Interview: Will Reiser and Seth Rogen of ’50/50′
Posted on September 30, 2011 at 8:00 am
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.
7 Replies to “Interview: Will Reiser and Seth Rogen of ’50/50′”
How to make 50/50 a good movie? Replace Seth Rogan with……………… anyone else.!!! I’d love to describe how bad he is but even with an education in English and a respectable vocabulary,,, words escape me!!! Green Hornet could have been good,, 50/50 could have been better. I see a common link,, one specific actor (used as loosely as I can), who continues to do the one thing to guarantee failure,,, he opens his mouth and speaks. Oh the horror!
My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It was thoughtful, well written and all the actors were great. The treatment of this difficult subject was done well, with humor,gentleness and a great dose of reality. No smarmy stuff, just real reactions. My only critique–and it has nothing to do with the terrific Ms. Huston–is–well, I’m a Mom and I just get tired of Moms onscreen being portrayed as the one person in life to avoid at all costs. Moms are portrayed as meddling,complaining, smothering–and you know, most of us are not like that at all! I know some of it was played for laughs and I did love the scene when they are all in the waiting room and feel they have to make some sort of confession as soon as the therapist comes in. However, it would be so nice to see a serious or even semi-serious film where a Mom is portrayed as loving, supportive,respectful of her child’s privacy, accepting of who they are as a person–you know–normal! Yes, in a situation such as in this film, any mother would be anxious, even panicky at first, but believe me, I’ve seen mothers go through really, really bad times with their kids (I have as well) and show tremendous strength, faith, love and steadfastness without one bit of smothering.
And isn’t it ironic that while Adam does not call his mother back, does not want to deal with her at all–that in the scene before he goes into surgery–she is the person he calls out to, the person he clings to for support. Yes, it’s a great film in so many ways. It should be seen, but I hope the young writers of today will give ‘Mom’ characters a break in their future works.
Thanks, Mary! I am so glad you saw this lovely and sensitive film. I think the irony you point out is one of the points Reiser was trying to make. He told me the line he is proudest of is the one where the therapist points out that he has not been fair to his mother, and that if he had not been so young and still in the midst of proving his independence he would have handled it better. But yes, I’d like to see the kind of mother Anne Revere used to play — tough but fair and respectful. The kind of mom you and I are!