One of the first news stories I ran here at HitFix nearly ruined my cordial relationship with Seth Rogen.
The first time I met him was at the premiere of “Anchorman.” There were crowds around Will Farrell and Steve Carrell and David Koechner and Paul Rudd, people congratulating them on their work. But when I saw Seth Rogen at a table, I made a beeline for him to talk about his small role as a news cameraman and, more importantly, his work on “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.” I was thrilled to meet the guy, and I remember telling him, “I hope Hollywood figures out what to do with you. You should be playing bigger parts than just the cameraman.”
Hah. Talk about an understatement.
Hollywood has definitely figured out what to do with Seth Rogen in the last few years, and I’ve been on-set for a number of his recent films, including “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” and “Pineapple Express.” And the more time I’ve spent around him, the more it’s become obvious that this is a guy who is deadly serious about being very funny.
[more after the jump]
And, yeah, he wants to show off a little more range, so it doesn’t surprise me that a lifelong comic book geek would want to get his shot at playing a hero. When he signed on to star in “The Green Hornet,” the choice was met with a fair amount of online derision. People hadn’t seen “Pineapple” yet, so they didn’t realize just how much Seth wants to blend real action with his particular sense of humor. He and his co-writer Evan Goldberg have been working with producer Neil Moritz on “Hornet” now for a while, and when I was at Sundance, I started hearing rumblings that the film had fallen apart. I sourced it three different ways, all people who should have been in a position to know what they were talking about, and I ran the story.
And Seth promptly, figuratively, put his foot right up my ass.
He had a point, too. Because we’ve known each other for a while, he was more furious about the fact that I ran it without calling him than the idea that I was reporting something negative. And that relationship is exactly why I didn’t call him for a comment. Who likes to be the guy who calls up and says, “So, I hear something really shitty happened to you. Wanna talk about it?” And, to top it all off, those three sources? Well, turns out, they weren’t right.
The production had been without a director for a while, since Stephen Chow decided he didn’t want to direct and play Kato both, and that lack of a director is what got those rumors percolating, I think. Since then, of course, Michael Gondry has signed on, and the combination of his whimsy and his visual imagination with whatever Seth and Evan are bringing to it (and it’s hard to gauge, since we don’t even know if the script is funny or all action or what at this point) has reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the film’s potential, and it seems that everything is finally moving forward for real.
So when I showed up for the afterparty at the SXSW screening of “Observe and Report” in Austin, Seth and I still hadn’t spoken since the entire “Hornet” thing went down, aside from the e-mails where Seth threatened to eat my neck. I mean, I get it… I put him on the spot with a lot of people who were looking to him for jobs right now, and that can’t be a good place to be, man. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I walked into the bar area at Emo’s, where I immediately recognized Jody Hill and Danny McBride. We talked for a moment or two about “East Bound and Down” (this was just after the fifth episode aired, but before the last one), and then David Gordon Green walked up as well. As we all talked, I saw Seth standing off to one side of the room, with some people. And it took about twenty minutes for everyone to sort of work their way to the place where Seth and I were finally face to face.
Seth put his hand out. “McWeeny… come here. Let’s clear the air.” We stepped away for a few minutes, and as soon as we started talking, things were fine. He’s one of those absolutely normal, well-adjusted guys, and the last few years of truly amazing success don’t seem to have dulled that at all. We ended up talking about comics (we were both geeking out a bit about Jonathan Hickman’s amazing “Nightly News”) and other movies and Aziz Ansari’s character Randy in “Funny People” and the eventual giant collector’s edition DVD of that film, which is going to have dense with extras. Seth told me that at that point, a few weeks ago, the cut was still pretty long, but starting to work really well, and that Judd seemed really happy with the way the film was playing. Evidently, the film has evolved a lot from the first early script which was fairly widely read and liked when the film was going into production last year. Doesn’t surprise me at all.
As a result of all that conversation, we were able to just sit down the next morning on the patio of the Four Seasons and jump right into a free-wheeling but all-too-brief conversation about comedy, likability, and what role, if any, Seth played in the making of “Bruno.”
And as a quick aside… whenever you see [laughs] during Seth’s part of the conversation, you know EXACTLY what laugh I’m talking about. Thanks to “Monsters Versus Aliens,” even my three year old can do a deadly accurate impression of that laugh now. Maybe the only laugh more immediately inviting belongs to Ricky Gervais, but when Rogen does it, it resonates around the entire patio of the hotel each and every time, to my great delight.
Motion/Captured: So, dude, David [Gordon Green] told me last night that they got the greenlight on “Your Highness.”
