Q&A: '50/50' star/producer Seth Rogen and writer Will Reiser

RedEye movie critic

It only seems fair to warn you: This interview with “50/50” star Seth Rogen and the movie’s writer, Rogen’s longtime friend Will Reiser, features a lot of discussion about diarrhea.

Maybe that’s not what you expect when the topic at hand is a movie about cancer. Except “50/50,” opening Sept. 30, is first and foremost a comedy—inspired by Reiser’s bout with (and victory over) cancer. And Rogen (“Pineapple Express,” “Freaks and Geeks”) is Rogen, a foulmouthed open book. So it’s not a huge surprise these former co-workers on “Da Ali G Show” were willing to freely broach subjects not usually addressed in celebrity interviews.

In the film, Rogen is absolutely hilarious as Kyle, who encourages his friend Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to use a cancer diagnosis to help them pick up women. At the Elysian Hotel, L.A. residents Rogen, 29, and Reiser, 31 (whose mom is from the south side of Chicago and whose dad went to the University of Chicago and was in Second City in the early ‘60s), talked about reacting to real-life news about cancer, Voldemort’s sexual prospects and, yes, bathroom-oriented unpleasantness.

In the movie, Kyle says he’s going to throw up when Adam tells him he has cancer. How close is that to your reaction, Seth, when Will told you?
SR: Well, I was actually on the toilet taking a [bleep] at the moment Will told me he had cancer in real life.

Was that weird that he was in the room with you?
SR: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.] It wasn’t face to face; it was over the phone.
WR: The phone is a really good way to tell someone you have cancer because then you kind of don’t have to deal with it.
SR: You don’t have to deal with it, yeah. [Laughs.] There was a buffer … It was a somewhat somber conversation ‘cause at that time—
WR: It was sobering.
SR: The outlook was much more bleak at the time you told me though. It was misdiagnosed at first.
WR: They thought it was terminal. I didn’t walk around telling people that but it was pretty—
SR: It was pretty clear that you didn’t think it was going to—
WR: It wasn’t good—
SR: There was a grim tone to it.

Of all the places to be when hearing that news, that might be kind of ideal.
SR: Yeah, if I was going to [bleep] myself I was in a good place for it. [Laughs.] I literally remember thinking, “I’m not giving him a good reaction to this because I’m on the toilet and distracted by that.” [Laughs.]
WR: As a performer …
SR: Yeah, I knew, “This is not a satisfying reaction.” You probably weren’t worried about that.
WR: Honestly, I don’t remember.
SR: I also remember thinking, “He probably isn’t that worried about how I’m reacting to this.” [Laughs.]

I read that the original script was more of an R-rated version of “The Bucket List.”
SR: That was more of a joke. While he was still sick we would kind of just joke about different versions of cancer movies that we could make that could be funny. But there was never actually a script.
WR: That we called “The [Bleep]-It List.” But there was no script. The first script is the same story as the movie. It just evolved; the characters evolved. But we never went that broad with it.

I wrote down “Sex with hookers while skydiving,” so that joke/fantasy made it into the movie.
WR: That was an improv line.
SR: That’s just something I’ve always wanted to do.
WR: I’m terrified of both hookers and skydiving, so …
SR: That’s why you do it, man. [Laughs.]
WR: Take care of two of those at once.

Give me an example of something you really didn’t want this movie to become.
SR: I will say, this is an odd but fair analogy because at this point, this network has produced what are probably many good movies. But what we would always say is a Lifetime movie.
WR: Or the cancer movie that offends everyone.
SR: I was much more worried about it being a Lifetime [movie]! [Laughs.]
WR: Were you?
SR: Yeah! [Laughs.] I mean, honestly, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t offend people. I was much more worried about the dramatic parts of the movie than the comedic parts.
WR: Were you?
SR: Yeah. I was worried that the dramatic parts would come off forced and melodramatic more than I was worried that the comedic parts would [offend].
WR: I worried that the comedy might feel too broad. But that was when we started shooting it. ‘Cause I didn’t realize until we started shooting ... the significance of that balance of comedy and drama.
SR: I wasn’t worried about that.

