On the list of people prepared for the apocalypse, most celebrities would probably fall somewhere toward the bottom, under LARPers but above the nation’s remaining ska bands. That goes double for the crew Seth Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg run with, at least the exaggerated versions of themselves they play in the new film This Is The End. In it, Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel, and Danny McBride hole up in Franco’s new home while the apocalypse rages outside. The idea comes from a short Rogen and Baruchel made in 2007 called “Jay And Seth Vs. The Apocalypse,” based on the premise of what it’d be like to bicker through the end of the world while stuck someplace with a friend. That certainly informs This Is The End, but the film spends a lot of time ruminating on how friendships change and fade, while relentlessly playing with its stars’ images and reputations (including everyone from familiar faces like Aziz Ansari and Michael Cera to unexpected ones like Rihanna and Emma Watson). It also gleefully mocks their self-centered obliviousness and the narcissism that makes Hollywood tick. It’s also oddly faithful for a film that features a character commenting, “There’s a God? Who saw that coming?” Before the film opened, Rogen and Goldberg talked to The A.V. Club about being Jews writing about the Christian apocalypse, the pitfalls of audience testing, and sneaking a big, shiny dick past the MPAA.
Note: Minor spoilers ahead.
The A.V. Club: People play exaggerated versions of themselves in the film. Seth, you said in an interview that everyone except James Franco had some note about something they didn’t want to joke about or do. Did that surprise you? Was it mostly minor stuff?
Seth Rogen: It was mostly minor stuff. I think it’s like your real friends—you never know what’s going to trigger them, you know? [Laughs.] It’s always funny to find what people’s button is. But, if anything, everyone’s button was a lot harder to push than I thought it would be. I thought we’d be engaging in a lot more discussions about, “I don’t want to perceive myself like this,” “I can’t do this because this is my actual name and image we’re using.” If anything, it’s shocking what these guys and girls were willing to do. But, yeah, every once in a while someone would say something that maybe was a little too close to home or was about another famous person that they were friends with, and they would come to us after and say, “Could you not use that?” and we’d say, “Probably. Unless it gets a big laugh—then we might.” [Laughs.]
AVC: There was a quote from Danny McBride where he said, “Oh, so this is what these guys think of me, huh?”
SR: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think when we first sent them the script, there was definitely some moments where we had to explain, like, “We’re all making fun of ourselves. It’s the perceptions—we’re playing off of perceptions.”
AVC: Some people find it difficult to play themselves. Have you experienced that at all?
SR: No, we found that everyone was really psyched to play themselves. And, again, you kind of can do no wrong—Jonah is literally acting nothing like how he acts in real life. But it almost makes it more interesting if they’re doing something that’s not how you would expect it to be. If anything, we were super psyched and surprised by how excited all the actors were at the idea of making fun of themselves and making themselves look terrible.
AVC: It seems like people tend to like joking with their image. At least the crowd that you are with in this seems like they’d be game for that sort of thing.
SR: Yeah, I think it’s fun for them to let people know that they’re in on how they’re perceived in some way.
Evan Goldberg: It’s therapeutic. They get to get ahead of the curve, and before TMZ can say anything, they’ve already said it all.
SR: Exactly. [Laughs.]
EG: And they have fun doing it instead of being annoyed.
AVC: The film uses a lot of apocalypse imagery that’s derived from the New Testament, Christian conception of it, which isn’t either of your traditions. What made you settle on that?
SR: Well, the truth is, in Judaism, there’s very little hellish imagery. What’s funny is, as a kid I remember being really scared of Christian imagery. Even the image of Jesus, to me, was horrifying.
EG: Yeah, I went to a Christian all-boys’ college one time to pick up my buddies so we could go play baseball, and I just remember walking through the halls, and there’s all these crucified Jesuses. It’s scary.
SR: My first memory of it is the movie The Blues Brothers. There’s the scene where they’re walking up the stairs to the convent and the crucifix is on the wall, and I literally remember having to cover my eyes for that scene. [Laughs.] When we were talking about what type of hell on earth it should be, we really wanted to reference familiar imagery. We really wanted it to look how we thought your average Christian mentality would think that this would look. The joke kind of just became, “What if Christians are right?”
AVC: Christianity can be pretty gory. There are songs about bathing in the blood of the lamb—
SR: Oh yeah, and all that stuff, like the seven-headed demon at the end, the sinkhole, the smoke—almost everything in the movie is directly from the New Testament.
EG: I read this really interesting article, where some girl was explaining how she had to get psychiatric help for much of her life because of those stories. As a kid she would dream of having her skin flayed off by demons on turning wheels of fire. That shit’s crazy.
SR: I just dealt with guilt—good old-fashioned guilt and weight issues. [Laughs.]