Seth Rogen: I know! Isn’t that insane? That’s crazy.
M/C: I wanna see concept art now. He was describing it, and I want to see what they’re doing.
SR: I know. I wanna see something, too.
M/C: That would be worth going to Ireland.
SR: Yeah. I hear all the characters have dicks. Like all the fucking minotaurs and shit. That’s my favorite thing in the entire universe. [laughs]
M/C: Another door kicked open by Dr. Manhattan.
SR: [laughs] That particular door is certainly open.
M/C: It seems like, with the MPAA, we’re at a sort of a permissive moment with the R. That hard-R they were talking about a few years ago… they weren’t kidding.
SR: Yeah, I definitely think they have loosened up. We are… we are getting away with some shit. [laughs] Yeah, you’re right. I am amazed that we didn’t have any issues with the amount of floppy balls and dick we show in this movie.
M/C: There’s a selling point.
SR: [laughs] And it’s a true mix of violence and sexuality in this movie. Not a peep.
M/C: So any battles you had were… where? Studio level?
SR: Nothing that had to do with the MPAA. And even the studio… I’m gonna say “battle” is a strong word. It was more, from my end, like a discussion. It didn’t seem like… it didn’t seem to ever get ugly. There were definitely some discussions, and I think ultimately there’s maybe… four seconds more stuff that Jody would have shown, but that’s when you realize, “What are we arguing over? Will anyone miss this stuff? Does it actually make a fucking difference?” We’d have ideological discussions about it, like “We need this, and we’re only doing it this way.” But…
M/C: Well, considering how far the film does go…
M/C: What I love about the character work in “Observe” is… and this is part of a larger conversation I’ve been having with other critics and friends… is the idea of characters having to be likable, something that used to be a lame studio note but which is starting to creep into criticism. When did likable become the only barometer of success in character work?
SR: I know. To me, it’s a crazy… it’s a crazy concept, and it’s something that we never… it’s funny, like, when me and Evan were writing “Superbad,” it’s not like… when you just start writing a movie off of your own instincts, that’s not even a question that comes into your head. “How likable are these characters,” you know? I remember very early on, that’d be something I’d hear other writers talk about. “The studio wants the character to be likable.” Likable? Who gives a shit? You like your friends. Who cares if you like the people in the movies you’re watching? I think… and it’s still a discussion that we have while making… I mean, to this day, when me and Evan are writing movies, and we’ll have the characters to certain things, “Oh, that’s not likable.” And we have to constantly be like… [sighs]… “It doesn’t fucking matter.” I mean, the stuff that I’ve done in movies, and… people go with it. It’s irrelevant to me at this point.
M/C: This film comes at an interesting time for you. I remember on the “Knocked Up” set, it was the day Universal brought over the one-sheet mock-ups for the first time…
SR: Yeah. Oh, right.
M/C: There was that conversation, right in front of you, about whether or not to use the poster with you on it, your face, and the discussion was whether or not anyone would like you.
SR: [laughs] Yeah.
M/C: So there’s an investment on the part of these studios, where they’re sort of cultivating this version of you, this image…
SR: Yeah, maybe…
M/C: … but as a comedian, your instincts follow the laughs.
SR: Yes, definitely.
M/C: And this film is about as far from that safe, friendly, test-marketed…
SR: [laughs] Yeah, definitely. Totally. To me… it’s not something I consider. And I don’t think… if, if the movie turns out well, then I don’t think ultimately the studio cares that much, you know? I think… yeah, to me, the danger is just doing something bland or repetitive. To me, there’s no danger in trying to make an awesome movie. [laughs] To me, the danger is in trying to not do that. I think the middle of the road is the worst possible place to be, and this… [laughs] I was there at almost all of the test screenings, and I listened to all the focus groups afterwards, and people fucking hate it sometimes, you know? And it was so funny to hear the audience argue over it. Some people were just, like, “You can’t do that. You can’t. You have to change it. All of it.”
SR: “You can’t release this movie. You simply can’t do it.” And other people were like, “What are you talking about? This is, like, the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.” And what we… what I tried to tell the studio was thta, you know, it doesn’t matter if… if four people hate it and this one guy liked it… if, if that one guy sees it five times, we’re… that guy will make up for all the people who really hate it. And I think, like, that’s the type of movie this is. It will be some people’s favorite movie of all time, and some people will fucking hate it. And as long as the people who really like it go and see it a couple of times… which, from my experience, has happened with all of our movies. People come up to me and say, “I saw ‘Pineapple’ in the theater, like, four times.” Ummm… and those are potheads, and I thank them. [laughs]
M/C: Good comedies make you want to call a friend and take him back to see it so you can see him when he sees it.
