Early in the new dramedy 50/50, public-radio reporter Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) attends a going-away party thrown for him by his coworkers. A recent medical checkup has revealed a tumor on Adam’s spine—a “neurofibroma-sarcoma-schwannoma,” says the doctor, as if expecting his patient to be well-versed in oncological diagnoses—and his officemates ply him with off-putting hugs and ill-informed advice. There’s a sense of alienation to the proceedings, but it’s also one of 50/50’s funniest scenes.
In the context of any other film, that might come across as crass exploitation; in 50/50’s case, these awkward interactions are pulled from the life of first-time screenwriter Will Reiser. Reiser was diagnosed with a similar cancer while working as an associate producer for Da Ali G Show, and it was his Ali G cohorts Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen who helped him through his treatment and recovery with leavening doses of humor—and eventually persuaded him to translate his experience with the illness into a screenplay. (Goldberg and Rogen co-produced 50/50, and the latter co-stars as Kyle, a friend of Adam’s who’s perhaps a touch too eager to capitalize on his buddy’s cancer.) While on a press tour for the film, Reiser and Rogen sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the development of 50/50, the void it fills for people who filter their lives through movies, and the film’s previous “repellent” titles.
The A.V. Club: At what point did joking about cancer turn into making a movie about cancer?
Will Reiser: Well, we just had accumulated so many jokes—
Seth Rogen: [Laughs.] Exactly, all of these are in the movie.
WR: No. We started talking about it when I was actually sick.
SR: That was the joking part. It wasn’t until a year later that you actually started writing the script.
WR: When I was sick, people would come up to me and ask me questions that seemed totally out of context, given the situation, but their impression of cancer was based entirely on movies that they’d seen in which everyone dies. There’s all these movies—
SR: I’m like that too, though. If I meet someone from Germany, I associate them with that scene in [National Lampoon’s] European Vacation, or something like that.
WR: You associate them with Run, Lola, Run. You assume that all Germans are drunk. So people would ask me these questions, like, “Do you have this checklist of all the things you’re going to do now?” like it was The Bucket List. So we were at a party one night when somebody asked me that question, and we just thought we should do a movie that’s like the anti-Bucket List, and we’ll call it The Fuck-It List.
SR: It’s about guys who, like, do crack for a day.
AVC: They’ve got nothing to lose, why not?
SR: Why not? That’s what we thought. They kill someone. [Laughs.]
WR: We had this idea, it was two friends who were basically like Adam and Kyle—one who doesn’t want to do anything, because he’s sick and miserable, and then the best friend who tries to exploit his friend’s cancer by creating his own bucket list. That’s what that whole, “Let’s go to Mardi Gras,” and, “You should be out there, meeting women,” that was really inspired by—
SR: We just put the conversations in the movie, rather than actually doing it.
WR: Cancer movies—it’s always the same storylines. Someone’s a misanthrope, has no friends or family, reconnects with his family who he hasn’t talked to in 20 years, and then dies. He discovers the meaning of life, then dies. That really did not reflect our experience.
SR: I wish that had happened to you, but it just didn’t happen.
WR: You wish that I had died.
SR: You connected with your son, then died.
WR: So then a year later, I actually sat down and starting working on it, thinking about it.
AVC: But it took some prodding from Seth and Evan Goldberg, correct?
WR: Just to go back to that place, in a very real way, was difficult. I think it was open in my mind, and it was kind of always our go-to conversation, because we didn’t want to talk about the actual cancer. It’s much easier to talk about movie ideas, to make jokes. But yeah, they urged me to write about it, and I did. It was incredibly therapeutic, and cathartic, and I was able to process and say all the things I never was able to do when I was actually sick, so it worked out.
AVC: So the main hesitation was that you weren’t ready to revisit it yet?
WR: I had never written a screenplay before, so just committing to that—
SR: It’s hard to get anyone to write a script.
WR: And then also going back to a very vulnerable place that was very raw, and that I had not still fully processed. I definitely needed their support to help guide me, because there’s no way I could have had a producer who I met once at a general meeting, then gone off and written a very personal story with. I wouldn’t have been able to do that.
AVC: Movies about serious illnesses usually deal with characters who are older than Adam, who’s in his 20s. What did you feel this movie could say differently from those movies, coming from a younger perspective?
SR: It was all very personal. We never made any grandiose statements about what we could say or represent, other than what we went through. But that was part of the reason for wanting to make the movie in the first place; again, we couldn’t reference any movie that was like what we were going through.
