Screenwriter Will Reiser labored for six years at the behest of producer Seth Rogen to turn the fictional story based on Reiser’s own cancer experience at age 24 into the funny coming-of-age film 50/50. Rogen and partner Evan Goldberg held onto control (and final cut) of the $8-million movie, which was calibrated to be just inexpensive enough for them to retain creative control, and got backing from Mandate Pictures (Summit releases the film September 30). They eventually hired Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) because “we spoke the same movie language,” Rogen said after a packed SAG screening this week. Rogen is effectively playing himself; James McAvoy was supposed to play the lead but dropped out at the last minute due to a family emergency. One reason that Joseph Gordon-Levitt took the film with just one week to prepare, he says, is that Rogen was in control of the production.
The first day of shooting demanded that Gordon-Levitt shave his own head, improvising live with Rogen. “There’s no turning back,” he said in a short flip cam interview before the Q and A (below). “When you shoot a movie, there’s always take two. This was more like a play; we had one chance of doing this, with two cameras. We did, it was exciting that way.”
When the group unveiled 50/50 in Toronto to laughter, tears and a rousing standing ovation, “it was the best night of Will’s life,” says Gordon-Levitt, who nails this performance (which is generating Oscar talk) by staying true to reality. He lost a friend to cancer when he was 19, and remembers laughing some of the time when he was going through it. “It’s not a journalistic biopic,” he says. “I made a movie about how it felt for Will. It’s a really honest story. That’s why it’s funny. With a lot of movies, you walk on eggshells or are too timid or are unwilling to admit the fact that during the darkest times there are hilarious things that happen. That was Will’s experience.”
The way Reiser and Rogen dealt with the situation, basically, was to laugh and try to get laid. The whole meat market single dating game “sucks,” whether you have cancer or not, says Gordon-Levitt, who decries the over-simplistic archetypes in the average Hollywood romcom. For his part, Rogen says that he had so much fun being in charge that he’s going to direct his next project with Goldberg, Mandate comedy Jay and Seth vs. the Apocalypse.
Gordon-Levitt is finishing up filming on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises opposite Christian Bale and Gary Oldman, who plays his boss in the Gotham police department. He admires these “guys who disappear into their characters,” he says. Next month he dons 19th-century period garb to play the oldest son of Daniel Day Lewis’ Lincoln, which starts filming with Steven Spielberg in Richmond, Virginia. Nice work if you can get it.