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Interview: Life Itself’s Dan Fogelman

by Leora Heilbronn

Dan Fogelman’s name may be synonymous with his hit television show This Is Us, but the talented writer-director is also responsible for the Al Pacino-starrer (and hidden gem) Danny Collins, the now defunct (but much loved) shows Pitch and Galavant, as well as for writing Crazy Stupid Love, Tangled and Cars (amongst many others). Fogelman’s new film, Life Itself, had its rapturously received World Premiere at TIFF recently and we had the pleasure to chat with him in an intimate roundtable discussion the next day.

The following is an edited and condensed version of our wonderful talk with Dan Fogelman.

Which filmmakers inspire you and inspire your artistry?

Dan Fogelman: I’m inspired all over the place. I love watching things that move me. I was just on the plane coming out here and I watched two documentaries that really, really moved me. The Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary and the Mister Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. I find inspiration in those, and those are documentaries about real people. As a younger guy who loved film, I love those kinds of movies that thread the needle between there was funny in them, but there was also drama and they would also move you. I look at the Jim Brooks movies like Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News or the Cameron Crowe films like Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire and Richard Curtis’ movies which are always movies I love to watch because they’re romantic and funny and they were not heavy, but you still felt something when you watched them. I always loved stuff like that.

You wrote on Deadline that nowadays it’s scary to tell emotional stories. Can you elaborate on that sentiment? 

DF: I think that people are not that cynical now. I think the world is cynical now because the people with the biggest mouthpieces happen to be a little cynical, if that makes any sense. I think that clearly there’s a hunger for things that can make people feel connected and can make people feel. My television show, which is not for the cynical critic, is also something that people clearly hungered for. I think the internet has become a really scary place and putting anything out into the world is scary, and that can be a tweet or an Instagram post or a picture of yourself on Facebook. I’m a human being and I self protect a little bit too.

Obviously Bob Dylan is a huge influence on you and you obviously have a passion for his album, Time out of Mind. Why that particular album and what other music do you admire? 

DF: That’s a good question. I’m not a music historian the way some people are. Some people can name every track on every album from every artist that they’ve ever loved. It’s very much a part of what I do professionally. What I love about music is how it can make you feel. There’s not a lot of art forms that can make you feel so instantly. You hear a song and it makes you have a feeling, and it can be a bad feeling, it can be a sad feeling or a happy feeling. Outside of maybe a painting, if you have an eye for art, there’s nothing besides music that can act that quickly and put you into a different emotional space, good, bad or other. This album of Bob Dylan’s came to me rather randomly. I started writing, I hit my iTunes, and that first song from that album came up. I started listening to it, thought “this is cool, I like this feeling”. I kept listening to that album, which I’d always liked, and as I kept going back to it I thought “this is going to be the basis of this album”. What it felt like was what the movie is – it was unflinchingly kind of sad and often made you feel a well of emotion as you were listening to Dylan. I thought “that’s a little of what I’m attacking here – life is sad, often, and very hard and very difficult and we’re not going to shy away from it”. But also we’re going to find the love song and the happiness and the optimism in the midst of this otherwise sad album, which exists in his song ‘Make You Feel My Love’.

What did Bob Dylan think of the movie and the outpouring of love for this album of his in the movie?

DF: I wrote it before I had to ask him. I obviously don’t know Bob Dylan. We sent the script to his camp, who are very protective of his songs and his legacy, and they responded to the script and then they responded to the finished film. They were able to let us license all of this music. I don’t know that Bob Dylan has ever read the script nor will he ever see the film, but his people who are closest with him have and signed off, which was exciting.

Every single person in this cast gives an unforgettable performance. Can you talk a little about the casting process for the central members of this ensemble?

DF: You know it was one of the rare projects that I got the people I wanted to play the parts, even though I didn’t know most of them. Oscar Isaac was the first person in because his character starts the film off, so we went to that role first. Oscar wanted to do it, which makes it a lot easier to get other parts when you say that Oscar Isaac is signed on.

Was it because of the Llewyn Davis/Bob Dylan connection? 

DF: No, not at all. It was because I love him as an actor. Even though you’ve seen it in doses, I was interested to see him in a part where, on top of being a great dramatic actor, which he has already showcased in movies where he’s in the entire thing, this movie allows for some great dramatic moments for him. But he’s also a really handsome, really funny, really charming guy who you just want to be around. He’s a movie star and, to me, an American movie star on top of being a really amazing actor. I thought this would be a really amazing showcase to show that side of him to a mainstream audience. Then the rest of the cast fell in place. I had worked with Annette Bening before on my first film, I’d worked with Olivia Cooke before in a film I produced called Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and then I went to Antonio and Olivia Wilde and they wanted to do it. I cast the Spanish parts with actors I hadn’t known before who read.

The film’s (sometimes unreliable) narrator tells us who the film’s heroes are. Who are some of your heroes? 

DF: That’s a really good question. I have such admiration for people who write grand sprawling novels because it’s always been something I’ve been scared to attempt. I loved reading Dickens as a young man in college. David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities – the ability to put together that kind of sprawling kind of novel as a writer was always something I’d admired greatly. So yeah, writers, all kinds of writers are people that I really respond to.

Who do you still want to work with in the industry? 

DF: I was in the process of doing a film with Tom Cruise once and it didn’t work out. I wound up spending quite a bit of time with him and it just didn’t work out. I’ve always wanted to write Tom Cruise’s next Jerry Maguire-type film, but I don’t know what that is. Jack Nicholson is another bucket list guy for me.

Beyond the next season of This Is Us, what would you like to work on next? 

DF: I was thinking I could do something like a musical. I did a television show that was a musical television show and we did two seasons of it. I wrote it with Alan Menken, who created every hit Disney musical of all time, and we had so much fun doing it. It was a Monty Python-like musical set in England called Galavant and it gave me the bug a little bit. I’m not a musical theatre-goer but I did love that form.



Life Itself is available on Blu-ray on December 18

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