The marketing department at Summit Entertainment knows exactly what they’re doing. In order to sell the company’s new film 50/50, Summit’s in-house advertisers have been focusing on its comedy angle, which isn’t difficult to do when you’ve got Seth Rogen in a starring role. The story of a 27-year-old guy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who gets diagnosed with spinal cancer, 50/50 approaches the serious subject matter with an honest sense of humor, depicting two best friends (Gordon-Levitt and Rogen) who try to make the best out of a potentially tragic situation—i.e., using his cancer as an ice-breaker when picking up chicks at a bar.

By concentrating on the movie’s funniness, the commercials are doing precisely what they’re supposed to do: getting the wide-ranging audience that loves comedies intrigued enough to buy tickets. But what makes 50/50 so special is that it's also one of the year’s best dramas, featuring a powerhouse turn from Gordon-Levitt and an emotional core that’s at times heartbreaking. It’s easy to see why, since the script was written by Rogen’s real-life friend Will Reiser, who worked on Da Ali G Show’s writing staff alongside Rogen and successfully battled through cancer with the help of his pal.

When picking the right director for the project, Rogen, Reiser, and producing partner Evan Goldberg chose a filmmaker around their same age, Jonathan Levine, who’s most recent flick, The Wackness (2008), was something equally as personal. With The Wackness, Levine, a New York City native, implemented many of his own experiences as a young hip-hop fan coming of age in the mid '90s; 50/50 takes that film’s raw poignancy and fine-tunes it. The result is a warm-hearted dramedy that’s powerful enough to leave grown men in tears.

Complex recently chatted with Levine about his personal connections to Will Reiser’s and Seth Rogen’s harrowing experiences, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s brilliant acting, and why 50/50 is tailor-made for younger viewers.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Complex: I think there’s a congratulations in order here: 50/50 almost made me cry. It’s that strong emotionally.
Jonathan Levine: [Laughs.] Wow, that’s very nice to hear, man. Thank you very much. That’s one of the first things people say when they talk to me about the movie, either, “I almost cried,” or, “I cried.” And I don’t know whether to be like, “Sorry,” or, “Thank you.” [Laughs.] We’re really lucky that the movie is eliciting those kinds of emotions.

Let’s backtrack a little bit, though. After you finished The Wackness, were you actively looking for a new project, or did 50/50 fall into your lap, so to speak?
No, I wasn’t really looking for anything, man. I was pretty tired, especially when you do something personal like The Wackness—it’s a very intense experience. I obviously wanted to make another movie, but I wasn’t really ready to make another movie right away. And this movie…. Will [Reiser] wrote this amazing script that got all of Hollywood buzzing about it, and then another director was actually attached to do the movie at that time. In that time, I fell in love with the script, and I had a couple of family members who were battling cancer, so it really resonated with me on that level, too.

At some point, that other director fell off, so then I was like, “I have to meet these guys and tell them how much this script means to me. How much I think could rock it out.” Seth was making The Green Hornet, and I met with him and Evan [Goldberg] in Seth’s trailer on The Green Hornet’s set, and we just hit it off right away.

Did you bring any ideas to that meeting that weren’t in the original script but that you pulled from your own family members’ experiences?
Well, it wasn’t so much what wasn’t in the script—it was more about my perspective on it. I was really thinking about it from the perspective of a young person: What’s it like to be 27, and not having lived a life, and realizing that you’re fighting for your life? So, that was the kind of vibe that I brought to it, that it would all be from the perspective of a young person. I saw it as a movie that young people don’t often get for themselves; usually, when you think about a movie like this, it’s for an older audience. It’s never told from the perspective of a young person, and made by young people. That was something I really wanted to bring to it, and I think that was something that Seth and Evan really gravitated towards.

And also, we talked about the movies of Hal Ashby, and the tone of those movies, how they kind of let life unfold and really have this amazing blend of comedy and drama that captures what it means to really live a life. It’s rare that movies can sort of capture the tone of life; movies always feel like they have to be one thing or another. We talked about how this movie didn’t have to be one thing or another—it could just be real life.

