The following story contains spoilers about Tuesday’s This Is Us finale. Proceed at your own peril.
If that argument between Jack and Rebecca in the This Is Us season finale felt like a heartbreaking, soul-crushing heap of hurt feelings and regret, executive producer Ken Olin says, that’s because it was — in the best way.
“It’s really intense, isn’t it?’ he asks in an I’m-with-ya tone of voice. And the man should know: He directed the NBC drama’s final Season 1 hour, which included Mr. and Mrs. Pearson’s angry blowout (preceded by his drunken, violent appearance at her first tour date) and the couple’s subsequent, informal separation. (For a full finale recap, go here.)
We wanted all the goods on the tough scene, as well as what the episode’s ending might mean for all of the family members when Season 2 begins, and Olin graciously obliged. Read on for his thoughts on guiding Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore through one of Rebecca and Jack’s worst days.
TVLINE | Can we please start talking about the fight in the house? It was so intense.
KEN OLIN | It’s really intense, isn’t it? [Series creator] Dan [Fogelman] wrote it with [fellow EPs] Issac [Aptaker] and Elizabeth [Berger], and we had always talked about the idea of playing that scene with as few cuts as possible. It’s always really important to me that, ultimately, Dan’s happy with the work. And he was so moved by that scene. The two of them are incredible in it. But to me, part of the thing that makes that scene so special is that it’s very free. It’s all about their acting. Dan was just so proud of that scene… It’s not trying to show off as writers. It’s not trying to show off as directors. It’s just them.
TVLINE | The first thing that struck me was that they fight so dirty.
And we haven’t seen that before from the two of them. I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s so cool, and there are so few edits in it. It feels real. There’s nothing manipulative about it. They just went there. I think any of us who have been in really intimate or intense or long-term relationships, it does get dirty sometimes. It’s not nice. It’s upsetting.
TVLINE | How many takes did it take to get what you wanted?
We did six takes… The thing that’s great [is Milo and Mandy] really trust each other. And I think they trust me. And we played with the levels of intensity and how much anger and how much was revealed. They were both like, “Let’s do it until we get the most truthful tone of where these two people are at after this many years of marriage and the kind of people they are.” It was intense. We were tired. They were really tired.
TVLINE | Was it as tough between takes? Did the mood lighten at all, or did they stay in that emotional place?
Mandy, particularly, stays to herself. Mandy is a bit of a savant as an actor. She just allows whatever [is happening] to infect her. It takes her over. If Rebecca is really happy and being silly, then Mandy tends to be happy and silly. And if she’s grumpy, Mandy tends to be a little grumpy. [Laughs] And Milo, he’ll be in and out. He’s very conscientious about the crew and the other actors and what’s going on in the scene. Milo has a real director’s sensibility that way.
But [the fight] scene required more, emotionally, from the two of them and sustained concentration. Because we didn’t [shoot it] the normal way you’d do a scene… we did multiple takes and put it together from that. It’s a four-minute scene; that’s a long scene to do without cutting… They conserved their energy. It is probably the most intense scene we’d done in terms of their marriage and any dissention in their marriage.
TVLINE | At the end of the episode, how much should we read into the juxtaposition of Jack’s narration and the scenes set in the present day? For instance, he says “They’ll make good choices” as we see Kate decide she wants to become a singer, and then he talks about making bad choices as Kevin leaves Sophie to head to Los Angeles.
In terms of the writing, Dan and Isaac and Elizabeth wanted deliberately to tee up things for next season. But they wanted to do it on terms that were truthful to the show. At the end of this finale, the chapters in these people’s lives have come to an end, and we’re just hinting at the beginning of these next chapters. So there’s a real satisfaction in terms of Kate. She’s come through a period where she’s finally beginning to deal with some of her internal damage, and also: What does she really want from her life? We began the season with seeing [Kevin] saying, “I can’t be this kind of actor. I don’t want to live like this anymore. I’m going to pursue this thing” and we see him come full circle in terms of that story. He’s succeeded in resurrecting his career and being taken seriously. But now this is potentially going to jeopardize this other thing that he’s found, this woman that he really cares about. And in terms of Randall, there was something that was not satisfying or fulfilling in his life. He didn’t have a relationship with his father. There was a real absence there, something he didn’t understand. We took him all the way through not only finding his father, but having a mature relationship with his father, losing his father, and now having the ability to really explore what was meaningful to him about his family — both his adopted family and his own family. We set it up like, “Wow, this guy has a lot of things that are unknown for him and open.” Randall was a character that absolutely knew what his next move was going to be, all the time. And he’s jumping off into the unknown. And the big story: So what happened with [Jack and Rebecca’s] marriage? Is their marriage going to be put back together? And where does Miguel fit into their marriage?
TVLINE | I know you’re not in the writers’ room all the time…
TVLINE | …but are you aware of any time that a story or a line was nixed because it would eventually mess with the marriage reveal or the ultimate Jack’s death reveal?
Oh, I’m sure. What I’m always surprised at, because I’ve worked at a lot of shows where this wasn’t true, [is when] I come in with a big, overarching question in terms of the tone of a scene or how I’m going to direct a certain thing, I come in with a question and I’m thinking, “What are the chances that Dan is going to have an answer for this?,” because it pertains to the future. He knows. I don’t know how much he always shares. [Laughs] I wouldn’t be surprised if Dan had a big, long plan for the whole thing. Like in some way he knows what the show will be five years from now, and maybe 10 years from now. In his mind, somehow, he can merge the feeling of a saga with these very intimate, small stories. So if something were to come up that would be untruthful and that maybe would be effective in the moment but would ultimately be untruthful, I don’t think he would do that.