SR: Exactly! Yeah! It’s fun to see them watch it, yeah. Exactly. I mean, that’s what I do with my friends. And this one, it’s one of the only one of my movies where I’ve forced my friends to watch, because I’m all, “You have to see the shit that we get away with in this one.” [laughs]
M/C: When I talked to Hader and Wiig up at Sundance, it occurred to me that we’re in a really different place in comedy now than we were in the ’70s and ’80s.
SR: We are. Yeah.
M/C: Everything was… those guys all needed to be the star.
M/C: It had to be built around them. It was the golden age of the CAA-packaged “vehicle.”
SR: [laughs] Yes. Exactly. “Vehicle.”
M/C: Like when Chevy left SNL, he seemed to want nothing to do with the people he left behind.
M/C: But you guys… you seem to just love the character work. Like you or Hader or Wiig or Rudd or Jonah… if the role’s good, it doesn’t have to be a lead.
M/C: It just seems to be a more selfless age of character comedy right now.
SR: We’re all real big fans of comedy. And the history of it. And we’re all… we’re all actually friends, which I think when people look at us and say “What is the difference between them and the different comedy groups or waves before them?”, I think that is the difference. We actually hang out with each other. When Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson and those guys first started coming up and people lumped those guys together, I don’t know if those guys were ever actually friends with one another. Where they actually were… we… we really hang out with one another. That’s why we’re all willing to do all this stuff. To us, it’s less “doing a small part in a movie” and more “getting flown somewhere to hang out with your friends for a few days.” [laughs]
M/C: You really seem aware of each other’s strengths, so if you write something you know Jonah’s going to crush…
SR: Oh, yeah. Exactly.
M/C: In “Sarah Marshall,” that role shouldn’t have been anything.
SR: [laughs] No.
M/C: But because of his choices, it ends up taking a bigger space in the film.
SR: Exactly. I think “Funny People,” actually, out of all the movies we’ve done, is the strongest example of that. It really was… when I watch that movie, what I’m most impressed by is how every character seems like a real person. Even people with one line. They just seem like they could be the star of their own movie, some whole other movie. If we just chose to follow them, it could be just as strong. And it’s because of the good nature of somebody like Jason Schwartzman or Jonah Hill, who could be the stars of their own movies, but are willing to take a slightly smaller role in support of the grand… you know, scheme of things. And even, like, Eric Bana and guys like that, you know? There’s no reason for Eric Bana to play that guy. It’s not that big a role. He’s got a couple of good scenes. But this is a guy who literally stars in his own movies. But because… I think because people believe in what other people are doing comedically, they’re willing to just kind of throw in their… I know that’s how I work, y’know? Like with friends of mine like Sacha [Baron Cohen], y’know, I’m way too busy to go to screenings of other people’s movies and to sit in rooms for hours and hours and go over extensive notes to fix it. But I’ll do that for Sacha because I believe in what he’s doing so much that I feel like it would be a waste not to, y’know?
M/C: I know you had a hand in “Borat” and in the American “Ali G” show. Do you have any hand in “Bruno”?
SR: I’ve seen it a few times and just kinda given my thoughts. You know, when me and Evan wrote for the show, that was what we were really hired to do. That was Bruno. So we’re…
SR: Yeah, so we have… some… I think we have, like, a particular insight into the character because it was just being developed as we were hired. But yeah, I’ve… I’ve seen it. Twice.
M/C: What they showed us Sunday was…
SR: It’s crazy. [laughs]
M/C: It’s so hot button. It’s not just sexuality. It’s the intense gay sexuality.
SR: That’s what I was talking to them about. Their first question was, “Is it funnier than ‘Borat’?” I’m like, “It doesn’t matter if it’s funnier. I mean, A, probably, but, B, it doesn’t matter because it’s about something that’s so much more relevant. People don’t give a fuck about Kazakhstani immigrants, but gay life in America… that’s it. That’s one of the things… the most controversial things going on right now. It takes so little to do something so meaningful in that direction, you know? To do something so slight and have it seem so controversial… and it all just happened. When they started doing Bruno, it wasn’t that big a thing, you know? It’s really just exploded over the last couple of years, and, uh, and I think it’s become an oddly, like important movie. [laughs]
M/C: Especially that last thing they showed us, the cage match.
M/C: It’s a mirror.
SR: It really is.
And just like that, they whisked Seth away to his next interview in what must have been a non-stop series of them that day and every day since, so I appreciate catching up with him, and especially in support of a film as singular and deranged as “Observe and Report,” which opens nationwide in theaters today.
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