Congrats to Scott Serrandell who won this past weekend’s dialogue mini-contest. Some really funny dialogue, exactly what I was I was looking for. I’ll be looking forward to see what he does in the official Scriptshadow Short Script Contest.
Premise: (from The Black List) A multigenerational love story that weaves together a number of characters whose lives intersect over the course of decades from the streets of New York to the Spanish countryside and back.
About: Dan Fogelman broke onto the scene with the original Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone pairing, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” His next project, the oldies-Hangover film, Last Vegas (which he made clear to me was written BEFORE The Hangover), was a sneaky hit. Mixed in there were The Guilt Trip and Danny Collins, neither of which did well. Nowadays, Fogelman has moved over to television, with his viral NBC show, This is Us. “Life Itself,” a highly ranked 2016 Black List script, is his return to features and will star Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde. Fogelman will direct.
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Details: 116 pages
Dan Fogelman is one of the biggest screenwriting success stories of the past decade. He came out of nowhere five years ago to sell three huge specs at a time when everyone thought the giant spec sale was dead. And he was doing it with the kinds of movies Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, mid-budget light-as-a-feather dramadies with heart.
Things looked bad when one of his biggest sales, Danny Collins, however, failed badly at the box office. It was looking like Fogelman was in trouble. So he just hopped over to the TV side where he now has one of the most buzzed about shows on television (This Is Us). When you think about it, Fogelman’s character-first stories were always better for television anyway. So we probably should’ve seen it coming.
But now Fogelman’s back with a feature. Let’s see how he did.
I have to admit, the last thing I expected when I opened a Dan Fogelman script was Samuel Jackson screaming at me. Yes, Samuel Jackson is our narrator. At least for now. There’s a lot of “at least for now” in Life Itself. To give you a taste of that, we meet Julianne Moore a few pages later. And Julianne Moore gets slammed into by a bus, her bones and guts sprayed everywhere.
Yes, Life Itself is Dan Fogelman unhinged.
Confused yet? I was. Eventually, after things settle down, we meet Will Dempsey, a sometimes-writer who’s devastated by his pregnant wife, Abby, leaving him. Will was so destroyed, in fact, that he spent six months in a nut house. Now he spends most of his days talking to his therapist, who looks a lot like Julianne Moore.
We jump back in time to see how these two met. You’ve never seen two people more perfect for each other and more in love than these two. Which begs the question – how could Abby possibly leave Will?
To answer that question, we’ll need to get into spoilers, as Life Itself is one giant spoiler-fest. Which makes sense since life itself is a spoiler fest. So don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens. I’ll be semi-vague in order to protect the script’s twists. But what we learn is that Abby and Will didn’t divorce. A far worse tragedy occurred. And that is why Will has gone off the rails.
Oh, but if you think that’s all you’re getting here, let me remind you that Life Itself is DAN FOGELMAN UNHINGED. After getting over the shock of the earlier tragedy, Fogelman hits us with a DOUBLE TRAGEDY that was so shocking, I spent the next ten pages reading the script through tears. No, I’m not kidding.
Without getting into too much detail, we cut to years later where we follow Will and Abby’s daughter, Dylan (named after Abby’s favorite musician, Bob Dylan), growing up, and explore how the tragedies of her earlier life have turned her into the rebellious and dangerous beauty she is today.
In the meantime, we follow a poor Spanish family who is peripherally attached to Abby and Will. And, at a certain point, we realize that that Spanish families’ story is going to loop back around and re-intersect with that of our original characters. But while we’re praying it intersects the way we hope it will, there are no promises when it comes to Fogelman’s most twisty and turny narrative yet.
I apologize that summary was so vague but there are too many major twists and turns and I don’t want to ruin them ahead of the film. That makes this script difficult to analyze but I’ll do my best.
I want to start with bravery. As a writer, one of your jobs is to evolve. Each script you write, you want to push yourself into new, even uncomfortable, territory. If all you’re doing is rehashing the same old characters and storylines that you always do, you’re never going to write anything great.
I did not recognize this Dan Fogelman at all. I remembered in his previous scripts that he always played things safe and predictably. He did safe and predictable well. But you always knew what you were getting from Fogelman, and that kept his scripts from ever elevating into awesomeness.
Life Itself is a whole other beast. At first, Sam Jackson is breaking the fourth wall, screaming at both us and our hero. Then Julianne Moore gets violently slaughtered by a bus. Then we’re hit with two major fucking traumatic twists within a ten page period. Then, for the second half of the script, we’re meeting this whole other family in Spain…
It’s like, “What the hell??”
Truth be told, this story is better suited for a novel or a television show. Whenever you have multiple characters and you really want to delve into those characters (I mean, beyond the basic likable trait and character flaw), you need time. And you can only get that with the 60,000+ words a novel affords you or the 7+ seasons a TV show does.
When you try to do the same thing with a feature, you always run up against the problem of plot. Features need the plot to keep moving. And that always conflicts with character development. Yes, you can do both. And the best writers do. But only to an extent. I don’t care how talented you are. If you need your characters to destroy the Death Star by the end of the movie, you need to keep your plot moving along. And that takes away those slower character-driven scenes that are such a staple in TV shows.
And yet, Fogelman gets as close to pulling it off as one can. I’m not sure how he does it but I want to say the twists are a big part. He knows that because there’s no plot, if he hits you with 40 scenes in a row of characters saying I love you and I hate you, we’ll be bored to death. So he slams you with these huge shockers that we never saw coming and it’s like this jolt of espresso that powers us through another 15 pages of character development until the next twist arrives.
I do think this approach finally bit him in the ass, though. Because the first act was so strong and so unexpected, the second quieter half, with the Spanish family, couldn’t quite live up to it. And while there will always be parts of a screenplay that play better than others, you should try to make it so that each quarter of your script is better than the previous quarter. That’s because you want your final quarter to bring the house down. And in Life Itself, it’s the first and second quarters that bring the house down.
Still, this is quite an achievement. It’s unlike anything you’ll read all year. It’s complex yet a surprisingly quick read (one of Fogelman’s specialities). I would go so far as to say this is his best script. Could it have been better had he hit a home run in the 3rd Act? Sure. But I’d still recommend this to anyone wanting to learn how to write vibrant memorable characters.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: As much as I hate flashbacks, there’s no question that they help the reader care about a character more. For example, if I introduced you to John, the hockey player with an attitude, all you see is a hockey player with an attitude. But if, at some point, I flash back to when John was a child and showed that he witnessed his father beat his mother to death, that character is fleshed out ten-fold. He carries so much more weight. That’s what Fogelman does here on multiple occasions and it really helps his characters shine.