The last words of the “This Is Us” series finale have been put to page by creator Dan Fogelman. But before viewers learn what they are, the family drama had to set in motion the Pearson family’s final turning points.
Over the course of its six seasons, “This Is Us” has occasionally featured a trio of episodes zooming in on each Pearson sibling at a pivotal moment in his or her life. The series again tightened its lens on the Big Three in recent weeks as they grappled with their mother’s health problems and, more urgently, responded to her stirring call to action: to live their lives fully and not slow down because of her. “I’m asking you to be fearless,” she pleaded.
This season’s trilogy, which concluded Tuesday with the Randall-focused episode, kept it all in the family, with stars Milo Ventimiglia (who plays Jack Pearson), Mandy Moore (Rebecca Pearson) and Justin Hartley (Kevin Pearson) as directors.
“What you’re seeing in these final episodes is the last push off the ledge,” said Fogelman.
In “The Guitar Man,” directed by Ventimiglia, Kevin takes his twin daughters to the family’s cabin as he sets out to complete Jack’s dream home and prove himself as a father. “I think what you’re beginning to see is a journey for Kevin where he comes of age in his mid-40s and beyond,” Fogelman said. “That includes fatherhood, it includes what he might do with a nonprofit-type organization that works with veterans, but very much harkens to these two male figures of his life: his father and his uncle, who have defined him.”
In “The Hill,” directed by Moore, Kate (Chrissy Metz) visits Toby (Chris Sullivan) in San Francisco and wrestles with the growing feeling of discord and distance in their marriage. “Kate’s journey got a little stilted after the loss of her father, and it comes in fits and starts,” Fogelman said. “It’s about relying on other people, perhaps more than she needs to, and learning to stand on our own two feet. Kate’s finding a lot of resolve and a lot of strength in this moment when perhaps, as you see the end of her episode, old versions of herself might have shrunk from the moment.”
In “Every Version of You,” directed by Hartley, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Rebecca venture on an unintended road trip and reflect on their unique bond, which placed an unintentional burden on Randall and shaped his need to fix situations. “This is as big a crisis as you can get for Randall, which is, ‘My mother is sick, and I’m not in charge of her care — and she wants it that way, and I don’t know what to do with any of that,’” Fogelman said.
In a recent video interview with The Times, Ventimiglia, Moore and Hartley discussed directing the show’s final Big Three trilogy, what the episodes unlocked for them about the characters they play and what’s in store with just eight episodes left.
Members of the cast have expanded their role behind the scenes before, including Milo and Justin, who have directed before, but it’s even more pronounced with this final season. How intentional and important was it for you to enhance your creative involvement in this final stretch?
Ventimiglia: These trilogies, we’ve done a handful of them. And we’ve seen directors like Ken Olin go through and do all three of them and keep it all together. And we’ve been a part of the performing of them. And looking at it from the other point of view, it’s just adding another layer of what we’ve been able to do for for six years.
Moore: We really were attached at the hip. I don’t think they could have gotten any other directors to do these episodes, because they would have been directing an episode of television for 2½ months. It’s not the way that it [usually] works. [But] knowing these characters, knowing these stories, so inside and out, it was just a treat to be like, “In some way, we’re getting to be a part of tying up bits and pieces of these characters lives.” I didn’t feel an intense amount of pressure. because the writing is just so exceptional and the actors are so exceptional. I was like: “This feels like cheating. This isn’t really what directing is like.”
Hartley: There’s also a flip side of that. The episode that [Mandy] directed and, Milo, the episode that you directed, they do have your flavor there. They would be different episodes if that person was not directing the episode; I can say that because I saw it. There are certain things that Mandy will say that are from her heart and from her perspective on life; or the way Milo will come in — Milo will do a thing where he will just look at you and go [nods]. The way that Milo does it, it means something different.
How were the scenes that are shared across the three episodes handled?
Ventimiglia: Many, many voices. Everything that was at the pool — we were all making sure that we had an understanding, geographically, of where we needed to be. But really, what it came down to was Mandy and I were in the pool with 7-year-olds, and those kids take a lot of attention. There’s a bunch of setup that we could do. But also at that moment, we have to focus on our acting. And Justin — he was there, not even filming his episode stuff just yet, but he’s behind the monitor and he’s walking up and he’s giving notes. And then Mandy will catch something. And Mandy will catch something that plays more in my episode or more in Justin’s, but she’s still saying it and we’re all listening. No one was stepping on anyone’s toes. I think the only confusion was probably for the kids.
Hartley: I almost wish there was a documentary shot about how we shot these three. I felt like like we mind-melded it together, the three of us, and kind of figured this out, especially you two. I don’t know how the hell you guys were directing while both in the scene.
Moore: Milo and I have six years of working with kids in some capacity. We’ve been in this stupid pool before so we have a lot of experience with that. I think it was just hard for people on the outside. They’re like, “So how’d the directing go?” I’m like, “Oh, it’s still happening.” It’s like close to the end of January and they’re like, “Oh, I thought you were directing before Christmas.” It’s like, “Oh, I was. We were. We were.” It literally was making an indie movie or something.
Ventimiglia: I think Justin holds the record for the longest episode on our show. It’s like clocking in at three months or something like that.
Hartley: It was through my 40s.
