Seth Rogen can apparently do anything he wants, as he told Buzzine in an interview alongside co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the screenwriter of his new film, Will Reiser. In 50/50, Rogen chooses to use that power for good. The plot was taken directly from the life of Reiser, beginning with his cancer diagnosis six years ago, and Mr. Rogen happens to be both Will's best friend in real life and on the big screen. This group of tight on and off camera friends all sat down with Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier in Hollywood, CA to talk about the meaning of this film beyond the obvious, the importance of choosing the right director, and the impact of a certain Green Hornet...
Emmanuel Itier: Tell me about 50/50 – how did it come to you, and what time of challenge did you have to face with this film?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: 50/50 is the story of this guy – his name is Will (Reiser) – and he wrote the screenplay, and he survived cancer, and when he got better, he decided to write a comedy about it, which I think is a really healthy and wise way to deal with the experience – to find the humor in even the darkest times. And for me, the challenge was just to be honest. It’s a comedy, but it’s not the kind of comedy that’s like yuk-yuk Marx Brothers comedy. I like those, but this is more sort of a Woody Allen or…a human, earnest comedy. So for me, the challenge was always just to stay honest, even though it’s tempting to maybe do something funny, just to make the audience laugh; the more important thing is to stay true to the story.
EI: Was the challenge also because it’s based on somebody’s life? Did that bring another layer of pressure maybe? But sometimes maybe it’s helpful because you can meet the person and talk about it?
JGL: Much more helpful, actually. And Will, who wrote it, was there every day, and he’s actually really good friends with Seth (Rogen), and having him there every day and getting to talk to him, ask him questions like, “How did this feel?” or “What were you thinking?” really helps me stay honest.
EI: Tell me about working with Seth – how did that also help your game and elevate it? Because it seems like there would be a lot of improvisation and a lot of game-playing…
JGL: Lots of improvisation, which makes it more fun as an actor, because you’re not just doing the same thing over and over again. You try a few times the way that it’s written in the script, and then you start coming up with new things. Seth would come up with new things and throw things at you, so you have to make sure you’re paying attention and listening, and that keeps it present.
EI: What was your favorite moment of the movie? Was there a particular scene that you enjoyed doing, whether it was with Seth or with somebody else?
JGL: I love the scenes with Anjelica Huston. She’s always been an actor that I really admired, and she’s just so honest. When doing scenes with her, you can’t help but fall into a real connection.
EI: What do you think the movie is about, beyond the story of this young man surviving cancer? Is there some metaphor, some image, so message in this movie?
JGL: I think that, even when you’re in the middle of a situation that is very serious, sometimes there are moments of humor, and our culture has a tendency to be timid and walk on eggshells – maybe be afraid to laugh sometimes. But I think it’s healthy, and I think it’s good to laugh. Not all the time, of course, and in 50/50 it’s not all a comedy, but I think having the levity is good.
Emmanuel Itier: How does one get into a movie like this, which is not totally the comedy we’re used to seeing you in, it’s not totally a drama… Was it an interesting challenge for you because of that?
Seth Rogen: Creatively, we really just wanted to be as tonally representative of what we went through as possible. Will (Reiser), the screenwriter, actually got sick, and I was one of his best friends, and it happened when we were in our early twenties, and after he got better, we realized that no movie felt how our experience felt. Our experience was sad and scary, but it was also funny and absurd, and we thought it would be cool if Will wrote a movie that captured that version of it.
EI: What do you think this movie is about for you, beyond the story? Is there some theme, some metaphor, some message that you were creatively interested to explore?
SR: I think the idea of just friendship is something we always like to explore in our movies, and in this movie – and it’s in a lot of movies -- it’s more about how people have a hard time communicating with each other, and how what they feel and what they’re saying is often two completely different things, and if you could just match those things up, everything would probably be a lot better. [Laughs] And mortality in general is just an interesting subject and a tricky thing to try to make jokes about, but ultimately a very funny thing to try to make jokes about too sometimes.
EI: The choice of Jonathan Levine to direct that is not necessarily an obvious one, especially since he had just done All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. What did you see in him that you thought, “He’s our guy. He gets it”?
SR: It was really just him, honestly. It wasn’t so much any movie he’d done before; it was just sitting with him and talking with him, he really seemed like he could do it, which probably is not the best way to hire someone [laughs], but it’s how we did it, and it turned out very well so I’m glad we did it like that. But I didn’t think of his other movies at all, honestly. I just sat with him and we talked, and I thought, “I could picture making a movie with this guy.”
