I've been fortunate enough to have interviewed Seth Rogen many times over the years (four or five times, at last count, almost always in a Comic-Con setting), but this is the first time that the film we're focusing on is actually one I've seen. The movie is director Jonathon Levine's 50/50, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rogen as best friends who deal with the former's cancer diagnosis with humor. Although this not writer Will Reiser's life story, he was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, was friends with Rogen since their days working on HBO's "Da Ali G Show," and many individual moments from the film are pulled directly from Reisers own reactions and treatments
As you may have heard about the film, it doesn't pull any punches in terms of the devastating impact chemotherapy can have on one's constitution, and everyone in this film (including Anna Kendrick as Gordon-Levitt's therapist, Anjelica Huston as his overprotective mother, and Bryce Dallas Howard as his unsettled girlfriend) is fantastic. The reviews have been across-the-board positive, and I hope the cancer element doesn't scare audiences away, because 50/50 is such a fulfilling, life-affirming movie. It would be a real shame if you missed it.
Last week, Rogen and Reiser were in Chicago to introduce a screening of 50/50, and I was fortunate enough to catch up with them to discuss their relationship before, during and after the film. I should also mention that I've heard a lot of good word on Seth's work in the Sarah Polley-written and -directed TAKE THIS WALTZ, which just premiered at Toronto, and I can't wait to see it. Please enjoy my talk with Seth Rogen and Will Reiser…
Seth Rogen: Hey, how’s it going?
Capone: Good. How are you doing, man? Good to see you again.
SR: Good to see you.
Will Reiser: Hey, I’m Will.
Capone: Hi, Will. its great to meet you.
WR: You just did a screening up here, didn’t you?
Capone: I did, yeah.
WR: Yeah, for Ain’t It Cool. Thanks for doing that. I did a screening down in Austin with Harry. That was a lot of fun.
Capone: Those are always the most fun. Everything I do know about doing a screening, I learned from those Alamos Drafthouse guys.
WR: Oh, yeah.
Capone: I just take all of my cues from them.
SR: Yeah, those things are awesome.
Capone: At this point, you’ve got to be sick of answering the same questions, so I’ll try to switch it up a little bit. But I do want to get in some of the essentials here, staring with the fact that this is not your story.
WR: No, it’s fiction.
Capone: But if would not exist without your story.
WR: If I hadn’t gone through what I went through.
Capone: Which elements of what you went through did you want to convey to people through this film?
WR: I mean honestly, it was just writing a movie that exposed some of the sad, painful things that you go through with an experience like this, but also shows the humor and the absurdity of it all and the dysfunction that an illness like cancer, when it comes into your life, that it creates, because no one knows how to deal with it. All of the different storylines that are in the movie all, in some way, relate to my own personal experiences, but I fictionalized them in order to make the best movie possible.
Capone: So something about this version is better than your story?
WR: I just don’t think there’s anything that extraordinary about me. I wouldn’t want to write a memoir about my experience. I feel like there are so many people that have it so much worse than me, you know? I feel like I would just rather take what I experienced and put it into a fictional character in a fictional world. Our relationship when I was sick was similar to Kyle and Adam’s. Seth is not someone who is a womanizer and he’s not misogynistic--he doesn’t talk to women that way--but our relationship was very much like this.
I was a neurotic guy who was worried all of the time, and he would make fun of me, and my friends didn’t know how to deal with it, and they would say the wrong thing and you know we were all idiots, none of us knew how to talk about it and I wanted to show how when you are young you have no idea how to deal with it, whether it’s the friends, the girlfriend, the therapist. You're all beginners. It was really just trying to just mine my own experiences and put it into something that was fictional.
Capone: Yeah and the relationship that you had with Seth and the relationship that Adam has with him, that is one of the things that makes the movie unique. It’s very rare that you see in any film about someone making it through a chronic illness the impact the ordeal has on other people, beyond making them sad and uncomfortable. I mean it really goes beyond that.
