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‘Life Itself’ Filmmaker Dan Fogelman on Crafting the Perfect Tearjerker

Life Itself” dares its audience not to cry. The multi-generational drama spans decades and continents as it tells the stories of two families in Spain and New York City who are tested and ultimately brought together by various personal tragedies.

“It’s an odd moment for men at the end of the movie where nobody wants to look each other in the eye,” the film’s writer and director Dan Fogelman told Variety on the eve of “Life Itself’s” Toronto International Film Festival premiere. “I didn’t really intend to make a movie that leaves people in tears. I just wanted to capture the heartbreak and joy and loss families all over experience every day.”

“Life Itself” has a sprawling cast of A-list actors that includes Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, but don’t get too attached to any of their characters. The film also has a very high mortality rate. There are bus accidents, cancer diagnoses and suicides. That’s a lot of death in a movie that also boasts numerous romances and its fair share of humorous moments. Fogelman, best known for creating the hit NBC dramedy “This Is Us,” said that he was inspired to veer from heartbreak to “meet cute” by personal experience.

“I’ve always been struck by how beautiful and funny a funeral can be and by how alive you can feel at your lowest or darkest moment,” said Fogelman.

Ten years ago, Fogelman’s mother died unexpectedly, pushing him into a deep depression. On the one year anniversary of her death, however, Fogelman met the woman who would become his wife.

“It’s that kind of dichotomy that interests me,” he said.

Some of the directors and writers that Fogelman most admires have been able to achieve that delicate balance between humor and pathos. He cites James L. Brooks’ “Terms of Endearment,” Robert Benton’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” and Cameron Crowe’s “Jerry Maguire” as examples of films that don’t fit neatly into a package. But that also made “Life Itself” a difficult proposition for studios. Many passed because the film lacked an easily definable genre.

“You couldn’t put it in any one box and that bothered some people,” said Fogelman.

“Life Itself” ended up being independently financed by FilmNation. To figure out how the movie was playing, Fogelman began screening it regularly for friends and industry colleagues. Word started to spread about the picture. The film was originally set to debut at the Sundance Film Festival, but the buzz around his impromptu showings generated interest from studios and the film was ultimately picked up by Amazon. That meant Fogelman and company could skip a trip to Utah.

As Fogelman has been readying himself to began hawking the film in Toronto, he got another reminder about the ups and downs of life.

“Last night, my wife and I got robbed,” he said. “We came home and found we’d been ransacked. So we cleaned up and went to bed. Later that night, at midnight, the same guys came back and started bashing through the door. When I ran down the stairs, it scared them off.”

The robbery happened the day after Fogelman had attended an amazing dinner party where he had a great time and laughed hysterically. It was a month after the sudden death of a close friend at age 40.

“That’s life,” he said. “One day it’s sad, one day it’s funny. It’s not any one thing.”

“Life Itself” hits theaters Sept. 21.

VARIETY PORTRAIT STUDIO AT TIFF

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