Interview: Will Reiser and Seth Rogan of ’50/50′
Will Reiser and Seth Rogen were friends who worked together on “Da Ali G Show,” making fun of everything and everyone, especially the powerful. So, when Reiser got cancer, they took it on in the same spirit. Finding their own experience as survivor and friend very different from the transcendent and saintly stories they had seen in movies and thoroughly annoyed by all the people who asked Reiser if he had a “bucket list,” they decided to write their own movie. It is not a factual re-telling of the real-life story but it is an authentic portrayal of the feelings of young men who have not even figured out how to live when they are confronted with thinking about the possibility of death. Can a man who is not very good at taking care of himself take care of his friend?
Resier’s character is called Adam, and he is a producer at NPR. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the role. Rogen’s character is named Kyle and is played by Rogen himself.
Reiser and Rogen sat down with a small group of journalists at the Georgetown Ritz hotel to talk about the movie. As he was “going through the ordeal,” Reiser said, he and Rogen talked about how different the experience was from anything they had seen in a movie. But people’s impression was formed by the movies. They’d ask him about “My Life” or “The Bucket List.” “To punch you in the face is the first thing on it,” said Rogen. They wanted to make a movie where the audience does not cry all the way through and the person doesn’t die at the end. “Tonally,” said Rogen, “not the procedures.” Reiser said that in movies the cancer patient “has this great clarity, understands life and who they are, comes to terms with all these issues with family members and dies the next day. For me, it was dysfunctional and crazy and no one really knew what to say and then I got better and was left with this aftermath of all this.” He felt comfortable writing about personal things because of his close relationship with Rogen and Evan Goldberg, even though it was his first screenplay. “I’m so aware of all the laughs are in the movie,” Rogen said. “I’m so not used to having a movie that bums people out for any length of time. So when I’m watching it, I’m like, we’ve got this thing and this thing and then we get a big laugh and get these people out of this.” They agreed that the biggest laugh is when the immediate reaction from Adam’s mother, played by Anjelica Houston, is “I’m moving in.”
“It’s less that the scenes actually happened to me and more that it draws thematically on what happened with relationships,” Reiser told us. “And also the way in which my friends and I used humor to cope. At that time I was very neurotic and worried about everything. Seth would describe me as annoying.” “Used to be,” Seth broke in. “I didn’t have the ability to express what I was feeling and kept everything bottled up inside. That emotional arc — Adam is very much an extension of me and what I went through. The MRIs, those are my real MRIs. And we worked together and he’s my closest friend and what the doctor said, that all really happened.” “The question we asked ourselves was not ‘did this happen,'” Rogen said, “but ‘is this like something that would have happened?” “Did this feel real?” Reiser said. “Are these conversations we could have had?” “There was a scene in an early draft where the character went to talk to a rabbi,”said Rogen. “We’re like, would you do that?” “I have not been back to synagogue since I was bar mitzvahed,” said Reiser. “But the last scene in the movie, changing the dressing, that really happened. He’s very squeamish. A lot of that scene we figured out as we rehearsed it.”
The one role where they insisted on an audition for was Rachael, the girl Adam is dating, played by Bryce Dallas Howard (“The Help”). Adam’s illness puts a serious strain on the relationship. “We knew it would be tricky to be able to play that character and not have her be a bitch. You see that bitchy girlfriend character in so many movies,” said Reiser. “Or a cartoon,” added Rogen. “Not necessarily that you would sympathize with her, but intellectually you would understand what she is going through.” Canadian actor Serge Houde plays Adam’s father, who is struggling with dementia. Joseph Gordon-Levitt came in at the last minute, arrived at 11, stayed up all night talking about the part, and was rehearsing and getting fitted for the costume and wig two days later. “We don’t want a guy doing a Will impression,” said Rogen, “but people say he’s exactly what Will was like at that age. He never asked him behavioral things, but he did ask him about emotional things.”
Rogen and Reiser have different approaches to writing. Reiser begins with the characters. “I really agonize and spend a lot of time my characters and doing a lot of research. If I find myself forcing it, it’s because I don’t know the characters.” But Rogen begins with a scene ideas and things he wants to put in the movie. “We make a lot of lists. Right now we’re working on an apocalypse story, so we made a list: sinkholes, demons, exorcism. And then funny ideas come out of it. Sometimes the characters are the last thing that’s developed.” They said the therapy scenes were among the hardest to write, especially the last one, where we see the growth of the young therapist played by Anna Kendrick and her ability to call Adam out on his behavior and see his situation more clearly. Rogen kept sending it back for rewrites. Reiser said the line in the movie he is proudest of is when she says to Will, “Your mother has a husband she can’t talk to and a son who won’t talk to her.” Rogen laughed. “A lot of moms got a lot of calls after that one.”
They are working together with the “50/50” director, Jonathan Levine, on another movie based on Will’s life, “Jamaica,” about a vacation he took with his grandmother.