Being that The Wackness was such a personal project for you, one based on your own life experiences, and 50/50 is one that’s so personal for Will Reiser and Seth Rogen, do you think your Wackness experience gave you an advantage with this material?
I think so, yeah. When I sat down and met with Will, I told them about all of the things I had learned from The Wackness, good and bad. When you’re doing something that personal, it’s really important to not just stay true to exactly what happened—it’s really important to separate yourself from it and dramatize it. And Will already knew that, but I think that I helped push it a little bit further in that direction.

You certainly learn a lot from making a movie that’s as intensely personal as The Wackness, and I think this movie is as intensely personal for Will as that movie was for me. I was definitely able to bring the lessons I learned from that to this.

When you first signed on to direct 50/50, was James McAvoy still onboard to play the role that ultimately ended up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt?
Yes, he was attached when I first came on, and we got pretty far into pre-production with him, but then he had to leave for a family emergency. On a movie of that size, you can’t afford to just hang out and wait for someone to come through, so usually when something like that happens on a movie of that size, the movie gets shut down. We were incredibly lucky that Joe responded to the script and was willing to step in how he did. And we were also incredibly lucky that it was Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s the most awesome actor.

He was the only person we thought about after James. We got the script to him once we learned that the James thing wasn’t going to work out. It all happened very quickly.

 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has given some great performances in the past, but I think it’s safe to say that 50/50 is the best thing he’s done yet. After seeing the movie, and seeing how much he kills it, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. So it’s interesting to know that there was, in fact, someone else attached to it at one time.
Yeah, it is interesting, and I think James is one of the greatest actors of his generation too, and he would have just had a very different, and I’m sure incredible, take on it as well. But, yeah, I’m like you, now that I’ve gone through the whole process with Joe and I’ve seen how well he does it—I can’t picture anyone else in the role.

How closely did he work with Will Reiser? Was he trying to play the character as closely as possible to how Will Reiser is in real life?
He wasn’t trying to do anything with Will’s mannerisms, or the way Will talks or anything like that—he was trying to make it his own, and he was very clear about that from the beginning. I think that was the right choice. Will was there as a resource; Will was on set every day, and he’d talk to Joe about his own experience, what it was like, and how things felt. Very specifically to the medical component of it, Will was an incredible resource for that. They became friends and hung out a lot, but it was never a thing where Joe was doing this kind of impression. Joe took it and made it completely his own.

It’s interesting how Seth Rogen basically plays himself in the movie, being that he lived through the experience with Will, his close friend. To capture that in the movie, did Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth hang out for a long period of time prior to shooting, in order to make that friendship feel authentic?
Yeah, we did rehearse very often. This was the kind of movie where everyone was around the same age, and everyone was doing it for the right reasons—no one was doing it for the money. So, consequently, more than any other movie I’ve ever worked on, everyone would just hang out. I think that was important. I would sit down with Joe and Seth before every shot, and we would rehearse for four hours each time. But their chemistry on screen is very much their chemistry, and it happened quickly and it felt great.

I don’t think they were “friends” prior to shooting, but they had definitely met. They’re friends now, but before this they’d definitely met and both had said that they wanted to work together on something. So they had that history, but I don’t think it was a lot. The first time I saw them on screen together, though, in the dailies, I thought, “Oh my god—this is really going to work. These guys really play incredibly well off of each other.” And it wasn’t because they had a lot of history together. It’s just because they’re that good.

Yeah, the first time I heard that they were starring in a movie together, it didn’t seem like an obvious pairing, since they come from such different acting styles. But once you see them together in the movie, it makes perfect sense.
Yeah, I think they play great off of each other, and, just as a movie fan, it’s cool for me to see the two of them. You’re right, they do feel good together, but it doesn’t feel obvious.

