In features, Dan Fogelman has written big several hits, including the blockbuster Cars franchise. In TV, he had been known for quirky short-lived half-hour comedy series with cult followings, including The Neighbors and Galavant on ABC. But after Galavant came to a premature end in May 2016, Fogelman made a big change. He switched studios, moving from ABC Studios/Disney, where he had been based for years, for a deal at 20th Century Fox TV.
Fogelman also switched genres, venturing into hour-long drama with This is Us and Pitch, both of which went to series and earned strong reviews. While Pitch was another cult hit, This is Us was an instant breakout. The ensemble family drama, which featured no major stars and no high-concept gimmicks, made an immediate connection with fans, with its trailer amassing tens of millions of views in a matter of days. It went on to give Fogelman a giant hit, TV’s version of a feature blockbuster.
But before The Big Three, there were The Big Six. In an interview with Deadline, Fogelman talks about the humble start to This is Us—as an unfinished feature script about sextuplets titled 36—and its transformation into a hugely popular TV series. He shares details about one of the original six siblings that didn’t make the cut to The Big Three, discloses the biggest change he had to make when the series went to broadcast instead of cable/streaming (it involves the character played by Sterling K. Brown), and lifts the curtain a bit on Season 2, Jack’s death reveal and the kind of ending he is planning for the show.
This is Us originated as a feature script, right?
It did. A few years back I was considering it as a next feature. I actually wrote about 75 pages. Initially it had about 7 characters all sharing the same birthday, and the reveal at the end of the film was going to be that the Jack and Rebecca characters were giving birth to sextuplets 36 years earlier. Kind of a Sixth Sense-type ending with babies.
What was the original inspiration for it?
There wasn’t really a ton of inspiration. I wanted to sit down and write something about people; people I knew. I was in my late 30s at the time—about 38—and I was struck by how wildly different the lives of my peers could be, even though we were all the same age. I had friends who were married, some single. Some had preteen children, others none. Some were satisfied in their careers, others less so. Some had experienced great loss—of parents, of friends—others hadn’t even lost a grandparent. And I thought, I’m going to write something about all these people, all exactly the same age and born on the same day. Halfway through I thought, Huh, maybe one story is the parents of all the others. Then I just sat down and wrote.
Did you try to get it made as a movie?
I didn’t. One of the only times in my life I wrote something and just put it away. It wasn’t gelling for me as a film. I loved the characters, I loved the idea of it, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around it as a film. I struggled to find the point of the ending, or even to find “the ending”. So I put it away and said, “Well, shit, that was 6 months wasted.”
How and when did the idea come about to turn it into a series?
I’d had a TV series cancelled in heartbreaking fashion as per usual, and I’d started contemplating what I might do next. I kept thinking up characters that reminded me of characters from that old screenplay, but I didn’t like the new ideas/characters as much as I did those older characters. And one day I just decided to open it back up, lose some characters, and try thinking of it as a TV series instead of a film. And suddenly I was excited to write it again, not just because it could be shorter and was almost done—though that was enticing too—but because suddenly I didn’t need an ending. The ending was just a beginning, and the thing I liked most about the script—the characters—they could keep evolving over many, many stories. And you could see how the family grows and informs itself over years and different time periods. As soon as that locked in, I knew I was going to do it.
Can you reveal the gender and any other details about the sextuplets from the original 36 script who didn’t make the cut to TV?
One major character was another sister who lived in London and had developed one of those partial English accents Americans get when they live there a long time – another misdirect to them all being related in the end. Her main story involved a broken marriage and a cute little son.
Did you consider making the show for cable or streaming? Why was the decision made to go with a broadcast series?
At one point early on I did, but there didn’t seem to be a need to. There was nothing in the show—save for Jack’s ass—that begged for the show to be on cable. I think the initial script had like six “sh*ts” and three “f*cks” in it. None were spectacularly funny, none were integral to any of it.
Actually, there was one. In the pilot Sterling K. Brown’s character punctuates a monologue by telling his biological father that he came to see him to tell him, “I didn’t need a fucking thing from you.” I was so stressed taking “f*cking” out, that the speech wouldn’t have the same impact. Then Sterling comes and does the monologue on the day, no f-word, and says, “I didn’t need a THING from you…” and spit flies out of his mouth on “thing” and you feel his wound and his rage as if he’s said “fucking” a thousand times over, and I loved him more than I’ve ever loved an actor in that moment.
Yeah, I guess it can be considered “cooler” to be on streaming or cable. And you think of that when you are first deciding where the show should air. But I’ve got a populist sensibility. I like the fact that people can access this show easily—not just emotionally, but also literally. It could have been on cable, yes, but it would have been us trying to be cool. And when you try to be cool, but aren’t just naturally cool, I think it’s incredibly lame.
