Warren Beatty was silent. It had been five minutes since “Life Itself” ended, a movie in which his wife, Annette Bening, plays a therapist. The couple had just seen the film for the first time, alongside one of Bening’s costars, Mandy Patinkin. They were all at the home of “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman, who’d directed the drama.
Bening and Patinkin were effusive in their praise, telling the filmmaker how much they loved the movie. But Beatty remained quiet, chewing on the Trader Joe’s licorice Fogelman had put out. The director’s heart sunk.
“And then, out of nowhere, he goes, ‘Dan? I don’t want you to think I’m not saying anything because I didn’t like the film,’ ” Fogelman says. “‘I’m finding it a little difficult right now to speak.’ And he gets, like, real emotional. And that was bucket list. It was really the coolest moment — maybe of my career.”
This was how it went for Fogelman in the months leading up to the release of “Life Itself,” which is in theaters this weekend. Everyone in town kept telling him how much they loved the film, an ensemble piece with intersecting storylines that featured all-star talent such as Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde and Antonio Banderas. “This Is Us” cast members Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia were among the first to see the film — Fogelman edited the film on the Paramount lot where his NBC series is produced — and had only positive things to say.
In fact, Fogelman says, “Life Itself” was accepted to the Sundance Film Festival last January, but there was so much buzz that the movie “was about to crush the film festival” that Amazon stepped into buy it early and push the release to the more awards-centric Toronto International Film Festival.
“I’m told it was one of the biggest sales [in] the history of independent film,” he says, noting that it went for more than $10 million. “Had it gone to film festivals, it would have broken records.” (The Sundance record is Fox Searchlight’s $17.5 million for “Birth of a Nation.”)
Yet when the movie premiered in Toronto earlier this month, it was met with dismal reviews. Like, some of the harshest critical notices for any film out this year. “Emotionally sadistic,” said The Times. “A blithering botch job,” claimed Rolling Stone. “A ghoulish, five-alarm fire of a movie,” wrote the Chicago Sun-Times. And, said the New York Times, “inadvertently hilarious.”
Heading into Toronto, Fogelman says he had some anxiety about the critical reception. Sitting in his office, which is decorated with memorabilia from his various projects — the infamous fire-starting slow cooker from “This Is Us,” Alan Menken’s sheet music for “Tangled” — he says he was feeling confident in the movie “and how it plays for people.”
“I think I just have a wildly different creative palette than the cynical film critic,” the 42-year-old says. “And that's OK. I like different things than they like sometimes but not — not in a bad way. My hope is that it will be warmly received in that way and kind of be able to split the difference of both worlds the way that [‘This Is Us’] has.”
Indeed, the response to “Life Itself” has been a far cry from the critical reception to his NBC show, which launches its third season next week. Not only does “This Is Us” often rake in more than 10 million viewers an episode, but it has also earned Emmys, SAG awards and Golden Globes.
Of course, Fogelman is no stranger to bad reviews. In the early days of his career, before he wrote the screenplays for hits such as “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Cars,” his writing on the movie“Fred Claus” was savaged. After his mother died about a decade ago, he went to clean out her New Jersey condo and found a plastic container filled with newspapers she’d saved from the Tri-State area that had reviewed the Vince Vaughn Christmas flick.
“And every single review says ‘The abomination of the movie can mainly be attributed to a terrible script by new writer Dan Fogelman,’ ” he says. “And my mom has highlighted my name every time. I’m like, what else do you need? That’s unconditional love.”
“Life Itself,” Fogelman says, was in part born out of his relationship with his late mother — though, at first, he wasn’t entirely sure what was drawing him to the story. His typical writing process is this: After sitting on an idea for months, he heads to a ranch “up north” and bangs out a screenplay in about a week.
“Life Itself” was different. He knew he wanted to write a new film, but he didn’t know what he wanted it to be about. At the ranch, he started listening to Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind.” He’d recently gotten married to the actress Caitlin Thompson — she has a supporting role on “This Is Us” — and was thinking about how much his life had changed. He’d met Thompson one year to the day after losing his mother, whose death was unexpected. After she was diagnosed with a tumor in her abdomen, Fogelman consulted “with a surgeon that I’d chosen for her with my fancy connections” and decided the best plan of action was a relatively risky surgery. She died as a result of it.
