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A Conversation with Seth Rogen and Will Reiser on 50/50, Getting Joseph Gordon-Levitt Drunk, and Their F*ck-It List

Writer WILL REISER and SETH ROGEN on the set of 50/50.

Writer Will Reiser and Seth Rogen. Photo Credit: Chris Helcermanas-Beng

In 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a young and fit 27-year-old with a good job in public radio and a seemingly well-put together head on his shoulders. However, during a routine check-up, he discovers that he has a large malignant tumor in his back, and suddenly is life comes crashing down. With the support of his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), and the dubious relationship he strikes up with a young therapist (Anna Kendrick) who works  him through his troubles, Adam learns a lot about the fragility of life and the importance of the relationships with those closest to you.

However, what’s most effective about 50/50 is how it affectively combines raucous, wild humor with such a heavy, emotional, and all-too-real storyline.

It’s a bold move for a film of its kind, but it works because of the raw and real script written by Will Reiser, for the story is based off of Will’s own personal battle with cancer when he was in his mid-twenties.

At the time, Will was good friends with Seth while they were working together on Da Ali G Show, and Will’s screenplay reflects how Seth and (producer) Evan Goldberg’s friendship helped him beat his cancer. In fact, Seth’s character in the film is essentially a more fictionalized version of himself and the role he played in helping Will through his struggle.

Meets Obsession recently sat down with Seth Rogen and Will Reiser to discuss their new film, the process of writing it, and how they managed to get the film to come together.

Seth Rogen
Seth Rogen stars in 50/50. Photo Credit: Chris Helcermanas-Benge © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Meets Obsession: [To Will] The movie is loosely based off your personal battle with cancer, were there any scenes that you wrote in the film that actually happened to you?

Will Reiser: It’s less that the scenes depict what actually happened to me, it’s more thematically, and draws upon what I experienced with various different relationships with people. Like the way in which my friends and I used humor to cope with the [situation], and how at that time in my life I was very neurotic, and I worried about everything. Seth would describe me as annoying.

Seth Rogen: [laughs] Used to be annoying.

Will: [laughs] Yeah, so it was that and how I didn’t have the ability to express what I was feeling and how I just kind of bottled everything up inside. And that emotional arc that Adam has is very much what I went through. Adam is very much an extension of me and what I went through, but the actual things that literally happened to him were fiction. With the exception of a few things like the MRI’s [in the film], which are my real MRIs.

Seth: And we actually worked together at the time.

Will: Yeah, we worked together, and Seth was like my closest friend. And the things that the doctor says is almost verbatim what my doctor told me. Things like that were real.

Seth: The question that we asked ourselves [when making this film] wasn’t “did this happen?” It was “is this something that would’ve happened?”

Will: Right, like the conversations were something that we could have had. But the last scene in the movie, changing the dressing [from the surgery], that is something that Seth did for me once.

Seth: And sometimes we would let [real] life guide us in that way. We couldn’t think of an ending and then we remembered “oh yeah there was that time after the surgery where I changed [Will’s] dressing and it was revolting.”

Will: Well he’s very squeamish.

Seth: I am [laughs]. I did use a q-tip though!

Bryce Dallas Howard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt Star In 50/50
Bryce Dallas Howard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt Star In 50/50. Photo Credit: Chris Helcermanas-Benge

MO: The film has such a great, diverse cast, how did you guys end up with the cast that you did?

Will: We had pretty much everyone who was our first choice was in the movie. The only person who auditioned was Bryce [Dallas Howard], she read for us.

Seth: That was a role we knew would be tricky.

Will: And we refused to just offer the role to anyone, they had to read because that was the hardest role in the movie. To be able to play that character and not feel like a total bitch.

Seth: To not just feel like a cartoon character, obviously.

Will: You see that bitchy girlfriend character in so many movies, and we just didn’t want that.

Seth: We didn’t know if you would necessarily sympathize with her, but we wanted you to be able to at least intellectually understand what she was going through, and Bryce really clearly was able to portray that, which to us was important. And she’s real fun to work with.

MO: How did you come up with the idea to write a movie about your battle with cancer? Did you always want it to be a comedy?

