Like a pair of non-raptured souls trying to get into heaven, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have a hard time giving up. The comedy power duo has proved stubbornly unwilling to let go of promising ideas that take time to develop--and it’s an instinct that’s helped sustain their Hollywood ascension long enough to make a movie about the end of the world.
Rogen and Goldberg conceived their screenwriting breakthrough, the high school-set Superbad, when they were a few years younger than the film’s lead characters. The Vancouver teenagers had no way of getting it made, though. After Rogen began to pop a decade later with acting and producing roles in Judd Apatow’s movies, he and his partner had the clout to get any number of screenplay ideas off the ground. Instead, they chose to finally make Superbad a reality, and the film ended up being a huge hit. Now the two are hoping for similar success with This Is the End, the apocalyptic horror comedy that has dogged them for the past six years.
"Everything we do has a survival-of-the-fittest attitude," Goldberg says.
Take This is the End, for example. The film was born as an 8-minute short the two wrote in the mid-aughts. Jay and Seth Vs. the Apocalypse had the same basic premise as the film in its current form: famous friends stuck in a shack during armageddon. Budding director and friend Jason Stone shot the film, which took about $2,000 and 20 hours to make. It turned out solid, but unsatisfying, however, so Stone had the idea to cut the footage into a trailer, which is all that ever saw the light of day for a long time. Although it was enough to keep interest in the project for years to come, it was uncertain whether the movie the trailer promised would ever arrive.
"We always talked about it, but we could never figure out that golden idea that’d make it more than just an apocalypse movie that was funny," Goldberg says. "We also always had a separate idea to have actors play themselves. And slowly we realized that this apocalypse idea could be about these people trapped together who turn on each other and support one another and that the dynamics between this group of friends is perfect for a group of Hollywood actors marginally perceived as friends."
The writing duo’s primary goal before officially starting on the film was to stuff the main six roles with outsize comedic talent. Rogen and Goldberg called former collaborators Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, James Franco, and Danny McBride individually, and asked them to round out their cast. Jay Baruchel, the titular lead of Jay and Seth, was already on board. Rather than asking the guys to sign binding contracts, the pair asked for permission to tailor the characters specifically to each of them. The group of actors--each of whom graduated magna cum laude from Apatow Academy--miraculously all agreed.
Now the screenwriters just had to figure out who would direct.
“It took us a long time to feel comfortable with directing a movie," Rogen says, "but we knew it would definitely be useful if we directed this one. We thought the guys would probably be more receptive to doing the type of stuff we wanted to explore if it was their friends they were doing it for.”
"We’d always said that we’d probably direct something one day," Goldberg adds, "but we didn’t know if it was when we were 30 years old or 40. We always had to say, Can we do this better than Greg Mottola, or Judd, or David Gordon Green, or any of the directors we’ve worked with? And most of the time, the answer was, I don’t know, but this was the first time the answer was, Yes.”
Projects are constantly passing through the partners’ purview, but only the ones that capture their imagination like This Is the End will end up going anywhere. Rogen and Goldberg recently set up a new corkboard of projects at their production company, Point Grey Pictures, and it lists 21 items. There are multiple films they are writing, films they are rewriting for friends, films they are going to be producing, and films already in production. As Rogen says, "It’s a clusterfuck."
The pair employs two full-time staff members, whose job is to keep all these projects on track. Goldberg and Rogen show up each day with fresh ideas for jokes and story elements and bounce them off each other. Then they write whatever they have to write at that moment together. Whether it’s dialogue or description, it’s always done together. The long-time friends also see each other socially a lot and continue chipping away at ideas out of the office--the way Rogen and Franco, as themselves, do in This Is the End. Only the ideas that still seem funny days later are given safe passage onto celluloid, though.
When it came time to direct their first film, however, the pair knew that many of the ideas they came up with before filming would be subject to potential change.
“Overall, the movie is maybe half-improvised and half-written,” Rogen says. “Every scene has improv in it. I mean, we would improvise a lot in each scene, but how much of that would make it into the movie changed every time. We always encourage it a lot, though. It’s nice when someone comes up with something funnier than what you wrote."