AVC: Seth, you’ve said that when you asked your dad about the end of the world as a child, he said he thought it already happened.
SR: He did. [Laughs.] I remember asking that when I was young and he said, “The world’s already ended. We’re living in what’s left.” That probably explains a lot. [Laughs.]
AVC: What did he mean by that?
SR: I don’t know what he meant. I think he meant this is it. In all scientific and rational terms, we probably have already done the damage it will take to cause the world to end, and now we’re just kind of riding it out. [Laughs.]
AVC: There’s a sense of “riding it out” in the film, because as you start to piece together what’s happening, you wonder why you’re still there.
EG: Yeah, “Why can we still get mocha latte Frappuccinos when the world has ended?”
SR: [Laughs.] That is kind of what was interesting to us about the story: If you know that you’re all going to die and the whole world’s going to disappear, what comes after that? Then personal redemption is the only thing that’s really left in your relationships and your friends, and how you have closure on that, is basically all that really matters at that point.
AVC: Redemption comes up a lot, though the guys all share a sort of lazy atheism that colors what they’re experiencing. In the past, you’ve been a proponent of audience testing, so were you concerned about how that fundamental “godlessness”—to be hyperbolic—would play to believers?
EG: I mean, the inherent conceit of the film is that there is a God.
SR: It’s true! That’s what was really interesting. We were worried about it, but there was almost none of it in our testing, I think because of what Evan just said. Although the movie is obviously subversive and deals with people who don’t believe in God, what the movie ultimately is saying is that there is a God and that you have to follow His rules or you’ll go to hell. In a sense, it reaffirms all the values that the people who would potentially not like this movie already have, and I think that they appreciated that, honestly. We probably tested the movie six or seven times, each time with around 300 people, so that’s around 2,000 people whose comment cards we read. I think there was maybe one or two out of those 2,000 that pointed out that maybe it was anti-religion in some way.
EG: And you could tell those people were enthusiastically religious.
SR: Honestly, people kind of went with it a lot more than we thought. That scene that you’re referencing, where we’re talking about, “Is there a God? What are the rules?”—as we were filming it, we were like, “This, in a way, is the edgiest scene in the whole movie.” People really went with it. I think they liked it because it seemed like the conversation that four idiots would be having at that moment. It doesn’t feel like us as filmmakers are trying to get across any agenda; I think we’re just literally exploring how these characters would perceive the fact that they’ve just been confronted with the reality that there is a God.
AVC: This film tested well, so it’s probably easier to like audience testing in that case, but have you had any negative experience with it?
SR: If anything, sometimes when a movie tests too high, it’s scary. No bullshit, our by far highest-testing movie was The Green Hornet.
EG: Like, 10 points higher than anything else.
SR: Yeah. Green Hornet tested 95. Twice. Which is unprecedented, and we knew it wasn’t functioning as well as it could have been. But because it tested so well, the studio wouldn’t let us change anything. So sometimes you’re disserved by a good testing score. That’s actually been our experience: If some type of movie tests too well, they won’t let you reshoot stuff or change stuff that you know needs to be fixed. It’s kind of a double-edged sword sometimes. If a movie isn’t testing well, what’s nice is you get to fix it. It’s when a movie isn’t great but is for some reason testing well that is confusing and kind of screws you.
AVC: Have you read the Thomas Lennon/Robert Ben Garant book [Writing Movies For Fun And Profit: How We Made A Billion Dollars At The Box Office And You Can, Too!]?
SR: I’ve heard I should.
EG: Yeah, I’ve heard it’s funny. I’ve heard them talking about it.
AVC: Their Jimmy Fallon movie, Taxi, tested incredibly well—it set some record for how well it tested.
SR: Exactly! Sometimes you don’t want that. [Laughs.] I don’t know why that happens. I think there’s a threshold where if it’s too high, your movie sucks.
EG: You know what it is? It’s the people who came to see your movie thought it was going to be so shitty and they’re so happy it wasn’t, that they score you really high. That could be it.
SR: [Laughs.] Or maybe they just don’t get how it works. I think you have to ignore the score and just listen to the reaction. That’s what we do.
EG: But one of the twists of this film is, some of the moments aren’t comedic, they’re horror moments, and it was harder for us to judge how well they were working because we’re used to just judging with laughs.
AVC: So how did you end up judging?
EG: We watched to see if people jumped in their seats.
SR: Yeah, we videotaped the audience and saw how scared they got.
EG: We were very surprised to see how scared they got, and upped the amount of scary moments.
AVC: There’s a tradition of Hollywood films and TV shows that satirize how pampered and out of touch with the real world stars are, from Extras to Christopher Guest films, and you’ve mentioned Curb Your Enthusiasm in press for the film. Is there anything else that you drew from when you were conceiving of how you were going to portray these characters as bumbling babies?