Will: It all started when I was sick and Seth and I were going through this ordeal. We would talk about how our experience was so different than what people’s experiences are [with cancer] in movies. People would ask me all these questions about my experiences like it was My Life….Seth: Or The Bucket List

Will: Yeah! The Bucket List was a huge one. People would always ask, “so, like, what’s your bucket list?

Seth: [laughs] Yeah…to punch you in the face for asking that!

Will: [laughs] Exactly. We were at a party and someone asked me that question, and Seth and I were like “oh, we should make a movie called The Fuck-It List.

Seth: [laughs] It would be like guys that would do heroin and smoke crack, and do all the fucked up shit they would’ve never got to do if they weren’t dying, like kill a guy or something [laughs].

Will: [laughs] “I’ve always wanted to murder someone, and I have cancer, what do you want from me?!”

Seth: “It was on my bucket list!”

MO: It’s never too late to make that movie….

Seth: I know! It’s not a bad idea for a movie [laughs].

Will: But what we really felt was that there had been no movie made that accurately portrayed what it was like for what we were going through. Where you don’t cry through the whole movie, and then the person dies at the end.

Seth: Those were the two things we didn’t want.

Will: That is what most cancer movies are. The person has this great clarity, understands life and who they are, and come to terms with all these issues with their family members. Then they die the next day! And that’s just not what happens, at least for me anyway. For me it was dysfunctional, and no one really knew what to say, it was crazy, but then I got better, and we were just left in the aftermath of it all.

So we wanted it to be something that was totally honest. After I got better, Seth and (executive producer) Evan [Goldberg], who’s another good friend of mine, they both urged me to write a movie. As long as I knew that they were going to be my producers to support me, I felt much more comfortable opening up and writing about personal stuff. They really pushed me because it’s hard to expose yourself, so having them to really guide me was important in [this process]. Also it was the first screenplay I ever wrote, I’ve only ever wrote for T.V. so it was a challenge.

MO: I imagine so, especially for something that’s as emotional as it is funny.

Seth: I’m so aware of where all the laughs are in the movie because I’m just so not used to having a movie that bums people out for any amount of time. So whenever I’m watching it I’m like “ok, there’s this thing and this thing, and then there’s a big laugh that will get people out of this [depressing moment]” [laughs].

Photo Credit: Chris Helcermanas-Benge © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Anjelica Huston stars in 50/50
Anjelica Huston stars in 50/50.
Photo Credit: Chris Helcermanas-Benge © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Will: The one line that, without fail, makes everybody laugh, no matter what, and it’s the first huge laugh in the movie, is when Angelica Huston (Adam’s mom in the movie) says “I’m moving in with you.” Everyone laughs, and that was the first thing my mom said when I told her I [had cancer]. She got in a plane and flew to L.A., and then I immediately had to put her in a plane and send her back home [laughs].

MO: Can you talk about the writing process for you two?

Seth: We write very differently [from each other].

Will: Actually, we do write very differently. I spend a lot of time agonizing over my writing, a lot of time developing characters, and doing a lot of research. Because I find that if I’m trying to force myself to write things, that means I don’t really know my characters very well. Usually if I know the characters very well, they will dictate to me in the scene what they’re going to say. So it means that I have to do a lot of work exploring my characters. That’s really for me where it starts, is the characters.

Seth: Evan [Goldberg] and I tend to start with more scene ideas when [writing], and stuff we want to put in a movie. We make a lot of lists. It always starts with a ton of lists. We’re writing this movie about the apocalypse right now, so we started writing lists of apocalypse-y things like sinkholes, demons, exorcisms, and so on.

Will: [laughs] Yeah, we have a very different way of writing.

Seth: [laughs] Yeah, so we come up with a lot of lists and then funny ideas kind of come out of it; “oh maybe….someone gets possessed, maybe there’s an exorcism scene” or something like that.

But we always come in knowing the loose story that we want to tell. For example, in that movie, we know it’s about a group dynamic; a group of friends who have a lot of issues and then they’re forced to confront them by being trapped in a house together during the apocalypse [laughs].