WR: It was challenging the status quo of what’s acceptable. But that’s what drives us in general.
SR: But we couldn’t say, “Oh this is like that movie,” because it wasn’t like that movie, so whenever that happens, we think, “Oh, we should make that movie.”
WR: At no point did we think, “Oh, the cancer community is going to embrace this movie.” We had no idea the impact the movie would have on other cancer patients.
SR: We didn’t know how relatable it would be, ultimately. We found, thank God, that it’s incredibly relatable to people who’ve gone through stuff like this. But honestly, we never sat down and said, “You know what would be great? Is if we made a movie that’s not only funny, but connects with people.”
WR: The lesson there is, the more open you are, the more personal you get, the more comfortable it makes other people feel telling their own stories.
AVC: You’ve held some screenings of the film for cancer patients and cancer survivors—what moments in the film really stick out to the attendees of those screenings?
WR: Everyone has something different.
SR: I think overall, people really like the notion that the character’s life doesn’t stop the moment he’s told he has cancer. The fact that he keeps going to bars, and he keeps going to his job, and keeps hanging out with his friends, and he keeps his sense of humor, and he keeps, generally, the same attitude that he had before—that seems to be what’s resonating with those people. That we don’t ignore the heavy stuff, but we don’t ignore the light stuff, either. It seems like these movies almost systematically ignore the light stuff.
WR: They come in and they’re incredibly grateful, because they feel like it’s the first time they’ve seen a movie portray cancer in a way they can relate to. Then it gives them the freedom to have a conversation with other people in their lives. Everyone’s affected by cancer, so most people are afraid to have conversations about it—but after screening the movie, people are so much more open about sharing their own stories, and talking about the different ordeals they’ve gone through to one another. Which is cool, pretty validating.
We met one guy in his early 20s who had testicular cancer, and he said that the relationship between Adam and Kyle is exactly like his relationship with his best friend when he was sick. That they used humor the same ways, and they would make the same kind of jokes.
SR: And it’s nice, because you know that guy, for the rest of his life, can look at this movie and use it to explain to people what he felt like, which is far beyond anything I would have expected. I’m used to people being able to point to my movies and explain to their friends how stoned they were on certain occasions. “We were that high.”
AVC: The movie isn’t only about Adam’s experiences, but also the experiences of everyone around him. Did having people like Seth and Evan to bounce ideas off of help flesh out those other characters?
WR: Yeah, I think so. Because the first draft definitely had this one character—
SR: I think, if anything, we helped him form Adam. We helped inform Will with his own characteristics throughout the process. I think it was easy for him to analyze other people—
WR: I was able to analyze other people really well, but it took them to point out to me my behavior when I was sick: I didn’t talk about it. I put too much pressure on certain people who were unavailable. I pushed my mother away. Things like that. Those conversations really kind of helped me flesh out Adam, and also see myself and understand the other characters. So that was probably the most helpful part of that, the development of Adam.
AVC: Were there any real-life experiences that you wanted to translate to the movie but couldn’t figure out how?
SR: In real life, I went and visited Will three days after the surgery. And even three days after the surgery, he was way more fucked-up than Joseph Gordon-Levitt is 20 minutes after his surgery [in the movie]. He was laid out; it was not funny. Those kinds of things, at times, we had to amend slightly just for the enjoyment factor of the movie. But me and David Krumholtz, who’s one of our good friends, went in to visit him, and I can’t remember if it was me or Dave, one of us stepped on [Will’s] catheter bag.
WR: And I could see it, but I was so high.
SR: It was connected to his penis and it was tugging on it. And we kept kneeing it, or kicking it, or stepping on it.
WR: But I was on painkillers, and I just felt this tug, and I was like, “Are you guys pulling on my catheter?”
SR: And we realized, yeah, we were either kicking it or stepping on it.
WR: You kicked it.
SR: But it was tugging it out of his penis. That’s something we actually tried to put in the movie in the part after the surgery, and it was just so stupid.
WR: And there were run-ins I had with nurses and doctors that were so absurd. And just conversations that I would have with people. Like the going-away party scene.
SR: Yeah, we put in a lot of stuff that people would actually say to him, and it just seemed so broad that we were like, “We can’t even put this in the movie.”
WR: It was like a different movie, it was like The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
SR: You wouldn’t believe that people would have the insanity to say those things.