SR: The Larry Sanders Show. In Canada, it wasn’t on HBO; it was on CBC, which is like the regular cable channel. So we watched it growing up, the whole time since it started, and that is, like, the most meta show there is. As far as celebrities either embracing how they’re perceived and playing into it or going completely against how they’re perceived… I think [Garry Shandling] dates Ellen DeGeneres for a season [on The Larry Sanders Show].
EG: David Duchovny on The Larry Sanders Show.
AVC: David Duchovny has a crush on Larry, yeah.
EG: He aggressively hits on Larry Sanders.
SR: And his balls are always hanging out of his robe.
EG: There’s that stuff for the celebrity stuff, but then for people dealing with apocalyptic scenarios, there’s obviously Ghostbusters, and another thing we loved as kids was Tremors.
SR: The movie Tremors is what we’re doing in a lot of ways. We were obsessed with that movie when we were young because it’s awesome, and it’s like a very matter-of-fact movie about how regular people deal with this insane, supernatural monster situation. It was really fun for that reason, I think, and this is kind of in a similar vein.
AVC: You two wrote the script, but you said there were times when you were shooting where something as written didn’t work, and you basically just redid it on the fly when you were shooting. Can you think of anything in particular?
SR: When I pick up Jay from the airport and we go to my apartment, the way the scene was actually originally written, we wanted to show that I had already been going in a separate direction than him. In the original version of the scene, when he shows up, I don’t even have my PlayStation hooked up, I haven’t picked up any weed because I haven’t been smoking as much lately, and it just felt weird. We literally made the exact opposite scene in the moment. We did a couple takes and we were like, “This isn’t right.” What’s much more endearing and feels right for our friendship is that I’ve actually gone out of my way to really make a very warm reception for Jay—I’ve gotten all the stuff he likes, I’ve set up my video games, I’ve got weed, I’ve got candy—and then the switch is I use that to manipulate him into coming with me to Franco’s house. We literally came up with that as we were filming the scene, and the scene took on the exact opposite shape as it was supposed to have. But we just had to trust our instincts and see that it wasn’t working, and then we changed it. It worked a lot better how we changed it, I think.
AVC: In the past, you’ve talked extensively about improvisation and shooting, and even when you did this film, you do it as written in the script, but then you also improvised. Do either of you have any desire to do a meticulously written, stick-to-the-script, Coen brothers-type film at some point?
SR and EG: [In unison.] No. [Laugh.]
SR: As an actor, I’ve done that.
EG: It just sounds so boring compared to how we do it.
SR: Yeah, what’s fun about what we do is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. It literally just makes the process so much more entertaining and exciting.
EG: And we’re not the Coen brothers. They can assume they’ve written the script better than any of the actors could have, but I genuinely can’t say that about us.
SR: I just think we do a different thing. It’s the lamest analogy: It’s like the difference between classical musicians and jazz musicians.
EG: I thought that was a great analogy.
SR: Thank you very much. And honestly, you read books about moviemaking, like I just read—
EG: You read books? [Laughs.]
SR: I’ve read one book about moviemaking. But if you read Sidney Lumet’s book [Making Movies], which is brilliant and great, a lot of it goes out the window as soon as you introduce improvisation into the process. It’s a different method that you need to use to capture it. You need to shoot with two cameras—as soon as you do that, you’ve thrown half the moviemaking books out the window, you know? I think it’s just a different thing. It’s a different process, it’s a different style, and for us, that’s what’s fun about it: You’re capturing these moments that are kind of miraculous and unfolding in real time.
EG: When we were making a movie with Judd [Apatow], or right now, we just finished making a movie with Nick Stoller—those type of directors, when you start improv-ing something, or Jonah and Franco start doing something we haven’t expected, you get a serious rush out of it. Your heart starts racing, and you’re running up to scream ideas, and then they’re screaming stuff back. It just seems like it wouldn’t be as fun if we didn’t have that element of surprise.
SR: It feels like you’re capturing something much more alive and in the moment to us.
EG: Which is a long excuse as to why we’re not as good as the Coen brothers.
SR: Exactly. If I could just write The Big Lebowski and have it turn out like that, then that would be great, but we just don’t do that. [Laughs.]
AVC: This is definitely a hard “R.” Did you have to cut anything for the rating? Or is there anything you wanted to do but knew that it wouldn’t fly?
SR: What’s crazy is, no. [Laughs.]
EG: The craziest thing is, there’s a part with a shadow demon’s penis, and we made an extra-crazy version so that we could tone it down for the ratings board, because we heard [South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone] did that with Team America.
SR: But they approved the crazy version. [Laughs.]
