‘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.


More Film

  • BAFTA Backs BIFA’s Unconscious-Bias Training for

    BIFA’s Unconscious-Bias Training Rolls Out to BAFTA Voters, Wider Industry (EXCLUSIVE)

    The British Independent Film Awards is opening up its unconscious-bias training to BAFTA voters and, more widely, to anyone who judges the work of others in the film and TV business in the U.K. With the makeup of award-nominee and -winner lists under close scrutiny, BIFA introduced its unconscious-bias training last year. Its voters, jurors, [...]

  • Instinct

    Carice van Houten's 'Instinct' Picked Up By Films Boutique (EXCLUSIVE)

    Berlin-based international sales agent Films Boutique has picked up psychological thriller “Instinct,” starring Carice van Houten, who received an Emmy nomination Tuesday for “Game of Thrones,” and Marwan Kenzari, recently seen in Guy Ritchie’s “Aladdin.” “Instinct” has its world premiere on the Piazza Grande at the Locarno Film Festival next month. “Instinct,” the directorial debut [...]

  • If Only - Ginevra Elkann

    Locarno Announces Edgy Mix of Premieres, Joseph Gordon-Levitt Thriller '7500'

    Italian director Ginevra Elkann’s directorial debut, “If Only,” about kids with divorced parents, will open the 72nd Locarno Film Festival, its first edition under new artistic director Lili Hinstin, who has assembled an edgy mix of promising titles from young auteurs and more established names. “If Only” and the fest closer, iconic Japanese director Kiyoshi [...]

  • Jody Madden Replaces Craig Rodgerson as

    Jody Madden Replaces Craig Rodgerson as CEO of VFX Firm Foundry

    Jody Madden has been upped to CEO at U.K.-based VFX outfit Foundry. She steps up fromchief product officer and replaces Craig Rodgerson, who joined the company in late 2017. Foundry was bought by U.S. tech firm Roper Technologies earlier this year in a £410 million ($509 million) deal. The London-based business provides software and technology [...]

  • The Lion King

    ‘The Lion King’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Walt Disney Pictures claims the top spot in spending with “The Lion King.” Ads placed for the remake had an estimated media value of $5.64 million through Sunday for 1,290 national ad airings on [...]

  • Beyonce poses for photographers upon arrival

    Beyoncé Releases Music Video for 'Spirit,' Her 'Lion King' Soundtrack Contribution

    Beyoncé fans are stampeding across the web veldt to get a look at her just-released music video for “Spirit,” the original song she co-wrote and sang for the “Lion King” soundtrack. The track is also included on the companion album she executive-produced and will release Friday, “The Gift.” Clips from the computer-animated film are interspersed [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez Takes Down Wall Street Crooks in New Trailer for 'Hustlers'

    According to Jennifer Lopez, basic pole dancing movements all revolve around a few foot positions. But as she tells her stripper student Constance Wu, it’s not just about the dancing. In the new trailer for “Hustlers,” Lopez and Wu swindle a number of high profile Wall Street clients in an effort to bring their white [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content