After a problematic development, including losing its original leading man and changing its title at least three times, the rather wonderful 50/50 comes to cinemas this week. Given the difficulties getting it to screen, and the rather unusual, ‘true life’ inspiration – writer Will Reiser not only had the form of cancer depicted in the movie, but is and was best friends with the film’s producer/co-star Seth Rogen – we jumped at the chance to speak to the pair about the project.
ON THE SUBJECT MATTER
Will Riser: Six years ago I had cancer, and I had something similar to what Joe’s character has in the movie. And we’ve [Will and Seth] been good friends for a really long time, and when I was actually sick, we talked about how there was no movie that accurately depicted what the experience is like, so we talked about the idea of doing a movie that was a comedy that dealt with cancer, because we’re comedy writers, and we used humour to deal with the whole situation, and we didn’t necessarily feel like there was a movie that did that.
ON SETH ROGEN PLAYING A CHARACTER VERY CLOSE TO HIS OWN EXPERIENCES
Seth Rogen: It’s really not like me, that much. That character would not do this [interview]. He would have bailed on this. It’s really not like me. By the time we started filming it became a really warped representation of what I was like at the time. There are some things – the dynamic between the characters is similar to our dynamic at the time…
I think the sexualisation of it all was something we did for comedy than anything. Our version of making light of it was just joking around about it more rather than making it manifest itself in anything sexual.
ON BALANCING REAL LIFE WITH DRAMA WHEN WRITING A SCREENPLAY BASED ON REAL EXPERIENCES
WR: I think really it was about making the best movie.
SR: If anything it was your instinct to dramatise things more at first, and I think it took a few drafts to whittle it down to a more realistic place.
WR: Possibly, yeah. I don’t think we ever said, ‘this is going to be an autobiography’. The important thing was what’s going to be the best movie.
SR: I think as the development of the script went on it became closer to real life rather than further from real life. Not to say that it’s that representative of real life…
WR: My personal, real life…
SR: But I think your first instinct was to add a lot of conventions because you didn’t give your own story credit that it deserved for just being original.
ON WHEN THE WRITING PROCESS ENDS
SR: The rewriting process, to me, goes on through the editing process of the movie – even beyond that, because you could add ADR jokes after that. The writing process is over when the movie is completely done. And if you’re George Lucas, 30 years after that.
WR: Yeah. I was writing while we were on set. In the script Adam’s father has had a stroke, he didn’t have Alzheimer’s, but then we realised it didn’t translate, so we changed it. That was something we added using ADR, was the Alzheimer’s line.
SR: You can change a lot after the fact, so I think the thing’s a work in progress until you literally can’t change anything anymore.
ON THE IMPROVISING THE HAIR CUTTING SCENE
SR: I guess. You know, the tone of the movie is such that there’s no bad reaction in a scene like that. We knew going in, no matter what either of us did, as long as it looked natural, it worked. We could have stood there in stunned silence, even if we’re trying to make jokes, even if they’re bad jokes, as long as they feel like jokes we would be making at that time, then it works.
I remember not knowing what Joe was going to do. Honestly, I didn’t know if it was going to be played as an emotional moment for him, or a lighter moment. I had no preconceived notion of how that was going to go down, and he really just approached it pretty lightly, and I just kind of took my cues.
WR: They did a really good job of playing off one another. There’s a lot of improv that goes on between them,
SR: That was the first day of filming too.
WR: But it seemed like right away they clicked.
SR: Usually for me the first day of filming really stands out. No matter what it is, for some reason I can just tell, I’m sure no one else can, but I can just tell it feels a little bit different than the rest of the movie, but for this movie it doesn’t for some reason, I think we just sort of got it.
ON LOSING A LEADING MAN
SR: Yeah. Around a week before, he dropped out, and we had just a couple of days to find a new actor. We got Joe, and we started filming five days later.
We hired Joe on a Saturday, and we started filming the following Monday, so we had around eight days with Joe before we started filming, and in that time we just read the scenes a lot, we asked him what he thought, he gave a lot of input and notes, we did a lot of rewriting, but that doesn’t intimidate us. We’re very fluid with the process. Again, we try not to have too many preconceived notions, and really just be open along the way.
It really wasn’t the hardest thing, as a producer, that I’ve had to do. It was unfortunate when it happened, but it ultimately couldn’t have fixed itself in an easier, better way. Joe, I really give him a lot of credit. It’s kind of fearless what he did, the fact that he would jump into a movie like this so soon before filming it. It kind of throws the notion that you have to research or prepare for a role out the window. I was telling him he really fucked himself, ‘for the rest of your career, you’re never going to be able to use the excuse that you need time to research or do some kind of rehearsal or something like that. You’ve unfortunately proved that you don’t need that at all’.
WR: From the moment he said yes he just totally jumped in. We would have lots of conversations about the character, his hobbies and what he did. Joe went on the set and looked in his bedroom and looked in his house, looked at pictures and said, ‘I don’t necessarily think this…’
SR: Some things did change. There were some decisions that James had made with the character that we then changed when Joe came on, but it was more like textural things, the kind of music he listens to. It was more that kind of stuff.
WR: Joe decided that he really wanted his character to be a big jazz fan, so we incorporated that, and baseball. Lots of little things, but I think that really helped Joe understand the character more and make it his own.
ON THE FEEDBACK FROM MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS ON THE FILM
SR: Doctors seem to think that the doctors are portrayed unsympathetically. It’s funny. That, out of all the things in the movie, seems to be the one thing that draws the most heated debate, as to whether or not the portrayal of medical professionals in the movie is fair – which is really weird that that’s the bone people have chosen to pick, or the thing that people seem to get uppity about is that, ‘that doctor’s too much of an asshole’. I’ve had doctors that are such fucking assholes. I’ve had dentists that namedrop, it’s crazy that shit that these doctors do sometimes.
WR: It’s important to show the reason why some doctors are so good is because they don’t humanise the person, and they look at them as an object, not as a person, and they don’t get emotionally invested. One surgeon told me that the moment you start getting emotionally invested in a person, you can’t perform as well during surgery, because you’re worrying if you screw up, you could actually hurt this person. I feel like that’s not totally off base. I feel like I had doctors who treated me like that, so I don’t think it’s unfair to depict a doctor like that, and also Joe’s character, when he has his existential crisis, his fit in the therapist’s office, says ‘why won’t anybody just be honest with me, and just tell me how it is?’ and that’s what the doctor’s doing. I think it’s just more that, in that situation, when you’re being delivered bad news like that, it’s really hard to hear it from someone who’s so rigid and austere. It’s not the person you want to be telling you bad news. You want someone to tell you bad news then give you a hug and tell you it’s going to be OK, but that’s not really the doctor’s job. It’s all shades of grey you know. It’s not like we’re accusing doctor of being bad people, it’s just that that’s how the situation was for me, and I think people can relate to that.