Seth Rogen and Will Reiser on 50/50 and How Life Sometimes Needs a Rewrite
They say to write what you know. Unfortunately, in the case of screenwriter Will Reiser, what he knew was cancer. Six years ago, Reiser was diagnosed with cancer in his back, and -- after surgery to remove the tumor -- decided to handle the life-changing situation the only way he knew how: by finding the humor. Thus, 50/50 was born.
Out Sept. 30, the charming and tearjerking 50/50 isn't an exact account of what Reiser went through -- though it does feature many hallmarks of his own life, including Seth Rogen. The 50/50 star and producer is Reiser's good friend off-screen, and fills the same position onscreen for Reiser stand-in Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). In fact, it was at Rogen's urging that Reiser completed the script for 50/50.
The two friends rang up Movieline this week to discuss the beginnings of 50/50, how their relationship has evolved over time and why Rogen can't listen to a specific Pearl Jam song without seeing flames.
[Minor 50/50 spoilers follow.]
At what point did you decide that your battle with cancer would make a good screenplay?
Will Reiser: Well, first of all, I want to say, it's definitely fiction. It's definitely inspired by what we went through.
Seth Rogen: Now we can't get sued. [Laughs]
WR: The idea for the movie really started when Seth and I were at a party one night. I had been diagnosed maybe a month prior to the party, and our way of dealing with the whole thing was through humor. We were 24, 25; Seth, what were you?
SR: Six years ago? 24, yeah.
WR: So we weren't having a lot of emotional conversations. Our way of dealing with it was pointing at the absurdity and finding humor in the situations. We had this funny idea for a buddy comedy. And that's it! We would make reference to that night every once in a while, and then once I got better, Seth and his writing partner Evan Goldberg, they really just pushed me to write it. To take my experience and turn it into a screenplay. But it really started that night when we were at the party. We were just fucking around, but that was the inception of the idea.
And once the script was done, did you have a hard time getting studios to bite? After all, saying you're making a cancer comedy doesn't seem like the easiest of pitches.
SR: Not really. It probably was not going to be the type of movie that a major studio would ever make in the first place, and we knew we didn't want that. We wanted to be able to really push it and be as honest as we could and not have to worry about taking a lot of notes and the development process, per se. We had already known Nathan Kahane and Mandate through another script we had sold them -- our apocalypse movie -- and we just really liked him. They make really kind of fancy, artsy movies, which are not the kind of movies we generally make. [Laughs] We thought maybe they could be good guys to make it; he read it and he loved it, and it just kinda happened pretty easily from there.
I've seen you guys discuss how Seth initially heard from Will about his cancer while taking a crap; that didn't make it into the film, fortunately/unfortunately. Where did you draw the line on what to take from your life and what to fabricate/embellish?
SR: We had that experience with Superbad. We had written a movie that was almost as exactly as kind-of autobiographical as this movie was for Will, in that it was inspired by stuff that happened, and some things were very specific to stuff that happened, but in a general way. It was not really quite how it went down. One of the things we learned in Superbad was that just because it happened, it did not mean it belonged in the movie. [Laughs]
WR: I definitely wrote scenes that were things that happened to me in real life, but when they were on the page they felt totally absurd. They didn't feel believable.
SR: Some of the things we took out because they were so ridiculous no one would ever even believe they would happen.
WR: In the movie there's a going-away party for Adam. It's a very condensed version of that. The original scene that was in the movie was every single one of his co-workers giving him advice. We cut it down because it felt so unbelievable, but that was very true to what I went through. I felt like people were always giving me lots and lots of advice. Rightfully so! People wanted to help, but when you're sick like that -- people have so much trouble being in this space of uncertainty and sorta not knowing what the future is, and they kinda want to fix it. So I felt like people were constantly trying to give me advice because they wanted to fix the situation. But it just sorta overwhelms you at a certain point. That's what the scene was about, but we had to trim it down.
Because of how personal this story was to you both, how important was it to find the right director to handle this material? How'd you land on Jonathan Levine?
SR: We had seen The Wackness and we really liked it, but it was really him that sold us more than his previous work. We just got along with him really well. He had experienced things similar to this. We spoke the same movie language.
WR: He was really passionate about it! He wrote a passionate letter about how much he really wanted to do it.
SR: That went a long way. I remember reading the letter, saying, like, "This guy really wants to do it! No one else is fucking writing us letters."
WR: Yeah! This movie really meant something to him. For us, I think, doing it -- to have a director where this movie was as important to them as it was to us, that was key.
SR: I remember him saying, 'I will try really hard for you guys.' (Laughs) I actually believed him. That's such a weird thing to say, but I totally bought that he would.
WR: He's an awesome dude. He's become our good friend. It was a great collaboration.
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