I sat down last week as part of a round table discussion with directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, discussing what I hope will be one of the great film successes of the summer. This is the End is one of the funniest, smartest films I've seen in some time, a beautiful collision of slacker comedy mixed with insightful skewering of a celebrity-obsessed culture.
When TMZ, Twitter and other 24/7 celebrity coverage makes us believe we know these actors like they are our friends, or that we know them intimately from the characters that they play, it's easy to fall prey to making broad assumptions about the people behind the mask. That said, Seth Rogen in particular is pretty darned Rogen-y in person - quick with a laugh, extremely witty and self-effacing. His long-term writing partner Evan Goldberg is slightly more soft-spoken, but the two of them clearly have a shorthand with one another developed over years of collaboration.
One of the joys of This is The End is going in cold - I had skipped all trailers, and was even fuzzy on just who was in the (remarkable) cast. I'd suggest this is the perfect way to go into this film - it's amazing, and you can take that on trust. Read reviews, and this interview, after you've seen the film and taken part in the fun. (It opens in North Americans theatres next week.)
That said, there have already been a number of pre-screenings, so if you've already had a chance to take a look at this little bundle of inspired insanity, you should find below an engaging conversation with two supremely collegial gentlemen who just may well end up being comedic icons.
(Note: Many spoilers ahead.)
We sat down in a hotel in Toronto, when Seth and Evan entered the room, looking relaxed.
Seth: Hi Guys, Thanks for coming out this afternoon.
How's your day been?
Seth: Pretty good. We just met the Barenaked Ladies this afternoon. That was pretty exciting.
Evan: Very exciting.
Are you talking about the band?
S: Yes [laughs]. I look like the guy they kicked out, so there was kind of a brief moment of reunion. They all looked at me nostalgically.
How was it working with this menagerie of fellow actors with whom you've obviously shared a number of previous experiences?
S: We've worked with a lot of these guys before. I think a lot of them developed whatever sensibilities they do or don't have with us [on other projects]. I think we all went to the same moviemaking college, in a sense.
The first movies, especially comedies a lot of us made, were together. I think Pineapple Express was the first comedy [James] Franco was in, Freaks and Geeks was his first show. Undeclared was the first thing Jay [Baruchel] really did, Superbad was the first movie Jonah had a big part in, I think Pineapple was the first thing Craig [Robinson] had a big part in and Danny [McBride], it was the first big movie he was in [as well]. A lot of us really have whatever styles we have due to working with one another in a lot of ways, so it all feels very similar stylistically and there's not a lot of conflict there.
While the film feels loose, with a strong sense of improvisation, it must have had restrictions given the need to pull it off effectively. How did you balance the comedic freedom with the need to hit your marks?
E: The effects really put you in a box and you've just got to deal with what you can there.
S: It kind of puts you in a physical box. We know that Jay and Dave Krumholtz are hanging from the ledge; we know what the mechanics are like. Dave reaches out and Jay drops him, and all of those specifics have to be planned.
As far as what they're saying to each other, they can improvise all of that stuff. Just because we're kind of cornered into certain shots at that point, because we've had to plan it for the effects, the actual dialogue we can still be very loose with and improvise. I think it actually gives the whole thing a much more natural feel, even though it's very rigid in reality how we're making it.
Did you script the inter-character conflicts, or did those emerge as part of the process on set?
S: The conflicts [were] all scripted. If there's one thing we spent a lot of time planning, and it was something we'd never done before because we'd never had this many main characters, we took a long time to really plot out [the character's conflicts]. Seth and Jay are friends, Jay hates Jonah, Jonah likes Jay, Seth likes Franco, Franco likes Seth more than Seth likes Franco, Danny and Franco hate each other...
E: And then some of them were like, "I want to like Seth more!" and "I want to be nice to Jay instead of being mean to Jay, but maybe I'm still being mean!" We wrote Jonah to just be mean at first and he asked, "Why don't we add a bit more?"
S: They had a lot of input into the specifics of how it would be executed
Was the house also developed as a character at the script stage?
S: The whole thing was a set. We designed it with our production designer and, yeah, there were some specific needs that it had. We wanted there to be levels, we knew that we were in there for so long that we wanted to be able to shoot just in different ways, to have one guy up there yelling at a guy down there, and hallways so people can be running around and people can pop out from different places. We put a lot of thought into the best way to kind of plan all of that stuff.
Did you guys write the script with an eye to directing it initially?
E: Yeah. When we made the short there was no intention to direct it whatsoever, and over time we kept talking with Jason Stone (who made the short with us) about doing some apocalypse thing.
We had our idea to have stars play themselves, and when we realized that together they would be great and that our six guys would be the best guys, we were like, well, who would be the best director?
That was the first time ever where we were [thinking], maybe us!
S: Maybe we could, and we couldn't unleash these guys on someone else, it wouldn't be fair.
E: Yeah, it was the only way to justify it. We're the only people who could actually get these six guys, and we thought it was important that it be these six guys to do it.
S: ...and control them. A little.
How hard is it as writers and directors when a cast member has an idea and it's not really right for that character - you'd have to go up to someone and say, you wouldn't say that in that moment and their response would be, "I am saying that because I'm doing me!"
S: Yeah, it's a delicate balance.
E: A lot of the time you've just got to let them do it.
S: You've got to let them do it, honestly. Sometimes what you lose in the time it takes to let an actor do something that you don't like as a director, you gain in not shutting them down creatively by telling them their idea sucks.
E: If you shut them down or shorten the bit they want to do, you get to the bit you want them to do and their enthusiasm's dropped because you've got to motivate them and keep them confident.
S: It's kind of like they're athletes in a way. You kind of have to, I don't want to say "manipulate" them, but you have to find what gets the best performance out of them. Shutting people down creatively often doesn't get the best performance out of them.
E: If you're making The Shining, you can torment the other person and make them look frightened all day. We needed people to look happy.
S: You want to create an environment where we're fostering ideas, not rejecting them. Every once in a while you definitely have to film someone for half an hour saying something that you do not think is funny because for the previous two hours they said a bunch of stuff that you think is really funny.
E: We had a never-ending argument with Jay. Jay kept doing this gagging thing when something gross happened.
S: Yeah, he kept doing this dry heave.
E: And we kept saying, honestly, as the directors, we are not going to use it.
S: "We're just not going to use it man!"
E: And he was like "oh, you're going to use it"
S: And we don't use it.
E: We won that argument. He might have been right and we were just spiteful.
S: Yeah, we just never used it, but we just kept letting him do it.
E: Yeah, he got like nine gags in. The crew seemed to love it.
S: He made the crew laugh. The camera guys loved it.
E: That was what kept him going.
You could make a literal gag reel.
S: We should make a gag reel!
Speaking of THE SHINING, don't think I haven't noticed you use the Kubrick font, Futura. Nicely done.
S: It is. You're the only person to notice that.
Can you just expand upon the dynamic of both of you working as directors? It's interesting that you refer to the actors in this film as "they."
S: Not we? [laughs] It's us vs. them!
Right. I assume at some point in time you have to be the adult in the room actually getting everything to work while you guys are "playing on screen." How did you keep control?
E: It would be Seth's [job] since he's in the middle of it with the guys. I'd be over there at the monitor, and be shouting, "guys, come on get your fucking shit together," and they can't even hear me and could ignore me. Seth's right in the room and he'd say, "Settle." And he would touch them.
S: Settle was my word, I said that a lot. Settle is code for "shut the fuck up and start acting," and I was very up front that that was the subtext there.
E: Eventually we realized that if you just say action they all have to show up. Just start rolling the cameras and they all "what, what?"
Was it that much of a challenge? You're friends with these guys, but they're all still professionals.
E: Even if what I'm about to say wasn't happening, they're all professionals, so it wouldn't have mattered, but you don't want to be the last guy to set when there's six guys. When one guy gets up, all the other guys scramble to get there, and when you are the last guy, five of your peers whom you respect are going to say, "fuck, dude."
S: Then in the scene they will say terrible things about you.
Everyone was pretty well behaved, I gotta say. There was a lot of peer pressure, healthy peer pressure involved in getting this movie made.
Is there something fundamentally Jewish-Canadian about this film?
S: It's pretty self-deprecating.
E: We were discussing this earlier today. Canadians have a great sense of humour, and it's because they're willing to self-deprecate and no one self-deprecates like a Jew.
Look at the six - Franco's half-Jewish, Danny's half-Jewish, Baruchel's part Jewish, Seth, Jonah... Craig's an honourary Jew.
S: We are Canadian Jews, we're in the sweet spot comedically speaking. Us and Lorne Michaels are it, basically.
You have a wide assortment of cameos, but were there a few you weren't able to snag?
E: There were some people we couldn't get just because of scheduling issues, like Elizabeth Banks or Edward Norton.
When it came to casting the parts, we just one by one tackled them. We had written bits, and we had the six main characters, crafting the film for them. With the other celebrities, we kind of talked to them, asked what they would like to do with the bits we had written.
S: We wanted it to feel organic, we wanted it to feel like a real party. At a real party there are some people that you're, like, why are they here?
E: Seth was having a Halloween party and Quentin Tarantino showed up.
S: Exactly, and David Russell was there, and it's like, who invited them? I've never even met these people! We kind of wanted to add that element where it feels organic and real, but at the same time there's a few curveballs in there.
E: Our only rule was keep it young.
S: We wanted it to seem like, generationally, it was a real party.
E: Even though in reality, 50-year-old dudes showed up to your party.
S: Yeah, they definitely do. We wanted it to seem real and feel like hypothetically people were getting a glimpse inside a possible version of what one of these parties is actually like.
Did you guys write a lot of the self-deprecating jokes in the script, or was that improvisation?
S: Some of them were in the script.
E: I'd say both. We definitely got the ball rolling in the script and really let the actors take it further.
S: I'd say the guys were often more antagonistic with each other than we wanted. We had to stop Jonah and Franco from going at each other. We said, "You guys like each other in this movie!" We get it, you can make Moneyball jokes all day, but in this movie, you guys wouldn't be doing that.
E: It's true. They would get lost in it because they were having fun.
S: People would just get wrapped up in the joy of being able to make jokes slamming their friends' movies.
So who has the thickest skin?
S: Definitely Franco.
E: Franco has skin of infinite thickness. There's nothing you can do to faze him.
S: The more you think it might be something that insults him, the more entertained he is by it.
E: I literally went up to him and said "I want to do an art project with you. Let's do an art project about how stupid your art projects are," and he was, like, "Great!"
You just can't faze the guy.
S: He likes all of it.
The very idea of a "James Franco" has taken off as a thing unto itself
E: Congrats for him.
But don't you find it sort of odd?
E: I think it's the awesomest, weirdest, craziest thing that anyone has ever done, I mean his whole schtick is the most amusing thing ever. I love it.
S: Yeah, I think it's awesome, like he really seems to be in control of it, people seem to be fascinated by it.
E: He doesn't seem propelled by some deep need for something. He just is having a good time.
S: He genuinely is. People who are his good friends and see him in his natural day to day environment all the time note that he really is just into that stuff. He actually thinks it's interesting. If anything he's almost embarrassed to talk about it.
Like if we ask him about it, he's just like "Oh you guys are just going to make fun of it. It's stupid, it's this weird project where it's a film of me shitting on a guy."
He's genuinely into it, he really is into that art "stuff." And he's been into it for so long. When I met him and I was 16 years old, he was into it. I have a painting on my wall that he painted for me in 1998. He's been into it forever, like it's not a new thing for him. I think it's just now that he's more famous, it gets more attention.
E: If he hadn't become a famous actor, nothing would be different, just the amount of money he would have towards these projects.
S: The attention he would have would be much less, but it's always been stuff he's been doing. When you're friends with him it doesn't seem that weird. If anything, it's kind of like what we did in the movie; it's entertaining how it's perceived. The fact that people think it's so weird is weird, honestly.
E: There's a lot of people who don't know there's a secret third Franco who's older than him and Dave who is a sculptor, who is an artist. James kind of followed in his brother's footsteps.
S: Yeah, exactly.
Franco's a polymath, he can do anything. He probably knows how to garden and cook and change tires.
E: I'll bet you anything he can't cook.
S: Yeah, I'd be shocked if he could cook.
E: I bet he can't use a microwave anymore.
In terms of characterization, there's a lot of jokes that play on the public persona of each character. How and when you determine the path of each person?
S: Some of it we went into it with, and the guys were really instrumental themselves in coming up with a lot of it.
We always knew Jonah would get raped by a demon and possessed, but that's what we wanted to have happen.
E: Not in the context of the movie, just in life.
S: We were very honest with Jonah, this is where we want it to end, and worked backwards.
E: "If you're not OK with this, then we have a problem."
S: He's fine with that, so working backwards from there, what's the most interesting way to get there.
Originally in the script we had it that Jonah was very obviously an asshole from the beginning, so it was just comeuppance. He had the idea, actually, what if he was the kind of guy where you can't tell if he's an asshole or not? You could make the case that he's really nice, and you could also make the case that he's fucking with everybody he encounters. That at least added another level to it.
It was actually Franco's idea that he's almost redeemed and then not. In our original version that didn't happen, he just tries, he just makes a distraction, we run away and that's it, Danny just eats him and it doesn't work at all.
E: He argued with us, he argued that the audience would want my character to live and we kept saying, "That's why you have to die."
S: The guys themselves had a lot of input I think because they were playing themselves. They didn't care if they played bad versions, they just wanted to be interesting bad versions, they wanted to be interesting.
E: Franco added the idea that he was in love with Seth, which would have been a demented thing for Seth to have written.
S: Yeah, exactly, you can't pitch that, as the filmmaker. How about you love me?
So, Danny's playing against his own self? I assume he's even more of a homicidal cannibal in real life, no?
S: [Laughs] Yeah, in real life, Danny's like the nicest guy.
E: Danny's the funniest when it comes to public perception. Everyone's got it wrong. He crafted Kenny Powers off of people he didn't like.
S: And now it's who he's associated with.
E: We'd be in New Orleans, and I'll never forget, we were going to do a swamp tour, and his wife was there and so on. Someone shouted, "Hey, you're fucking out! You're fucking out!" Danny's pushing his stroller down the street with his kid
S: There's a line from Pineapple, "hey, eat a box of Nerds out of a girl's asshole," and he's, like, "I have my baby right now." We're just constantly saying, "Sorry, dude" It's brutal.
So where's the biggest disparity between fact and fiction, Michael Cera or Danny McBride?
E: Probably Michael Cera. I don't know. Danny's character is really far from him. Danny's never tried to kill us.
S: Michael does own that windbreaker, so that brings it closer.
When you settled on doing Revelation, the biblical end of the world, was that because of opportunity, the number of things you could do with it, or why did you end up using that?
S: We just thought it was funny.
E: People actually think that as Jews, we're going to be stuck here and that's going to happen. We started talking about what would we do if that happened, 'cause they don't say what would happen to all of these people left behind. What happens to all these Jews? It kind of started from like a Jewish thing.
S: It started from a Jewish thing and that was the original joke in the movie, it was like what happens to Jews?
E: And the answer is you get fucked.
S: We kind of tried to remove that a bit and just thought it was interesting, what if all the book of Revelation was right.
E: We talked about how no one could get mad at us for what we've done here. People who think that's going to happen will be like yeah, that's gonna happen!
S: The original draft of the script said "based on the book by God." We didn't send it out like that. We should have.
It was the craziest part of the movie and it was honestly the part that we expected to get the most resistance on. We thought if the studio has one thing they'll fight us on, it's the fact that we're tackling religion head on. They never said anything about that. They didn't care about that at all. It was all about whether or not we should play ourselves, that was every conversation we had with them.
So there was never any thought to using any one of the many other fictional apocalypses, like zombies or Mad Max or anything.
S: No, we wanted it to be the Christian apocalypse.
E: We loved the idea of people not knowing and we tried to keep it as unknown to people as possible, but it's starting to slip out.
S: It's starting to slip out, but honestly and that wasn't even a plan of ours, but we just found as we showed the movie to people, people more than we expected were wrapped up in the mystery of what it was. Was Jay right? Am I right? Is Danny right? It became kind of a fun thing that we didn't expect to have as much weight as it did. We realized that, oh, maybe we shouldn't be as explicit with what it is just to leave some fun in that regard. But I don't care.
Can you guys tell us a story from the set that typifies your experience of making this movie, especially as first time directors?
E: Seth had this incredible idea which I think it should go down as the "Seth Rogen Rule in Society or in Film."
[Traditionally], you've got six different actors in six different trailers. You'd tell them to come and they'd ask, "Is Jonah there yet? Is Franco there yet?" So Seth, it just hit him, he had this idea, and we made an actors' lounge beside the stage.
We asked each actor, what do you want, one thing, what do you want. Craig wanted a pool table, and Jonah wanted a comfy chair and these four magazines. Jay wanted the latest hockey video game and a TV, Danny just wanted some beer in the fridge. Franco had a little painting corner, most of the paintings in the movie he painted personally.
So, the typical moment is we'd plan something and we'd have 10 minutes to relax, and we'd go into the green room they'd made for the actors, and we'd be saying "come on, guys!" And then no one would come.
We'd corral one guy to leave, and then all the other guys would get nervous and we'd all rush in there.
S: But what's funny is what would happen in that rec room is almost exactly what we'd be filming in the house. We'd say, you can do what you're doing, just move 10 feet over. Literally, Franco would be painting, it was just all the guys just hanging out in one little area.
There were so many times we would have a conversation in real life and then we'd film the same conversation three days later. It was weird in that regard
It was kind of surreal, at times, how meta the movie would get, and every time we'd think it was as meta as it could be, we'd realize some other weird layer to it that made it even more meta.
E: There's one moment that's the single most meta moment in the whole movie which is when Seth and Franco are talking about the sequel to Pineapple Express 2 that you don't know is going to happen later in the movie. James Franco describes the sequel ending in the way the movie actually ends, and while that's happening the song playing is by James Franco and his band because, yes, of course, he also has a band that you don't know about.
They do Motown.
S: It's a good song.
E: It's a good song. He can sing.
What discussions go into deciding which songs to use as punchlines?
S: I think some of the songs were written in.
E: We generally write every song, two of them make it, and then in the editing process, the music supervisor, Jonathan Carp and the other producers, Jason Stone, Kyle Hunter, just all pitch in.
S: We just pick songs. And you try, you just drop it in and see if it works and then sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't, but it's all nice because it's songs that we like from various points in our life.
E: There are no specific jam sessions to figure out the music.
What I think is the best music that we've been connected to is the MIA song in the Pineapple Express trailer. The dude who did that, he was just driving to work, heard the song and he pictured it all in that moment.
A lot of what we have put in this film, it's the same thing, we're driving to work alone or together and we hear a song and it's like, hey, that would work. Like we were listening to KRS1 and you were like yeah, what if we use that song.
S: We like Cypress Hill, so we like put a Cypress Hill song. There were some moments, there's a few montages where we did try. It was hard to find a song and you go through like 20 songs sometimes to find the one that really works.
What's weird is once we had Gagnam Style in our fucking drug sequence, nothing could replace it. We tried.
E: We tried because we were just like...
S: We're just the assholes who put Gagnam Style in their movie. And we tried like 20 other songs and we were just like none of them are as good as Gagnam Style, what do we do, they don't get the same reaction that Gagnam Style gets and so.
E: And now we have Gagnam Style.
S: And now we're the assholes with Gagnam Style in our movie.
E: And the other weird thing is the first assembly of the movie, and this is what we planned from the start, was all gospel music. Our initial plan was all gospel music. We recorded a gospel choir and videotaped them singing a gospel song that our executive producers wrote called Please Save My Soul.
S: Yeah, like we had a musical concept that we just instantly abandoned and then it became whatever song works, whether it be Whitney Houston or...
E: ...We had a great Gospel song when Danny woke up and I miss that, but the energy of modern music just keeps things moving.
Was it always that band at the end? I was confused, because on the chalkboard you refer to another.
S: Yeah, we refer to another boy band. No, that ending actually is something that was always in the script that we didn't film initially with principal photography.
E: Yeah, we stupidly ended the movie with them flying into the hole and that's it.
S: It's always our instinct to short change the ending a little bit. With Superbad, Judd was the one who argued you've got to show them the next day in the mall.
E: It ended for us with them walking down the alley and one of them just says "fuck you" to the other and that was it.
S: Judd said we should probably add more. So, we didn't learn our lesson there, and then filmed this movie in the same way. Overwhelmingly, when we showed the movie to people, there was like a massive flood of like, well, what happens next?
E: They were pretty much like, great, so when do you reshoot and make an ending?
S: When are you going to shoot the thing everyone wants to see?
E: I'll say preemptively we're making a movie called Sausage Party, an animated movie, and we stopped ourselves. We added the extra ending.
S: Yeah, we did it this time. It's taken us years. We filmed [the finale] afterwards because we stupidly thought less is more.
Then we realized, no, more is more.
E: We might not have had enough money.
S: No, we did have enough money.
E: Did we? Yeah, we were just stupid.
With references to ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE EXORCIST, there's a real sense of the stuff that we grew up with rather than the new horror, which is trying to be supernatural and go in a different way. Did you always want to go in that specific way?
E: Those are just the two most classic horror films ever pretty much from my childhood.
S: In preparing the movie, we honestly just watched every horror/apocalyptic/demonic movie that there was, basically.
E: We watched The Thing a lot, and we had a moment to us that was like that film where the matches were being passed around. The Exorcism and the demon rape thing, you know what it is instantly and you totally recognize what movie it is. I think even young kids have seen those movies.
S: We watched War of the Worlds to get ideas for us running from the 7-Eleven back to the house. We kind of referenced a lot of ridiculous stuff. Sam Raimi was a big influence on us, the way he has his kind of over the top gruesome horror but it's funny still. We kind of just mentally noted what movies we really loved that scared the shit out of us and tried to do the same.
E: The truth is I can't watch the shit anymore. Like Saw and stuff. I love Evil Dead, but I can't see the new Evil Dead. It's fucking horrifying.
S: Paranormal Activity was the closest we came to referencing with those confessional cameras.
E: Those movies were fun.
S: We got really into those movies. We were too afraid to watch them, and leading into this movie we though we really should watch them .
E: We watched them, us and the executive producers, with the lights on, in the middle of the day.
S: Yeah, in broad daylight in the middle of the day, and all of us were just like" Jesus Christ."
How did you develop the look of the monsters? At what point did the Satan's Dick conversation happen?
S: That came later in the process.
E: We added that way later. When it came to the monsters, we in our amateur director move did what everyone does, declairing we were gonna use real shit. "We're not gonna use computers!"
We constructed suits. and the whole time the VFX guys kept looking at us like [laughs]. We were asking them, "you don't think this is gonna make it into the movie," and they said, "you just do what you want, it's fine and I budgeted for this, don't worry."
S: And then you watch it and you're like yeah, it's a dude in a suit, chasing us.
E: Society's gone so far towards CG that like in my head, we could do some Guillermo del Toro shit but like only he can.
Even he's making giant CG monsters now.
So it's over. CG.
S: We wanted them to have a classic sort of hellish look was the idea, but obviously with a bit of a... well, with dicks. It's funny, at first we didn't give the big monster a dick. Then we have him a little dick. Then we were thought, ah, just give him a big giant dick. And then have it get chopped off and crush a building.
A circumcised dick, no less...
E: We came into the visual effects house one time and went to our VFX guys, no, it should be like... [stands up and acts it out]
S: "Floppier!" was a direction we gave a lot. We'd always talk to our VFX house over the phone because they were in Montreal, and we'd argue for "floppier".
E: They were so obsessed. "A penis would not go like this!"
S: We'd say, "who cares, make it floppier, even better."
Was there a vision of hell itself? We got to see this awesome vision of heaven but we don't get to see hell itself.
S: No one could possibly do it better than Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, so...
E: We did briefly write a hell sequence where Franco and Jonah were smoking weed with Hitler.
S: But we just thought, too soon. That's what we concluded, ultimately.
E: If we make a sequel, we'll probably start in hell.
S: Yeah, exactly. But yeah, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey...It was a good hell. What can I say?
E: We're no Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey.