Spinning Platters Interview: Seth Rogen and Will Reiser on “50/50”

by Jason LeRoy on September 29, 2011

Will Reiser and Seth Rogen on the set of 50/50

Have you ever watched a cancer movie and thought, “You know what this needs? More dick jokes!” If so, 50/50 is the cancer movie for you. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, who seems to have his life together: he works for a public radio station in Seattle, he has a devoted (if obnoxious) best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), and a beautiful girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). But when Adam is suddenly diagnosed with cancer, his life begins to fall apart. His relationship with Rachael becomes increasingly strained, he is assigned a counselor named Katherine (Anna Kendrick) who is barely out of diapers, his overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) won’t leave him alone, and Kyle keeps using Adam’s cancer to get himself laid. And if that sounds like too irreverent of a storyline for a film about cancer, then take it up with screenwriter Will Reiser. Because it’s inspired by his life.

Six years ago, when Will Reiser and Seth Rogen were best friends working on Da Ali G Show together, Reiser was diagnosed with cancer. Reiser, Rogen, and their other friends were in the early-to-mid ’20s at the time, and didn’t exactly have the emotional maturity necessary to deal with this development in a serious way. And so, they found ways to laugh about it. Then, as comedy writers, they found ways to write about it. After Reiser had an operation to rid himself of the cancer and was given a clean bill of health, he began working on the script that would become 50/50.

If you’re looking for Wit, you should probably stick with Wit. But if you’re open to the concept of a raunchy buddy comedy that happens to be about coping with cancer, this is that movie. Below, Spinning Platters sits down with Rogen and Reiser, who speak in the rapid-fire, sentence-finishing banter of two friends who met because they’re professionally funny, to discuss the herculean task of naming a comedy about cancer, the differences between Reiser and his character in the film, and which difficult subjects they’d rather not make movies about.

You guys are out on this press tour right now, going from city to city and talking to lots of different people. Does it ever get easier? Does it just feel like part of the job?

Seth Rogen: It’s part of the job, I would say.

Will Reiser: We’re talking a lot about our friendship, so that makes it a little bit easier.

SR: Yeah, on the grand scale of stuff to talk about, it’s not that bad. But it’s definitely not the most fun aspect of what we do.

WR: If we were having to talk about the Holocaust, it would be different.

SR: Right, exactly. That’s why we haven’t made a movie about that. We just don’t want to talk about it. But cancer is fine. [laughs]

Do you have any tricks to help keep things lively if the same questions keep coming up?

WR: Cocaine.

SR: Yeah. As you can tell, Will is very high on cocaine right now.

Seth, do you think it’s fucked up that you lost all this weight but Joseph Gordon-Levitt still got to play the cancer patient?

SR: [long laugh] I do, a little bit.

WR: Joe didn’t have to lose any weight.

SR: He may have even gained weight.

Are you now worried about getting typecast as the friend of the guy who has cancer?

SR: [laughs] I am worried about it, but I think I’ll do three more movies in that role then call it a day. I have a few more diseases I’d like to hit.

WR: Well, this is a franchise, you know.

SR: It’s like Lord of the Rings.

50/50 is semi-autobiographical. How much of the characters of Adam (Gordon-Levitt) and Kyle (Rogen) are really you guys?

WR: Well, the movie itself is fiction. It was inspired by the fact that I had cancer six years ago, and Seth was there with me throughout the whole ordeal. The character of Adam is definitely an extension of me. There are some slight differences, but his arc definitely [is like mine]. I used to be really neurotic, worrisome, angsty…

SR: Some of the specific details have been fictionalized. You never jogged.

WR: I was a big jogger!

SR: You were?

WR: Yeah! We just never jogged together.

SR: I guess you never invited me to go jogging.

WR: But yeah, I worried a lot-

SR: You complained a lot.

WR: Right, I guess I complained a lot; just the way that Joe’s character is always worried about something. But through the process of having cancer and getting better, I let go of all those things I used to worry about. I didn’t realize it like a month after my surgery, it took a few years, but just the process of going through it all changed me in similar ways to how Joe’s character is changed. And [mine and Seth’s] friendship was very much that dynamic where he would just be insensitive and make fun of me a lot, and that was our rapport. But that’s how friends are! You make fun of each other.

How did you first decide to make a comedic film about cancer?

SR: Our experience of it was funny, which is why we thought to make it like this. And that’s the whole reason why we made it. We realized that people kinda see an experience like this, if you’re a movie fans, through the lens of movies. And while we were living it, we were like, “There is no movie we can reference for what this is like.” Because Will didn’t lose his sense of humor. We were all comedy writers. So when the people that you’re hanging out with at the time are me and Evan Goldberg, my writing partner … We worked with Sacha Baron Cohen at the time. So our experience was funny.

WR: That was our coping mechanism too. We didn’t sit around and talk about our feelings, we didn’t know how. People’s impression of what cancer is is based on what they’ve seen in movies, and in every movie about cancer, it’s very sad and very melodramatic, and the person always dies at the end. They have this great moment of clarity, and make amends with, like, their son they haven’t talked to in forty years-

SR: And then they die. And that’s not what happened to us.

