Seth Rogen has always been able to effortlessly make us laugh. With 50/50, Rogen has struck a chord that makes us cry, cheer with hope and, yes, still laugh. We're visiting with the actor, who is also a producer on 50/50, at the Toronto Film Festival to talk about his astounding new film and how he and best friend Will Reiser's experience with Will's cancer was able to be made from a personal tragedy turned triumph to an inspirational Hollywood film.
In 50/50 Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a loose version of Reiser, where Rogen is Kyle, a character based on himself. The film also stars Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard and Anjelica Huston. Don't miss part two of our Seth Rogen interview September 28, as well as our chats with Kendrick, Reiser and Howard on September 29.
Movie Fanatic: Were there parts of your own real life experience with Will that you felt had to be in the film?
Seth Rogen: We kind of applied that thought to the overall feeling of the movie. There was no like, "We need to include this" or "There has to be a moment where I hit on a girl in a bookstore." It just wasn't like that. It was more that we wanted to make an entertaining movie that was about something that was tough. So I think it was just more overall it has to feel like how it felt for us. That was our mantra. "Does this feel like something that would've happened? Does this feel like something we would've gone through? Does this feel like one of those things?" I can't remember me personally giving Will any parameters of like, "You have to do this, you have to have this type of moment in it." At times, reality kind of bailed us out of situations [laughs]. If we couldn't think of something, we could always go to reality and think like, "Oh, this happened, maybe that would work." The last scene in the movie is a good example of that. We didn't know how to end the movie. The scene where I'm changing the dressing is probably the closest to a scene that happened in real life out of any scene in the entire movie. It was like verbatim what is was like. I had to change the dressing on his wound one time and it was disgusting [laughs]. I almost threw up, and it was exactly like that. So if anything, we could always go to reality.
Movie Fanatic: Did Joseph Gordon-Levitt consult with Will?
Seth Rogen: I would see Joe talking to Will a lot. It was never behavioral, it was always emotional. Like, "How did you feel when you had to tell your mom you had cancer? How did you feel when you went to the doctor for this?" It was never, "How did you hold your cup?" Because we didn't want it to really be like Will. We wanted it just emotionally to feel like Will.
Movie Fanatic: What types of things did you tell Will before he sat down to write your experience into a movie?
Seth Rogen: I think we kind of just sent him off. What we instilled in him was to just try to make it feel as much like what we went through as possible -- because he did change. He was better after than he was before, honestly. As a person he was easier to be around. He was happier. He was funnier. He worked better, not more, just kind of smarter. He kind of brought his whole life together in a much more positive way, ultimately. So we kind of just encouraged him to explore that. And then when he wrote it I think the first problem was maybe the Adam (Gordon-Levitt) character was a little too sympathetic -- which you would imagine would be your instinct if writing a movie about yourself [laughs].
Movie Fanatic: How do you think fictional Will differed from what you went through with your friend?
Seth Rogen: I think this process caused us to have conversations we never actually had about how maybe Will could've acted differently. Maybe he didn't articulate certain things that he could have, or could have included certain people more in various aspects of what he was going through. So I think that's where we really kind of came in and helped him develop the story -- and also the shape of it. It's tricky when you've been a writer for so long being produced by someone, and then you're suddenly put in the role of producer because you obviously have a lot of opinions. But it's a fine line because you as a writer don't want to be controlled too much. You want certain liberties. It was an interesting position to be in for me, but I think we were just hard on the material. We really knew that we couldn't do a bullshit version of the movie. Ultimately anyone can criticize anything, but we knew ultimately we had to make it hard to criticize the overall feeling of the movie. We wanted it to be an honest one, you know? And that's what we were the hardest on. A good example is there was a scene where we were coffin shopping that he wrote into the first draft -- which was funny and there were jokes in it that were funny. But, we were like, "We never went coffin shopping. That's insane." There was a scene where he went and talked to a rabbi. And that was funny, again, but you're like, "You didn't talk to a rabbi. That was the last thing you were going to do." He's like, "Yeah, you're right." Again, we asked, "Would we have done this? Is this how it would've happened?" And that was kind of our barometer, generally speaking.
Movie Fanatic: You're such an impeccable comic. Did you feel there were times where you had to put funny things in the script?
Seth Rogen: We initially came out with a version of the script that was not nearly funny enough. We had to really come up with ways to make people laugh. Like the scene where he eats the weed macaroon and then walks through the hospital stoned, we knew just in that area we needed something kind of funny. And so I literally remember thinking we need to think of a way to put something funny here. That's what we came up with. We knew that it had to be funny at times -- and distributed pretty evenly throughout the movie. We would be watching a scene and go, "We need a (expletive) joke in this scene." But the challenge was that joke could never come at the expense of what you feel like would actually be happening.
Movie Fanatic: Will's mom is played by Anjelica Huston and what a handful she is, but rightfully so since her child has cancer. Was her portrayal at all like Will's real mom?
Seth Rogen: That's not what his mother's like [laughs]. It is fictionalized in some way. Honestly I think the thing that is drawn the most from real life is probably how Will just didn't communicate with his mother as much as he should've and how he kind of shut her out a little bit. I think that is more of what the real part of that relationship is. I mean his mother -- I'm sure like any Jewish mother whose son has cancer -- was probably protective and neurotic about the whole thing. But honestly, Will's mother's here in Toronto, I was with her last night -- and she's nothing like Anjelica Huston is in this movie.
Movie Fanatic: Originally, the title was I'm with Cancer. I like that. How did it come to be 50/50?
Seth Rogen: You know, we're not stupid [laughs]. We know a title like I'm with Cancer is repellent to some people. I liked it, too, but something you have to acknowledge being a filmmaker who wants people to see his movies is that what you like and you know other people are going to like are two vastly different things. At times, you have to try to bridge that gap. We wanted it to be a movie everyone liked, so we thought it was stupid to go through great lengths to make a movie that was really accessible and enjoyable and crowd-pleasing and then give it a title that would potentially alienate most of the people who wanted to go see it. We thought, we'll make the exact movie we want to make. Let's just call it something that doesn't repel people. It just seemed like the movie itself was risky enough that it seemed silly to give it a title that was almost even creatively riskier than the movie is in some ways. It almost just felt like it didn't match.