Hollywood doesn’t generally show young people dealing with cancer, especially not 20-somethings like Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). And if it’s going to explore such a serious topic, it’s almost certainly not going to make light of the situation like “50/50.”
Adam doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, and he definitely doesn’t do drugs. It comes as a huge surprise then, when he is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and told he has a 50 percent chance of beating it. To brave the fight, Adam must lean on his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), who seems more interested in picking up women and smoking medical marijuana, than taking it seriously.
Jonathan Levine’s dramedy “50/50” is based on writer Will Reiser’s own battle with cancer, and his interactions with his real life friend Seth Rogen. The film takes a uniquely comedic approach to the concept of serious illness, while still showing sensitivity to the emotional struggles of a life threatening disease.
Recently I sat down for a roundtable interview with Seth Rogen and Will Reiser when they were in Boston promoting “50/50.” Rogen is exactly like you would expect in person: sarcastic, funny, and easily prone to laughter. As a behind the scenes type of person Reiser is quieter and more reserved, but his sense of humor is very similar to Rogen’s. Below are some of the highlights of our conversation.
Q: You screened ‘50/50’ at the Toronto film festival. How was the film received?
Seth Rogen: Really well. Probably better than any movie, I’ve ever had anything to do with, in any way, shape or form. It was really…you know I didn’t really think about it when we were making the movie, honestly. I mean I knew it was about something decidedly at times, more serious than our other movies, but I didn’t really imagine how that would translate into like potentially having the power to connect a lot more emotionally with people who watch it, and that’s really what we’ve been experiencing.
Q: The film was a great length. Was there a lot that you cut?
Will Reiser: The first cut was two and a half hours.
SR: There was much more material and each of those scenes could be exponentially longer, but yeah, it was all stuff we really wanted to cut. I mean we’re pretty ruthless cutters, generally speaking. We try to be. The length of our movies might suggest otherwise, normally. But we usually have a ton of material, so we really try to get rid of everything that isn’t working, and if it feels like you’re pushing it, or it just doesn’t land how you would hope, then we, our thing is to just get rid of it all together.
Q: Seth, your movies work best when you have someone to play against and Joe is THE perfect guy for you. Can you tell us a little bit about working with him?
SR: Yeah, what’s really amazing is that he didn’t sign on to do the movie until a week before we started shooting. We had another actor that dropped out and then we needed to replace him. And then Joe, Joe literally read the script for this movie a week before we started filming with him. So it was very brave to see that he was willing to throw himself into it with that little amount of preparation. But once he did, I mean it was really incredible, he just like committed and there was no looking back. It sounds cliche, but it made it easy, honestly. I would just look at him and he’d seem so real, and genuine as he was performing, that yeah, it really made it easy.
Q: You don’t get many actors to shave their head.
SR: No. Him and Demi Moore. (Laughing)
Q: Were you there for the hair cutting in real life?
SR: Well, Will didn’t go through the chemo in real life, so that never actually happened. That was one of the things we kinda…in real life there was four months between when he was diagnosed, and when he had surgery, but that four months was more filled with misdiagnosis and testing. And he was in and out of the hospital the whole time, but he didn’t go through chemo, specifically.
Q: So was that hair shaving scene all improv? Because you could really only do that once.
SR: Yeah, it was basically improv, which is pretty stupid. But that’s how we roll. (Laughing). Yeah we wanted it to feel real. We had the writers, we had Will, we had a couple of associate producers who were our friends, who are writers also, who were on set, kind of pitching jokes. And we had them make a giant list of famous bald people that we could reference throughout the head shaving scene. That’s what we wanted, famous bald people, like Michael Stipe, and stuff like that. It was helpful though, to have that.
Q: Did you and Will ever use the experience to try to pick up chicks?
SR: It was never specifically articulated as it is in the movie, I would say. That being said, I knew that it probably made us seem sympathetic and interesting. And we did go to bars during the time that he was sick. I actually met my girlfriend at a bar one night with Will. I was actually asking her recently ‘Do you think any of it had to do that I was with Will? That didn’t make me seem kind of nice and interesting?’ She claims it didn’t, but we’ll see.
Q: Seth, you’ve said before that Will came out of this a better person, did you see this as the opposite of ‘Funny People?’
SR: Yeah, (Laughing) where the guy comes out worse? Kind of. I never thought of it like that. It’s kind of true though.
WR: The initial joke, one of the initial jokes we were talking about when we started doing the movie was that I was actually the same…
SR: Your original title for the movie was ‘How I Learned Nothing from Cancer.’ The script was very similar but we were like this is great, but this is bulls**t! You’re so much less annoying than you were before you had cancer. So it was funny that even at the time that you wrote the first draft, that you didn’t have the perspective that you were much different than you were before the experience. But luckily me and Evan (Goldberg) could see that.
Q: How is he different?
SR: He’s much less neurotic
WR: I’m much more attractive.
SR: You’re much more attractive. He is, honestly. He’s much more confident, and he’s much healthier mentally and physically he takes better care of himself, which I think generally, has made him in a better mood. But yeah, we were good friends before, so it wasn’t like he was a f**king terrible person to be around…
WR: I just worried a lot. I just worried about every single, possible thing you could worry about.
SR: You would complain about women all the time. It was just that kind of thing that kind of stopped. Now you don’t enter destructive relationships and bitch at me about them all the time, which is nice.
Q: In the credits I noticed there was a special thanks to Uwe Boll. I was just curious why?
SR: We had the same line producer that Uwe Boll uses on our movie. And the movie that me and the girl are watching on the couch, after I’ve slept with her is called ‘Far Cry’ I believe, it’s a Uwe Boll movie that was cleared for free by Mr. Boll. (Laughing) So he deserves a thank you. I have to say, he’s one of the best line producers I’ve ever worked with.
WR: I was at a Q & A last week, and someone asked me why there was a special thanks to him, and I said I have no clue who that is.
SR: (Laughing) I didn’t notice it until a week ago also, and I laughed hysterically.
Q: (In ‘50/50’ Rogen wonders aloud what the machine gun budget is.) Did you actually find out the machine gun budget on the film?
SR: I actually did, because we had the same line producer, and it was his own joke. The next day he came on set and was like ‘It was 35,000 dollars.’
Q: I feel like I have to ask this. There’s a line in the ‘40 Year Old Virgin’ where you’re talking to Steve Carell on the phone and it kills me every time, and you’re like ‘I’m not a doctor or anything, but she’s a f**kin’ grandma.’ Every time I hear that line I crack up, it’s really the way you say ‘I’m not a doctor.’ I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of ways to get you to admit that you’re not a doctor but I just can’t.
SR: You just wanted me to say the line? I’m not a doctor or anything.
EC: In the context of the film, what’s a moment you’d think you might admit to Joseph Gordon Levitt that you’re not a doctor?
SR: Would I say, well I’m not a doctor, but uh…instead of something else. (Laughing) There, does that satisfy your dream?