Busy times are afoot for Dan Fogelman—well, busier than usual. Preparing to launch the highly anticipated third season of his NBC family drama This is Us in a matter of weeks, the series creator is currently in Toronto on behalf of his second feature directorial outing, Amazon Studios’ Life Itself.
Another emotional, inter-generational tale from Fogelman, Life Itself follows a young New York couple from the first moments of courtship through marriage and the birth of their first child. It watches as the unexpected twists and turns of their life story create a ripple effect of beauty and tragedy for future generations across two continents.
Overflowing with talent, the film features an all-star cast, including Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Wilde, Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas, Oscar Isaac, Samuel L. Jackson, Laia Costa and Sergio Peris-Mencheta.
Appearing at Deadline’s Toronto Studio today—flanked by Bening, Patinkin, Cooke, Costa and Peris-Mencheta—the film’s director explained that there was no particular method or thought in his mind as he set out to write it, as layered and well-constructed as his narratives always end up being.
“I started writing it years ago. I just sat down at my computer with no idea what I was going to write, I put on Bob Dylan and I started writing. Over the course of about a year and a half, the film took shape,” Fogelman explained. The well-honed final product emerged from a careful attention to character, watching as the narrative organically grew. “You can kind of feel it when you’re watching the film, I think. It lives in different chapters and different connections. Normally, I write really quickly. But on this one, I just really took my time.”
For those diehard fans of Fogelman’s NBC drama, Life Itself may come as something of a surprise. Featuring the “optimistic, romantic point of view” the director is known for, the film also possesses a harder edge—coarser language and as much to break the heart as there is to warm it. “The film, it’s a roller coaster. It’s hard, it’s difficult, and I think the point is, life is often very, very difficult for all of us, in different ways at different times. So I wanted to not pull any punches on the difficult stuff—not PG-rate it—because I wanted to really try, as the movie says, [to] bring people and bring an audience to their knees, and go through an experience which is visceral and raw and painful, or multiple experiences. But then see, how do you make sense of all of that, and how do you find something positive despite all that, or on top of all of that.”
Certainly, the director’s script had the desired impact when it came to the actors reading it, who found themselves clutching tissues throughout the read. “I cried four times, and I’ve never cried reading a script, ever,” Costa admitted.
While all of the film’s stars responded to the inter-connectedness Fogelman emphasizes in his works, Bening also pointed to the humanity at the heart of Life Itself, which resonated strongly. “I think that theme of goodness is so important right now in the political climate that we’re in, so maybe we can bring something to people that’s different, that hits them in their heart—like everybody’s saying, in your gut. I think that’s where we’re really changed,” the actress said. “I know that’s what I look for when I go and see something; I want to be changed, I want to be moved. So I thought we had a shot at doing that.”
For more from our conversation with the director and cast of Life Itself, take a look above.