SR: Again, that's what we wanted to represent. It was part of the whole motivation for making the movie in the first place. We couldn’t point to a cinematic example of what we were experiencing and just tonally more than anything of how it felt. We joked about it the whole time it was happening. We would constantly sit around and joke about what kind of movie ideas could we writer about a young guy with cancer and what kind of comedies could we come up with. But after it was over, we had the perspective to look at it and say like, “But seriously, there has been no movie about a young guy who has cancer where he doesn’t lose his sense of humor, where he still is having all of the same problems he has before, they're just informed by this thing that is happening. He's still trying to get girls. He still has issues with his mother.
WR: And he doesn’t die in the end!
SR: And he doesn’t fucking die in the end, most importantly.
WR: That’s what happens in every cancer movie, the person dies. It’s like you can’t have a cancer movie without the character dying, and that’s what everyone thought, like everyone thinks the second you tell them you have cancer, you're going to die, because that’s what you see in movies, so we wanted to change that up a little bit.
Capone: Other than this character living, were there any cancer movie staples that you wanted to just avoid? Or were there some that you wanted to embrace but put your spin on it?
WR: I think it was really just about being honest, just making it feel real.
SR: We never got as specific as that, I think.
Capone: There were no reference points?
SR: We wanted a scene where we're in a waterfall. [laughs]
WR: There was like a moment in the first draft I wrote where Adam goes with his mom to the synagogue, and you see a couple of middle-aged women and they're kind of whispering about how Adam is sick, and that was just my way of making fun of the way cancer has been discussed in other movies. But really that would have just ended up being a moment that was derivative of a scene out of like a Neil Simon play or something. I think if anything just trying to make it feel real and honest and not trying to be derivate was more important.
Capone: Yeah. You guys met as writers…
WR: Well I was a producer, and he was a writer.
Capone: Okay, so you met on "Da Ali G Show."
SR: We’ve switched roles since then.
Capone: How do you work for him, for Sacha [Baron Cohen]? How does that work exactly? It seems like it would be incredibly difficult.
WR: Well I could tell you how to work for him; I couldn’t tell you how to write for him.
SR: No, it was really hard.
WR: The show is the most important thing to him. That is what is most important, and when you're working on the show, it also has to be the most important thing.
SR: Yeah, it takes a lot of time and energy, and I remember before we got the job thinking, “Man, that must be a really intellectually challenging show to work for,” and then I remember once we got hired going, “I was right, this is very intellectually challenging show to work for,” because you really have to try to predict what answers people will give without trying to coax them into it, because you want to let them expose themselves and not manipulate them into saying something stupid. You want, hopefully, for them to be the type of people who will just say that thing organically, and then to disguise that within the structure of a larger joke was really fucking hard. [Laughs]
It’s as hard as it sounds. I mean, you literally have to guess what they were going to say, formulate the questions in such a way that ideally they would respond in a certain way, and package that entire premise within a larger joke. So you could edit it together into something that would actually get a laugh with a setup and a punchline, you know? Yeah, it was really hard. I’m glad I don’t do it anymore.
Capone: Will, did you ever once sort of consider in the process of making this film “What would my life have been if this never happened? What would I be doing now? What would I have written instead, if anything?"
WR: No, because this was the first screenplay I ever wrote, but honestly once I wrote that first draft, I was so excited, because it was the first time I felt I had something to say, because all of my other ideas prior to that had felt like they were just not original, and this was the first time I actually exposed my own voice as a writer, and that was really exciting. Had I not gone through what I went through, I don’t know if I would have found that.
SR: No, you wouldn't have. [laughs]
WR: Maybe I would have, I have no idea, but it all worked out, you know? The reason why I ended up on "Ali G" was because I was working on another show called "Steve Harvey's Big Time", which was…
SR: That’s right! [Laughs] I forgot about that.
WR: You remember that?
SR: "Steve Harvey's Big Time"
WR: Yeah, I quit that show.
SR: It was like a "Showtime at the Apollo" kind of show, yeah.
WR: I quit that show, and then a week later got offered the job on ALI G and if I hadn’t quit, I wouldn’t have gotten offered that job, I wouldn’t have me you and Evan [Goldberg, Rogen's producing and writing partner].
SR: Yeah, you wouldn’t have gotten cancer.
WR: I would have been at "Steve Harvey's Big Time." It would have been a totally different experience.
