Seeing the light in cancer story: Seth Rogen helps turn his friend’s screenplay into comedy-drama ‘50/50’
“You can’t pitch a comedy about cancer,’’ Seth Rogen said, recounting how his new film “50/50’’ got made.
“50/50,’’ which stars Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and opens Friday, tries to walk that funny-touching scalpel edge.
To clarify: The illness itself - what Rogen’s character, Kyle, calls “stage four back cancer’’ - isn’t cause for laughter. Rather, as is often the case, comedy stems from dark places. With “50/50,’’ the humor bubbles up from pain and clumsy human interaction. It turns out the premise of a massive, malignant tumor growing along a spinal column can provide plenty of laughs - if the material is handled carefully, and the jokes are among friends.
“To us that was never scary, the idea of blending drama and comedy, because we had all done it before,’’ said Rogen as he slumped into an armchair at the Four Seasons and harkened back to his days on the show “Freaks and Geeks.’’ The actor was in Boston with screenwriter Will Reiser earlier this month to promote their film.
“50/50’’ chronicles a chummy but otherwise distant friendship between Kyle (Rogen) and his cancer-stricken buddy Adam, played by Gordon-Levitt. When their tentative bond is suddenly saddled with medical tragedy, they tackle the situation, despite being awkward 20-something males already ill-equipped to speak of intimacies.
When it came time to convince a studio to green light “50/50,’’ it didn’t hurt to have the involvement of a heavy-hitter like Rogen, star of “The Green Hornet,’’ “The 40-Year-Old-Virgin,’’ “Knocked Up,’’ and “Pineapple Express.’’
“Having Seth attached not only as a producer but as a star certainly helped make the movie much more commercial,’’ said Reiser. In fact, Reiser, Rogen, and their producing partners didn’t even try to sell “50/50’’ based on an elevator pitch. “I just figured I’ll write it and then I’ll sell it,’’ Reiser said.
Not that Rogen even likes to “pitch’’ his movies. “None of my movies are really that pitchable,’’ Rogen said. As a producer, he’s more comfortable working with a completely written script. “Nothing we’ve done really looks good on paper. It was really awesome that Will was willing to just write. It afforded us a lot of creative freedom.’’
They both agreed that genre definitions and boundaries “get in the way.’’ They don’t go for discussions of “tone’’ either.
“We as filmmakers never talk about that,’’ Rogen insisted. “There’s never the ‘genre’ conversation. People like to know how to describe it to each other…’’
“For marketing purposes,’’ Reiser added.
“Right. We were pitching a movie a couple months ago and the studio called us after and said, ‘What’s the tone of the movie?’ and I said like ‘Go [expletive] yourself. That’s what the [expletive] tone of the movie is,’ ’’ Rogen, the more gregarious of the two, said with a throaty laugh. (Reiser, the cousin of comedian/actor Paul Reiser, is more modest and unassuming.) “How do you describe that when it hasn’t happened yet? The tone is whatever we shoot… . Aside from saying ‘it’s realistic’ or ‘it’s broad,’ I don’t know how to describe the tone until we complete it.’’
As expected, no major studio expressed interest. In the end, “boutique studio’’ Mandate Pictures, backer of off-beat comedies such as “Juno’’ and “Stranger Than Fiction,’’ financed the relatively low-budget, $8 million picture. The film also stars Anna Kendrick (“Up in the Air’’) as Adam’s newbie psychiatrist, Bryce Dallas Howard (“The Twilight Saga: Eclipse’’) as his distracted girlfriend, Anjelica Huston as his estranged mom, and character actor Philip Baker Hall as a fellow chemotherapy patient. The director is Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness’’).
Reiser said he was aiming for the feel of his favorite films by Hal Ashby, Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman, Billy Wilder, and Woody Allen. “Typically their characters are always grounded, they’re smart, they find humor more in the slice of life you’re examining in their more everyday scenarios,’’ Reiser said. “That for me was what I wanted this movie to be like. You’re seeing this guy go through this journey. It doesn’t have to be far-reaching, overdramatic. The stakes are real enough.’’ Had a big studio turned Reiser’s quiet script into a $100 million blockbuster, they would have probably gone “broad comedy’’ with wacky situations and goofy high jinks.
The filmmakers had another selling point up their sleeves: The story of “50/50’’ is based on real events.
Reiser and Rogen became real-world friends on the American version of Sacha Baron Cohen’s TV program “Da Ali G Show’’ eight years ago. Rogen and “50/50’’ producer Evan Goldberg were working as writers, and Reiser was the show’s associate producer. In their early 20s at the time, the trio were the show’s most junior staffers, and became fast friends. Then, Reiser was diagnosed with cancer: Doctors discovered a giant tumor growing along his spine. Two years after his successful fight against the illness, the newcomer to feature film writing felt he had gained the proper perspective to write about the experience and began to draft a screenplay.
Not that he simply wrote down everything that happened. Reiser, 31, insisted that the film is “inspired by real events’’ and is not a true memoir. “I’d say that Adam is not as funny as I was back then.’’
“Easy …’’ Rogen joked. “No, I agree with that.’’
“Adam is very much an extension of who I was and how I was feeling,’’ Reiser continued. “I just suppressed everything.’’
“But he doesn’t act like Will,’’ Rogen, 29, added. “The real you complained more than the character. Not about the cancer, but about everything else.’’
As for whether Rogen was as much of a pothead as his character, Kyle, they did not say. But “50/50’’ includes a couple of scenes in which Kyle uses Adam’s condition to talk to girls in bookstores and bars, and even lure them into acts of sympathy sex. Truth or fiction?
“We joked about it,’’ said Reiser. “We never actually did it.’’ But he admitted that once the C-word - cancer - was out in the open, “women would give me a lot of attention.’’
Reiser said that the character of Kyle embodied the idea of how, at 25, men just can’t handle the looming death of a good pal. “Friends said stupid things. Sometimes insensitive. Ultimately, they cared; they just did not know how to… . You find out in the end, [Kyle] really does care.’’ Reiser turned to Rogen. “Seth and I, our dynamic back then was, I was neurotic …’’
“And …’’ Rogen added, finishing his friend’s line like the two had spent a lifetime together, “I would make fun of you for it.’’ His voice then became soft and gentle. “Which has changed somewhat over the years.’’
The two paused for a moment, their heads looking this way and that, almost at each other. A millisecond of intimate quiet settled into the room. Rogen continued. “Now you’re an egomaniac.’’
Then the joking resumed.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.