Filmmaker Describes Why They Dropped The Original Title, ‘I’m With Cancer’ & How They Survived Losing Their Lead Actor 2 Weeks Before Shooting
Our conversation with director Jonathan Levine first ran during the “50/50” world premiere at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, but we’re worried it got lost in that crazy shuffle. With the film in theaters this weekend — on 2,400 screens no less — we thought we’d revisit the chat one more time.
The words “Seth Rogen comedy” and “Oscar-buzz” are not usually found in the same sentence, but that’s the situation that “50/50,” which the “Knocked Up” star has produced and co-starred in, has found itself in. Based on an autobiographical script by Rogen’s pal Will Reiser, it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a man in his twenties who is unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer, with Rogen as his best friend, and Anna Kendrick as his psychiatrist/love interest.
The film blends crude humor with heartfelt sentiment and is both moving and funny — and that tonal balance is due, in large part, to director Jonathan Levine. The helmer made his debut with slasher film “All The Boys Love Mandy Lane,” which remains unreleased in the U.S. thanks to legal tangles, but his follow-up, hip-hop coming of age tale “The Wackness,” was a huge hit at Sundance in 2007, and suggested a helmer with real promise.
“50/50” opens this weekend on September 30th, and we sat down with Levine a few weeks ago to talk about his new film, working with Rogen and producer Evan Goldberg, and the film’s top-notch soundtrack. Check out six highlights after the jump.
1. Levine initially turned down the script, but pursued it again after family members were diagnosed with cancer.
The director first read Reiser’s script soon after finishing “The Wackness,” but as he relates, “I was sort of in a weird place, I didn’t really know what was going on, and so I didn’t jump all over it,” although he did write Reiser, Rogen & Goldberg a note praising the script — “I think in the letter I was telling them how much I admired their interest in challenging themselves and their audience and pushing comedy to new places.” “Please Give” helmer Nicole Holofcener landed the job, but in the intervening time, members of Levine’s family were diagnosed with cancer, giving him a personal connection to the material. “Luckily they’re fine now, but… that made the script resonate that much more for me, I went through those experiences where things are just so ridiculous and so intense that you have to laugh and I went through those experiences where things are so ridiculous sometimes that you have to cry.” Once Holofcener dropped out, Levine’s letter from back in the day helped to land him the job.
2. The director stopped the comedy from overwhelming the pathos by making sure that everything was kept grounded.
Given the premise, Levine had to walk a careful tightrope of genre. “The thing about the tone of the movie is you never want to show your hand, you never want to be too manipulative, you never want to stretch for a joke, you just want to sort of unfold the way life unfolds. And life, from my experience, has incredibly funny things happen, and you laugh with your friends who are funny sometimes, and sometimes you get into fights with your friends, and sometimes you click and that was sort of the deal with this stuff.”
But the fact that Reiser and Rogen had lived through many of the events in question helped things along: “It wasn’t this rigorous thing, it was innate to us, like how it was going to fit into the tone of the movie. And the script really set the tone as well, because it’s just this amazing story, this amazing personal story that really got the details of life right. And then behind that we were incredibly lucky to have the actors we had to ensure that the funny stuff was funny and the dramatic stuff was really well executed. And I find that, when you do that, the tone is not as hard as you would think. “
3. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance is doubly impressive, because he took the role barely a week before filming, after the originally-cast James McAvoy dropped out due to family reasons.
James McAvoy was originally signed on to the project, and the film was about to start up, when his wife, Anne-Marie Duff, went into labor early, and he was forced to withdraw. “We were definitely freaking out, but, honestly, there was something in the chemistry that we all had, we had too good of a thing going here for it to fall apart, and we just put our heads down and did our jobs. And thank god they sent [Gordon-Levitt] the material… I know we would have been heartbroken if Joe had not been able to make it.”
And a good thing that he did too, as the actor hit the ground running in a big way .”It’s really, really remarkable what he was able to do. He had probably about a week to ten days to prep, and it’s really very remarkable, but he’s got, he’s got this amazing intelligence with what he does and his approach to it seems effortless to me, it’s incredible to watch him work…”
4. The scene, featured heavily in the film’s marketing materials, where Adam’s head is shaven, was partially improvised, and shot on the first day of filming.