WR: I still have a relationship with my son.

SR: Will and his son have a wonderful relationship, even though Will died a few years ago. [laughs] So that’s why we wanted to do it. If it was funny for us, then why not show that?

WR: We wanted to make something we could relate to.

Do you have a favorite cancer movie?

WR: Well, I mean, Terms of Endearment is an amazing movie.

SR: That’s a safe answer.

Will, you pulled from your own experiences for the sequence in the film when Adam’s friends and colleagues suddenly begin confiding very personal things to him once they find out he has cancer. Now that you’ve made this huge movie about having cancer, are you concerned that this is going to start happening even more often now?

WR: Yeah, I really kinda set myself up for that one. Honestly, I didn’t expect that at all.

SR: I’ve been yelling at Will as he complains about it, actually. You should maybe not make a movie about it next time if you don’t wanna talk about it! I got a lot of guys talking to me about weed.

WR: It’s really wonderful that people feel like they can now share their stories, because there are so many cancer patients and survivors that go through this really difficult traumatic ordeal, and no one knows how to relate to them. I feel like this movie really speaks to them, and they connect with it because it feels very close to their own experiences. So that’s really nice. It’s quite overwhelming, the number of people who do now share their stories with me, in person or in email. And, you know, it’s flattering. We were just trying to make a movie that people would like. We didn’t know that it would be such a relatable movie. It’s validating and gratifying.

The film was originally called I’m With Cancer. What led to the title change?

SR: I’m With Cancer is a potentially repellent title. After going to great lengths to make an inclusive movie that everyone could enjoy, it seemed counter-intuitive to give it a title that could drive people running away from the movie theater. And I mean, 50/50 is not the greatest movie title of all time, I’ll be very honest about that. But it’s not repellent, and that kinda became our goal. I think I’m With Cancer is a more edgy title than the movie is.

WR: Yeah. It’s like, if they had named Harold & Maude, like-

SR: I Fucked An Old Lady.

WR: [laughs] That would be edgier than the movie. With titles, you kinda have to go more generic.

SR: When the movie is a risk, you don’t want the title to be a risk too.

WR: As for 50/50, we had a list of over 900 titles-

SR: We literally had a box on set for crew members, and we were gonna pay like $5,000 to someone for coming up with the right title.

WR: It was $500, but yeah-

SR: I sweetened it!

WR: 50/50 was the only title that was not repulsive to anyone.

SR: It’s hard to think of a title for a comedy about cancer!

WR: I have to give the credit to Bryce Dallas Howard, she’s the one who thought of it.

SR: She was the first person to suggest it. At the time we were kinda like, “Meh…” We were thinking something like The Bitter End or something bad like that. We have a dark sense of humor, so it’s hard for us to know what everybody else finds funny.

What was the title while you were in production?

WR: Untitled Cancer Comedy.

SR: Which we considered! Like, “Can we just call it that? It’s not that bad! It kinda says it all!”

WR: When I showed up in Vancouver to get my car rental when we started pre-production, there was this big packet for me at the car rental place, and on the top it said, WILL REISER – UNTITLED CANCER COMEDY. And the car rental woman was like, “A cancer comedy?” And I was like, “Yeah, well, we had another title.” And she was like, “What was that title?” And I said, “I’m With Cancer.” And she was like, “That doesn’t sound like a comedy.”

SR: We did a test screening, and at that time it had another bad title, Get Well Soon I think. So they do these focus groups at the end of the screening, and we wanted to know what they thought of I’m With Cancer. Evan calls the focus group lady over and whispers in her ear, “Could you ask them what they think of I’m With Cancer?” And she goes back in front of the crowd and says, “Okay, I have another title they’ve been throwing around. What would you think if this movie was called I Have Cancer!” [laughs] And everyone was like, “Oh, God! Ugh! Why would they call it that?” And we were like, “No! No!”

On the subject of the repellent factor, how did you decide what to show and what to keep out?

SR: We test the movie. We’re big believers in testing with audiences as many time as we can before we lock a picture. And we have a lot of smaller screenings for any filmmakers we know, any director that will sit down and watch the movie. We did a screening with Judd [Apatow], [James L.] Brooks, Michel Gondry – anyone we know and trust that will come watch it, we’ll show it to them. But in terms of any jokes in the movie, we just listen to what gets laughs, and if when we do the focus groups everyone’s like, “Fuck that joke,” we’ll take it out.

WR: You make sure that it’s always honest. It can be funny, it can be dramatic, but it’s gotta feel real, it’s gotta feel true to the moment and to those characters. And if it’s just a joke for a joke’s sake – I definitely wrote some jokes that were too broad and got cut, and that was just a balancing-out that we figured out during the writing process–

SR: And during filming. If we’re filming a scene and it’s like, “He wouldn’t make a joke here,” then we’d cut it out.

