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50/50 - Will Reiser interview

50/50, Will Reiser

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WILL Reiser talks about writing cancer comedy 50/50 based on his own experiences of surviving cancer and how it differs from his own story as well as reflects certain elements.

He also talks about working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen on the film and what life has taught him to this point.

Q. This is obviously a deeply personal project for you…
Will Reiser: Six years ago I had cancer and I had something similar to what Joe’s character has in the movie and Seth [Rogen] and I have been good friends for a really long time and when I was actually sick we talked about how there was no movie that accurately depicted what the experience was like. So, we talked about the idea of doing a movie that was a comedy that dealt with cancer. I mean, you know, we’re comedy writers and we use humour as a way to deal with the whole situation. We didn’t necessarily feel that there was a movie that did that.

Q. How close to the real-life Seth is Seth’s character on-screen?
Will Reiser: Well, he has a great ability to call bullshit on people…

Q. You were working with Seth when you found out you had cancer, weren’t you?
Will Reiser: It was actually just after we finished working on The Ali G Show. It was seven months after we were done. So, we were not working together at that time. But during that time I pretty much spent every day with Seth.

Q. Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays well how people around his character react to his diagnosis. Is that something that was very close to your own experience?
Will Reiser: For me, I definitely felt alienated because of the way people would react to me. It just sort of felt that it was very hard for people to treat me like a normal person. So, when writing it I sort of drew upon that quite a bit – all the dysfunction, all the absurd ways in which people reacted. We were just talking about this, though, and that’s just normal, it’s just life… it’s pretty universal because it’s scary. When you’re talking to someone who is mirroring back your own fear of mortality, there’s all these issues that come up for people and people get freaked out. It’s difficult.

Q. There’s quite a touching moment where Joe’s character discovers the book that Seth’s character has…
Will Reiser: That’s fiction!

Q. What feedback from doctors and medical professionals have you had to the film?
Will Reiser: They love it!

Q. But Seth has said that’s one of the things that critics of the film have focused in on the most… that some of the portrayals are unfair?
Will Reiser: Well, it’s important to show that the reason why some doctors are so good is because they don’t humanise the person and they look at them as an object, not as a person, and in that way they don’t get emotionally invested. I mean, one surgeon told me that the moment you actually start getting emotionally invested in a person you suddenly can’t perform as well during surgery because you’re actually worrying that if you screw up you could actually hurt this person. Do you know what I mean? I just feel that we’re not totally off-base in pointing that out. I feel like I had doctors who treated me like that, so I don’t think it’s unfair to depict a doctor in that way. And also Joe’s character, when he has his existential crisis and his fit in the therapist’s office, says: “Why won’t anybody just be honest with me and just tell me how it is….”

But that’s what the doctor is doing. I think it’s just more that in that situation, when you’re being delivered bad news like that, it’s really hard to hear it from someone who is so rigid and austere. It’s like you want someone to tell you bad news and then give you a big hug and tell you it’s going to be OK. But that’s not necessarily the doctor’s job. It’s all shades of grey, you know. It’s not like we’re accusing doctors of being bad people – that’s just what the situation was like for me and I think people can relate to that.


Q. When you’re writing something like this and because of the personal nature of it, does it give you more licence to play with the structure of the traditional screenplay rather than having to constantly hit certain plot beats that are more commonly associated with this kind of film?
Will Reiser: I think it was really just about making the best movie possible. We never set out to make it autobiographical. It was always about what’s going to make the best movie.

Q. Are you always having to re-write comedy and whittle it down during the writing process?
Will Reiser: Oh yeah. I was writing even when we were on set. In the script, Adam [Joseph Gordon-Levitt]’s father had a stroke; he didn’t have Alzheimer’s. But then we realised that it didn’t translate, so we changed it. And that was in ADR. It was something we added then.

Q. That said, I gather Joe’s hair-cutting scene was largely improvised?
Will Reiser: I think they do a really great job of playing off one another. There’s a lot of improvisation that goes on between them. And that was the first day of filming too. But it seemed like right away they clicked.

Q. Originally, it was going to be James McAvoy in Joe’s role until quite late in the day…
Will Reiser: It was but from the moment Joe jumped in he just totally said ‘yes’. He asked lots of questions, he gave lots of notes and we would have lots of conversations about the character and his hobbies and what he did. Joe really, really would investigate things. He went to the set and looked at his bedroom and looked at his house and would look at pictures and would add things or say what didn’t work for him. Joe decided that he really wanted his character to be a big jazz fan, so we incorporated that, and baseball. It was lots of little things but they really helped Joe to understand the character and make it his own.

Q. Having worked in comedy for so long, what have you learned from your career? What has life taught you?
Will Reiser: I think it’s taught me to… I don’t know, to never have expectations because you never have any idea what’s next. Six years ago I did not think we’d be sitting here talking about this movie. So, you never quite know. I spent many years working on TV shows that I was miserable working on and now I really only want to work on things that satisfy me creatively. I don’t want to work for the sake of working. Making a movie with some of my best friends was probably one of my best experiences.

Q. You mentioned working on the Ali G Show. How stressful was that?
Will Reiser: I’d say it was the most stressful job I’ve ever had! In fairness, my job was a little bit more stressful than Seth’s. I was a stressed out person at the time.

Q. Do you think the stress contributed to your illness?
Will Reiser: Well it didn’t help! I don’t know if it contributed, but it certainly didn’t help. I would have nightmares that people were going to show up at my house. I’d get a lot of angry phone calls.

Q. But working with Seth in these sort of circumstances is much less stressful?
Will Reiser: Oh much more stressful! I live in fear every day. No, no, no, it’s great. I mean, making the movie really was an incredible experience.

50/50 opens in UK cinemas on Friday, November 25, 2011.