Written by Will Reiser, 31, and starring Seth Rogen, 29, and Joseph Gordon-Levit, "50/50" is based on Reiser’s real-life battle with cancer. Rogen (“Knocked Up”) and Reiser talk for nearly 20 minutes about the film, a comedy that’s both moving and funny.
Seth Rogen’s distinctive laugh echoes through the room at the Four Season’s Hotel in Boston where he and Will Reiser are promoting their cancer-comedy “50/50.” Written by Reiser, 31, and starring Rogen, 29, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Inception”), the film opens Friday. Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) directs.
Rogen (“Knocked Up”) and Reiser talk for nearly 20 minutes about the film, a comedy that’s both moving and funny and based on Reiser’s real-life battle with cancer. However, it’s Rogen’s crazy, loud, ring-tone-worthy laugh that steals the show on this day. In fact, that signature chortle is so booming, it drowns out some of the audio on my digital recorder. That doesn’t stop us, though, from having a funny and frank discussion about the film, cancer and comedy.
Here are some excerpts:
Reiser was diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer when he was 25. Gordon-Levitt plays his alter-ego, Adam, who has a large tumor in his spine. Rogen plays an exaggerated version of himself as Adam’s best friend. The movie was drawn from their real-life experiences.
REISER: Seth was there throughout the whole thing with me. Because we are comedy writers, we are not the kind of people who sit around and express our emotions, we just tried to find the humor in the situation and make light of it as much as possible. One night we were at a party and people were asking questions. We realized that people’s impression of cancer was what they saw in movies like “The Bucket List.” So we started saying no one knows what it’s like for a young person to be sick. It’s not like you create a check list of the things you want to do and places you want to see. I’m not going to go to India. I’m sick and people think you have this whole new perspective but you know I’m just sick and I’m just trying to get by day to day. We had this idea for a movie at the time and we would call it ‘The FU**-It List.’
ROGEN: It was like doing heroin for the day and all that (expletive) up (expletive).
REISER: It was just this broad comedy idea that we had. Once I got better, Seth and (producer) Evan Goldberg urged me to actually write a movie about my experience. What really helped me get through it was having this movie processing and putting into the script all those things I couldn’t really express or say out loud.
In the film, Rogen plays Adam’s pothead best friend Kyle. He’s a foul-mouthed buffoon with a heart of gold. In one poignant scene in Kyle’s bathroom, Adam finds a self-help book titled “Facing Cancer Together.”
ROGEN: That’s designed to make you vulnerable. I didn’t do that in real life. Will did that to make me more sympathetic.
REISER: He wasn’t that much of a jerk.
ROGEN: You never had an emotional outburst with me.
REISER: I never had an emotional outburst at all. That scene is my emotional outburst. The script is my emotional outburst. I’d wish I had an emotional outburst.
Reiser’s mother was the first person he told about the cancer. Next was his buddy Dave and then Rogen. It was 2004 and both were young writers on “The Ali G Show.” Rogen was in the bathroom when he got the news.
ROGEN: I don’t know what you did in between calling me and Dave, but it was long enough for me to get a call from Dave telling me you had cancer and then to go to the bathroom and then taking a call from you while I was on the toilet. Since Dave had already told me I knew why you were calling me and that’s why I couldn’t not answer – I didn’t want to call him back. That would have been too weird because I knew. I had to pretend that I didn’t know, which was weird, too.
The film is a nice blend of humor and sentiment, something that is typical of passion projects.
REISER: It was my therapy. The movie is very funny and my perspective is always going to be humor and obviously writing a character for Seth, I’m going to try to find the humor as much as possible. Unconsciously the range of emotions just came out and I just wrote about it and that’s how I processed it.
A cancer-comedy sounds like an oxymoron but Rogen, also a producer on the film, never saw it as a difficult sell. The film earned a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. It’s also been pegged as a sleeper pick for the Academy Awards.