The idea of Gordon-Levitt using Rogen’s pube trimmer to head off the chemo-induced hair loss is one of the trailer’s big laughs, and even takes prime position on the one-sheet. But amazingly, it came on the very first day, only days after the actors met each other, and the two were able to improvise their way through it even that early in the process.
“Will wrote the scene… and then within that the specifics of the dialogue were totally improvised, and the beat was improvised and it was the last thing we shot on the first day. As I said, Joe pretty much had ten days, we barely know the guy, and he had to shave his fucking head at the end of the first day. And it was his first scene with Seth as well.”
And of course, it helps if you have someone as technically skilled as Gordon-Levitt who, while only thirty, has two decades of acting experience behind him. “We had rehearsed a little bit and I knew there was some chemistry, but then I saw them through the monitor, and I was just completely blown away, how effortless it was. And especially in the context. It’s like a technical thing, and a huge thing. And if you see the main shot in that scene there’s a camera right in front of him, he’s not looking in the mirror, he doesn’t even know what he’s doing. I think our camera operator was holding a little hand mirror, so he could sort of see.”
5. Levine preferred the original title, “I’m With Cancer,” but acknowledges it would have been a tough sell.
The film’s gone though a number of titles over time, starting as a spec with the name “I’m With Cancer,” before shifting to the generic “Live With It,” and eventually settling on “50/50.” As much as he liked the original name, Levine was practical enough to see the problems. “From my perspective, “I’m With Cancer” was on the title page of the script, but I never imagined it being the title of the movie. For me, or someone personally who has gone though cancer with family members, it’s not a fun word to say; I can’t imagine saying ‘Two tickets to “I’m With Cancer.” Part of why we made this movie is we wanted people to see it as something unique and entertaining and different, and selling something unique and entertaining and different is hard enough, without having the title handicap you, so from my perspective, I would just say whatever it takes to get people to see it.”
The alternative, however, wasn’t just more palatable, but possibly even more thematically relevant. “We thought that “50/50″ was fresh and cool and it wouldn’t turn people off. And so that’s what we ended up with… That was always a very interesting thing to me, you have a 50/50 chance of living, it’s like that’s what your life is, it’s the odds, I thought that as very interesting.”
6. Musically speaking, composer Michael Giacchino’s background with Pixar helped him nail the difficult tone, aided by songs from the likes of The Bee Gees, Pearl Jam and Radiohead
Everyone from J.J. Abrams to John Lasseter want to work with Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino, who’s been behind some of the most memorable scores of recent years, and Levine & co were no exception: “[Michael Giacchino] was our dream and Seth and Evan knew him from past experience, [but] we never thought in a million years that he would do it. We met with him and he’s one of the sweetest, nicest guys you could ever meet, and from my perspective pretty much the best out there, and I saw how quickly he worked and how he could guide you through anything.” And working on films such as “Up” that meld heartbreak with hilarity was good training for a film like “50/50.” “The Pixar movies are tonally complicated, they have people that are doing big mainstream things that are funny and sad, and Michael is able to completely abide to the tone of those films without ever making you feel like you’re manipulated, and that’s why we wanted him. So yes him scoring was a major coup for us…”
But the film doesn’t just rely on Giachinno’s work, with songs from modern indie to 70s disco scattered around, although none of the 90s hip-hop that dominated “The Wackness” made the cut. “I’m very hands on with the music as well, for me, it was really exciting, and the first opportunity I’d had to have mainstream songs that were not hip hop songs. As much as I like hip hop, I definitely just kind of like want to, there’s tons of songs I have in my head that I just want to find movies for. So from the Bee Gees, which was an amazing counterpoint to that scene where he filmed after chemo, to some of the new indie stuff that we were able to find, to the Pearl Jam at the end, that is the last song we play and by that point it’s such an important moment in the movie and that’s the song that I loved, it was the B side of an album but it’s my favorite Pearl Jam song.”
“50/50” hits theaters this weekend on Friday ,September 30. Interview by RP.