Adam comments that no one wants to [bleep] him because he looks like Voldemort. What makes you think Voldemort doesn’t get laid too?
SR: That’s a good point. Just probably not with the type of girls that [Adam would want].
WR: When I think of Voldemort getting laid, I think more about Mormon fundamentalists screwing 14-year-old girls. That’s what I think of.

Women are attracted to power.
SR: It’s true. Voldemort is very powerful. [Laughs.] [Adam] only looks like Voldemort, though. He doesn’t wield the power.
WR: The original joke for that was we said he looked like “Powder.”
SR: But we realized Powder gets laid in the movie! Like, “Doesn’t Powder get laid?”
WR: And also the reference. We were like, “We don’t think that 18-year-olds will know who Powder is.”
SR: It was a more contemporary reference. Powder [bleeps], though.
WR: But [Adam actually] looks more like Powder than Voldemort.
SR: It’s true.
WR: He was more like Voldemort on the inside.
SR: [Laughs.] That’s the subtext.

The movie does a great job of pulling something funny out of a serious situation. How could you do the opposite?
WR: You mean, like [gesturing to Rogen] he gets cancer?
SR: To pull something serious out of a funny situation? Like make a really serious movie about a guy who has diarrhea or something?
WR: That’s like a serious illness! A guy who [bleeps] himself all the time!
SR: They could make a serious movie about that. The guy can’t stop farting.
WR: [There’d be] a lot of jokes.
SR: I think it’d be hard. [Laughs.] We’re not the guys to do it. I think a lot of people who make movies take really funny ideas and make them really not funny. [Laughs.]

I do like the idea of getting people like Colin Firth and Emma Thompson on board for a very serious movie about diarrhea.
SR: That would be good.
WR: If you get William Hurt to play …
SR: He’s the diarrhea doctor. “I’m Doctor Diarrhea.” [Laughs.] … I’d go see “Doctor Diarrhea.”

What’s a favorite memory you have of working together on “Da Ali G Show”?
WR: I was a producer. He was a writer, so all the memories I have of working on “Ali G” are that I was miserable and stressed out all the time. We shared a window.
SR: It was a big room that was divided by a window. So he could see the writers and we could see the producers. And their job was super stressful. And our job was stressful but it was much more fun than their job. [Laughs.] Because we were joking around all day …
WR: I’d be on the phone convincing people that this was a serious [illness], and I’d look over and they’d be laughing, and I’d have to be on the phone just like whispering, making sure that they couldn’t hear the laughter.

I read that Sacha Baron Cohen was somewhat of a ringleader in making fun of you before everyone knew why you looked so sick.
WR: I think that in general I’m a pretty good target to be made fun of.
SR: Yeah, exactly. That sounds slightly slanderous towards Sacha. We all made fun of Will. [Laughs.]
WR: Especially back then I was such an easy target ‘cause I was just so neurotic and I worried about everything all the time. And I was also really sensitive. And if there’s anything you need to know about working with comedy writers, whoever’s the most sensitive is just going to be made fun of the most.

Seth, I love “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.” How much do your memories of those shows change over the years?
SR: It’s interesting. I was very happy at the time. I was very appreciative. It is funny while we were shooting I was super-psyched to have a job and not be in high school anymore. But I just didn’t watch a lot of TV I guess and I just at that point didn’t even consider the quality of the show really. I thought it was good but I didn’t realize it was the type of show that people would still be talking about a decade later. [Laughs.]
WR: It’s pretty remarkable. What was it, like 18 episodes or something?
SR: Yeah, so that to me is really surprising and nice. And at that time, shows didn’t come out on DVD so there was no reason to think that when the show was canceled anyone would ever see it again in any way, shape or form. [Laughs.]
WR: Now shows don’t even need to air on television to become popular.
SR: Yeah, exactly. And “Undeclared” was great because I feel like I met a lot of the writers that I work with a lot still. I think “Freaks and Geeks” I met a lot of the actors that I work with and “Undeclared” I met a lot of the writers. Like me and Nick Stoller share an office together. And Craig Mottola directed an episode …. Rodney Rothman.

