Seth Rogen's story behind 50/50By Rebecca Younger
November 23, 2011
WRITING and producing partners Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Will Reiser first met behind the scenes of the outrageous British import comedy series, Da Ali G Show.
At the time Rogen and Goldberg were up-and-coming writers and Reiser was just beginning his career as the show’s associate producer. All in their early 20s at the time, they were the youngest staff members on the show and bonded immediately. Then the unthinkable happened. As Rogen and Goldberg watched, their friend began to unravel before their eyes.
“The pace on that show was insane,” said Goldberg. “It was 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For about six weeks straight, we would be staring at Will all day and he looked lousier every day.
“We didn’t know he was sick, so we just made fun of him. Sasha Baron Cohen, who was the star of the show, was kind of the ringleader. And Will laughed along with us.”
“Will was always really sick,” added Rogen, “It was like in Raiders of the Lost Ark when those people were melting. He was visibly unhealthy.” Finally, eight months after they wrapped on Da Ali G Show, Reiser told his friends he had been diagnosed with cancer.
“We were obviously shocked and saddened but in a way, it was a huge relief to find out that there was a reason he looked so bad. We thought he was just living hard,” explained Rogen. “Will told us he would probably live, which was good news, and we began a long process that we were all pretty ill-equipped to deal with.”
Even as Reiser was going through the process, Rogen and Goldberg were encouraging their friend to start writing.
“When anything remotely interesting happens, my first instinct is to try and think of a movie based on it,” Rogen said. “And it seemed to me that I’d never seen a movie about a young dude, who has to deal with a potentially fatal disease.
“I thought it would be really interesting and it could be really funny. Will is so funny and weird and neurotic. He might be the worst guy that could ever get cancer. Not that anyone would take it well, but he has a particularly rattled disposition.”
But Reiser had a long way to go before he would be ready to write the script. His doctors made a tentative diagnosis of lymphoma, but further examination indicated that this was not the case. After batteries of intrusive tests, he learned that he had a giant tumour growing along his spine.
Reiser's surgeon walked him through the proposed treatment – a six-hour operation would remove the tumour, but recovery, both physical and emotional, would be long and gruelling and it was two full years before he felt he had the proper perspective to reflect on the experience creatively.
For Goldberg, the gravity of the subject made it seem all the more ripe for comic treatment.
“All humour is based on dark and bad things. This is the darkest of topics, and so we thought it could be the funniest of topics – if it was handled correctly,” he said.
Reiser’s first draft had all the elements his friends were hoping for.
“Seth and I are super brutal when it comes to any script anyone sends us,” Goldberg added. “This was the best first draft of anything I’ve ever read. I don’t like to say such nice things about my friends, but it’s true. Will nailed it.”
After working together for several years to fine-tune the script, the filmmakers turned their attention to finding a director, who would understand the story’s delicate balance of drama, pathos and humour.
Jonathan Levine, who directed the 2008 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner The Wackness, read the script and was so moved by it that he tried to get in touch with Rogen and Goldberg directly.
As the search for a director heated up, Goldberg’s assistant suggested that he watch The Wackness. Goldberg did and recalls, “It was awesome.” After his first meeting with Levine, Rogen remembers thinking: “He’s exactly like us, and we got along really well. You can tell pretty quickly if someone has a vision and Jonathan clearly had a vision.
“The minute we sat down and started talking to him, we knew he was a guy that we could totally work with.”
During pre-production, Levine and the producers spent considerable time brainstorming the story and riffing on existing scenes.
According to Rogen, the filmmakers were mindful not to try to create a ‘funny’ world or have people act in an inauthentic way for the sake of comedy.
“We thought that the characters and their attitudes were funny and we approached it as realistically as humanly possible,” he said.
The filmmakers’ research included talking to cancer patients, including Reiser, at length and visiting a cancer centre in Seattle, where they observed chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
As they delved into their subject, they found that many people involved with the film had been touched by the disease.
Goldberg recalls: “There were a lot of weird moments for Will. People kept sharing things with him that they hadn’t before, for some reason.
“And that happens in the movie. All of the characters have their own issues that they resolve through Adam’s cancer.”
While Reiser sprinkled a few of the details of his personal experience into the story (for example, his actual MRI and CAT scans were used in the hospital scenes), many others come from the writer’s imagination and research.
For example, unlike the character of Adam, Reiser did not have to undergo chemotherapy before the surgery to remove the tumour growing along his spine.
“It’s important to point out that 50/50 is not an autobiography,” he said. “It is inspired by my experience and the experiences of people around me.
“I didn’t have to go through some of the more horrible treatments that people have to go through.”
Reiser hopes the film addresses some of the universal concerns of cancer patients.
He said: “Cancer means that the cells in your body are mutating. There’s nothing more personal than your body attacking itself, so how do you relate to other people around you? You can’t. I wanted to show that in a way that was dark and funny and absurd, because the whole experience was so bizarre.
“Humour was the thing that saved me through it all. I wanted to share that.”
“I like the idea that this movie allows people to talk about their experiences with cancer and not be afraid of that.
“I think it’s okay for us to laugh at illness and how absurd it is, and it’s also okay to cry.”
n 50/50 is in cinemas from Friday, certificate 15.