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Rogen, Reiser Go In '50/50' On A Few Sick Laughs

Writer Will Reiser, left, and actor Seth Rogen are the real-life friends behind 50/50, a comedy about cancer that grew out of the jokes that got the two through Reiser's own diagnosis and treatment. (Summit Entertainment)

The movie 50/50 is a comedy about cancer, and yes, the filmmakers knew it would be a tough sell. But that didn't stop writer Will Reiser and his actor friend Seth Rogen from taking on the tough (and not-so-tough) questions of living with the disease.

They'd done it before, after all — the film is based on Reiser's own experiences after a diagnosis.

"Seth and I have known each other for a really long time," Reiser tells NPR's Audie Cornish. It was six years ago, when the two were both working on Da Ali G Show, when Reiser got the news. For the movie, they needed an office setting where Rogen's character and the protagonist — "different personality types," Rogen says, understating the case considerably — might both believably be said to work. They were searching for a job that was "somewhat creative but not overly creative," Rogen says.

Their eventual choice? Public-radio reporter.

"I'm a huge NPR supporter and have never given a donation of any kind," Reiser jokes. "So this makes up for it."

Thanks, we think.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the main character, Adam, who's diagnosed in the movie with a cancer that's "very similar" to what Reiser had six years ago – a massive tumor in the spine. In the film, it's a neuro-fibroma-sarcoma-schwannoma, which sounds like the kind of name Rogen might make up, but turns out to be a real thing.

"'Schwannoma' is a funny word," the actor says, pointing out that it sounds like a city in the Pacific Northwest.

"We thought of naming the movie 'Schwannoma, Washington,'" Reiser deadpans.

'Our Go-To Way Of Dealing With It'

"I think that pretty much from the second day after I was diagnosed, I was making jokes," Reiser says, "because it was the only way I knew to make everybody feel normal and comfortable with the situation. The last thing I wanted was for everyone to just start treating me differently — which, unfortunately, they did. But that just happens when you go through something like this."

"We almost never talked about it seriously," Rogen said. "We would make jokes about it or think of stupid movie ideas that we could maybe make about a young guy with cancer. That was kind of like our go-to way of dealing with it, honestly. ... But we never really talked about how we felt about it."

Much of the comedy in 50/50 comes from how the people around Adam react to his diagnosis.

"You have people just giving you tons and tons of advice about books you should read and foods you should eat," Reiser says. "People would recommend getting oxygen injections and ... going down to the Amazon, drinking a tea from a shaman. You know, like, just all kinds of advice. And people would ... they would love to touch me. They were just rubbing me like I was some kind of Buddha or something."

They're not making fun of cancer, Reiser stresses. They're making fun of the way people react to cancer and the dysfunction it creates.

"Seth plays a character that doesn't know how to deal with it," Reiser says. "He just says one inappropriate comment after another, trying to make light of the situation. And each of the characters goes to some level of extreme."

Take Adam's mother, played byAngelica Huston.

"Her way of reacting is, she just tries to smother her son," Reiser says.

"When I told my mom I was sick, I was in L.A. and she was in New York, so we didn't do it in person," he says. "We had to do it over the phone. My mother did literally get on a plane the next day and fly to L.A."

Reiser says it was hard to accept the solicitousness; he didn't want people to worry about him.

Rogen points out, too, that Reiser was just out of college at the time.

"I think you're also specifically at that age, at that time in your life where you're trying to separate yourself," he says. "You were living alone in Los Angeles for the first time; the last thing you want to do when something bad happens is have your parents be the ones that come and fix it, I think."

Talking Smack About A Serious Topic

Of course, 50/50 is basically a comedy — a buddy comedy, and one where one of the buddies is kind of a chucklehead.

"People see a movie like this and they fear it's going to be miserable, and that a room full of people will see them crying," Rogen says. "I think it all kind of comes down to that."

But comedies, even offbeat comedies, can be the best vehicles for talking about tough subjects.

"I look at movies like Dr. Strangelove," Rogen says, "that are about things that you don't really want to think about, but they're presented in a way that you want to watch it. That was really our goal — to make a movie that's about something serious and that was as entertaining to watch as any other comedy."

"We showed the movie to ... 200 cancer patients and survivors," Reiser says. "It felt like almost every single person came up to us afterwards and said, 'This movie is exactly what it was like for me.' One young guy, who was in his early 20s, came up to me and said, 'The relationship between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth is the exact relationship I have with my best friend.'"

