50/50 – Seth Rogen interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
SETH Rogen talks about playing a version of his real-life self in cancer comedy 50/50 and how he really dealt with the diagnosis of his close friend [and writer] Will Reiser.
He also discusses elements of his own career and what makes him happy, as well as having to overcome the loss of James McAvoy, the original star of the film, and find a perfect 11th hour replacement in Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Q. You effectively play yourself in this movie re-living [writer and friend] Will Reiser’s real-life experience of having gone through this experience with cancer – that’s ultra method…
Seth Rogen: I guess. It’s really not like me that much though. That character would not do this [talk to the press]. He would have bailed on this. It’s really not like me. I mean, by the time we started filming it became a very warped representation of what I was like at the time. There are some things… the dynamic between the characters is similar to how our dynamic was at the time. There are aspects too but behaviourally the character does a lot of things I wouldn’t do. I would never lie to a girl to get laid, which that guy would!
Q. Did you go out and try and pick up girls with Will?
Seth Rogen: Not specifically. Again, I think the sexualisation of it all is something we did more for comedy than anything. Our version of making light of it was just joking around about it more rather than actually trying to make it manifest itself in anything sexual.
Q. You had been working together with Will when he got diagnosed, though…
Seth Rogen: Yeah, we’d actually just finished doing The Ali G Show together but I was unemployed and Will had a job that would sporadically call me to work, so we just hung out a lot.
Q. I gather you gave Will quite a hard time for looking ill before you found out what the cause of it actually was. How did that make you feel when you actually did find out what was causing it?
Seth Rogen: In a way I was happy that there was actually a reason. I honestly wasn’t happy that he had cancer. But I was happy that someone doesn’t just get sick for years for no reason whatsoever. He had been complaining about being sick for a long time so in a way it was just scientifically gratifying that there was actually a reason. It was obviously very scary but I didn’t feel bad, or anything, for making fun of him for being sick. We all made fun of him for feeling sick at that time and he dealt with it in a pretty ridiculous way at that time also. But I don’t think people reacted any more weirdly to Will’s cancer than anyone else.
Q. So, how much of the relationship in the film is real? Did you go out and get a book to educate yourself?
Seth Rogen: I didn’t do that, no. Our relationship never got to the point that it required a reconciliation of that nature. It was never as tumultuous as it gets in the film.
Q. But going back to when you first found out, the film shows how people react to such news in a number of different – and often weird – ways. Did you find yourself questioning the appropriate response in real-life?
Seth Rogen: Um, I mean I think I really just took my cues from Will. He seemed to want to act normal. At the time I don’t think we had the wherewithal to realise… I mean now, after we’ve talked about it a lot, we realise that it’s very alienating to be sick. I think you want to not feel alienated so you want to continue doing the things you were doing before you were sick and you want people to treat you in the same way they treated you before you were sick, which is just not like how any movies about people who are sick are. So, that was interesting to me and at the time I couldn’t really even intellectualise it or even articulate it in that way. All I saw was: “Oh, Will seems to want to act normal, he seems to want to go to bars, and seems to want to go out to dinner and hang out, so I’ll just do exactly what I’d be doing otherwise!”
Q. There was no sitting and watching Beaches together?
Seth Rogen: No exactly! There was no extra watching of Beaches, our regular weekly viewing of Beaches was uninterrupted.
Q. What feedback from doctors and medical professionals have you had to the film so far?
Seth Rogen: Doctors seem to think that the doctors are portrayed unsympathetically [laughs]! It’s funny, of all the things in the movie that actually seems to be the one thing that draws the most heated debate – is to whether or not the portrayal of the medical professionals in the movie is fair. It’s really weird. That’s the bone people have chosen to pick or the thing that people seem to get uppity about. It’s like: “Oh, that doctors too much of an asshole!” But I’ve had doctors that are such f**king assholes! I’ve had dentists that name-drop! It’s crazy the shit that these doctors do sometimes!
Q. Will’s said you are very good at calling people on their bullshit. Did that come into play at all during the writing process of 50/50? How involved were you in that and finding the line between the personal and the entertainment aspects of it?