There are a few scenes in the film that pack a real emotional punch, specifically through how Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays them. The scene in the car, for example, where he finally melts down after bottling everything up and internalizing all of his fears and anger, is really strong. On your end, how do you approach a moment like that, where the actor really has to do some heavy dramatic lifting?
Joe is such a professional that he can just get himself there, whether I help him or not. At the beginning of that day, we would sort of talk about what the tone on set would be like—that, for me, is one of the biggest parts of my job, making sure that he has the space and the comfort level to go to those places. I also didn’t want him to do scenes like that one too many times, so, that way, he could go all out in every single take.

 
We made this movie to not be your parent’s kind of disease movie, to be something that young people can go to and feel like it’s for them.
 

It was just a very serious, workmanlike tone on set that day. On a set like that, where you have Seth and Evan, and it’s just a bunch of really funny guys sitting behind the monitor, it can get crazy sometimes, loud and boisterous. That was one of those days where you have to step in and say, “No, we have to take this seriously today. We’re just gonna do our jobs and give Joe the space to do his,” and he just brought it on Take One.

And that scene leads rather quickly into the one that got me to those aforementioned near-tears, when he’s in the hospital with his parents and about to head into potentially fatal surgery. When you read the script, did that scene strike you as the film’s heaviest emotional moment?
No, actually. It’s interesting, because I always thought that the emotional climax of the movie was that car scene that you just talked about. But we got on set, and we were doing the scene. I’ve had a couple of family members deal with cancer, and I remember that moment where they’re going into surgery and you just have no idea what’s going to happen, and it’s really scary. On the page, it is an emotional scene, but it just doesn’t do justice to what those actors did on set that day. I remember watching from behind the monitor and tearing up, the whole choreography and rhythm of it, and how Joe played it, really took it to the next level. I knew it was a good scene, but I was totally unprepared for what they were going to do with it.

The film’s commercials seem to focus more on its comedy, which the movie definitely has plenty of, but people who go into it thinking it’s another Seth Rogen comedy are going to be surprised at just how dramatically poignant and emotionally strong 50/50 is. I see it as more of a drama than a comedy, actually. Do you see the marketing side’s focus on the film’s comedic aspects as a good thing?
That’s a conscious decision, actually, because we don’t want people to be afraid of the emotion of it, but we also want them to know that it’s a really funny movie. I do like the idea that people will go in…. People know what it’s about, so I don’t think they’ll be completely blindsided, but I do like the fact that it hits you in ways you don’t expect. That’s something that I was playing with in the tone of the movie, too, and I think that’s something Will played with in the script.

It almost mirrors the main character’s journey, as well. At the beginning, he doesn’t really know what’s going on beneath the surface; he has a life that, on the surface, seems good, and his friend is funny, and it’s all fun, but then all of the sudden he’s blindsided, and I think that’s an interesting dynamic to play with.

For us, the most important thing is, we made this movie to not be your parent’s kind of disease movie. We made this movie to be something that young people can go to and feel like it’s for them. We tried to make it as entertaining and accessible as possible, given the subject matter, and I think that it’s hard to do a TV commercial that does justice to that. The most important thing, though, for me, is getting people to come see the movie, and I think the marketing has been doing that pretty well, so I’m happy.

A big part of that preconception is, of course, Seth Rogen’s involvement in the film. It goes back to his movie Observe & Report, which confused a lot of people, his fans especially, with its super-dark tone. Do you think 50/50 is a similar kind of project for him?
Well, hopefully that will start to disappear as he continues to take these kinds of artistic chances. I think the great thing about Seth is that he’s not complacent; he’s not content just to do the same thing over and over. I think he challenges himself both as an actor and in the roles that he chooses. He’s always trying to push the boundaries of comedy, whether it’s Observe & Report, or whether it’s Pineapple Express, with that movie’s action-comedy feel, or whether it’s the unique kinds of emotion that he worked into Superbad.

This movie is another step in that direction; it’s really nice that he keeps pushing himself and challenging his audience. From what I’ve seen, they’re willing to go there with him. Even if they go in with the wrong notion for this particular movie, I think that it’s been winning people over, regardless of what they think it is going in—they go with it, luckily, and it’s a positive experience for them in the end.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)