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.