WR: Or we’d go for it anyway, and if it didn’t work, we’d just cut it out later. Like the Patrick Swayze joke. We knew that was a bit of a risk.

SR: We were very open to that not flying.

Did the tone of the film shift through that self-editing process?

WR: My first draft was a little too broad.

SR: It was more comedic.

WR: It had the dramatic beats, but there was so much humor infused in certain scenes where we didn’t need it.

SR: When you’re writing a comedy about cancer, you probably err on the side of comedy rather than cancer. But I think the movie got more and more real and naturalistic as we went into filming and as we edited it. All the actors brought a level of reality to it. Actors are one of the best things that could happen to a script, because an actor will think of a character in a way that, as a writer, you kinda don’t. As a writer, you’re looking to serve the whole movie and the whole story, but actors, in a very good yet selfish way, are very protective of their own little character — but in a way that’s very helpful, because they come up with 100 ideas you’d have never come up with because they’re the ones who are so invested in it.

WR: I had extensive conversations with Anjelica Huston and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick and Bryce, and for each of them I’d talk to them about the characters. They really took those characters and made them their own. They’re all so grounded and good at what they do. When you see the characters come to life, it allowed me as a writer to see things we could focus on. I was writing the whole way through while we were filming, and that was aided by these characters that had come to life.

How did you work on getting such a challenging concept to the screen in a way that was accessible and also marketable?

SR: We set out with very realistic goals. And we knew this was different from the other movies we had made, just in that it was potentially a little tougher to swallow. So the first thing we did was not go to any major studios. We went to Mandate, which is an independent financier that doesn’t distribute movies, it pays for them.

WR: They were really passionate. The script kinda fell into their hands. We weren’t even shopping it, and they pursued it.

SR: And the good thing with them is that we were able to get a deal where we had complete creative control over the movie, so we didn’t have to worry that they’d ruin anything. But they’re all very smart people over there, so they wouldn’t have anyway. [laughs] All the challenges beyond that came from having agreed to make a movie that’s way cheaper than the movies you normally make. Normally we work in the $20-$120 million range, and this was an $8 million dollar movie. Which is still a lot of money; people make movies for much less. But it just meant that we had less time, less equipment, less locations, less crew members, no visual effects, you can’t afford music as easily. All that kind of stuff becomes challenging. But with all that said, this was one of the easiest movies I’ve ever worked on.

WR: It was like making a student film, because it was us and our friends making a movie.

SR: The fact that we were in Vancouver, where Evan and I grew up, added to that student feel.

WR: And Angelica is older than us, but she has a very youthful presence. She’s a lot of fun to hang out with. So we never felt like we were…

SR: Lunatic running the asylum.

WR: Yeah. The studio wasn’t imposing their ideas on us, they trusted us. And there were disagreements, but we usually proved them wrong.

SR: On a day to day basis, Evan and I were the bosses on set, which provided a pretty relaxed work environment. [laughs]

Seth, do you have any ambition toward doing serious roles?

SR: Yeah, I did a movie [Take This Waltz] with Michelle Williams and Sarah Polley, who also directed it. It’s more serious, not entirely serious, but it has some serious elements to it. But yeah, if it seems like a movie that I would go see or a group of people that I’m really a big fan of, I’d do any kind of movie.

Would you do a serious cancer movie?

SR: [laughs] No, that I would not do.

Bryce is someone that you’d been wanting to work with for quite some time, and now here she is, playing her second villain role this year after The Help. What kind of function did you envision Rachael serving in the film? I don’t know how autobiographical that storyline is, but she seems almost like a scapegoat for the cancer; Adam and Kyle can take out their aggression on her in a palpable way that they cannot do to the cancer.

WR: From the very first draft, I always saw that character as a very cancerous-type figure. Adam is very passive, he doesn’t drive, he’s a control freak but has no control over his life. The moment where he kicks her off the porch, that’s the first moment where he’s actually taking some control over his life. To me, that was symbolic. There was always a parallel between her and cancer. That character is an amalgam of different people from my life, friends and family members who were close to me who didn’t know how to handle the situation. And they basically just bailed. And it really sucked. [pause] And I think that that happens to a lot of people, and it was important to show that, you know? I think that storyline is really vital to Adam’s growth.

Finally, you hear a lot of questions on press tours, and a lot of the same questions. Is there one question you wish people would stop asking, or that you don’t like answering?

SR: That’s a good question.

WR: I just never know what you people know and what you don’t know. We answer the same questions so we can’t remember what we said to who.

SR: I don’t like it when people ask me shit where they clearly write for some fuckin’ sports newspaper and they ask me a bunch of fucking sports questions, or they’re from L’Oréal and they want to kow what my beauty tips are. Just, like, fucking trivia questions.

WR: Oh, you don’t like trivia questions?

SR: Well, it’s better than fucking talking about you for twenty minutes.

WR: [laughs] That part, I don’t mind.

50/50 opens nationwide on Friday, September 30.

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