Cancer. Are you scared? Well yeah it’s a scary topic, but what we learn in the film 50/50, it doesn’t have to be. Seth Rogen, one of the stars of the film, was in Boston to talk about the movie with the film’s screenwriter Will Reiser. What you might not know is that 50/50 is loosely based on Will’s real-life experiences with cancer and that Seth is a longtime friend. Seth sort of plays himself with Inception star Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a version of Reiser.
Adam (JGL) and Kyle (Rogen) are best friends who work in the music industry in Seattle. Adam is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. His girlfriend (played tremendously by Bryce Dallas Howard) doesn’t know how to handle it neither does his mother (Anjelica Huston in a perfect role for her). Adam is sent to a therapist (Anna Kendrick) who’s younger than he is and doesn’t have much experience of her own. The film takes a solid look at a storyline you don’t see much of today. Most cancer films are based on older characters and the film really should open the eyes of a younger generation who think they are immortal. Rogen and Reiser talk about the film, its true story, their co-stars and the film’s music.
Seth Rogen on working with his co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “What’s really amazing is that he didn’t sign on till a week before we started shooting. We had another actor who dropped out. I think Joe really read this script like a week before. It was really brave to see him throw himself into it with that little amount of preparation. Once he did, it was incredible, he was so committed, no looking back. It sounds clichéd, but it made it easy. He made it so real and genuine.” When someone in the room pointed to the poster of Joe shaving his head they said you won’t get too many actors to do that (referring to shaving off all his hair). Rogen, laughing, “No just him and Demi Moore.”
As you watch the film you aren’t sure how the film will end even though it is based on a real person who is very much alive, the filmmakers could have taken it in a different direction, but they didn’t want to. Rogen, “It just wasn’t true to our experience. Our whole goal was to have the least amount of emotional manipulation as possible. It really wasn’t our goal to make a movie that ‘changed things’. You can’t go out there thinking of that. You can just make a movie based on what you feel and your experiences and hopefully other people can relate to that. If we started doing stuff like that (changing the ending) it becomes a slippery slope. It wasn’t the point, the point was in real life Will got better and when he did he became a much better person. That was the journey we wanted to show.” There’s a scene in the film where Seth’s character gets found out to be reading a book on how to deal with cancer. “I didn’t do that in real life (laughing). I was just an a**hole the entire time.”
Another scene in the film shows Kyle convincing Adam to go to bars/clubs and to use his cancer to pick up women, an experience that is somewhat true. Rogen, “It was never as specifically articulated as it is in the movie, that being said we knew it probably made us seem sympathetic and interesting. And we did go to bars during the time he was sick. I actually met my girlfriend at a bar one night with Will. I actually asked her recently if she thought it had anything to do with the fact I was with Will, that it made me seem sort of nice and interesting. She claims it didn’t (laughing).”
The hair cutting scene is one of the most dramatic and at the same time funniest parts of the film. Seth, “Will didn’t go through chemo in real life so that (the hair cutting) never actually happened. In real life there was four months between when he was diagnosed and had surgery, but that four months was filled with misdiagnosis and testing. He was in and out the hospital all the time, but he didn’t go through chemo. (The scene) was mostly improv. We wanted it to feel real, we had the writers/producers just make a giant list of bald people that we could reference. Michael Stipe, stuff like that.”
The film has been received well especially in Toronto recently, Rogen, “It’s probably better than any film I’ve had anything to do with in any shape or form. I didn’t really think about it when we were making the movie. I knew it was about something, decidedly more serious than some of our other movies, but I didn’t really imagine how that would translate to people who watch it. People really seem to love the movie in a way that they don’t seem to with our other movies (laughing). It seems cathartic to some people, everyone has had some sort of experience in this realm. It was what we went through, we were comedy writers, we joked about it. I never actually asked Will his feelings. We tried to get medicinal marijuana cards. That was more along the lines of what we did. It’s why we wanted to make the movie. We felt that our experience just wasn’t represented. It does happen to tons of young people. There probably has been some movies about it, but they are probably just f***ing miserable and again that just wasn’t our experience. It was miserable sometimes, but it was a lot of things.”
At this point screenwriter Will Reiser came into the room. The film stars two up and coming actresses (Howard & Kendrick) and the very well established Huston, on working with these talented women, Rogen, “It was interesting, they all came about differently. Anna and Anjelica were actually people Will and Jonathan (Levine, the director) had been talking about since the beginning. They just agreed to do it. I didn’t believe Anjelica Huston was gonna do it till I saw her on set. Bryce, that role was really tricky so we attempted to do something that isn’t easy when you’re hiring really famous people which is we read as many people as we possible could. And Bryce was nice enough to come in and read which she doesn’t have to do because she’s far more successful than a lot of us. She was amazing and intellectually knew where the character was coming from. She got that this person was immature and in a tough situation and made some terrible decisions.”