SR: You’d be sitting on this couch with Steve Harvey right now.
WR: “Steve Harvey Gets Cancer.” That would be funny. Oh my God, we should pitch him that.
Capone: Do you remember when this was originally happening to you, a specific joke or riff that you guys did that just cracked you up?
SR: It was thinking of movie ideas, literally. The joke we would do at the time was be like…
WR: The “fuck-it list.”
SR: Yeah, we'd think of like an R rated version of THE BUCKET LIST, where the guys do crack and fuck hookers and murder someone or something like that. [laughs]
WR: We would talk about the idea of the cancer card and how you can just kind of get away with stuff, like “You can’t be mad at me, I have cancer.” You know what I mean?
SR: After Will had surgery, BATMAN BEGINS came out, and we went to it opening weekend at Universal Citywalk, and there was a massive fucking line. He was so weak he couldn't stand, and we went up to the box office and we were like “My friend Will just had cancer and he had surgery, can we not wait in this giant line up?” They let us in for free, and we cut the line.
WR: They felt so bad.
SR: Yeah, so we straight up used Will’s cancer to see BATMAN BEGINS.
WR: We weren’t trying to get in for free, we were just trying to cut the line.
SR: But it was a happy accident.
WR: I think we were like, “We will take the shitty seats, we just don’t want to stand in line.”
Capone: I know that Joseph Gordon-Levitt got involved very late in the process. Did it take much for him to sort of get up to speed in terms of getting to know you guys?
SR: No, none at all. It was pretty fast. I called him and was very honest with him about what situation we were in, and how we really needed an actor fast. It can take a year to get an actor to agree to a movie; it can take 10 years to get an actor to do a movie. So I was like, “We need you to agree to do this like by Monday” and this was like Friday. So he read the script Friday night, flew to Vancouver where we all were Saturday, and hung out on John Levine’s roof of the apartment he was in with me and Evan from like 10pm to like 6 in the morning, and we didn’t even talk about the movie that much, we just kind of hung out and got to know each other, and I think he was really feeling out as like “Are these the kind of guys I want to work with? Is this the group of people I would just throw myself into a situation with?”
He said he would do it at the end of that, and once he said he would do it, it was like there was no looking back, like he took ownership over it, and it was as though we wrote the role for him. There was no hesitation. There was no, “Well I’ve only been thinking about this for a couple of days.” It was like, “This is what my character would do. This is what I’m doing.”
WR: And he owned it.
SR: Yeah, it was really impressive to watch.
WR: And we would have conversations about it, and it was just like he just understood that character and he embodied it. When I watch it, I don’t feel like I’m watching my story up there; I feel very much like I’m watching Joe…
SR: And he got it. He had experiences similar to this I think in his life--a lot of people have--so as personal as it was to us, what we learned more than anything as we were making it is it wasn’t just personal to us; a lot of people have had friends with cancer and can connect to it, you know?
Capone: Speaking of things I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a cancer film are the scenes with the therapist. Was that part of your experience? Did you have a person like that?
WR: That was all fiction.
Capone: Would you have liked a person like that?
WR: I would have loved Anna Kendrick as my therapist, yes.
Capone: Oh, you wanted exactly that experience.
WR: But it’s a good thing, because if she had been my therapist, I would have fallen in love with her and I would have gotten no therapy actually done. I would have been so obsessed over her.
SR: You would have thought of how to manipulate your therapy into looking good for her.
WR: I would not want to talk about my problems, because I wouldn’t want her to know how fucked up I was in the head. I would just want to present myself in the most attractive way possible.
Capone: Then tell me about writing those scenes, since they weren’t based in any kind of reality. Why did you want to have those scenes there? Was that just to get Adam talking?
WR: Yeah, because you had a character who was emotionally unexpressive and didn’t know how to talk about it, and that’s how I was in that time, and by having the therapist you could get out all of this exposition and also have a character who he feels safe with who is his age. It grew out of this idea of him building a connection with someone, because he has this girlfriend who's not there for him, and he needed to find a woman his age who actually was good for him, and that’s sort of what your 20s are about. But it would have been forced if I had done it in a different way. This was a very natural way to get out that extra person.
