Interview: Seth Rogen, Will Reiser Bet on Cancer Comedy ‘50/50’
CHICAGO – “A cancer comedy”. It had to be a tough sell. How do you sell a buddy movie in which one of them is probably going to die from the big C? It was a risky proposition. And yet the chorus of acclaim for “50/50” proves that Seth Rogen was right to convince his buddy Will Reiser to turn his true story into a fictional comedy. We’ll be back with a review of the excellent film on Friday, but we sat down with Rogen & Reiser, along with the great Locke Peterseim of Redbox, to talk about how the film came to be, how it diverges from reality, and how much Joseph Gordon-Levitt totally rules.
Redbox.com: What do you say [at Q&A introductions] for this movie, how do you set people up?
SETH ROGEN: We introduced it at UCLA so I just made a bunch of weed jokes ‘cause that’s what the 18 year olds wanted to hear. I pander to my crowd, I’ll be honest.
WILL REISER: I mean, we had nothing planned. He just said he was going to be outside in the parking lot drinking.
Redbox.com: But you say that to intro anything?
HollywoodChicago.com: Have you watched it with a crowd? What was that like, especially for you Will, to see like the personal story with a crowd for the first time?
REISER: It’s intense. I think I’m pretty removed from it at this point, [but] the first time I saw it, it was surreal for me because it was a bit weird. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s the first movie I ever wrote, so seeing these characters come to life. I don’t know if it was because of that, but it was definitely surreal the first time. But now, I feel like through the process of writing the movie and making the movie and editing it I feel like the main characters — that’s Joe’s character, that’s his world and I feel very removed. I don’t feel like I’m watching myself.
Photo credit: Summit
Redbox.com: Were there stages from the first page to now — was it much more intense at first?
REISER: Yah, yah, yah. It took several conversations with Beth and Evan for me to just kind of wrap my head around delving deep into my own.., just delving deep into that world and kind of working out and processing a lot of the things I went through. I was still very raw when I first started writing it.
Redbox.com: You said what you ended up with is not autobiographical but when you started out did you have that question in your head or did you think ‘should I tell my story as much as possible’ or did you know you wanted to?
REISER: I always knew it was going to be fiction, just “inspired by.” Because I never, well for many reasons, like A). I don’t think there’s anything exceptional about me, like why I should tell my personal story, I feel like it’s something that everybody has to deal with this. So let’s just make it a story that feels relatable. And, also, I don’t really want to drag the people I care about into the middle of my story. I feel like I didn’t want to come across as being critical of people because it was a really difficult time and I felt like it was best to just kind of take some of the themes that I experienced and put them into a story.
Photo credit: Summit
HollywoodChicago.com: But did you ever have that experience where you were like ‘Oh, I didn’t or I wouldn’t have responded that way’? Did you try to keep your own story? Were worried about getting “too fictional”?
REISER: Oh yeah, when I was writing it and we were making it, it was always very much about making sure it felt real.
ROGEN: But never comparatively. I don’t think there was ever a moment when he was like, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have done that so the character shouldn’t do it.’ It was always in reference to the character — but the characters took on their own being, and their own traits and once those were defined then that was the barometer that we used — not Will.
REISER: Once you get to know the characters well enough you kind of, you know how they’re going to behave.
ROGEN: Yeh, and it was never referred against the script. We would let it inform that..like it would be more to answer questions, like ‘How would someone react to this situation?’ “Well, Will, how did you react?” It was more if we had a question we would let history guide us but we didn’t let it define anything too much, you know?
Redbox.com: From a movie point of view, did you have certain cancer movie or illness movie things that you wanted to avoid?
ROGEN: One of them was to not die, that was one of the major things. They die in almost every one of these movies and I personally don’t like miserable f**king movies, so we had no interest in making one. And our story wasn’t miserable, and there are a lot of miserable stories but they seem well represented cinematically at this point. So, to us, it was important to show that it doesn’t always end terribly in these situations — that people do survive. And to us that was a really important thing to show. It just organically seemed to go against the grain of most of these movies and the other thing we wanted to show was that people’s lives go on, even when they’re sick, especially if they’re a guy in their early 20’s. They still go to bars. They still have relationships with women. They still joke around with their friends. They still want to do all the shit they did before they got sick and they want to feel…
REISER: …and it makes you want to feel more normal.
ROGEN: Exactly, so that’s something we wanted to show too, because in a lot of these movies once the person becomes sick it’s like ALL their lives are about this disease, and the whole.., and that isn’t what happened with Will. If you didn’t know he was sick you could spend a week with him and not know he was sick, you know? Except he would be going to the hospital all the time.
REISER: And I looked like shit.
ROGEN: You looked terrible - attitudinally.
Photo credit: Summit
HollywoodChicago.com: [To Will] I read in one of your interviews that Seth and Evan kind of pressured/encouraged you to write this. I’m curious from your angle Seth, why you encouraged him to write it?
ROGEN: Me and Evan both saw firsthand how if you write about your experiences it can be very fun and exciting for you and a lot of people might relate to it, far more than you would ever expect. I mean with “Superbad,” we made that movie for ourselves. There was no — when you’re fourteen-year-olds writing in you parents office, there’s no part of you that’s like ‘Maybe people will emotionally connect to this kind of thing.’ That’s just the farthest thing from your radar. So, we saw firsthand that writing about what you’ve gone through and what you know, what you really personally relate to more than anything, can turn out very well. And not getting laid in high school is way less interesting than going through f**king cancer when you’re in your early twenties, so.., yah, that was really why. Like it’s extraordinary what you went through [to Will]. We made a movie about something very ordinary that we went through so the fact that you went through this extraordinary thing it would probably make that much better a movie and that was really it. We just saw that and Will was really better. I mean Will kinda followed the trajectory that the movie character followed. He was happier after the whole experience than he was before the whole experience. So, it didn’t take much foresight to see that it would make a good movie when you were standing slightly outside of it
Redbox.com: Did the humor come after, or did you find that for yourself when you were going through it?
REISER: From day one we were making jokes, I mean that was the only way that I knew how to deal with it, I was 25, he was 23, we were NOT sitting around talking about our feelings….,
ROGEN: We were both way stupider than we are now, if you can imagine that?
REISER: I had no emotional awareness, so I just suppressed everything and I would just make jokes and that would make everyone else feel more comfortable and that would make me feel more comfortable, you know what I mean? I mean we’re comedy writers and we always try to find the humor in any situation, even if it’s dark
Redbox.com: What were some of the dumbest things, or behaviors, looking back, or ways you had to deal with it, that you look back now and just cringe?
REISER: That we did? What are some of the things?
Photo credit: Summit
Redbox.com: You’ve said, Seth, that this character of Kyle was you at some of your dumbest…what were some of those things?
ROGEN: I think overall I was much less tactful, at that age, than I am now.
REISER: I was like a really worrisome, neurotic guy who was really overly sensitive.
ROGEN: And at that age I was much less…
REISER: You would make fun of me.
ROGEN: I think at that point in my life I felt it was my responsibility to point people’s f**king personality flaws. [Laughs.]
Redbox.com: You were helping them.
ROGEN: Which now I don’t give a shit about at all. I’ll let people be neurotic messes until they die and I’ll never offer advice again. At that time I think I literally saw it as my asshole-ish duty — my civic duty — to point out how obnoxious people were, which in itself was very obnoxious behavior. But I think over the years, and having a girlfriend for a lot of those years, has corrected a lot of that.