Interview: 50/50 Star Seth Rogen and Writer Will Reiser–Part One: Why a Cancer Comedy?

by | Sep 29th, 2011 | 6:50PM | Filed under: Interviews, Movies

In 2003 Will Reiser was working as an associate producer on HBO’s Da Ali G Show, where he met writer Seth Rogen and Rogen’s creative partner Evan Goldberg (Superbad).

Around that same time, doctors discovered a massive, life-threatening tumor on Reiser’s spine. Eventually the tumor was successfully removed, and soon afterward Rogen and Goldberg encouraged Reiser to write a script about his experiences as a young man facing cancer and mortality. (And dating.)

That script became the funny and moving new dramedy 50/50, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception) as Adam, a young man with a cancer threat similar to Reiser’s. Rogen and Goldberg produced the film, and Rogen co-stars as Adam’s obnoxious best friend. 50/50 was directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) and also stars Up in the Air‘s Anna Kendrick (as Adam’s inexperienced therapist) and The Help‘s Bryce Dallas Howard (as his less-than-able-to-cope girlfriend).

Last week‘s Brian Tallerico and I sat down with Rogen and Reiser to talk about 50/50. It was the end of the day, and Rogen and Reiser were counting down to “Martini Time,” but they were funny and forthright (and fast-talking), and the chat ran longer than most. So the interview will be broken into two parts. This first part deals mostly with the ideas and impetus behind the film. In the second part of the interview, Rogen and Reiser talk about their excellent co-stars Gordon-Levitt and Kendrick, director Levine, and their future filmmaking plans.

Will Reiser and Seth Rogen

When you guys introduce the film at screenings, how do you set it up for new audiences?

Seth Rogen: We just introduced it at UCLA, so I made a bunch of weed jokes ‘cause that’s what the 18-year-olds wanted to hear. I pander to my crowd, I’ll be honest.

What are the public screenings like for you, Will–to see this very personal story with a crowd for the first time?

Will Reiser: It’s intense. I think I’m pretty removed from it at this point, but the first time I saw it, it was surreal for me.

I was still very raw when I first started writing it, and it took several conversations with Seth and Evan for me to wrap my head around delving deep into that world and working out and processing a lot of the things I went through. But now, through the process of writing the movie and making the movie and editing it, I feel like the main character is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character–that’s his world, and I feel very removed from it. I don’t feel like I’m watching myself.

Will, you make it clear the finished film is not autobiographical, but when you started out did you wonder, “Should I tell my real story as much as possible?”

Reiser: I always knew it was going to be fiction and just inspired by my life, because I don’t think there’s anything exceptional about me. I feel like what happened to me is something that everybody has to deal with, so I wanted to just tell a story that feels relatable. Also, I didn’t want to drag the people I care about into the middle of my story–I didn’t want to come across as being critical of people, because it was a really difficult time. I felt like it was best to just take some of the themes that I experienced and put them into a fictional story.

Seth, why did you and Evan encourage Will to write this?

Rogen: Evan and I both saw firsthand with Superbad how if you write about your experiences it can be very fun and exciting for you, and a lot of people might relate to it, far more than you would ever expect. And not getting laid in high school is way less interesting than going through f**king cancer when you’re in your early 20’s.

Plus, Will kinda followed the trajectory that the movie character follows: He was happier after the whole experience than he was before. So when you were standing slightly outside of it, it didn’t take much foresight to see that this would make a good movie.

From the filmmakers’ point of view, were there certain “illness-movie” things you wanted to avoid?

Rogen: One of them was not die–that was one of the major things. [Laughs] I mean they die in almost every one of these movies, and I personally don’t like miserable f**king movies, so we had no interest in making one. And our story wasn’t miserable. It was important to us to show that it doesn’t always end terribly in these situations, that people do survive.

The other thing we wanted to show was that people’s lives go on, even when they’re sick, especially if they’re a guy in their early 20’s. They still go to bars, they still have relationships with women, they still joke around with their friends, they still want to do all the s**t they did before they got sick.

Reiser: It makes you want to feel more normal.

Rogen: Exactly, so that’s something we wanted to show too. In a lot of these movies, once the person becomes sick it’s like all their lives are about this disease, and that isn’t what happened with Will. If you didn’t know he was sick, you could spend a week with him and not know. Except he would be going to the hospital all the time.

Reiser: And I looked like s**t.

Rogen: You looked terrible.

Did you have a sense of humor during the illness or did that come afterward?

Reiser: From day one we were making jokes. That was the only way that I knew how to deal with it. I was 25, Seth was 23–we were not sitting around talking about our feelings. I had no emotional awareness, so I just suppressed everything. I would make jokes, and that would make everyone else feel more comfortable, and that would make me feel more comfortable. We’re comedy writers–we always try to find the humor in any situation, even if it’s dark.

Rogen: We were both way stupider than we are now, if you can imagine that.

Reiser: I was a really worrisome, neurotic guy who was overly sensitive.

Rogen: Yeah, but even when Will was sick, he would complain about not getting laid so much more than the fact that he could f**king die in two months. As for me, I think overall I was much less tactful at that age than I am now.

Reiser: You would make fun of me.

Rogen: At that point in my life I felt it was my responsibility to point out people’s f**king personality flaws. Which now I don’t give a s**t about at all.  But at that time, I saw it as my a**hole-ish civic duty to point out how obnoxious people were, which in itself was very obnoxious behavior. But I think over the years, and having a girlfriend for a lot of those years has corrected a lot of that. [Laughs]

Seth, god forbid the roles had been reversed and it was you who got sick? What would that movie be like?

Rogen: It would probably be the exact opposite movie. It’d be about a guy who needs to learn how to live more conservatively rather than about someone who needs to learn how to live less conservatively, like Will. I can imagine that would be my character arc. At least cinematically. Who knows how I’d behave in real life.

Reiser: I’m not even gonna… I’m not even gonna…

Rogen: Yeah, you’re not allowed to even hypothesize about it. [Laughs]


Wait, there’s more! Read part two of my interview with Rogen and Reiser, where they talk about their co-stars and director, right here.


More from the cast of 50/50 at redbox:

More inspiring dramedy from redbox:

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