The improv initiative is apparent in how well the six leads’ screen personas are captured so accurately. When Jonah Hill is possessed by a demon in one scene, it sounds exactly how the characters of Jonah Hill we’ve come to know in comedies would sound in an exorcism scene. (Rogen and Goldberg confirm that almost everything Hill says as the demon Hill came up with himself.)
“It doesn’t matter who’s directing, we welcome ideas from anywhere," Rogen says. "As long as they’re the best. To us, it’s an evolving process. You can be in the moment, and you never know where the scene might go. It is a technical skill to make sure you film it in such a way that if a new idea comes up, you can cover it and be able to use it later. We’re always very exploratory--and we make sure the directors we work with are, too.”
Some of the directors the two worked with in the past offered best practices for how to proceed. In fact, Rogen and Goldberg sought advice from more or less everyone they knew who’d ever touched a viewfinder. Judd Apatow, something of a godfather to the pair, took a particular interest--reading the script several times and watching a couple cuts. Some aspects of directing, however, the nascent filmmakers had already picked up.
“Writing feels like a precursor to directing,” Goldberg says. “We gain so much from being writers and having an intimacy with the scripts. You understand how the jokes are composed better, you understand how the characters are composed better. Writing means being on the ground floor, building the bare bones structure of it.“
“I’ve seen directors who do write the script sometimes, but they get distracted by their visual director shit and kind of lose sight of what the movie’s actually about," Rogen says. "I think because we came up with the story, we always know what we should be focusing on. Especially on this movie, when it was so improv-based. Having written it allowed us to have this repertoire of ideas in our head while we were directing it, which we wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t spent all that time writing it.”
If the star felt especially attuned to his character, though, perhaps it was because he was playing "Seth Rogen." This Is the End belongs to a very short list of films, including Being John Malkovich and JCVD, where actors play themselves in ridiculous situations. Rogen and Goldberg paid close attention to Annie Hall because in that film, Woody Allen plays a comedian who basically is Woody Allen--only his name is changed to Alvie Singer. The first-time directors considered dropping the idea of playing themselves--perhaps there was a reason Woody didn’t use his name, and they just hadn’t found it yet--but ultimately they decided to go through with it.
If playing themselves came somewhat naturally to the actors, though, the "ridiculous situations" part of the equation was more difficult for the directors. They had to figure out how to believably destroy the planet on a budget.
“We tried to get a little more money than we ultimately got,” Rogen says. “We got around $31 million, which is the amount of money where the studio lets you do whatever the fuck you want—and to us that’s the most important thing. To us, what you lose in dollars you gain in freedom, and what you gain in dollars, you lose in freedom. But freedom adds a lot more to the finished product than dollars do.”
Freedom in This Is the End means being able to push the ideas they’d carefully decided on as far as they wanted to push them and doing what they really thought would be the funniest thing in each scene without having to worry about anyone stopping them. With fewer people crunching numbers over how the movie will earn out, the filmmaking duo was free to have Michael Cera blowing cocaine into Superbad costar Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s eyes or show off an alarmingly hung demon from hell. These kinds of vulgar humor assaults could potentially add more to the movie than money might for Rogen and Goldberg’s fans.
Genre-wise, This Is the End is a departure for the two, but so is most of their work. In the same way that Pineapple Express was an action movie wedded to their brand of comedy, the new film is a disaster-horror picture that’s also uniquely theirs. Rogen and Goldberg’s upcoming slate continues on in this fashion. Next, they’ll be directing The Interview, a political thriller-comedy, they developed with The Daily Show’s Dan Sterling. They’re also trying to get a Pixar-style animated comedy off the ground. (Lest you worry that a cartoon might take the wind out of their sails, rest assured the working title is Sausage Party.)
Rogen and Goldberg would like to continue writing and directing movies after The Interview, but they may not write movies for other people to direct. Although they never had a huge desire to direct until recently, it’s starting to look like the kind of idea they might not let go.
"We used to write the scripts," Goldberg says, "which we made the analogy of getting the parts together and building the car. Then the producer gets the money to pay for the car, and the director gets to drive the car real fast."
"We drove it fast," Rogen says, "And it was fucking fun."
[Images courtesy of Sony Pictures | Judd Apatow Image: David Shankbone]