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When I started writing this introduction to the following interview with '50/50' director Jonathan Levine, I honestly asked out loud, "What else am I supposed to write to introduce another feature about this movie?" (Which got me some odd looks from the Huffington Post Style team.) In other words: I wish I could just say, "After reading this interview with the director of '50/50', you really should see '50/50!" Because that's true. In fact, whether you read this or not, you really should see '50/50.'
Just in case you have no idea what I'm talking about, '50/50' stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a young, strapping fellow who -- in the prime of his life -- is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. Moviefone spoke to director Jonathan Levine about balancing the line between human horror and comedy, the comedic improvisation of co-star and producer Seth Rogen, and the intricacies of delivering a joke about Patrick Swayze. (Also, again, you really should see '50/50.')
I liked your movie a lot. I didn't think I would going in.
I get that a lot. I'm not sure that's a compliment or not, but, yeah. It's a challenge for us, but I think that what we've been kind of lucky enough to experience is that when people go see it, they find it to be a positive experience. A very uplifting experience. As a filmgoer, that would be my worry: Am I going to come out of there super bummed out? That was never our goal. I made this movie because of the artistic merit and the uniqueness of it. Also because I thought it would entertain people. And I think it's nice when you can do both.
How do you balance that line? Because the first word that comes to mind when I think of cancer is not "hilarious."
We had to make sure that all of the humor came from a real life place. And anyone who's gone through anything like this knows that sometimes you have no choice but to laugh. When you're in a situation like this, funny things happen due to the intensity of the situation. That was our goal. And it doesn't hurt that you have Seth and Joe and Anna delivering your jokes.
Did you ever find yourself stretching to find humor in a scene and decide, "Nope, we can't do this"?
Yeah. I mean, definitely. And if we found ourselves doing that, I would either sit down with the actors and say, "this feels forced"...
What's an example of that?
More often than not, if I felt it was forced, it didn't end up in the movie. And the examples of it are in the deleted scenes of the movie. But it didn't happen on set a lot. A lot of it happened in preproduction. But the great thing is that Will [Reiser] didn't write a lot of those. And he was flexible enough that if we said, "Hey, man, this just isn't working," his ego wouldn't be wounded.
Was there a scene that made it to the filming process that you thought was really funny, but, for whatever reason, you couldn't make it work?
It's more specific jokes. There's a deleted scene where Angelica Huston -- who is exceptional as Adam's mom -- is with Joe and going to get a second opinion. And then they try to get in an elevator in the medical tower that they're in. As they try to get on the elevator, it's really crowded, and she just screams, "Can we just get in, my son has cancer!" On the page, it was like, "Oh my God, this is one of the funniest scenes in the movie." And then when we did it, it just didn't feel real. So it didn't end up in the movie.
James McAvoy was originally attached to this, right?
I like James McAvoy, but I can't see him in this movie. There's something about Joseph Gordon-Levitt in this movie that you immediately like.
You immediately like Joe. Whether he's acting or not, his face: he's got this incredibly timed face that you empathize with. And then when he starts acting, you're just like, "Oh my God." He's a very likable, accessible actor.
So is Joseph's involvement just one of those happy accidents that happen when movies get made?
Well, it's hard to talk about it in those terms for me. James is obviously... I think we were lucky enough to have two of the best actors of their generation. But, you know, now having lived with the movie for so long and having worked with Joe -- no, I can't picture anyone else in that role. But, I'm sure with James it would have been amazing.
Are worried at all about the ghost of 'Funny People'?
Um... No. I honestly think it's a different movie.
You know that and I know that, but someone who is considering buying a ticket may not know that. It's unfair, but it could be labeled "another Seth Rogen has a friend with cancer movie."
[Laughs] Right, the "Seth Rogen has a friend with cancer movie." Yeah, I imagine that if and when I heard about this movie as a filmgoer, that would be one of my first things that I thought. I'm also very film savvy. That said, I think the studio is getting behind it in such a way -- and is going to get the message out in such a way – that, hopefully, before people even walk in to this movie, they know that it's very different. One of the most important things to me about our movie is it's about someone who could be anyone who's young getting this disease. What do you do when you might lose your life when you haven't lived your life? And that's a very different movie than 'Funny People.' Which, I should say, is a movie that I really, really enjoy.
You filmed in early 2010, right?
So there was no way of knowing at the time, but with '50/50' this has now become the year of "my father has Alzheimer's disease" movies. You have 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes.'...
And what else? I saw Lithgow, what's the other Alzheimer's movie?
'Friends with Benefits.'
'Friends with Benefits' had a dad with Alzheimer's?
Justin Timberlake's dad played by Richard Jenkins had Alzheimer's.
Oh my god, I'm gonna... No. I think all of the things in the movie are like specific to our movie and specific to the things I like about our movie.
Did you ever think that there was enough going on in Adam's life without his dad having Alzheimer's?
Yes, yes. Did we have a discussion about that? Absolutely. But we came to the conclusion that that's life. You see people in life and you're like, "Oh my God, cancer and his dad has Alzheimer's? That guy has a sh-tty life." In life, people don't just get one bad thing that happens to them like they do in movies. So for that very reason, we wanted to keep it. In the sequel, the Joseph Gordon-Levitt character finds a chemical that helps monkeys get smart. And then that's a comedy, too.
I'm looking forward to that one.
And then the monkeys take over the world and... and it's just really funny. It's a really good script.
The scene that really stuck with me was after Adam's first chemo session. It's a very surreal scene. I mean, he sees a guy in a body bag and starts laughing.
I'm really glad you brought up that scene because it's my favorite scene in the movie. To me it's the scene that best captures what I think is a very sophisticated, unique tone. To me, that's kind of what or movie is all about. It's very dark, yet it's very real and it's that much funnier for being ballsy enough to be dark in the face of reality. This guy is walking through the hospital stoned and is seeing all of this awful stuff going on -- almost expressionistically awful things happening one after the other.
Almost looking at his future.
Right. And the Bee Gee's are playing as this amazing counterpoint. And he has no choice but to laugh. And it's kind of the first seed on anarchy that enters his life. And his is a life that could use a little bit of that. When you're on set, there's always doubt. And the editor emailed me that scene and I sat down and I watched it once and I said, "Yo... Seth, Joe, get over here." And we watched it and we were like, "OK, cool. This is what this movie is and we can be proud of it."
I have to admit, I wasn't expecting a Kuato from 'Total Recall' reference in this movie.
Look, all the movie references, I had nothing to do with. That's Seth in real-time, completely improvising things. Most of his jokes -- a good amount of his jokes -- are just him. It's remarkable. And he'll do it five different ways on five different takes. And not to take anything away from Will -- he'll do ten Will lines and throw in a joke.
Was the Patrick Swayze joke Rogen's?
When he said that, did you think to yourself, "too soon"?
I know! I mean, you know, it's weird. I don't think it's a mean-spirited joke, actually. It's just coming from someone's obliviousness. But it also does kind of work as a mean-spirited joke; it has that kind of punch to it -- which is why I kind of like it. But, you know, as we were doing it, we were aware that we were pushing it a little bit. And it was kind of exhilarating to do it. But, hopefully, no one will be offended. Because the bigger picture is that the movie tries to be so respectful with what it means to go through that and this is just one person who has no clue what they are talking about. And I think that's what makes it funny. And that's why we thought it was OK to put in.
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