That’s the first idea we have and then we try and fill in the blanks. But actually for us, sometimes the characters are the last thing that get developed. We have a general series of events we want and a general flow and then we kind of fill in, like…“oh, you know it’d be good if this guy hated this guy, and then did this thing,” and then we kind of fill it in later.

Will: A lot of times when you’re actually writing it, that’s when you figure out a lot of stuff as well.

MO: I heard that your first choice for the role of “Adam” was James McAvoy, but he had to drop out, how did you decide to get Joseph Gordon-Levitt?

Will: We basically had like an hour to figure it out after James [dropped out]. We were living together in Vancouver at the time, and I remember we went home and I think I said to [Seth] “what about Joseph Gordon-Levitt?” and he was in to that, and I think he called him….

Seth: I called him and I said “this is not an ideal situation, but we have a movie that’s really good that we start filming in one week and we need you to tell us tomorrow whether or not you want to be in it” [laughs].

Will: He read the script, got in a plane the next day.

Seth: He came [to Vancouver] and hung out with me, Will, Evan [Goldberg], and John Levine (director) as we drank beers for around 8 hours on [John] Levine’s roof.

Will: Until like, 5 in the morning…

Seth: Yeah, really long, I remember thinking “how long do we have to do this?” [laughs].

Will: He arrived at like 11 at night…

Seth: Yeah, he arrived at like 11 and came to [John] Levine’s and we hung out until like 5 in the morning or something like that…

Will: And the more he drank, the better they were able to convince him to do the [movie].

Seth: [laughs] Exactly! That was our strategy. Get him so drunk that he doesn’t remember agreeing to do it…

Will: [laughs] “Just email your agent and tell him you’re going to do this movie…”

Seth: And he was feeling us out too! It was like a forced attempt at what is generally an organic process, which is like the “getting to know you, feeling each other out” process that you generally have when you’re deciding whether or not you want to do a movie. Usually that happens over the course of a few weeks, over the course of a few meetings, script meetings and stuff like that. But this we really had to condense into one night, and he told us he would do it at the end of the night.

That was a Saturday, and he flew back to L.A. to get his stuff and was back in Vancouver by Monday, and then we rehearsed that week and did wardrobe fittings, and wig adjustments.

Will: By the way, it takes two weeks to make a wig, and we had one week.

Seth: I think he’s wearing Cobra Commanders wig in the movie…. [laughs]

Will: Yeah, definitely in a few scenes he is.

Seth: I know they do that. Like with [James] Franco’s wig from Pineapple Express, that wig has had quite a career apart from that movie [laughs]. So yeah, I think we got Cobra Commander’s wig.

It was incredibly courageous what he did as a performer. Most people would want a lot of preparation for a role like this, and would want to talk to a lot of people and absorb a lot of things. And we just threw him into it, and once he committed to it, he took complete ownership over it and it was as though he’d been attached [to the role] for months.

Will: I didn’t try to impose anything on him about the character.

Seth: No, we told him like “Will’s around, if you want to talk with him.” We didn’t want him to act like Will, like a guy doing a Will impression, cause just us, as people that know Will didn’t want to watch that [laughs].

Will: And that’s interesting because people who know me really well will still say it’s exactly like me!

Seth: Joseph would never ask Will about behavioral things, it was always emotional things. And he did ask him a lot, but it would never be like, “how do you hold a cup?”  It was like, “how did you feel when you had to tell your mother you had cancer?”…“How did you feel the moment you went into therapy for the first time?” I would see them having those types of conversations, which I was very happy about, but it was never anything like “how do you walk?”

Will: Yeah, and the thing with everyone on the film is if we all weren’t friends before, we became friends. We were just at the Toronto Film Festival where we premiered the movie, and honestly, it felt like these were all members of my family.

Bryce, Anna, Joe, Jonathan Levine, Seth and Evan I’ve known for a long time, and I just feel so comfortable with all those guys and everyone was so easy-going and it was such an easy movie to make. It was so collaborative, it was like a dream.

Seth: It was really easy. It was one of the easiest movies I’ve ever made.

50/50 opens today in theaters nationwide, click here  for theaters and showtimes.