The film being based in Seattle of course has to have great music in it. The film closes with one of my favorite songs ever, Pearl Jam’s Yellow Ledbetter. Talking about the film’s soundtrack, Reiser, “Pearl Jam was really Levine.” Rogen, “Yeah it was an expensive choice (laughing). It was one of those times we could not pick a song to end the movie. It’s the last moments of the movie and every song with lyrics you found yourself listening to the lyrics and reading into what they were saying. All of a sudden our movie is being defined by these lyrics, but it’s hard to find a song with no lyrics and then Levine was like I got the perfect song. It’s awesome, it’s got lyrics, but you can’t understand what the f**k they are. We had ten songs and we all went to Levine’s house and we ended the movie with ten different songs.’’ Reiser, “What Levine and I did was we went through a 100 songs and narrowed it down to ten.” Rogen, “We listened to nine of them. Levine’s like then there’s this one which we’ll never get in a million years. We listened to it and we’re like now we have to get it.” Reiser, “We had to track Eddie Vedder down.” Rogen, “Yeah Eddie Vedder’s on his honeymoon and he cleared the song from his honeymoon which was very nice of him. We probably caught him in a good mood.” Reiser, “The Radiohead song was also challenging. We had to screen the movie for them. They don’t usually put their songs in films.”
Talking about how Will has become a better person after his cancer treatments, Seth talking to Will, “Your original title for the movie was How I Learned Nothing From Cancer. The script was very similar, it was great, but this is bulls**t cause you’re so much less annoying than you were. Even at the time you wrote the first draft, you didn’t quite have the perspective to see you were much different. He’s much less neurotic now.” Reiser, “I’m much more attractive (laughing)”. Rogen, “He is (also laughing). He’s much more confident. He’s much healthier mentally and physically he takes much better care of himself which generally has put him in a better mood.” Reiser, “I just worried a lot. I just worried about everything, every single possible thing you can worry about.” Rogen, “I think he caught the cancer cause he worried (laughing).” Reiser, “It’s probably true. When I found out I had cancer, it was the last thing I thought I had. I looked up my symptoms on WebMD and was convinced I was diabetic or was hypoglycemic. I never thought it would be cancer. Then I definitely worried a lot when I was actually sick, but I would worry less about the cancer and more about other things in my life like girls and work and my family. I couldn’t actually focus on the one thing I should have been worried about. I could not talk about it at all. I just suppressed it all, writing the script was probably the healthiest thing I could have done.”
Reiser on Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing “him,” “I think he did an incredible job. When I watch him on screen I don’t identify him as much as him playing me, but I definitely relate to that character. I see a little bit of who I was in him. He really made that character his own.” Rogen, “We really didn’t tell him to act like Will. He would ask Will how he felt a lot. I would see him talking to Will and hear him ask him how he felt when you were at the doctor’s office. It was never how did you hold this cup.” Reiser, “He added nice little nuances like biting the fingernails.” Rogen, (laughing) That’s something Joe added, Joe actually does that.”
On a slightly different ending, Rogen, “We had a different ending that we shot that wasn’t good. The original ending which sucked, had me teaching Joe how to drive which was so weird. The wig Joe had, which I personally take blame for, he did not look well. He almost looked worse than he did before. Joe was still bald and we gave him this wig to imply that his hair was growing back, it looked terrible. You didn’t get the feeling of oh well he’s healthy now.” Reiser, “And he had a cane and everyone thought he was totally crippled. We showed the movie to James L. Brooks and he asked if that meant he lost the function of his penis.” Rogen, “We felt we had to change the ending if Jim Brooks is thinking that. And then we went to our lives and remembered the time I changed the dressings on his back. We thought that could be a funny way to end the movie. And luckily Joe happened to have really short hair and you can tell it’s his hair and he looks healthy. We felt strongly that we didn’t wrap it up too perfectly though.” Reiser, “It’s like he’s going into the next chapter of his life. He’s gotten through this and he’s in this strong place and that’s why the Pearl Jam song works really well, it’s a confident, strong song.”
Seth Rogen has dropped a lot of weight since his break out hit Knocked Up. I asked Seth if the weight loss has brought any different movie offers than he’s used to. Seth, “There was a moment actually where people assumed I was gonna go the route of like being a handsome action movie guy and there were a few roles that came in and I was like really come on, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I didn’t accept any of them and they stopped coming in.”
Will Reiser’s story is really awe inspiring even if they didn’t take it overly seriously at the time. You can tell both men are incredible friends and it’s a shared experience that will shape both their lives forever with Seth talking about Will like a blood brother and Will the same way with Seth. Seth Rogen is exactly how you expect him to be in “real” life. He’s funny and witty yet down to Earth and dare I say normal for one of the bigger comedy stars in the industry. Definitely check out the film 50/50. Seth is very funny in it and Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a great performance (as usual). The film is mixed with humor in a dramatic time and is quite realistic and relatable to anyone who’s ever gone through something like that.
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