The feedback basically boiled down to "Thanks for not giving us a sentimental film with a bunch of people sitting in a circle, holding hands, crying," Reiser and Rogen say.

"People that have experienced stuff like this seem really happy that we had the guts to make jokes that were potentially very inappropriate," Rogen says, "but that we knew were representative of the types of jokes we actually made when we were in that situation."

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More Photos
From '50/50' - 'I'm Gonna Throw Up'
From '50/50' - 'You're Gonna Look Weird'
From '50/50' - 'Help Me Help You'
Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. The movie "50/50" is a comedy about cancer. And, yes, the filmmakers knew it would be a tough sell, but that didn't stop writer Will Reiser and actor Seth Rogan from taking on the tough and not-so-tough questions of living with the disease, like how to pick up women.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "50/50")

JOSEPH GORDON: (as Adam) You really think that a girl's going to go for me just 'cause I have cancer?

SETH ROGAN: (as Kyle) For the millionth time, yes. Help me help you get laid.

GORDON: You think that would work?

ROGAN: It would totally work.

CORNISH: That's actor Seth Rogan. He plays the cancer patient's friend with the dubious pick-up scheme. The film is based on the experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser. And both men came into our Washington studios to talk about the movie. Thank you for coming in.

WILL REISER: Thanks for having us.

ROGAN: Yeah, thank you.

CORNISH: Now, the character, the main character in the movie, who's played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and his name is Adam, and he is a public radio reporter. And I have to say now that you're at the NPR mothership, what was that job supposed to say about that character?

ROGAN: One of the things we struggled the most with the movie is what job to give these guys.

REISER: 'Cause Seth and I have known each other for a really long time and...

ROGAN: And we did work together at the time that Will got sick, but we worked in television. We were writers - well I was a writer, he was a producer for the "Ali G Show" on HBO.

CORNISH: And we should say this was six years ago, Will, when you were diagnosed with cancer.

REISER: Yes, that's right.

CORNISH: And the movie is based on your experiences.

REISER: Yeah, inspired by.

ROGAN: We legally have to say inspired by. And we really just wanted a job that you would believe both these guys would have, 'cause they are different personality types, that was somewhat creative but not overly creative. I mean...

CORNISH: Yes, I would say that describes my job.

ROGAN: Exactly. And that's kind of what our jobs were at that time also.

REISER: And I'd also like to say that I'm a huge NPR supporter and have never given a donation...

ROGAN: Exactly. It's our way...

REISER: ...of any kind, so this makes up for it.

ROGAN: It's our way of helping out the cause.

CORNISH: Will, like we said, it was six years ago that you were diagnosed. What is the name of the cancer that you had?

REISER: I had a massive tumor in my spine, which is very similar to what Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character has.

CORNISH: And has a pretty intense name.

REISER: Yeah. The tumor that Joe's character has is neurofibroma-sarcoma-schwannoma.

ROGAN: Schwannoma-neurofibroma-sarcoma.

REISER: Yeah, it's reversible. It can kind of go either way. It basically just means...

ROGAN: I lead with the schwannoma.

CORNISH: Just the fact that you're able to find some humor in the name of it.

ROGAN: Schwannoma's a funny word.

REISER: Yeah, schwannoma. We thought about naming the movie Schwannoma, Washington.

ROGAN: Yeah, Schwannoma, Washington. It also sounds like a city in Washington.

REISER: Yeah.

CORNISH: But was it, I mean, not funny at the time, I assume.

REISER: Well, we didn't know how to deal with it on an emotional level, so the way we talked about it was through humor. So, I think pretty much from the second day, you know, after I was diagnosed I was making jokes, because it was the only way that I knew to make everybody feel normal, you know, and comfortable with the situation. 'Cause the last thing I wanted was for everyone to just start treating me differently, which unfortunately they did but that just happens when you go through something like this.

ROGAN: We almost never talked about it seriously. We would make jokes about it or think of stupid movie ideas that we could maybe make about a young guy with cancer. I mean, that was kind of like our go-to way of dealing with it, honestly. It was the way that we could talk about it without, you know, so we would in some way acknowledge our feelings but we never really talked about how we felt about it.