If Sterling taught me anything it’s that sometimes you can say “f*ck” without saying “f*ck”.
How and why was the title changed from 36 to This is Us?
No one liked 36 as a title. Most obviously, because it only relates to the pilot and then has zero to do with the series. Also because it’s a number. But I’d made a bunch of films and shows without a title and it becomes a shitshow. Everyone pitches you titles, no one ever agrees on a title, and you have yellow “Untitled Dan Fogelman” signs all over town. So I put 36 on the script but no one liked it—myself included—and thus began the unavoidable shitshow once again. There was something about This is Us that felt lyrical to me. I’d been pitching the show to people, saying, “It’s a show about people,” and, “It’s a show about us.” Not everyone agreed it was a good title, as per usual. But not everyone absolutely loathed it, which was a start. When I did my first cut, I put it in the title card, hoping that people would like the pilot and get attached to the title after seeing it in the show they’d just watched. That kind of happened… Also, I may have just worn everyone down. I honestly can’t remember.
Do you have an explanation for why the series resonated with viewers in such a big way?
I don’t. If asked to pick one thing, I always point to the cast. It’s a win finding one actor who can deliver both as a serious actor but also as a winning person you want to see on your TV screen every week. We lucked into finding eight.
How long before you reveal how Jack dies? Is it coming in Season 2?
There’s always been a plan for Jack’s death—how and when it would be revealed. We are sticking to the plan. I can’t say a ton, but yes, it’s fair to say that Season 2 holds a lot of the remaining cards re: Jack’s death.
Do you have trepidations about keeping viewers interested after that? Fans tuned out of Twin Peaks once Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed. Are you planning another mystery after that?
Nah, no more “mysteries” but I think we have some things in store that will keep people talking and on their toes.
How far ahead have you mapped out This is Us?
We know a lot. Obviously we know more specific details and storylines about Seasons 1 and 2 than we do about Seasons 3 and beyond—it’s impossible to really map out an entire series when you’re doing as many episodes as we are—but globally I know the shape of the series, where it ends, where each season goes, and what the spread of the show is.
Do you have an end point for each character that you are building toward?
Generally speaking, yes. Characters tend to evolve over years, and you discover things in making a show, so things will evolve. But in general, yes.
It is a happy ending?
Of course. C’mon. At the worst it will be in the vicinity of happy.
What is the most plot-wise you can tell us about Season 2? Any major twists coming?
I can tell you that we really dive into the next chapters for the present day lives of our adult children—Kate as she embarks on a singing career and plans a wedding with Toby, Randall and Beth as they consider adopting a child, and Kevin as he takes the next steps in his acting career and battles some new demons in his quest to be a full, realized dude. We’ve left Jack and Rebecca in a really fragile place in their marriage, so there’s lots to do there—and of course we have the ticking clock of Jack’s death looming. So lots coming.
And yes, there’s something coming in Season 2—I’m not sure if it’s a “twist” or what one would call it, but yes. We’ve got something.
Will we be crying less?
That, I can’t say. For now let’s say “crying the same” and see what happens.
In 2014, The Good Wife built its Emmy campaign around the fact that it produces a lot more episodes a year—22—than any of the cable and digital drama series in contention. It didn’t lead to a series nomination, and it’s been five years since a broadcast drama has cracked the top category. This is Us produced 18 episodes, still more than any of the drama series currently touted as contenders. How do you feel about that, and what is your pitch to Emmy voters?
I’ve never worked on anything in film or TV that’s really been in the conversation for fancy award stuff so this stuff is all beyond my scope of understanding. You know how people say stuff like, “It’s an honor to be nominated?” I’m just thrilled our show is even in the conversation. It’s a popular, very populist show that wears its heart on its sleeve. Those type of shows aren’t often in the conversation. They are often dismissed as light or sentimental when placed in a conversation against grittier, darker cable shows—all of which I love.
So who the hell knows? In terms of the amount of episodes, yeah, it’s not easy trying to keep quality control up for 18 episodes. But I’d venture to say that it’s not easy for shorter order series to tell complete stories in fewer episodes. Yes, we sometimes have Adam Levine popping up in a banner over the bottom of our TV screen, but we also get to have more people watching on a TV screen than other cable shows.
My pitch to Emmy voters is that I don’t really have a pitch. We’re thrilled to be in the conversation, we’re thrilled people dig the show, and I’d be thrilled to see our actors get recognized because they’re spectacular and also happen to be really nice people.
Beyond that, if people watch the show, and like it, and wanted to vote for it, I certainly won’t stop them.