we're in our own minds through the prism of our own eyeballs remembering things. It’s all so subjective.”

OC: Why did you choose to do a third of this film in Spanish? That was pretty bold of you. 

DF:  “I wanted to do that  because, in a movie that's trying to capture so many different  slices of life of the human experience, I thought it was important that it also could transcend language a little bit and show a commonality between cultures and language. 

“I spoke Spanish very well in high school, less well as I went into my 20s and now it's faded a little bit. (Spain) was a country I had a fond romantic notion of from when I visited as a younger man.  I just wanted to attempt it. I thought it would be a really exciting thing to try and do. I already knew the structure of this film was going to be complicated and difficult. And characters that you loved we're going to go through some  very hard things, and that was going to be difficult. And I thought,’You know what? If I'm going for this, I would I would also like to challenge myself and see if I couldget people to drift into another language and culture without losing them.’”

OC: While also shooting on location…

DF: “Yes, we moved to Spain after we shot the American portion of the film. We shot with an entirely Spanish cast and crew in a language I don't speak fluently. It was very challenging, but it was really also very exciting.”

 OC: Plus, you’ve introduced us to a few new break out Spanish stars as well. 

DF: “I agree, they were wonderful.  Laia Costa, she's new and blowing up. But she's only been acting professionally for like five or six years and the camera loves her. I knew all of the actors I was going to cast beforehand for the English speaking roles. But I figured, when I got to Spain, I would find my actors for that part (excluding Antonio Banderas who I had already cast).  

“Laia got her hands on the scripts somehow. And she read every scene in the movie on  camera and sent me the tape of her reading about 25 minutes’ worth. And when I saw her last monologue that she gives in the film, I said, ‘I don’t want to see anyone else, she’s got the role.’”

OC: Let’s just say that Bob Dylan plays a big part in this film, well one of his songs in particular. 

DF: “Yeah, well I am a huge Dylan fan and I wanted to incorporate one of my favorite songs into the narrative.  Dylan made a huge impact on me throughout my college years. His writing is just so clear and meaningful, and most of his music chronicles loss after loss. 

“However there’s one silver lining in the song Make You Feel My Love. And that is the one I was adamant about using in the film. It really spoke to me and helped shape the script.”

OC: Your TV series This Is Us  has become quite the phenomenon.  Why do you think it has taken off the way it has an people are connecting with it so deeply? 

DF: “There's nothing necessarily groundbreaking about the show itself. So why has it  become this phenomenon? I think the actors, like the ones in  this film, are exceptional. And I think they're exceptionally talented in terms of being thespians.

“But they're also exceptionally charmed human beings who you watch on your  television screen, and they're beautiful and they're winning in all the ways you want to be winning as a human being.  When you have that combination with eight different actors, yeah that's a pretty winning formula. Tt would be hard to screw it up.”

OC: How nice has it been for you to return to the a big screen project after the success of This Is Us ? 

DF: “I was truly invigorated writing and directing a film again. This is an intimate film with a cast of really exceptional actors, but there’s no real concept, and it’s very unusual. That was so exciting.  I’m hoping that the  film will bring people back to the movie theaters to see that these kinds of stories also need to be told this way.