Moore: Because there are these moments that happened in all three episodes, specifically the opening scene of each episode, that was really where we had to come together. We had to all kind of get together initially and have a giant rehearsal and Dan and production was there. We took a part of the parking lot [at Paramount Pictures] and taped out exactly the dimensions of the pool. Because what happens in Milo’s episode affects what happens in my episode affects what happens in Justin’s. We all had to be on the same page and coordinate: 0147This is where the teens are when they’re going to the pool and it’s empty. They’re going to start Milo’s episode here. They’re going to end up here. And then that picks up in my episode where it ended in Milo’s.”
The Rebecca monologue at Thanksgiving sets up the rest of this season, lighting a fire under the Big Three. With these episodes, we see how Kevin, Kate and Randall are facing a new crossroads in their lives and confronting the big and small moves they need to make. What struck you about the themes you were exploring in each of your episodes?
Ventimiglia: Before I got into [directing] my episode, I was watching a lot of other Kevin episodes, and I was watching Justin, through the years, go through this process of discovery of the character, and seeing how deeply impacted he [Kevin] was by the loss of his father and his trajectory. He watched his brother and sister go in one path, he kind of took another and is constantly beating himself up over those steps that he took that he would categorize as a misstep, but, really, that’s just his path to get him to the point where he needed to be in the moment where he found his strength. I think we saw Kevin naturally settle into this place of of confidence as a father and just as a good man.
Moore: I was floored that this was the first time Kate was really choosing herself and saying yes to herself. I think she’s always struggled with pleasing everybody around her and putting herself last. And I felt like this was such an incredibly powerful and empowering moment for her. She starts out in one place, and obviously finishes in a completely different place. I don’t think she ever could have imagined sacrificing this idealized version of what a family is, trying to replicate what she grew up with, and coming to the realization that maybe that’s ultimately not in the cards for her, and choosing herself and her health and her well-being. I related to all of that, but I was [also] inspired by it and I’m just I’m excited because it kind of sets the tone for the rest of this series for Kate.
Hartley: The episode I was directing, I use a lot of mirrors because the whole theme of that episode, one of the themes of that episode, is how you see someone through the years, and then realizing that people see you differently throughout the years. And you, in fact, see yourself differently throughout the years. You’re very young, but you might actually have this experience a few years from now where you will look in the mirror and you will go, “Huh? Wow. Well, OK, so that’s what I look like.” There are a couple of moments in the episode that I directed where Mandy and Sterling are talking about that very topic and the question is interesting: How do you see me? When did I change? When did I start becoming this person, good or bad? Because there’s no going back. It’s all going one direction.
Directing involves a lot of preparation, sometimes overpreparation, but so much that comes with the job is being flexible and nimble, rolling with last-minute shifts. What were some of the things you had to roll with, or changes that had to be made on the fly?
Moore: Some of my episode was shot up in San Francisco. After months of preparation and scouting and deliberating over certain locations for things and praying that weather was going to be OK, we get up there, and, of course, it’s a typical San Francisco morning — we’re socked in with fog, you can’t see anything. We literally could be in Echo Park right now because no one could tell it’s San Francisco. There’s no production value here. I mean, it’s beautiful, but foggy as f—. And then COVID shut us down early. We had a whole other huge sequence, a two-page scene, in our episode that had a very San Francisco-centric thing to it. It was just completely off the table because of this COVID scare that shut down production. It went from like: “Oh, we’re going to be able to finish the day” to “No, you’re done right now.”
Initially, the way it was written was that [Kate] wakes up the next morning and has that conversation with [Toby] where he’s like, “You guys have to move to San Fran. That’s just the way it is.” And she’s like, “I need some air.” And she goes out, and it was scripted that she goes to take this walk and clear her head and old Toby meets her there and she’s like, “I actually have to do this by myself. I have to say goodbye to you.” But because of all of this happening, we didn’t get to shoot that. Chris is shaving his face and then they’re like, “Actually, you’re done. You can’t shoot anything.” We just shoot the end of the episode with Chrissy climbing the hill. And I had all these fun, fancy shots with Yasu [Tanida], our [director of photography], planned out — like she’s going to cross the horizon and all this fun stuff that we didn’t get to do because it became “How can we just assemble this scene to make sense?” And we figured it out. It was a reminder of like, “Oh, yeah, this s— happens.”
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What did these episodes unlock for you about your characters?
Moore: I think maybe Rebecca will sort of absorb Kate’s situation and the changes and choices she’s making in her life and feel proud. She’s always known who Kate was, she’s always known what she was capable of, and the fact that she’s making some tough calls for herself and for the good of her family I think is something that Rebecca will feel with a lot of pride about.
Hartley: I don’t know about unlock, but realize that he can actually do it, to put it in simple terms — a confidence that he can be a father, that he can raise these kids.
Ventimiglia: It’s the direct impact on his kids. Jack has been [a] supporting [character] since Season 4. We’ve learned everything we needed to know about Jack, [Seasons] 1 through 3. How does all that we know about this man truly impact his children? And it could be the simplest of things, the smallest of moments shared. But I think the resonance of Jack on his kids.
Do you have a sense of what what seeds you’re planting in your episodes for future ones?
Ventimiglia: We’re starting to see loops close. These open-ended questions are kind of starting to close as we’re in Season 6. And it’s a very whole feeling.
‘This Is Us’
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for violence)