Will Reiser and writing about what you know: getting cancer
In the old days of Hollywood, no one ever wanted to admit they were sick. Studios covered up for stars when they had operations. Anyone who had major surgery would say they had their gall bladder removed. After Rock Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS, he kept it quiet for more than a year, then had his publicists say he had inoperable liver cancer. When the National Enquirer broke the news in 1980 that Steve McQueen was dying of cancer, the star’s handlers issued angry denials, staging an elaborate lunch with McQueen and several friendly celebrity columnists, who all wrote glowing assessments of his health. McQueen was dead eight months later.
In show business, a business that revolves around youth and sexual vitality, sickness is viewed as a sign of weakness. It’s a bad career move. I guess that makes it all the more improbable that Will Reiser, after being diagnosed with cancer and enduring an eight-hour operation to remove a massive tumor along his spine, decided that he would use the experience as fodder for a comedy about — gulp — cancer.
The film, “50/50,” which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Reiser) and Seth Rogen, will make its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, with a nationwide release slated for Sept. 30. Thanks to Rogen, who plays Reiser’s womanizing best friend — an exaggerated version of their real-life relationship — the film has plenty of laughs, but it is closer to what you might call a soulful comedy, with an emphasis on how Reiser’s experience with cancer affects his relationship with his family, his girlfriend (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and friends like Rogen.
As a young comedy writer, Reiser, 31, worked on the short-lived U.S. version of “Da Ali G Show,” where he met Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg, as well as future “Colbert Report” co-creator Ben Karlin, who all share producer credit on “50/50.” Not long afterward, in early 2005, Reiser found himself having hunger pangs and dizzy spells.
“I went on WebMD and diagnosed myself as being diabetic,” he told me over lunch at a Venice vegan eatery. “But after I saw a doctor, I discovered I had cancer. Even though the character in the movie has a cancer that’s actually more severe than mine, what the doctor tells him is taken 100% from the diagnostic reports in my files.”
The surgery was so arduous that Reiser still does physical therapy. But the psychological adjustment was even more difficult. “I spent a lot of time by myself,” he says. “It’s like this switch gets flipped and people who you barely know are crying and everyone starts acting weird to you, putting their hands on your shoulder, asking if you’re OK. No one knew exactly how to deal with it, so we’d joke a lot — it was the only way to grasp the absurdity of it all.”
Rogen suggested that the best way for Reiser to cope with the experience would be by writing about it. “In the movie,” Rogen says in a separate interview, “we try to get Will laid, which is the equivalent of what I did in real life, except that our coping mechanism was trying to get him to come up with some funny movie ideas.”
It took a while for Reiser to have enough perspective to write a first draft of the script. “The best way for me to deal with the whole idea of confronting my own mortality was to write about it,” explains Reiser, a slender, soft-spoken guy with an unusually thoughtful air, especially for a comedy writer. “But it took Seth and Evan to give me the confidence. Without them, I would’ve felt too vulnerable.”
Reiser finished the script in 2008. It began floating around Hollywood, which has made a few memorable films about disease over the years but few comedies. It was getting lots of enthusiastic reviews from showbiz insiders but no bites from major studios, which saw the cancer angle as a big marketing hurdle. However, Rogen and Goldberg had made a deal to write an R-rated comedy for Mandate Pictures, the company that has produced such offbeat fare as “Juno” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”
“Seth called me and told me about the script, saying it’s not the kind of movie I usually make — it’s the kind of movie you usually make,” recalls Mandate head Nathan Kahane. “When I read it, the story had such a profound effect on me that I knew we had to make the movie.”
That said, Kahane had his concerns about the story’s commercial viability, especially considering that the script was still going by its original title, “I’m With Cancer.” The film had this title when Mandate and co-financier Summit Entertainment, which is distributing the film, held its first preview screening last summer. “The audience loved the film, but it was clear that if they had known the title they wouldn’t have come to see the picture,” Kahane says. “So the old title had to go.”
There were other bumps in the road. Just days before shooting was scheduled to start in Vancouver, Canada, the movie’s original lead, James McAvoy, dropped out, flying home to England for a family emergency. Reiser suggested Gordon-Levitt as a replacement. Rogen flew to L.A., gave the actor a script to read and, somewhat amazingly, had him on a plane to Vancouver just days later.
Gordon-Levitt added a host of touches to make the character his own, giving him an interest in jazz and old radios, though Reiser’s love for baseball remains — he’s a long-suffering Mets fan. Reiser says Rogen’s character in the film is “a little bit cockier” than the real Rogen, adding, “Seth is also a little more sensitive to women in real life than he is in the film.”
The film cost only $8 million to make, so everyone worked for scale, including Rogen, who’d become a big comedy star by the time Reiser had finished the script. “What we lacked in money we gave everyone in the freedom to be creative,” says Goldberg, who managed with Rogen’s help to persuade Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino to do the film’s score. “Everyone felt this was something special, so they did it out of love.”
“Yeah,” Rogen adds. “Somehow ‘Pineapple Express’ didn’t bring that out in people.”
Despite all that love, it’s still an open question whether audiences will turn out for a comedy whose central character has cancer and undergoes chemotherapy — even if he gets to consume a lot of medicinal marijuana cookies along the way. The film’s marketing material, which shows Gordon-Levitt preparing for chemo by shaving his head, certainly doesn’t hide from the subject.
For Reiser, who freely admits having had trouble dealing with his feelings about being sick, the whole experience was liberating. “It’s only now that I’ve realized how much doing the film helped me deal with feelings I couldn’t express,” he says, shaking his head. He’s had no recurrence of the cancer, he says.
“I used to be such an emotionally closed off, inexpressive person. And having gone through what I’ve gone through, I can say that I’m a much different person now. That’s Joseph up on screen — it’s his character now. But I think I recognize myself a lot more clearly.”
Photo: Will Reiser, left, and Seth Rogen on the set of "50/50," which comes out Sept. 30. Credit: Chris Helcermanas-Benge