EI: Do you enjoy, yourself, exploring other genres and not being pigeonholed only as the good laugh – the good comic guy? We saw you in Green Hornet, which was kind of a surprise as well.
SR: I don’t know. I honestly don’t care how people…that much… Luckily, I tend to make my own movies, so I don’t have to worry about being subjected to one type of movie, because if I really want to make a different type of movie, I can just write it.
EI: Green Hornet 2 – is it going to happen?
SR: I don’t think anytime soon. Ugh. Those big action movies are a real pain in the ass. [Laughs]
EI: And they’re fun.
SR: A little bit too much. But these movies are so much…just the amount of energy you put into them versus the reward is so much more proportionate [laughs]…and honestly, the creative freedom that goes along with making a smaller movie is really important to us, and we found, I think on Green Hornet, we had to deal with a lot more studio interaction than perhaps we were used to dealing with – which can be good and bad. But it’s nice to not always do that, I think.
EI: When was the last time you were in a 50/50 type of situation?
SR: Like as serious as this one?
EI: No, not necessarily.
SR: In any way, shape, or form? Every time I order a meal. That’s a 50/50. I never know what to order, and I tend to go with whatever the people around me order.
Emmanuel Itier: How is it for you to see your life on the screen? Is it pretty faithful to is? Is it a little bit weird to see that or, on the contrary, does it help with the healing process – the rebirth process?
Will Reiser: It’s interesting because I had cancer six years ago, and writing the script of 50/50 was an incredibly cathartic process for me because it enabled me to really get out a lot of the things that I couldn’t say when I was actually sick, because I was too young to be able to know how to actually handle my emotions and confront all of it. So I think writing it, even though the movie is fiction, I was able to get out a lot of what I felt. And when I watch it now, I really don’t necessarily watch it as…like, I don’t see Joe up there and think, “Oh, he’s playing me.” I now feel like I’ve kind of processed the whole ordeal, and I step back and I just see Joe up there and I just see Joe’s character. And it’s actually really nice – it’s really freeing – that I have gotten it all out of my system and I’ve helped create this whole other… But to have that and no longer feel like that’s my story but it’s Joe’s character’s story, is a pretty nice feeling.
EI: Because the movie is a little bit of a hybrid – it’s comedy but it’s drama, so it’s bittersweet – was it a little bit hard for you to convince people to come on board because of that mixed genre?
WR: Seth was involved from the beginning. Seth Rogen is one of my closest friends, and he was there with me when I had cancer, and the original idea for this movie came out of a conversation he and I had -- that no one had done a movie like this. So I always knew Seth was involved; I always knew Evan Goldberg was involved as well, to produce it. So when we went out and sold it to Mandate, that was a pretty easy process because I had Seth attached to the movie. But I will say that there’s probably no other studio in Hollywood that was interested in making this movie. I think Mandate was the only ones willing to take a risk on making a movie about cancer that was also a comedy.
EI: Was it also how to find the right director? And what did you think about Jonathan Levine? Because he directed All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, which is totally a different genre [laughs], so it’s very surprising to see him in such a picture…
WR: Jonathan did this movie called The Wackness a few years ago, and that has a nice mixture of comedy and drama in it, and it’s about real life. And when he approached us about directing the movie, he did it in the most genuine, authentic, sincere way. He wrote Seth and Evan – the producers of the movie – a letter, and it was straight from his heart, just about how much he connected with the movie, how he had dealt with cancer in his own life with family members of his, and how he would work harder on this movie than any other movie he’s ever made. And just hearing that from him – how heartfelt he was and how much he connected with the script – it really felt that this movie was as special to him as it was to us. And then when we sat down and met with him, he was just a guy like us, and it was like talking to a peer, and it felt so natural. And I think we all knew that it was going to be a nice collaborative effort. So it was a pretty easy decision once we met with him.
EI: Beyond your own story, what do you think the movie is about? What does it say about life, relationships, family…?
WR: For me, the thing that I’ve been the most satisfied with with the movie is the fact that it connects with audiences who watch it. It’s more than just a story inspired by my own life. People who have been affected by cancer can watch this movie, and they can connect to it, and they can have a larger discussion about it. Because I think the way we treat illness – we’re really afraid to talk about it, and I think there’s always this elephant in the room, that there’s always something like this going on in people’s lives, and my hope is that this will give people permission to talk about it, and that they’ll feel more comfortable.
Summit Entertainment's '50/50' is in theaters now.