ROGEN: The best thing that happened to us marketing-wise was that it turned out good. Ultimately it’s not a miserable movie. I think that it’s a happy movie and that it feels honest just organically solved a lot of the problems we would have faced. I think if it were ultimately sad it would have been really tough, but if we hadn’t gone through what we went through we would have never had that nerve to try to make the movie.
REISER: All my ideas come from things that happen to me in real life. I would never have had the idea to write a movie about cancer unless it was something I really connected to.
ROGEN: I would have never imagined a cancer comedy on our list of ideas.
REISER: It sounds ridiculous.
ROGEN: I think the only reason we thought it was a good idea is because it was funny most of the time. It just seemed like if there are 10 emotions you feel throughout this process, it seemed like most movies focused on two them and they were both depressing. So many other things happened. There was funny stuff, there was awkward stuff, there was absurd stuff. Why not try to show all that instead of showing the really miserable side of it? At the same time, if there hadn’t been a million miserable cancer movies we probably wouldn’t have been able to do this. It would have seemed misrepresentative of all the miserable stuff that happens. We don’t shy away from that. But it’s just like almost every cancer movie before this ignored the large percentage of the population that doesn’t completely lose their sense of humor when something bad happens.
REISER: Cancer came into my life and then everyone reacted in all these different ways and it created all this dysfunction. No one knew how to handle it or knew the right thing to say and that was absurd in itself. I’d never seen anything like that in a movie so it felt like we were doing something totally original.
On screen, Kyle uses Adam’s cancer to pick up girls in a bar, in a bookshop ... That was just dramatic license.
REISER: Truth is we are kind-of nerdy guys and socially awkward and we are slightly terrified of women. We did joke about it, and I did find that women were slightly more sympathetic when they found out I had cancer, but that didn’t mean they wanted to have sex with me. It just meant that they wanted to give me a ride or tuck me into bed and then go out with the guy that ignored them. But I did introduce Seth to his fiancee when I was sick.
ROGEN: It probably made me seem interesting.
REISER: They went shopping for books for me while I was in the hospital. It brought out Seth’s more sensitive side.
ROGEN: Yeah, I milked it.
James McEvoy was originally slated to play Adam, but had to drop out at the last minute. Gordon-Levitt was cast and started filming a week later.
ROGEN: I knew he was a really great guy and I knew he was adventurous creatively. That’s what we needed. We needed someone fast and we needed someone who was willing to take a risk. It’s a risky thing for an actor to make a movie like this. I don’t care how I’m perceived, so it’s not a risk to me but I imagine it’s a risk for others.
REISER: He has such great range, too. There’s not too many guys our age that can do comedy and drama so well.
ROGEN: And I had just worked with (James) Franco, so we couldn’t do that. Plus, he looked too healthy.
Rogen stars in the Sarah Polley’s drama “Take this Waltz,” due out later this year. He’s in it with Sarah Silverman and Michelle Williams. The film marks a serious turn to the dramatic for Rogen.
ROGEN: Doing comedy is much harder. It uses all the same muscles and more. I’m the kind of actor that tries to play it as naturally and realistically as possible. And when it’s a comedy, you not only have to do that, you have to try to find ways to make it funny. Scenes where you’re not trying to be funny you know that you don’t need the laugh in order for the scene to sustain itself. It’s honestly much easier. It feels the same but you’re not doing one thing that’s hard to do which is also try to make it funny.
“50/50” was Reiser’s first feature screenplay. His next movie “Jamaica” is also based on a real-life experience.
REISER: It is based on a trip I took with my grandmother when I was a teenager. We went to Jamaica and the travel agency booked us at a couples’ resort. My grandmother had just developed Alzheimer’s and nobody knew it and I basically lost her. She wandered off into Kingston, which is basically the murder capital of the world. It’s a dramatic-comedy.
ROGEN: Evan (Goldberg) and I are going to direct a movie in February called “The Apocalypse,” which seems like the next logical thing to do after cancer. It’s a horror-comedy.
Reach Dana Barbuto at firstname.lastname@example.org.