WR: But those are things people say. I mean, the first thing people always said to me, was, “How did you know you were sick?” I would tell them my symptoms, they would say, “I have those symptoms, I need to go to the doctor.” [Laughs.] Just turn it into their issue.
AVC: Then the movie you have is Contagion.
SR: Exactly, that would have been great.
WR: “You gave me cancer!” “I was talking to Will, I think he may have given me cancer.”
SR: It’s gone airborne! He touched his cup!
AVC: You’ve said elsewhere that you didn’t want to make a movie that was making fun of cancer. Were you able to find a line between “making fun of cancer” and “not making fun of cancer”?
SR: It was always if it felt honest and real. It’s so funny, because we get asked that question a lot, and we literally never had the conversation at any point in the making of the movie.
WR: It’s just about the characters.
SR: There was never a moment where we were like, “We need to decide the line we can’t go past.” And things come up. It’s very specific, so it’s hard to give a rule to everything, because what might seem like an inappropriate joke in one scene might seem an appropriate joke in another scene, because you believe that character would say it at that moment. So we really just tried to play it by ear, and our general rule of thumb was, “Does this seem like something that these characters would do?” and under the whole umbrella of “Does this whole thing feel like an honest representation of what people would do?”
WR: Anything that was too broad, we just cut.
SR: And there were some jokes in there where you feel someone was making a joke where maybe they really wouldn’t make a joke. It wasn’t always offensive, even—it was just for the sake of comedy we would cut it, more than anything, rather than the sake of cancer. It was just, sometimes jokes don’t feel right.
WR: And at no time did we discuss, “Is this a comedy or a drama?” For me, it’s really just about the characters defining the tone.
SR: That’s the kind of stuff you make up if you have to pitch the movie. But luckily we didn’t have to pitch this movie. [Laughs.] “It’s Die Hard with cancer.”
AVC: That’s obviously one of the advantages of having Seth aboard so early, is that you could skip that selling process.
WR: I wrote it, and we went out and sold it, set it up with Mandate [Pictures]. Having Seth attached to produce and star in it, that made the whole thing possible. Without you attached, it would have made it much more difficult.
AVC: And you wouldn’t want anybody but Seth in the role of Kyle, right?
WR: I wrote that for Seth. His name is Seth in the original script.
SR: That helped sell it, for me, anyway.
AVC: In the movie, Adam bonds with two older patients he meets during his treatment, played by Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer. Were those characters based on people you knew?
WR: Oh yeah. There were a couple older guys I knew who had both gone through cancer. We weren’t in the hospital together, but we would have lots of conversations, and they were potheads. It’s just a totally different perspective. We would just talk about life and girls. They were so much older, their perspective was so different, and I was like a third of their age. I like that dynamic. Also, when I was in the hospital, everyone was so much older than me. I was the only young person. I think that’s really bizarre, to be a young person with an old person’s illness, and I thought that that was important to illustrate. Those guys, it’s like they’re at war together. They’re like his buddies from Vietnam or something. They’re going through this difficult time.
SR: Those guys were great, though. That was the most potentially broad part of the movie in a lot of ways—the “young guy/old guy” scenes, the “You don’t know what it’s like.” The writing definitely didn’t hurt the scenes in any way, ultimately, but their performances were just real and low-key and genuine so that you don’t even think about it.
WR: Philip Baker Hall explaining the weed in the macaroons—another actor might have made that feel broad and jokey, but he did a really great job. And the scene with the two of them and Joe and Seth, where they’re smoking weed out in the backyard, that scene was entirely improvised. That was just four really great actors having a conversation. There was nothing scripted there. That’s a strong scene that people really like, and there was nothing in that that was written. We had some bullet points of things they might discuss.
AVC: Those characters sort of embody the title of the film—Adam’s sharing that burden with other people, 50/50, he doesn’t have to carry it alone. Is that an accurate interpretation?
SR: I like that.
WR: That works. The title 50/50 was really the least offensive title.
SR: It was literally the least repellent title we could come up with.
WR: It was the one that none of us hated.
SR: That we concluded wouldn’t drive people away from the movie.
AVC: What were the other ones? I know there was I’m With Cancer.
SR: That one was repellent, potentially.
WR: Get Well Soon.
SR: Pretty repellent.
WR: Stick With It.
SR: Again, repellent. It’s tough to come up with a name for a comedy about cancer. [Laughs.] I’m going to give us credit on that. I don’t give myself many passes, but it was hard to come up with a name for a movie like this.