CORNISH: I'm speaking with actor and producer Seth Rogan and screenwriter Will Reiser about their new film "50/50." The story seems to be as much about how people react to the diagnosis that the character has as it is about how he deals with it.

REISER: What happens is you have people just giving you tons and tons of advice about books you should read and foods you should eat. People would recommend, you know, getting, like, oxygen injections and going down...

ROGAN: Doesn't that kill you?

REISER: I think that might kill you. It might kill you. You know, going down to the Amazon, drinking a tea from a shaman. You know what I mean? Like just all kinds of advice. And people would also do things like they would love to touch me. You know, they were just rubbing me like I was some kind of Buddha or something.

ROGAN: You are, Will.

REISER: You know, we're not making fun of cancer; we're making fun of the way people react to that situation and the dysfunction that it creates. And Seth plays a character who doesn't know how to deal with it. And so what he does is he just says one inappropriate comment after another trying to make light of the situation, and each of the characters goes to some level of extreme. You know, Anjelica Huston, who plays Joseph Gordon-Levitt's mother, you know, her way of reacting is she just tries to smother her son.

CORNISH: I want to play a clip from the movie. And in this scene, the main character, Adam, and this character's girlfriend invite the parents over to dinner to break the news about the diagnosis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "50/50")

GORDON: (as Adam) Have you ever seen "Terms of Endearment?"

BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD: (as Rachael) Adam, just tell her.

ANJELICA HUSTON: (as Diane) Tell me what?

GORDON: I have cancer.

HUSTON: Honey. I'm moving in.

GORDON: What? No, no, mom, no, sorry.

HUSTON: I'm your mother, Adam.

GORDON: No, exactly. That's why. And...mom, mom...

CORNISH: I read that your parents were actually on set around the filming of this scene.

REISER: It's true. My parents were actually on set for the filming of that scene.

CORNISH: What was that like?

REISER: My mother started crying. When I told my...

ROGAN: Did you plan that? Did you invite them that day or was that just like the worst coincidence in the history of...

REISER: That was, that was the worst coincidence possible. My mother, you know, when I told my mom I was sick, I was in L.A. and she was New York, so we didn't do it in person. You know, we had to do it over the phone. My mother did literally get on a plane the next day and fly to L.A.

CORNISH: It's also one of the things, I think, for a lot of people they can identify with, which is maybe not reaching out to your parents the way they would like.

REISER: For me, I didn't want people to worry about me.

ROGAN: But I think you're also specifically at that age at the time in your life where you're trying to separate yourself. You had just gotten out of college, you were living alone in Los Angeles for the first time. The last thing you want to do when something bad happens is have your parents be the ones that come and fix it, I think, you know?

CORNISH: Seth, this is kind of a buddy film about cancer. And your buddy is sort of the chuckleheaded one. And I'm wondering in the end, who's the sort of audience member you're trying to reach out to?

ROGAN: You know, people see a movie like this and they fear it's going to be miserable and that a room full of people will see them crying. I think it all kind of comes down to that. And, you know, I look at movies like "Dr. Strangelove" as movies as things that are about things that you don't really want to think about but they're presented in a way that you want to watch it. That was really our goal is to make a movie that was about something serious and that was as entertaining to watch as any other comedy.

REISER: And I also wanted to add to that we showed the movie to the Livestrong organization and 200 cancer patients and survivors and it felt like almost every single person came up to us afterwards and said this movie is exactly what it was like for me. One young guy who was in his early 20s came up to me and said the relationship between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth is the exact relationship I had with my best friend.

ROGAN: Yeah, and it was refreshing to see it reflected in a movie as opposed to what you're used to seeing, which is just sentimental...

REISER: People sitting in a circle holding hands crying.

ROGAN: Yeah. People who've experienced stuff like this seem really happy that we had the guts to make jokes that were potentially very inappropriate but that we knew were representative of the types of jokes we actually made when we were in that situation.

CORNISH: And were, at the end of the day, actually funny.

ROGAN: I hope so.

CORNISH: Will Reiser, the screenwriter for the film "50/50," Seth Rogan, actor and producer for the movie. Thank you both so much for actually coming into the building, coming into the show. I appreciate it.

ROGAN: Thanks for having us.

REISER: Of course. Thanks for having us.

CORNISH: "50/50" opens nationwide on September 30th. You can watch scenes from the film at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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