EDITOR’S NOTE: As the creator of NBC hit This is Us, Dan Fogelman has been breaking the nation’s hearts on a weekly basis on television. Tomorrow, his second feature film Life Itself, featuring an all-star cast including Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas, Laia Costa and Samuel L. Jackson, gets its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Ahead of the screening, we asked Fogelman to expound in his own words on his belief in sentimentality; what it means, how it matters, and why it cannot be denied.
It is 2008.
I am 31 years old, and I am sitting in a chair in a doctor’s exam room next to my blonde, youthful looking, sixty year old mother. My mother, we have learned, has a grapefruit sized tumor in her abdomen. It has never caused any symptoms nor discomfort. It has evaded detection. But it is cancerous, and—in short order, we’ve been told—it will begin growing into her other organs.
It will kill her.
We sit in the exam room in Philadelphia awaiting a determination from one of the top surgeons in the country. Will he be able to operate? Will he be able to save her?
My mother has her Oprah book club book in her lap. She is always reading and she is always eating. She usually reads sprawling family sagas. She usually eats chocolate.
The doctor enters. He is charming, he is lovely, and he makes her feel special. Mom likes him, I can tell.
He asks her what book she’s reading. She tells him and he smiles. He offers that perhaps it’s time she starts reading another favorite book of his. He tells her she needs to start reading the Bible.
The tumor is inoperable, he says with a false, sad, smile.
The floor falls out of the room. It takes everything in me not to knock the smug prick out. I come real close.
“It’s going to be fine,” I assure my mother as I load her into my rental car. She is crying softly. There is another fancy doctor, and I’ve used my very fancy connections to get in contact with him. I’m going to overnight him Mom’s files for the weekend and we’ll get good news by Monday. I know it.
I race home towards her condo in New Jersey. There’s a FedEx store near her place, I can overnight her paperwork from there. The store closes at 5. I race into the lot at 4:58. I double park, grab her files and x-rays, and rush in.
I’m trying to put her papers in order as I enter.
“We are closed!” shouts an Indian man with a thick accent.
I’m babbling. “Just give me one second. I just have an overnight package to San Francisco…”
“The last pickup already went out.”
“No, no, I just need one second,” I stammer. “I’ll have it ready in one second.” Papers are falling to the floor. X-rays are slipping out. My hands are shaking. And for the first time since my mother has been diagnosed—for the first time since I was maybe 15 years old—I am starting to cry.
No, not just cry. In my adult life, this is as close I’ve ever come to “sobbing”.
Suddenly, there is a hand on my shoulder. It is the man with the accent. “I will call them back,” he says. “Take your time, we will get the package out.”
It occurs to me, even as it is happening, that this would make a great scene in a movie one day.
Eventually I find my mother a different top-notch surgeon. He has a great bedside manner. He feels confident. He will fix her.
My mom dies in surgery.
I spend the next year wallowing in whiskey-sopped misery. I work, but rarely leave the house or socialize. I wonder, quite rationally and analytically, if I’ll ever come back from this.
About a year from the day she dies, I meet a young blonde woman. She is rarely without a sprawling family novel in her lap. She is constantly eating chocolate.
A year after my mother dies, I meet my wife.
It is not easy, these days, to choose to see the beauty in the human experience. It is not in vogue and it is certainly not considered “cool” or “artistic”. Ugliness envelops us right now. The internet is filled with trolls and skeptics, haters and hackers.
It is a scary choice, these days, to make anything that leads with its heart. Leading with your heart exposes your most crucial organ to those very trolls and skeptics and yes, sometimes, the most cynical of film critics.
But I choose to see connections in our existences. I choose to see the romance, and the beauty that is often born from tragedy.
I choose to see love… and when it’s too dark to see it, I choose to try and find it. I made my new film for the two women in my story. But also for the man at that FedEx store. And for every person who has experienced love and loss, kindness and love. I made it not just for my mother and father, but for your mother and father. And theirs.
I made this film so people could walk out of a movie theater feeling better than they did when they walked in. And if that’s sentimental, so be it. I just told you about the time I sobbed in a FedEx store and how I married a woman who reminded me of my mother. “Sentimental” is the least of my problems.