Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde in Life Itself
Dan Fogelman opens his second directorial effort with a writing scene. In it, Samuel L. Jackson begins to narrate a humdrum slice-of-life narrative; he comments on setting, on characters… and then vanishes, because he’s really only a device in a screenplay written by Will (Oscar Isaac), a depressive man who has fallen into a deep funk after the departure of his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde). Will and Abby are only characters in the tapestry of Life Itself, a dramedy that betrays Fogelman’s roots as both a writer and as the creator of This Is Us. Life Itself sometimes plays like a hyper-condensed version of that hit show — and one where its writer-director has expressly decided to give himself as few rules as possible.
“I think it’s a particularly structured movie in part because it’s also a human drama,” says Fogelman. “We tend to allow for really unusually structured films in science-fiction or thrillers — things that play with time in that way and surprise people. It’s a little bit more rare to be unusually structured when it’s just people talking and relatable characters living their lives.”
From the starting point of Will and Abby, Fogelman goes on to explore the lives of people connected through family, love and tragedy — from their troubled daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) to Will’s therapist (Annette Bening) and Abby’s parents (a scene-stealing Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart) to a Spanish family (Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa and Adrian Marrero) — in a way that steers away from the conventional limitations of a screenplay.
“It’s also commenting on the way we hear stories, the way we tell stories and the way we accept stories, which is a very writerly thing to do” says Fogelman. “I think life is never just one thing. Even on a given day, it changes 16 times. I think a funeral is a really good example of that, although it can happen on a normal trip to the mall as well. It can go from scary and almost getting into a car accident to something funny that happens between you and your kids all the way to something that’s heartbreaking when you get a phone call that you weren’t expecting. Life changes on a dime, and it happens almost every day, every month, every year. We often put our films and our art into boxes; we want it to be one thing based on the genre it’s in or the filmmaker who made it. We want it to be a comedy, an R-rated comedy, a slasher movie, an action thriller, a superhero movie. I think life is a lot of things, all at once, and that’s something that I’m always chasing in this film. The tonal shifts in the movie aren’t accidental; they’re purposeful.”
A solid third of Life Itself is in Spanish, a language that Fogelman himself admits he can speak “a very broken” version of.
“It’s very logistically complicated and, I would imagine, very rare,” says Fogelman. “I wanted the movie to go across continents and across languages to show the commonality of the human experience — that was the reason for it. In terms of logistics, it’s hard. You memorize the script so that you know exactly where you are; when the actors change words, as I allowed the actors here to do, you can get lost. It moves fast and you might not even realize where you are, then you’re gone and you’re off-book. That portion of the movie was shot with an entirely Spanish cast and an entirely Spanish crew. I’m trying to speak Spanish to the best of my abilities, because I don’t want to be the American asshole director coming in and only speaking English. It was logistically challenging but very, very rewarding.”
If anything, the lack of rules and the ever-expanding scope of the film (and, yes, of life itself) could potentially give Fogelman too large a canvas. “The film was always in service of one thing,” he explains. “There isn’t really a main character or main thing — they all kind of share it. There’s this one story where metaphorically the message is ‘terrible things happen, the world can be very dark and scary and tragic.’ But all of these stories are also about characters who have gone through a lifetime of that and how we find some optimism in that. The characters’ journeys are almost in service of that message, and what they go through is part of that. What I need from each section of the movie is to do that effectively, to get to the point where the section has told that story. They could all be the same character, in a way, because they’re all in service of that same story.” ■
Life Itself opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 21. Watch the trailer here: