I didn’t have to be asked twice if I wanted to visit the Vancouver set of Seth Rogen’s latest comedic endeavor, The Interview. Not only was he teaming up with James Franco again, it’s always a treat to watch the comedy genius in action especially behind the scenes.
Rogen co-directs The Interview with his childhood buddy, Evan Goldberg (This Is the End, Pineapple Express), drawing from a script that the pair co-penned with former Daily Show executive producer, and South Park writer, Dan Sterling. The duo who refuse to be pigeon-holed are touching on a new genre: Dr. Strangelove-esque absurdist political satire.
The action-comedy The Interview, sees Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) run the popular celebrity tabloid TV show “Skylark Tonight.” (Think TMZ). When they discover that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a fan of the show, they land an exclusive interview with him in an attempt to legitimize themselves as ‘proper’ journalists. As Dave and Aaron prepare to travel to Pyongyang, their plans change when the CIA recruits them – perhaps the two least-qualified men imaginable – to assassinate Kim Jong-un. Needless to say, comedic antics ensue.
Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex) plays CIA Agent Lacey, and it’s Diana Bang’s breakthrough cinematic role as Sook, the Director of Communication for Kim. (Basically, she’s his propaganda master.) The premise alone for the raunch-comedy was enough for North Korea to denounce the film several months before its theatrical release scheduled for October, which has since been pushed back to Christmas Day.
It’s full on snowing when we arrive at the studio on Enterprise Street, Burnaby, Seth and Evan’s hometown. This marks the last day of filming out of a 42 day shoot. The studio was formerly Norco, a bicycle factory, and the guys know the town like the back of their hands. They wanted to shoot the movie where they grew up as they had a clear idea of what back drops would double up for New York, China and Korea. Judging by the trailer, they convincingly pulled this off as unbelievably, the film is entirely shot in Vancouver.
Unlike with a lot of other directors, there is a lot of improv on a Rogen/Goldberg movie. Seth is up for trying anything and doesn’t possess ‘that’ inner barometer that informs you if the joke crosses the line. “Define too far?” he laughs. “That’s what post is for.”
Standing quietly behind the camera, it is almost impossible to keep a straight face when Rogen feeds Franco the most outrageous farcical (and not to mention, politically incorrect) lines during the scene where his character, Dave Skylark is in a war tank with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. This is while they’re dancing like a couple of teenage girls, reciting Katy Perry lyrics at the top of their lungs!
Wearing a black military style suit, Park emulates the part with his hair shaved at the sides leaving a floppy mop on top. He’s holding an arrow piercing guarded sabot bomb resembling a phallic symbol, all the while, Franco is belting out “Firework”. They eventually man up to discuss whether ‘Margaritas are gay.’ “Because they’re so sugary,” Franco protests. “We’re not gay for liking a sweet drink. We’re sitting in a tank, which is basically an armored penis….” More stifled giggles.
Off camera, Rogen is continuously feeding lines to the actors; amping it up on every take. It’s so hilarious that us, journalists who are watching the scene from a nearby monitor, are silenced for laughing too loudly. It’s impossible not to crack up. Rogen is side splitting hilarious. This naturally comes through in our interview (see below). “Franco is always up for anything,” Rogen says. “There isn’t a thing he wouldn’t do for a laugh on camera. He’s always game.”
After watching the masters at work, it’s evident why their comedies rake in millions at the box office. They share a unique creative partnership, with a kind of unspoken shorthand on the set. Interesting to observe, they instinctively know when they’ve nailed a take, and when they’re at odds with one another as to how to approach a particular scene, they shoot it both ways, making the final decision in post.
Rogen doesn’t blink at directing a 25-minute take. Some of his takes have been known to run a lot longer. He prefers to keep the camera rolling so as not to miss an impromptu comedic opportunity from one of his actors, or throwing his own spontaneous suggestive quip. His sets are always calm, full of stifled giggles and generate a family-like atmosphere.
The film features many celebrity cameos, which – despite our bribes – Rogen keeps tight lipped about. In between set ups, we catch up with creators and Franco to find out how this project came about.
SR: When a project like this comes along, how quickly do you the put the cast and crew together?
Seth Rogen: We had the idea for the movie a few years ago and we honestly didn’t know who would be Dave Skylark and then…
James Franco: But you guys were talking about it on This is the End, right? I wasn’t cast, but you guys were talking about it.
Seth Rogen: Yeah, we had this kind of idea and yeah, we didn’t know honestly.
James Franco: There was no way you were talking about on Pineapple (Express) right?
Seth Rogen: No, no, no.
James Franco: You sure?
Seth Rogen: I don’t think so.
James Franco: There was some idea that was similar.
Seth Rogen: I don’t think it was that old, because when we made that, that was a really fuckin long time ago. I think it was after This is the End that we first talked to you about it right?
James Franco: Yeah, but the time This is the End came out we were already talking about this.
Seth Rogen: I think it was during This is the End. Until the studio saw This is the End, we didn’t know for sure if they would let us two direct another movie. So once they saw it, they decided they would let us direct another movie. I think it was around then when we had just made This is the End and we had so much fun with James and it seemed like we were going to direct another movie, that again we wanted to do with it people who we were close with and worked well with, and I think it all came around together then.
James Franco: I sort of feel, the way my character was originally written in This is the End.
Seth Rogen: Yeah, it’s kind of based on that a little bit.
James Franco: He’s a suit wearing dude, who cares very much about his appearance. I guess that’s how they saw me.
(Rogen breaks out in his signature laugh).
James Franco: And I also think that they probably felt guilty killing me in This is the End.
Seth Rogen: He’s never gotten over that! He literally brought it up five minutes ago.
James Franco: I’m not alone. A few people on Instagram have said that too.
(Rogen breaks out in his signature laugh again).
Were you influenced by the headlines about Dennis Rodman being buddies with Kim Jong Un?
Seth Rogen: It was actually written before that happened. This was actually written when King Jong-il was still alive initially. The idea came from reading articles about like Mike Wallace interviewing Osama Bin Laden. Journalists are in a weird position to get closer to these evil dictators than anyone else is, and it was also inspired by the idea that you hear that Saddam Hussein was a fan of Western movies.
You do hear that these guys are fans of western culture and pop culture specifically and so we thought an entertainment journalist might be a funny way into that. Then the Dennis Rodman shit happened and it made it much less far-fetched, which was great, honestly. The first part what we were worried about was that we wanted the movie to somehow exist in the real world. And our fear was like: “Would anyone buy that this would actually happen?” And then when that happened, we were like, ‘that’s way fuckin’ dumber than what we came up with!’
What days are harder for you? Are they the days when you have to act, produce, feed the other actors lines and direct all at the same time?
Seth Rogen: Yes, that’s harder than just directing. (Laughs) When I’m acting in something that isn’t going right, and I’m the director also, I get taken out of the scene sometimes.
James Franco: Well here is what I’ve observed. They’re a great team and so when Seth is acting, Evan is behind the monitor; the way that we work – and I guess we’ve been working this way for ten years now, I guess since 40 year-old Virgin – there’s a lot of improvisation. When Seth is acting, he’s still also acting as a writer and it’s sort of a way of directing the scene from within, as acting, and Evan can see how it looks or he’ll be back there with the writers and they will be writing alternative lines. On a movie like this, the jobs are sort blend into each other. So it’s a little different directing/acting in a film like this than it would be on another movie. But like Seth said, he, as the director, is more conscious of the more technical stuff so when something isn’t going right, you can see him pop out of character. (Laughs)
Seth Rogen: If I notice that the camera isn’t moving at the speed that it should, if it’s a push in on us, I’ll be like: “It should be faster….”
James Franco: He goes straight to a dumb face…
Seth Rogen: I do, I see it in dailies. Or if one of the actors isn’t doing something I like or goes on a run I know we won’t use, I’ll have this dumb look on my face, but if I’m not the director, I will go with it and I’ll do any stupid rift.
Did you base Dave Skylark on anyone in particular?
Seth Rogen: We can sort of say it’s like Oprah meets Ryan Seacrest, a little bit. But amped up fuckin crazy. The way Franco ultimately acts in the movie is not based on anyone, it’s psychotic almost – in a wonderful way. But it’s far more heightened than I’ve ever encountered….actually no, I’m sure you meet people and you think they’re fuckin ridiculous.
James Franco: I don’t know anyone like him, but I imagine – like the way this guy is so obsessed with any celebrity gossip – I imagine the offices at TMZ… like we just got the panty-less shot of so and so! Oh my God, this is huge! You can imagine them celebrating that.
Is there a comedy barometer, do you know when you’ve gone too far?
Seth Rogen: (Laughs) Sometimes.
The two-dick thing you just did in the last scene, was that improvised or was it in your notes?
Seth Rogen: That was improvised.
Evan Goldberg: And that’s not close to going too far. Too far is much further than that.
Seth Rogen: On set there’s no too far and then when we screen the movie and we show it to the audience, and if they’re stop laughing then it’s too far. As long as it’s funny than it’s not too far at all, it’s awesome.
What do you know about Asian or Korean stereotypes?
Seth Rogen: Everything about North Korea in the movie is real. We made up zero facts about North Korean culture, or behavior, or the belief system. It’s all 100 per cent real. And as far as the specific jokes, some of the characters in the movie are more racially sensitive than others I guess you would say, like in real life. But overall, say we don’t stereotype the Asian characters at all.
James Franco: It’s based on research or things that you found.
Seth Rogen: We just Google it. Wikipedia mostly. (Laughs)
James Franco: The Americans coming in are dumb and dumber.
Seth Rogen: Yes, we’re not the smartest guys.
James Franco: A lot of the jokes too come from that, our ignorance.
Can you talk about the relationship between your characters, Aaron and Dave?
Seth Rogen: I’m like his friend and his producer who is definitely the slightly smarter, more together one of the group. It’s a very co-dependent relationship. I like money and employment and I like him and the ride of the show but I wish that we were doing something more serious and that was always my intention as a journalist to be like a real journalist and not just talk about people not wearing panties when they get out of a limo, where as that’s all he ever wanted to do and he loves it. And he knows that I make the show better, so he just throws me money and perks my way but we get along very well. So this kind of like this unhealthy co-dependent relationship. It’s like a married couple type relationship. We clearly spend tons of time together and we clearly love each other but we are clearly at times terribly frustrated with my uptightness and me with the fact that he is just psychotic.
Can you talk about your relationship with Evan?
Seth Rogen: It’s the same! (Everyone laughs)
But particularly when you wear so many hats, you have to the trust the other person when you take one of them off?
Seth Rogen: I think you hear sometimes about a directing team, where one guy is the visual guy and the other guy is the one who talks to actors. We’re not like that. Sometimes because I’m in the scenes, he will see things I don’t see and sometimes because I’m in the scenes, I will see things he doesn’t see. It’s funny because the crew come up and asks me questions, like the wardrobe guy will present us with five options for one of the extras to be wearing in the one of the scenes, and sometimes they don’t always get us at the same time, so they will ask us each individually and it seems like ten times out of ten we pick the same one.
Evan Goldberg: Yeah, the last one is how much blood should be in this gun hit. I said four times and he (Seth) said twelve times.
Seth Rogen: Yes exactly, but we are generally on the same page and we pretty much have the same skill set.
Evan Goldberg: I can’t act.
Seth Rogen: Exactly (laughs). When it comes to directing.
Evan Goldberg: Or can I?
Seth Rogen: Or can he? He’s not even Evan Goldberg.
How do you deal with disagreements?
Seth Rogen: We usually shoot both. That’s the thing about movies. And we do it all the time. If I like this line, and he likes that line, than we will do both lines. There is almost never a situation when you can’t do both things and let someone else decide later.
James Franco: What’s very liberating too about this kind of movie making.. and it’s not to say one way is better than the other.
Seth Rogen: Our way is better.
James Franco: It’s certainly more liberating, there are some movies where everything is planned to the tee, and it’s a weird kind of honing, where this is like explorative and you just try things. Like ‘why not’? You’re here and everybody knows how to work in that way, so why not just explore where it can go.
James, I’m very curious, have you ever gotten a line from Seth and you’re like. “No fuckin’ way am I saying that”?
Seth Rogen: No! There have been some jokes that he literally doesn’t get all! Like some references, whenever there’s a scene where we kept asking him to say: “Exqueeze me, baking powder?” from Wayne’s World. And he did not get it, like literally at all. And he was like: “What is it? Exqueeze me?” He kept saying baking soda. God bless, there was not one moment when he said: “Stop, I need to understand what I’m saying. I really don’t understand what this means.” He was just like: “Okay. Exqueeze me, baking powder.” (Everyone laughs).
Have you ever said anything that is completely beyond NC-17 where you’re like, this is too far?
James Franco: Erm, no.
Seth Rogen: Well, there have been some crazy jokes.
James Franco: You’ve got to try it.
Seth Rogen: He knows we wouldn’t use it if it didn’t work.
James Franco: It wouldn’t work that way with every director. I know these guys have the best taste and they are the best comedic filmmakers around, so you’ve got to just try it.
Seth Rogen: And best dressed.
There was a period when you were doing crazy shit for the paparazzi, were you doing that for research for this character?
Seth Rogen: Were you?
James Franco: I don’t know.
Seth Rogen: Was it all those shots with your balls hanging out?
James Franco: The one where I was running around naked in Vancouver?
No, you were doing crazy things like…
James Franco: No, I took those photos. I wasn’t doing crazy stuff.
Didn’t you tweet a photo of your abs?
James Franco: Yeah. (Everyone laughs) I got like ten thousand likes.
Seth Rogen: I liked it twice.
How does it feel to shoot back in your hometown here in Vancouver?
Seth Rogen: It’s been nice. It’s cold as fuck though. It’s literally snowing right now. It actually works really well for our purposes. The movie is set in New York, China and North Korea. It really just worked geographically for that, because we (Evan) grew up here and we knew there is like a Chinese night market in Richmond where there is a like thousands and thousands of these little Chinese food stands that we filmed for Beijing. We kind of wrote it for things that we knew that existed here. And the whole thing takes place in this mountain complex, where Kim Jong-Un’s fortress is and the mountains and the area we were able to film the finale. It has this scope and it just looks gigantic, which was very nice. So it wasn’t just so we could hang out with our friends and eat good sushi.
James Franco: I kept complaining that we weren’t in New Orleans.
Seth Rogen: Exactly, I love New Orleans.
James Franco: For a lot of the exterior stuff it wouldn’t have worked.
Seth Rogen: We are in the bayous of North Korea!! (Everyone laughs).
For you guys, you started real small on indies and you got real big. Does this have a similar structure where we start seeing footage it will look like a tiny movie, and it gets much bigger?
Seth Rogen: It starts a little bit bigger.
Evan Goldberg: The style in which we filmed it is totally different in a way, it’s not going to start as a subtle hint. It starts with a level of scope that we kind of maintain.
Seth Rogen: As contained as This is the End was we tried to make this as filled with scope as it could be. We used a lot of helicopters and cranes and we moved the camera a lot, and we tried to develop a visual style that allowed us to improvise a lot, but at the same time, to do things they don’t usually do in comedy. We tried to completely abandon how comedies look as much as we possibly could.
Is it more of an action comedy?
Seth Rogen: We based it more on political thrillers. Like Ridley Scott movies. Like Michael Mann movies. We tried to use a lot of long lenses and we probably play some of the scenes tighter than you generally would in these types of comedies. The fact that it looks like of serious and has this weight to it makes it funnier, because it really looks like we’re stuck in this serious, political thriller, which is funny to us.
Now that This is the End was such a global success, do you have more confident and more freedom from the studio?
Seth Rogen: We always had freedom.
Evan Goldberg: Sony let us do anything we wanted on ‘This is the End’ and they’ve let us do anything we wanted this time.
Seth Rogen: I think we have more confidence in some ways. But at the same time, I really feel like we’re doing something so different with this movie that not a lot carries over and it really feels like we’re doing something for the first time in a lot of ways. The fact that we’re almost in a different location everyday is a different experience. The plot is a lot more complicated. There are lot more elements. There are scenes, which are cut between five locations instead of us screaming in a house for six weeks straight. So it’s a lot more complicated on our end. Even though we have more confidence it kinda feels new at the same time.
So what are you doing next?
James Franco: I have a little project with this writer, David Shields. He’s a teacher of mine. His best book is called Reality Hunger and he has another booked called: I Think You’re Totally Wrong, and we’re going to film that after this.
Seth Rogen: Editing this.
The Interview opens in theaters in the US on December 25, 2014.