By Pat Mullen
Dan Fogelman likes a good cry. He makes audiences weep every week with his hit TV series This is Us. Now he’s inspiring a collective ugly cry with the film Life Itself, which packs as many emotions into two hours as This is Us does in a season. There are so many feels in this ensemble drama that boasts an all-star cast of Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Olivia Cooke, and Laia Costa. The film is a puzzle about the mysteries of life and love that connect unexpectedly through fate and chance.
Fogelman, speaking with BeatRoute at the Toronto International Film Festival following the world premiere of Life Itself, says the pleasure of stepping back and observing daily life inspired his process. “We get so wrapped up in our singular individual lives that we can lose perspective of the bigger picture of what we’re all collectively doing together and how the world moves forward.”
Other inspiration for the film comes from the story of his late mother, as Life Itself draws from the sense of loss Fogelman experienced after her death.
“You get reflective of the bigger picture after those moments,” observes Fogelman. “After you have experienced a big loss, when things happen that are positive they cause you to go back, go forward, and ask how life makes sense and works together.”
Life Itself plays upon the puzzle pieces of our lives as the characters’ stories intersect. Fogelman’s script travels through different time periods as Will (Isaac) grapples with the loss of his wife, Abby (Wilde), and revisits highlights from their relationship with the help of his therapist (Bening). His memories don’t often fit together and the film centres around Abby’s grad school thesis in English literature that argues that the most unreliable narrator of all is life itself. Abby, like Fogelman, likes to look deeply at the relationship between emotions and art.
Fogelman admits it’s a risk to let people acknowledge their vulnerability. “I think the world is cynical now because the people with the biggest mouthpieces happen to be a little cynical,” says Fogelman, alluding to Trump. “There is a hunger for stories that make people feel connected. My television show, which is not for the cynical critic, is also something that people hungered for.”
The emotions keep on coming as Life Itself weaves through various love stories set to the tracks of Bob Dylan’s album Time Out of Mind. “What I love about music is how it can make you feel. There aren’t many art forms that can make you feel so instantly.”
The biggest feel of Life Itself comes via Dylan’s ballad “Make You Feel My Love,” which inspires the film’s Spain-set romance between Banderas and Costa. Fogelman says he recognized the song as the heart of Dylan’s album and found it provided the catharsis he sought for the film. “It was unflinchingly sad,” he says. The film mirrors Dylan’s choice to include a Spanish song within his album as the drama shifts from English to Spanish once Banderas and Costa take lead.
When it comes to scripting a two-hour film versus a story that spans episodes and seasons, Fogelman says each medium brings its own challenges. “In our television show, there’s a slow burn to the plots. Entire storylines can spread out over the course of a season and you have lots of beginnings and ends, so the moves are much smaller.” Compared to Life Itself, which ping-pongs between characters from one story to the next, and each action must relate to another.
“You’re getting a sense of their overall lives because of the key moments,” says Fogelman. “They’re in snapshots, but it’s all in service of the overall picture if you zoom out and see that big story from beginning to end.”
Life Itself is currently in theatres.