Life led Dan Fogelman to “Life Itself”

Posted at 8:03 AM, Sep 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-21 10:03:07-04

When Dan Fogelman was writing his movie, “Life Itself,” he was just years away from experiencing one of life’s major twists.

At that point, Fogelman had already kind of had his fill of big life events.

First of all, he was about to get married. This woman, Caitlin Thompson, had come into his life almost one year to the day after he lost his mother.

His mother had been fighting cancer when she went in for a surgery that was supposed to be a life threatening surgery, according to Fogelman.

He’d helped her make some medical decisions. It felt, he says, “like losing somebody in a car accident, but you were driving the car and watching the entire time.”

Fogelman admits he had trouble “getting off the mat” in the aftermath.

“Life Itself” is, in many ways, about the beauty, the pain, and the tragedy of getting — or trying to get — off the mat.

“I had lost this person who was not going to be there to meet this woman I’d fallen in love with. I was happy, but I was still kind of struggling with that loss,” he said. “And so I think a lot of that was kind of swishing around in my brain as I was sitting down to write it. I was obviously in a place where I was contemplating a lot of beautiful things; at the same time, I was contemplating a lot of difficult things.”

Flash forward four years, Fogelman has made something of a brand out of exploring life’s most difficult moments through his show, “This Is Us.”

The multi-generational story, which premiered in 2016 on NBC, found narrative superpower in sentimentality.

Its masterful ensemble and the show’s penchant for heart-tugging twists helped make the series an instant hit and Fogelman one of the industry’s most lauded voices because he’d done something people hadn’t seen in years: made a genuine ratings hit for broadcast TV.

It’s Fogelman’s good fortune to have his hit series returning for a third season within days of his film going into theaters. But critics have been mixed.

Whereas the emotionality of “This Is Us” has largely earned it praise, “Life Itself,” which shares some themes with the show, has been panned for it.

Fogelman is unfazed.

“I don’t understand that,” he says. “I think we’re at a really weird place in criticism of film and art. I think the world has gotten incredibly cynical and incredibly dark.”

He knows, he says, that “it’s never been entirely cool to feel.”

“I think there’s like 10 critics out there who want things to be withholding and bleak, but I think the average human being and the average human experience is wildly big and emotional and dramatic,” he says. “I mean, I think we have parents and families and kids. We go to weddings, we go to funerals, we have births of children. We love….The human experience is like, it is like a beautiful, sad, emotional experience.”

He continues, a little fired up.

“I don’t know why on Earth a critic would come out of something saying it’s emotional or they’re trying to manipulate me to have emotion,” he says. “What else are we doing?”

Fogelman himself is actually a “reserved guy,” he says. He went to therapy briefly after his mother’s death, but it wasn’t for him. He doesn’t emote easily.

One could theorize he saves that for his script pages — even if he can’t always anticipate the reaction.

“I didn’t expect people to start crying so much when I was writing ‘This Is Us,'” he admits. “That was not part of the construct of it whatsoever.”

But it has certainly become so, much to the pleasure of marketing teams, who lean into the tissue box and crying face emoji when interacting with fans on Twitter.

Fogelman, whose other credits include “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Guilt Trip,” is conscious of being pigeonholed.

“It’s not something I certainly set out to do, but again, like it means something is being done right,” he said. “I think crying — because it’s funny to put tissue box emoji on things on Twitter — it becomes like an overarching narrative, and I get it. That’s actually a great selling tool, but I think it almost can make the power of what we’re trying to do feel a little bit smaller because it seems like, ‘Oh, he’s just trying to make you cry.'”

Fogelman’s true inspiration comes from his “positive non-cynical view of human beings and what we’re all doing here.”

If films or television shows can have the power to leave their audiences “in place where they’re kind of torn open in a positive way,” he says, “I don’t understand what else you would want to do.”

“Life Itself” opens September 21.