“There was a degree of, like, I was going to come home and be the hero who wrote talking car movies and fixed his mother with his fancy connections, and it just didn't work out that way,” he says, looking down. “I was almost outside of myself and I wondered, analytically, almost as if I was looking down on myself, if I was ever gonna quite come back from it. It had been such a devastating blow for me, and it was such a big loss. You spend your whole life wondering: ‘What is the worst thing that can happen to me?’ And then it happens and it’s like, ‘What do I do?’ ”
Ultimately, he realized that “Life Itself,” which took him about a year to write, was a story about dealing with these questions — about how you move on when life brings you to your knees. And many in Hollywood responded to the story, which starts out by focusing on a newlywed couple in New York and broadens out to unexpectedly link families across the globe. In 2016, Fogelman’s script made the Black List, which ranks the best unproduced screenplays in the industry.
After he read it, Patinkin deemed it “the greatest screenplay I’ve ever read in my life,” the actor told The Times while in Toronto.
“I don’t like being manipulated at all,” he continued. “I don’t feel Dan even comes close to that. I feel it’s a truth fest. I feel he has the gift to hit at the core of human nature truth.”
Fogelman knows he has a reputation for being sentimental. And he is. He keeps a kitschy side table in his office — a statue of a woman who looks like a barmaid — even though he hates it, because it belonged to his mom.
“It cost me, like, $400 to ship this thing cross-country and to this day, I don’t know why I have it,” he says with a chuckle. Everyone has an internal compass, he shrugs, and “some would argue that my compass is much more melodramatic.” He says his wife, for instance, is much “cooler” than he is. A few months ago, Amazon was testing a marketing spot that included filmgoers reacting to “Life Itself” after an early screening. Fogelman thought it was cute, but Thompson was adamant the advertisement was too lame to go public.
“I’ve always been a romantic,” he says. “I like big love and romantic gestures. I find funny eulogies at funerals wildly romantic. I find male grief incredibly romantic, because we’re so bad at it.”
In fact, Fogelman himself says he never cries. He’s only teared up one time while working on “This Is Us,” while reviewing a scene in an editing bay, and he left the room so his colleagues wouldn’t see.
“I’m not a weepy guy or a soft guy in that way,” he says. “The only time I ever cry is if my wife starts crying. I have a weird, Pavlovian response.”
The background photo on his phone is an image from his wedding day. “Ugh, don’t put that in the story,” he says, rolling his eyes. He had migrated from his office to the writer’s room for “This Is Us” and was playing some newly cut “Life Itself” trailers for his staff.
“I think it’s riskier, edgier, less sentimental, super surprising,” one of the writers in the predominantly female room says of the film. “It was an experience for me. I thought about the movie for a month afterwards, like it really — it feels more epic, you know what I mean?”
“They compliment me all day — it’s their job,” Fogelman jokes, uncomfortable with the praise. “All of our writers on the show are heavily and deeply formed by tragedy. It’s, like, a prerequisite.”
As he walks around the Paramount lot — stopping into the “This Is Us” editing bays to show off some scenes from the upcoming season, giving a tour of the Pearson family house — it’s clear how much Fogelman still loves being a part of “This Is Us.” He has two writers working as showrunners with him now, but has no plans to exit the program.
“The show is too important to me,” he says. “For me, it’s like all I’ve ever wanted to do — and this kind of thing is hard to get people to watch en masse. Dramedy, for lack of a better word, is not the thing that often compels things to huge viral video hits or superhero movies, you know? So what else am I going to try to do?”
Well, “Life Itself,” for one. He’s worried about getting bored and likes keeping things different. Someday, he says, he might want to write a “weird musical” or a novel. And he says his latest movie is different from the show in that “Life Itself” has one single story with a beginning, middle and end. He wanted to convey the message that even though our country is “in a difficult period,” there’s “something bigger at play here, and people are not all terrible.” He felt so passionately about making it that he worked on it in the midst of “This Is Us” and his now-canceled Fox show “Pitch.”
“I mean, my wife and I don’t have kids yet, so besides my wife and my friends, my life is very devoted to my work,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like the time to take a step back. When do you get this kind of opportunity to put a movie like this out across the country and to have a TV show that people care so much about that they go crazy when they don’t like something? That’s really exciting. That doesn’t happen.”
As for the reviews: Yeah, he’s upset about them. A few days after Toronto, he said in an interview with TooFab that he thought those responding poorly to the film were mostly white, male critics — even though a variety of reviewers have ultimately weighed in on the movie.