SR: It was just an organic way to get them together.
WR: It was to get the exposition out, help get her to help him, and also to see her growth and her career, because she's a beginner at this as well. So it was just a very organic way to get a lot in. I know a lot of therapists and social workers kind of cringe when they see a therapist developing feelings for a patient, but that happens when you're a young therapist. You connect with your patients and you develop these relationships, not necessarily romantic, but that’s not so out of the ordinary. So yeah, that was a lot of why I kind of went that route.
Capone: The scene that obviously has been a part of the promotion of this film has been this scene [points to the poster showing Gordon-Levitt shaving his head.
WR: The head shaving. People love the head-shaving scene.
SR: It’s our fault for putting it on the poster, though. We shouldn’t have done that if we didn't want people to focus on it. [laughs]
Capone: But that feels like the loosest scene in the film, like they just threw you in a bathroom with some clippers, and you went for it.
SR: It might have been.
WR: We had the joke about the “Did you clean these?” Like we had a little bit of that, but most of it was…
SR: But we didn’t have all of the stuff at the end of the scene where we're talking, but yeah it was very loose, because we knew that if everything we said sucked, we could just play music over it and take out the dialog.
SR: I actually do remember having that conversation, like, “Yeah if worse comes to worse, you just don’t hear any of the shit.” And I think we almost probably played it looser than we normally would have as a reaction to the fact that we could only do it once. I think we knew we only had one shot to do it, so we couldn’t work up to a loose place with it. I think we went into it almost aggressively loose to compensate for the fact that we only had one shot at it, which is probably a stupid way to approach a scene like that, but it worked really well.
WR: In the build up to it, we came up with like a list of bald guys and those were… Seth was saying to Joe, "You’re going to look like Michael Stipe” or “You’re going to look like Gorbachev” But you know, we had all of the names, but when they were actually doing the head shaving, there was no input from us at all, it was just you and Joe.
SR: It was me just going “Holy shit!” My reaction is completely genuine. I didn’t even realize I put my hands up.
WR: “What is this? Is this attached?”
Capone: I actually have that written down in my notes: “Is this attached?” That’s my favorite line. I remember thinking, “There’s no way that was written down.”
WR: That’s the great thing about having really great actors is you have a script, and you just give them the freedom to go off a little bit and just kind of find some new stuff. There’s a really great moment that’s unscripted. One where Joe has kind of his freak out with Anna when he says, “Everyone keeps telling me I’m going to be okay, but I’m not.” There’s one moment there where he just kind of went into character, and it wasn’t scripted and it’s a really great moment in that scene. The performances are so good.
Capone: That seen where you drop him off when he’s going to get his test results, that’s a scene that makes everybody cry for some reason, that’s the scene where the audience that I showed it to they all started crying, and I was not expecting that.
WR: Everyone had their own moment.
Capone: I can imagine.
SR: Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s all within five minutes of that.
WR: For some people, it’s the book. For some people, it’s the dropping off.
SR: With some people, it’s the mother, like when he’s getting pulled into the surgery, and she’s hugging him. It’s all because you are afraid he might die.
WR: The cancer support group scene…
SR: Again, people really--and for other actors it might be; it’s funny I was just talking about it with Sarah Silverman when we were doing press for TAKE THIS WALTZ in Toronto--t’s like people really seem to want to think that we are doing something different by doing these movies. But I cannot stress enough how procedurally and acting-wise, it feels zero percent different doing that scene than it does doing a scene where I’m shooting a stop sign with McLovin; it’s the same thing. We're just trying to be real and natural, and the circumstances are different, but it does feel the same, you know? It’s just nice that the movies themselves are about different things, but for me as an actor I feel like I’m getting better maybe organically with the more movies I do, but it doesn’t feel like I’m doing something different.
Capone: I’m hearing nothing but great things about TAKE THIS WALTZ, so I can’t wait to see it.
SR: Yeah, I think it’s pretty good.
Capone: Do we know when it’s coming out here?
SR: No, I don’t think it has U.S. distribution set yet. I’m curious.
Capone: Yeah, I really want to see. Okay, well I’ll see you guys tonight.