Summer 2017


For This is Us, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa aim for emotional catharsis while reining in the 'schmaltz'


This is Us actors Sterling K. Brown, Justin Hartley, Chrissy Metz and Susan Kelechi Watson. (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

America needed a good, long cry, apparently, and This Is Us came along at just the right time to pat us on the back and encourage us to let it out—let it all out.

Much of the show's success—more than 11 million viewers watched the season one finale—has been attributed to its tear-jerker properties. The family dramedy tells the story of a couple and their three children—fraternal twins and an adopted brother all born on the same day as the dad—meting out its revelatory backstory in small doses. A gossipy suspense propels it forward and compels you to keep watching, delaying gratification on at least four temporal-spatial planes, and creating a kind of emotional Rubik's Cube that expands and deepens as it goes along.

Executive producers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa directed the pilot and returned to direct three more episodes of the first season. "We say it's to keep the tone and look consistent," Ficarra says, "but it's really because we want to be there." Requa chimes in, "We want to be friends with Ken Olin." Olin, perhaps best known as one of the stars of Thirtysomething, has directed four episodes of This Is Us (he also is an executive producer), and his former shows are spiritual precursors.

Director Glenn Ficarra, near right, with co-director John Requa. (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Requa and Ficarra met in art school, at Pratt, and wrote as a team for years. They began their collaboration with This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman on Crazy, Stupid, Love, which they directed shortly after having directed their first feature, I Love You Phillip Morris. They now consider Fogelman their "closest friend in the business." Fogelman, they say, brought them on to "rein in the schmaltz," which they did by trying to create a more naturalistic, less polished visual style.

The "stripped-down feeling" they were going for—"I don't think he emotional stuff needed pushing," Requa says—was accomplished with a muted color palette, naturalistic light and hand-held shots, even on the rare occasions when a dolly was used. "We're really trying to keep the Hollywood moves and equipment down and let the characters and the writing tell the story," Requa adds. "We try to be more voyeuristic. We wanted the audience to feel like they're peeking in on these relationships."

This Is Us is big on causality, and events unfold inevitably yet surprisingly. But more than the kismet-heavy plot, it's the intergenerational characters and their complex relationships that appeals to viewers, as well as the writers' and actors' ability to swing from intense emotional moments to light and funny ones and back again. "The best way to cut schmaltz is with a laugh, and that's what our show does," Requa says. "It also resets the audience, prepares them for the next cry moment."

UNFORCED FEELINGS: (Top) Milo Ventimiglia plays the young dad in the series, which alternates between past and present; (Bottom) Requa and Ficarra, in the background, direct the series' "Memphis" episode. (Photos: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

There's a collaborative atmosphere on Requa and Ficarra's set that they cribbed from Richard Linklater, who allowed them to hang out on set as writers. The collaboration hinges on an intrinsic trust. If there's a disagreement, the one who feels strongest usually wins. This season's showpiece was the road trip episode, "Memphis," in which adopted brother Randall's long-lost biological dad William (Ron Cephas Jones) finally shuffles off this mortal coil, but not before reconnecting Randall to his roots. "A good example of how we work—at least when we kind of work on the fly—is the 'Memphis' episode," Ficarra says.

Ficarra describes shooting on location on a very tight schedule, running and gunning in vans. They'd get to a barbecue place and give the actors the rundown: "[We tell them,] 'You're gonna walk in, you're gonna go up to the counter, you're gonna order. This place is famous for their pulled pork sandwich, but what people don't know is off the menu you order the fried bologna sandwich, which is the real star. And, you know, William is from Memphis so he knows that...' They riff on that and we're kind of just yelling off camera, 'Now go sit down and tell him about the bologna sandwich.' It was a very fluid back-and-forth, and it was really fun."

When preparing for an emotional scene, however, they try to have conversations a day or two before shooting, then give the actors space. "Intensity is the other thing we always ask for ahead of time," says Ficarra. "We always say we don't want you to chase one performance. You should try different things, because you never know. If there's a scene that takes place in the center of an episode and you totally knock it out of the park emotionally there, you may not have anywhere to go later. We're always thinking in terms of the big picture. Their job is the moments. We kind of work together with that. A lot of times we'll ask, 'Where do you think this is gonna end, emotionally? Is this gonna be something big, something very subtle?' and then we can kind of back all of the performances into that, knowing that's where we're headed. If we disagree, we get it both ways. We do a big one and a little one and we tune it in the editing room."

FAMILY AFFAIR: (Top) The directors confer on the "Three Sentences" episode; (Bottom) Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore spend quality time with the kids. (Photos: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Pace and crescendo are crucial, too. "It sounds so minor," Requa adds, "but it is an important thing. You're on set and it's this incredibly heart-rending scene, and the grips are crying and you feel like you really nailed it, but your intellectual mind has to come in… If the waterworks are turned on from the beginning of the scene, it'll play as less real. You're trying to build to something, to end well; we're not trying to have a cry moment every five minutes. We're trying to have a cathartic emotional ending to every episode."

Having written together so long, they found the shift to directing felt natural. Requa says the biggest difference is that writing is "kind of additive, you know you have to stare at the white page and make something good," while directing is "largely reductive. You see a bunch of locations and pick a location. You watch actors do a bunch of takes and pick a take… It's less about spilling your spleen all over the page, and more about your taste."

They function as a creative unit, which isn't to say there aren't some divisions of labor. "Glenn is more of a nerd than I am," Requa says. "He is the guy that can have a four-hour conversation with the DP about lenses. I'm not that guy… I tap out at about 20 minutes. Between us we've done about every job in production. And it gives you incredible latitude. It's also good to be good cop/bad cop."

Who's who? "We take turns."


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