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FUTURES | “50/50” Screenwriter Will Reiser on Making Cancer Funny

FUTURES | "50/50" Screenwriter Will Reiser on Making Cancer Funny

Why He’s On Our Radar: Reiser translated his close call with cancer in his late twenties into an unlikely comedy, “50/50,” which was originally slated to be directed by Nicole Holofcener. The finished product, which premieres at TIFF this week, was directed by Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the afflicted protagonist. Seth Rogen co-stars as the character’s raunchy, supportive friend. Although “50/50” was Reiser’s first screenplay, it landed on the coveted Hollywood blacklist and opened the door for new opportunities to work on a personal project on a fairly large scale (Summit will release “50/50” later this month). His next movie, “Jamaica,” is also based on a real life experience.

[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “50/50” world premiered. It opens in wide release this Friday, September 30.]

More About Him: Reiser was a writer on “Da Ali G Show” when he met Seth Rogan and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg. They became close friends and frequently worked together, at one point pitching a TV pilot. As Reiser explains, his decision to turn his cancer experience into a screenplay was largely a result of this relationship.

When did it feel right for you to translate your experience with cancer into a screenplay?

I always like to say that the movie’s fiction and inspired by what I went through. I was sick in 2005. I was first diagnosed that spring. Seth Rogen is a really close friend of mine and he was probably my closest friend when I went through this. We were at a party one night and joking about how absurd the whole thing was, how absurd it was to be so young. We just started spitballing this idea for a buddy comedy about cancer. From time to time, we talked about this idea. Back then, it was our way of being able to handle it. Neither of us was versed in how to express ourselves emotionally, which is very true to the characters in the movie. They don’t know how to talk about it. You just try your best. So I had this idea for the movie in my head for about a year. Then Seth and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg, kept urging me that, when I was ready, I should start writing it. I just reached a point, about a year later, when I started writing it down. I wrote the first draft in 2008. I had my surgery in 2005, so it took about two-and-a-half years before I could process it all. But the leap to the second draft was also a period in which they could make observations about things in my life that I didn’t quite see.

How close is the personality of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, Adam, to your own?

Adam is very much an extension of me, but I didn’t intend for that. It just happened. I just had so much I wanted to say. There’s a real limitation on what you can and can’t say, like you can’t make fun of this because it’s a taboo. I really wanted to confront that in a way that was beyond my experience.

What was it like to transition from having Nicole Holofcener as a director to Jonathan Levine?

It was a real pleasure working with Nicole. It was a bummer that we didn’t end up making the movie with her since I’m a huge fan of her work. I learned a lot working with her. It was the perspective of a woman who has children, so to be able to think about Diane, the mom character, from that perspective was really helpful for me. She didn’t really try to impose anything on me, but naturally the way we talked about it was very informative for me, as was understanding her process. She makes smart movies that are real and honest. Shifting gears to Jon, it was totally different, but also an incredibly amazing experience. He’s so visual, and to talk about things in such a cinematic way was really great. Also, we’re almost the same age, and he kind of identified with me in a way that Nicole couldn’t. So working with both allowed me to take away an amazing amount of learning experiences about the craft turning a script into something on the screen.

Tell me about your next project.

“Jamaica” is another movie that will be fiction but inspired by an experience I went through when I was 14. I went on vacation with my grandmother to Jamaica. At the time, nobody knew it, but my grandmother had just developed Alzheimer’s. We basically ended up in the most surreal possible setting, my grandmother and I, at a travel resort. The travel agent accidentally booked us there. I quickly discovered something was wrong with my grandmother because she kept forgetting things. One day, she just disappeared, getting on a tour bus and going to Kingston. So the movie’s about a 14-year-old on this trip with his grandmother. It’s about his coming of age while dealing with her disease. Tonally, it’ll be exactly the same as “50/50.” It’ll be funny but also confront real life.

Seeing as a comedy about cancer could go wrong in a lot of ways, did you discuss what the bad version of this movie might look like while developing the screenplay?

For myself and everyone involved, the most important thing was to be true to the characters and make it feel honest. Anything that felt like it wasn’t real, we would cut. We didn’t really sit around and think about what other movies had done. We thought about what was honest in this world we created.

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