How long until people call for movies as extensions of the characters? Lately when shows end (“Arrested Development,” “Entourage”), people immediately ask, “When’s the movie coming”?
SR: Yeah, I don’t know if anyone would want to make a movie out of those shows. [Laughs.] That would be a tough sell. It seems hard [to make movies] out of shows that weren’t successful. [Laughs.]
WR: It’s true, it’s true.
SR: “You didn’t watch it for free; will you pay to see it?”

James Franco scored an Oscar nomination for “127 Hours.” Who’s your bet for the next “Freaks and Geeks” alum to be nominated?
SR: Uhh … I have no idea whatsoever. [Laughs.] I don’t know. Probably him again. [Laughs.]
WR: He takes a lot of risks with the roles he takes on. He’s a phenomenal actor. So there’s a very likely chance he will be nominated again. There’s a very likely chance he will win an Oscar in the next 10 years.

Complete this analogy: Seth Rogen is to Will Reiser as …
SR: As wings are to a bird. [Laughs.]
WR: Ooh.

You didn’t even hesitate.
SR: I saw a bird fly by.
WR: I was lost. I was lost.
SR: I had a visual cue. If we were on any lower of floor, that would not have happened.
WR: It’s a good thing we weren’t by a bathroom.
SR: Yeah, exactly. “As a seat is to a toilet.” [Laughs.]
WR: As paper is to my ass.
SR: Doctor Diarrhea. As a doctor is to diarrhea.
WR: It’s a recurring thing. You can’t get past it.

Seth, you’ve been talking about playing yourself with your friends in “The Apocalypse.” What would you guys hope you had on hand in a house if you were trapped and the world was ending?
WR: Seeds. So I could start growing vegetables.
SR: I would say water.
WR: Well, water, you can [get from] condensation from growing vegetables as well.
SR: How are you going to grow vegetables without water?
WR: You need both, that’s true. You do need water. So water and vegetables.
SR: Water and seeds is our answer. [Laughs.]
WR: Like a plant in a box--
SR: Even without dirt, you can use sponges and stuff like that.
WR: Can you use sponges?
SR: Oh yeah. Hydroponics, my man. [Laughs.]
WR: He’s got quite the green thumb.

What’s something you haven’t done that you’d still like to do?
SR: I’d like to go to India, much like in “The Bucket List.” We make fun of “The Bucket List,” but I would actually like to go to India. [Laughs.]
WR: Skydiving with a hooker would actually be pretty unbelievable.
SR: Yeah, that would be good too.
WR: Or a stripper. I mean, just any naked woman. Naked skydiving.
SR: And I’d like to make a movie called “Doctor Diarrhea.”
WR: Would you be in it?
SR: Yes. I’d be the patient. [Laughs.]
WR: I think we should really make that movie.

On eating Harold’s Chicken for lunch: “I asked them what was good in Chicago that I should try if I was to eat lunch, what I should eat! … My first instinct was Chicago pizza, but it’s also not that easy to do several hours of interviews I would imagine after eating a large amount of Chicago pizza.” (SR)
When Rogen knew his chemistry had clicked with Gordon-Levitt: “Really not ‘til we started filming honestly. It seemed good but I didn’t really know for sure until … the head-shaving scene is the first scene we shot in the whole movie. After filming that it seemed like it was funny. I hoped it was funny. It seemed funny.”
The next movie they’re working on together, “Jamaica,” written by Reiser, directed by Jonathan Levine and produced by Rogen and Evan Goldberg: “When I was 14, just me and my grandmother went to Jamaica and the travel agent accidentally booked us at a couples resort. So it was me and my grandmother, I was 14 at the height of puberty, and with my grandmother, alone at this couples resort. Very early on I realized that she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, but she hadn’t told anybody. And I subsequently lost her. So the movie is just basically about this kid and his grandmother and their relationship and losing her in Jamaica. I’m going to write a role for [Rogen].” (WR)
On iPod: “You just got a new Bob Dylan album.” (WR) “I did; it’s called “Self Portrait” by Bob Dylan. I’m around 40 years behind the curve musically speaking, but it’s a great album.” (SR) “I just downloaded an album by this guy James Blake. I listen to a lot of old R&B. That’s what I’ve been listening to a lot recently.” (WR)

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Fridays at 7 a.m. on WCIU, the U


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