EG: We wouldn’t have even creatively chosen it on our own because we thought it was too far.
SR: It wouldn’t have been that veiny.
EG: But there’s a sheen to it.
SR: Yeah, in our original version we kind of removed all the detail, and then the woman who works at Sony who deals with the MPAA was like, “Make it worse, so we can tone it back.” And then they approved the worse version. [Laughs.]
EG: I think I know why. It’s like, when it’s a serious movie and you’re trying to get stuff approved, it’s different. But all it takes is one person in that MPAA room to go, “Ha ha ha.”
SR: And then all of a sudden, it doesn’t seem that bad—it’s a funny dick.
AVC: You’ve also mentioned that it was really difficult to settle on a title. What’s the business of that process like?
EG: It’s a living nightmare. Every title is a nightmare to come up with.
SR: It’s hard. It makes no sense, honestly. Somehow titles are registered through the MPAA, which is like the weirdest thing in the world because they’re a rating entity. You literally have to be a movie studio to register a title legally, and you don’t need to have an actual movie getting made with the title. The long story is, every title we wanted to use ended up being owned by someone else until someone called us one day and said, “Your movie is called This Is The End,” and we said, “Okay.” [Laughs.]
SR: Fox, I think, owns the world “apocalypse.”
EG: Steven Spielberg and Fox made Robopocalypse and because of that, we can’t use “apocalypse.”
SR: Warner Bros. owns the words “the end,” so we couldn’t just use The End. Universal owns the words “the end of the world,” so we couldn’t use that, either. So This Is The End is what we got. [Laughs.]
EG: It was between Ragnarök or This Is The End.
AVC: Are you comfortable discussing the movie’s budget?
EG: Thirty-one m... billion dollars. [Laughs.] Thirty-one million dollars.
AVC: It looks like it would be inexpensive because of the almost “bottle episode” nature of it—most of the scenes are confined to Franco’s house. But then there are a ton of effects.
EG: Yeah, demons ain’t cheap, yo.
SR: Demons ain’t cheap. I mean, yeah, we really looked at movies like Cloverfield and District 9 as visual blueprints for movies that we knew were made with not a lot of money, but were able to sell this gigantic scope and scale.
EG: We didn’t get serious when it came to making this movie until we’d seen Cloverfield. That was the movie that let us realize, “Oh, shit. We can actually do this.”
SR: Yeah, we realized the key was just picking your moments. I think the fact that they’re in the house for so long is what allows us to go so big when they finally get out of the house, because we’ve conserved our visual-effects time.
EG: The majority of our budget was just… Demons ain’t cheap; actors really ain’t cheap.
SR: But most of it went into building the house and stuff like that.
AVC: You also worked with Greg Nicotero from The Walking Dead and many other effects-heavy productions. You must’ve done a fair amount of practical effects on this, too.
EG: Yeah, we had a 50/50 hit-and-miss ratio with that. We wanted to do everything practical, and in the end we used half the practical stuff and half of it we replaced with computer-generated stuff.
SR: All of the gore and violence was practical—like limbs and heads and appendages.
AVC: What was some of the stuff that you ended up replacing with CG?
SR: The creature that’s chasing Jay and Craig around the house—it’s like a big, kind of dog creature.
EG: Yeah, we had a man who looked like a humanoid form in a suit, and then we just replaced him with a giant dog. Did not see that coming.
SR: [Laughs.] We did not see that coming.
EG: We kept looking over at the visual-effects guy, and he kept smirking. We were like, “What? You don’t think this is going to make it in the movie!” And he was like, “No, no, no, do what you guys want to do. I budgeted for this.”
AVC: Was everything shot in New Orleans, including the scene toward the beginning where Seth and Jay are walking down Melrose?
EG: Yeah—much cheaper to build Melrose than to film in L.A.
SR: [Laughs.] Exactly.
EG: That was literally a parking lot, and that convenience store was a nonexistent area in the middle of the parking lot, and the rest of it was abandoned buildings that we decorated.
SR: We digitally added the Hollywood Hills in the background of a lot of shots. We added palm trees in a bunch of shots. There’s a lot more visual effects in the movie than you would assume, I think, because we did a lot to make it look like L.A.
AVC: It’s not like the flashy demon stuff that would draw the most attention.
SR: No, to me the most interesting visual effects are the ones that you don’t even know are happening.
EG: Like, there’s the billboards when the first rapture happens. We added the billboards in.
SR: Every time you see the Hollywood Hills, they’re fake. New Orleans has no hills.
EG: When James starts running down Melrose, it looks like it keeps going but it was only our set, like, 20 feet back, and then we continued it with CG.
SR: We built streets in every direction.
EG: Jay and Jonah weren’t actually physically in the movie.