Seth Rogen: I think, if anything, it was Will’s instinct to dramatise things more at first and I think it took a few drafts to kind of whittle it down to a more realistic place. I think as the development of the script went on it became closer to real life rather than further from real life… not to say it’s that representative of real life. I think Will’s first instinct was to add a lot of conventions because he didn’t give his own story the credit it deserved for just being original.
Q. Are you always having to re-write comedy and whittle it down during the writing process?
Seth Rogen: Oh yeah. To me, the re-writing process goes on through the editing process of the movie. I mean I don’t think you’re done even beyond that because you could add ADR jokes after that. I mean, the writing process is over when the movie’s completely done and if you’re George Lucas 30 years after that! You can change a lot after the fact, so I think things are a work in progress until you literally can’t change it anymore.
Q. Having said that, it’s still quite a gutsy move to have improvised through the hair cutting scene because you only really get one shot at getting that right…
Seth Rogen: Yeah, I guess so. The tone of the movie is such that there’s no bad reaction in a scene like that. We knew going in that no matter what either of us did, as long as it felt natural, it worked. We could have stood there in stunned silence, we could have been trying to make jokes that were bad, but as long as they felt jokes we might be making at that time, then it works. So, I remember not knowing what Joe was going to do, honestly. I didn’t know if it was going to be played as an emotional moment for him, or if it would be played as a lighter moment, or… I kind of had no pre-conceived notion of how that was going to go down. And he really just kind of approached it pretty lightly and I took my cues from that. That was the first day of filming too. Usually for me the first day of filming really stands out, no matter what it is. For some reason, I can always tell it feels a little bit different than the rest of the movie… but for this movie it didn’t for some reason.
Q. Originally it was going to be James McAvoy in Joe’s role, until quite late on, I believe?
Seth Rogen: Yeah, he dropped out and then we had a couple of days to find a new actor. We got Joe and started filming five days later. So, we hired Joe on a Saturday and we started filming the following Monday, so we had around eight days with Joe before we started. In that time, we really just read the scenes a lot, we asked him what he thought, he gave a lot of input, we did a lot of re-writing but that doesn’t intimidate us. We’re very fluid with the process and we try to not have too many preconceived notions and be open along the way. So, it really wasn’t the hardest thing that, as a producer, I’ve had to deal with. It was unfortunate when it happened but it ultimately could not have fixed itself in an easier or better way.
I really give Joe a lot of credit because it’s kind of fearless what he did… the fact that he would jump into a movie like this so soon before filming it. It kind of throws the notion that you have to research or prepare for a role completely out of the window. I was telling him: “You really f**ked yourself! For the rest of your career you’re never going to be able to use the excuse that you need time to research or do some kind of rehearsal.” Obviously, there were some decisions that James had made about the character that Joe then changed, but it was more textural things, such as the kind of music his character listened to.
Q. Having worked in comedy for so long, what have you learned from your career? What has life taught you?
Seth Rogen: I guess the longer I work the better I’ve gotten at making things that make me happy throughout the process. I think if you make movies and you only gauge their success on how they’re received after they’re done, then that’s a dangerous way to conduct your life. But now I try to only write things that I enjoy writing. I try to only make things that I know I’m only going to enjoy making regardless of whether or not the public likes them. I know that I did something that I find to be creatively interesting and worthwhile. That’s helpful!
Q. You seem to have a taste for boundary-pushing a bit. So, what’s the next frontier for you? Is there something you really want to tackle?
Seth Rogen: We’re doing a slightly religious inspired horror-comedy [laughs] about the apocalypse. So, we’re kind of getting into spirituality next.
Q. I imagine in the US that could be quite a big deal…
Seth Rogen: Yeah. If you’ve been to America lately, they have some religious turmoil over there [laughs]. It’s just called The Apocalypse now. No one claims ownership!
Q. How far along are you with that?
Seth Rogen: We’ve written the script, we have no money to actually make it but we’re kind of pre-packaging it. So, we’re doing pre-viz and storyboards and concept art and we would ideally start filming in February .
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- Will Reiser interview
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