Reiser and Rogen began their lifelong friendship when both worked on Da Ali G Show starring Sacha Baron Cohen. It is his personal journey from cancer survivor to crafter of one of the best films of 2011 in 50/50 that is the pure essence of an inspiring story. Capturing a fictionalized and often funny take on one’s life and death battle takes talent. To audiences’ benefit, 50/50 is funny, tragic, sad and completely uplifting largely due to how well Reiser wrote from his heart.
The survivor screenwriter is sitting down with Movie Fanatic at the Toronto Film Festival for a chat about life, moms and movies.
Movie Fanatic: Seth Rogen said we should ask you, since he shows his mom his scripts that he writes, did you share this script with your mom? Especially since your mom in 50/50 (Anjelica Huston) must be a hyped-up version of a worried Jewish mother.
Will Reiser: No, the only way I could get my mom to read is if it’s a book on tape [laughs]. She’d listen to it while she was sewing. No, I’m just making fun of my mom. She just loves books on tape. I do not show my mother my scripts. I have shown my father. My father is a writer and my sister’s a writer as well. My first draft of 50/50, which at the time was called I’m with Cancer, I showed both my sister and my father but not my mom.
Movie Fanatic: How have you prepared her for the film?
Will Reiser: We’ve had significant conversations at length about how to prepare her. She saw a few scenes being shot up in Vancouver so she knows. It’s interesting when Anjelica Huston met my mother, Anjelica Huston’s first response was, “You were not what I was expecting.” They’re two completely different people. The way I write is I take elements of people around me and I fictionalize characters around them. That’s how I ground my characters. Adam is very true to me, he’s very much an extension of me. But there’s no other character in the movie who is 100 percent based on another person. I wrote Kyle for Seth knowing his voice as a comedian but I didn’t do it based on Seth as my best friend. It was more this idea that I had this group of friends and no one knew how to deal with my illness and so thematically I used that to help create that character.
Movie Fanatic: How is Seth as a collaborator? Is it hard to get through the day without cracking each other up?
Will Reiser: Oh yeah. And that’s just for Seth. This movie was an incredibly fun set to be on -- even though we were making a movie that could be really intense at times. We’d joke around a lot.
Movie Fanatic: Are you worried about what traumatic life event you’ll have to go through next for your next script?
Will Reiser: Well, my next script is about Alzheimer’s so… [Laughs] But I do like writing about, whether it happened to me or someone else, I like writing about things that are real. I like writing about real life. That for me feels the most satisfying, creating worlds in which people go through real life struggles but also finding the humor in those situations. I like that challenge. Filmmakers who are heroes of mine that was what I felt like they could really accomplish, the ability to make you laugh and cry within 90 minutes. Those are the movies that I really love to write.
Movie Fanatic: Can you talk about working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the work he did, essentially playing you?
Will Reiser: We only had one week to prepare with Joe because he came on right as we were shooting. I didn’t want to impose anything on him and this was something I discussed with Seth, Evan and Jonathan was that we would just let Joe approach the character the way in which he felt most comfortable. And Joe just naturally sort of gravitated towards talking to me a lot. We spent a lot of time together because I spent a lot of time on set so we were around each other all the time. He would just look to me and ask questions like, “How were you feeling in this situation? What was it like going through this?” Also, he lost one of his best friends when he was a teenager so this is something very close to him as well. I don’t want to speak for Joe but he went through this so I think he was also able to draw on some of those emotions that he went through then. I think that it was important to let Joe make Adam his own and for Joe not to feel like he needed to stay true to the Adam who was me. We would talk about it and we worked on the character together. He would point things out to me in the dialogue that he felt like the character might not say and I think that’s great. When an actor feels so connected to a character and they know that character’s voice, it almost makes my job easier. Because then I’m on set and as I’m working with them, I’m looking at the script and I can rewrite it based on new things that they’ve added to the characters, little nuances. I would just rewrite scenes almost daily, add things, tweak scenes and come up with alternate scenes.
Movie Fanatic: What’s your best advice for someone who has a friend going through a serious illness?
Will Reiser: My advice is to just be the person’s friend. Something I saw a lot was people have this sort of impulse, this hero’s complex, where people feel like they have to save their friend, they have to do something. It makes sense because you’re in this very scary place of not knowing, where there’s so much uncertainty and your friend is mirroring back your own fears, your own mortality. It all comes from a great place where you really want to help and do everything but it gets so overwhelming. People came to me with so much advice and at a certain point you just check out. Advice like there’s a shaman in Peru, there’s a place in Palm Springs where you eat nothing but green food and blueberries for three months, oxygen injections. It’s a lot and those things probably do work but when you’re in that situation, it’s really hard. There’s a sense of panic and you just want to do whatever the doctor tells you to do. If I was in a different circumstance I might think to myself, if I was in that situation, I would want to do everything possible the alternative way. I might want to try changing my diet. I might want to experiment with different alternative medicines. But when you’re actually up against something so severe and you have a tumor in your spine and they’re telling you, “Your spine might break at any moment. It might rupture,” when you’re dealing with things that are that serious, you think, “Just cut it out. Get it out.” And you worry about the ramifications of that surgery later. To bring it back to that point, it does get overwhelming.
Movie Fanatic: Did friends walk away?
Will Reiser: People get really scared. I had friends and people really close to me and they ran away. I think that’s just an inability to communicate. People are so scared by it they don’t know how to talk about it so they don’t say anything. But I think it’s a far healthier thing to look at yourself and identify the fact, yeah, I don’t know how to deal with this. I’m going to tell my friend, “Honestly, this is scaring me. I don’t know how to deal with it. I’m sorry.” Just laugh at yourself. Looking back at it in the process of writing this movie, working on it with Seth, it was like, yeah, we didn’t know how to deal with it. The way we did it was we laughed about not knowing how to deal with it. No one’s going to deal with it the right way and I feel like if you can just give yourself permission and admit you’re not going to deal with it the right way, it immediately helps the situation.
Movie Fanatic: Was writing 50/50 hard at times, in the sense you were reliving it, or was it cathartic?
Will Reiser: It was both. It was heavy at times. I had a lot of stuff I had to say. I came out of that experience with so many mixed emotions, whether it be anger or gratitude. This was a really amazing way to process it. Even though I wasn’t writing my autobiography, just taking those emotions and feelings and putting them on paper, getting them out of my head, that was incredibly cathartic. But there were times when I would write those scenes, like the scenes between Adam and Rachel and the scenes where Adam’s going in for his surgery, and I could identify with that character and that would get really heavy. At the same time, by processing that, that was really cathartic.