Jonathan Levine‘s 50/50 bares many similarities to a Hal Ashby film. Many writers/directors have attempted to emulate the Harold and Maude director’s style, capturing both the tragedies and odd humor of life, and most of the time they all come off as lazy homage. Like a bad film student trying to ape a filmmaker he or she loves, it’s embarrassing and clumsy.
However, writer Will Reiser, co-star/producer Seth Rogen, and director Jonathan Levine managed to make a film inspired by the legend, and yet make their own personal and heartfelt story. A part of that heart comes from the honesty that the filmmakers captured. 50/50 had to jump over some big tonal obstacles, which, as our own review points out, it did so without a hitch.
Here’s what Will Reiser and Seth Rogen had to say in our brief chat about Hal Ashby, real life not working on the page, and finding Jonathan Levine:
To start off, why’d you decide to fictionalize the story, rather than making a straight bio?
WR: Well, there are a couple of reasons. The main reason is that I just wanted to tell the best story, and I don’t think beat-for-beat what I went through would make for the best story. I think that was the number one priority. There are a lot of circumstances that occurred with people who are close to me, and I wouldn’t want to point my finger at people I care about.
It was a tough time for everyone in my life, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to be critical of anyone. I drew upon a few things I experienced. Adam’s arc is very close to my arc, with how I grew from the experience. When I was 25, I was a highly neurotic and worrisome guy, pretty much like Adam is.
Are there ever cases, and this could apply to you with Superbad, where you write down something that happened, but on the page, it comes off ridiculous?
SR: That happens a lot. There was actually a story Will told me a few weeks ago — right before he went into his surgery — that was very funny, but it was so ridiculous. He actually had it in the script at one point, and we were like, “You can’t do that!” He said it actually happened, and we said, “That’s terrible that that happened, but you can’t put that in the movie.” [Laughs] It was a really interesting moment. Will, maybe you can explain what it was.
WR: Yeah, it was a really absurd moment. Right before I went into my surgery, the nurse walked up to me with all these release forms – organ donor forms, hospital liability, and one release saying that I gave them permission to fuse my spine so they could remove vertebrae. No one had discussed this with me, and it was literally one minute before I was about to go under. I looked at the nurse and said, “What is all this stuff? No one said this.” She said, “Maybe you should talk to your doctor,” so then I asked if she’d mind getting him for me. She said I couldn’t talk to him because he was handling a surgery. When I asked how I should talk to him, she said I should cancel the surgery. I said I couldn’t cancel the surgery because the surgery was rushed so I could have it. I asked her if the doctor’s a really good doctor, and she just said, “Well… he’s not very nice.” [Laughs] It was a fucked up experience! That’s like the last thing you wanna be told right before a life-threatening surgery. I wrote something like that into the script, and it was too unbelievable.
[Laughs] When it comes to the tone, I’ve heard Jonathan Levine mention how much of an inspiration Hal Ashby was. Was he used as a template during the writing process, and how much does he inspire your work?
SR: We talk about Hal Ashby a lot, I have to say. To me, The Last Detail is one of the best movies of all time. Harold and Maude is really amazing. I really think he was one of the best guys with blending emotional stories and really funny moments, and it always felt totally real, natural; never felt showy, and never felt manipulative. It always just feels like you’re watching these people. At the same time, they were cinematic. There was great music in those movies and great shots, but it never felt forced. We reference him all the time. To me, he’s one of the best filmmakers ever.
How about Shampoo?
SR: It’s not my favorite Hal Ashby movie, to be honest… [Laughs]
[Laughs] I would probably say that’s my favorite of his.
SR: Really? Then there you go! [Laughs] It’s a good movie, though…
[Laughs] Was it tough finding a director like that? I know Jonathan Levine wrote you guys a letter for the job, what did it say?
SR: Yeah, he did. He wrote us a very passionate letter about how much he personally connected with the material. I immediately ignored that letter, and hired someone else. When the first person we hired dropped out, we said, “Oh yeah! What about that guy who wrote us a letter?” [Laughs] Then we called him, sat down with him, and we were really impressed with him. Honestly, it wasn’t so much any movie or work he’s done before that sold us, it was more just him as a guy; he seemed capable and smart. More than anything, he seemed like a guy I could imagine making a movie with and working with everyday.
WR: For all of us, the movie was a real passion project. Jonathan had that same level of enthusiasm and passion.
SR: So many directors we talked to, we could tell they were into it, but we could also tell they weren’t as into it as we were. [Laughs] He wasn’t like that, and he had the same level of enthusiasm. It was a big opportunity for him, and that was very important to us — usually, people work harder when they have a bigger opportunity.
When looking for a director, were you guys searching for someone to meet your own vision, or for them to bring their own idea to the project?
SR: No, we were looking for a collaborator, honestly. We were looking for someone who has ideas, has opinions, and has strong taste. At the same time, we wanted someone who wouldn’t derail what we had done so far; generally, by that point, we like what we’ve done so far. It’s really like a middle ground: someone who can add a lot, but not someone who will take away what we’ve done and liked.
And you’d say Jonathan did that through the process?
SR: Very much so. He added a lot. He really put a lot of thought into things we hadn’t thought about, you know? The look of the movie, some of the character stuff, whether or not certain jokes were tonally too broad, or whether certain moments called for too much, emotionally. It would be a drastically different movie if someone else directed it.
I know I gotta wrap up, but I definitely want to ask about Rachel. She’s been labeled as the “bitch” character, but do you guys feel like she’s sincere in her last scene?
SR: That’s a good question — I don’t know if she is. I sympathize with that character, honestly. I mean, she’s in a really shitty position. I can’t imagine what I would do if I wanted to breakup with someone, then they told me they had cancer probably on the day I planned on doing it, [Laughs] and that was kind of the idea for the whole thing. Ideally we would, even though she’s despicable at times, make her sympathetic. Like, what would you do in that situation? That’s a really tough situation to be in.
WR: I think her apology in the end comes more from not wanting to be the shitty girlfriend who cheated on her boyfriend who has cancer so she wouldn’t feel guilty. It’s coming out of guilt and preserving this higher image she has of herself. I definitely empathize with that. I think she’s in a really shitty situation, but I think that apology comes from her own self-preservation.
50/50 is now in theaters, and you should really go see it.