Wednesday, June 12, 2013

INTERVIEW: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Craig Robinson on This is the End

L-R: Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, some guy, and Evan Goldberg
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have been creative partners for almost a decade now, with their history of uproarious collaborations including such recent comedic benchmarks as Superbad and Pineapple Express, as well as one of their earliest projects, the self-referential short film Jay & Seth Versus the Apocalypse. It was this latter project that formed the basis of the pair's most recent endeavor, This is the End (now in theaters), which also marks their directorial debut.

The film, starring Rogen, Craig Robinson, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride as themselves in the aftermath of the Rapture, is one of most original comedies I've seen in awhile, serving as a perfect showcase for the style of humor they've turned into their trademark. I had the chance to chat with Rogen, Goldberg, and Robinson recently, and they made my job extremely easy, as all I had to do was set them up and watch the magic as they played off one another. Check out the transcript of our conversation below:

First up, Evan and Seth, this is for you guys. You guys have been writing together for a long time. What is your breakdown of creating comedy? How much do you create in the typewriter – or keyboard, I should say – 

Evan: No, we use a typewriter.

(all laugh)

 – and how much do you leave for improv, and just letting comedians be comedians? 

Evan: I mean, we don’t trust anybody –

Seth: Yeah.

Evan: – so we write the best script we humanly can.

Seth: Yeah, we write the script as though, if no one came up with anything good, this would probably be sufficient. We really spend a lot of time on the script, and especially the structure, because that we know, like, we can’t improvise. Like, the movie has to flow.

Evan: Yeah, we write very plotty movies, y'know, so...

Seth: And usually there’s like a lot – there’s not always a ton going on but, just, circumstantially, you want one scene to lead to the next, so you need to spend a lot of time planning. But as far as the dialogue goes, I mean, it is all up for grabs. And even the point of the scene sometimes, like, honestly, sometimes the actors go, “This scene just kinda feels weird in general,” and you'll literally change the trajectory of the whole scene.

Evan: Like the scene where they're doing inventory with the Milky Way, we just said, “Hey, Franco, throw the gun to Jonah,” and that’s how that scene happened. The whole rest of that scene, and then him and Franco’s exchange, we didn’t write any of that. Everything past that point –

Seth: Oh God, I could barely get through that.

Evan: – that was one of the biggest crew laughs of all –

Seth: But yeah, sometime we improvise so much stuff with them, and we’d already shot my coverage, and we actually had to go back and reshoot my coverage to integrate the stuff that they had done.

Evan: We try to avoid that by structuring things but sometimes these a__holes just say funny s___.

Well, Craig, I think you get – in my opinion you have one of the best lines in the movie where you tell Aziz Ansari, “You’re already in the hole, it’s too late for you.” 

(all laugh)

So these guys come to you with this version of Craig Robinson. How did you feel and what role did you play in shaping you? 

Craig: They really made sure that we were comfortable, first of all. They wanted us – and the heighten was gonna be there – but things like me doing “Take Your Panties Off,” that’s from my act. They got the same t-shirt company that makes my t-shirts.

Evan: The same necklace you wear in real life.

Craig: Yeah, the same necklace. A towel I'm always carrying. So it was very comfortable to come in and change from this outfit into...the same exact outfit. So that was cool. I was right on board when they first pitched it. It was like, “Yeah, okay, that sounds like something that I would want to do.” We share similar styles of humor. It’s good to do something different than the subtleties of The Office all the time. What I brought to it was stuff like when I sang “Take Your Panties Off,” and then there was another heightened version of letting Aziz die, or even later on you find out that I killed a man.

Oh, that.

Craig: Yeah, that stuff didn't happen for real.

Would you, in fact, rescue Aziz if you were in that situation?

Craig: I definitely would have reached for Aziz.

Seth: Reached!

Craig: Yeah, I'll reach for him. Like [Jason] Segal that would have been a bit much probably.

Evan: Aziz is little.

Craig: Yeah, Aziz I probably could have ripped him out of there, but I would be judging the sinkholes. Like, if it was coming my way --

Sure. I mean, self-preservation has to kick in at some point...

Craig: There you go.

So (to Seth and Evan), for you guys, what was it like transitioning from writing to directing? 

Evan: It was just more fun really. As a team we do everything together, so there was no difference there. But we slowly realized that the producers have the s___tiest job, 'cause they have to get all the money –

Seth: – and that's what we've been doing for the last few years –

Evan: That's what we've been doing for a long time. The writers have a less s___ty job than producers, but they’ve got to put in the work, and structure the story and work everything out, talk to the actor, and the director gets handed a bunch of fun toys and a ton of money and gets to spend it all and make the movie. So we wanted to see what that was like.

Seth: It was really fun, yeah.

(all laugh)

Well, now that you’ve seen it, are you –

Seth: We're gonna do it again in the fall.

Evan: We did just produce a movie so we’re not smart enough to –

Seth: And really, it was way harder than –

Evan: It was way, way, way harder, yeah. But yeah we are going to direct one after with Seth and Franco.

Now, this started as the short with Jay [Baruchel]. How much of a struggle was it to get a studio to sign off on a “Rapture Comedy”?

Evan: It was very, very hard.

Seth: It was mostly that we – I think it was more like the “meta” aspect.

Evan: Oh, yeah. No one had an issue with the end of the world.

Seth: They were okay with the “Rapture Comedy”.

With being raped by the devil...

Seth: They were totally fine – it literally never came up. Literally! That’s what’s funny. Like, if they think it'll get laughs, generally the studio is okay with it. You actually don’t fight them on that stuff. It’s more like the conceptual stuff that they get worried about, like with this it was mostly that we were playing ourselves. Like, that was their big fear. They thought there's a version where it just alienating, not funny, and people won’t like it and –

Evan: They thought it might not have legs, like you couldn’t sustain a whole film...

Seth: Yeah, and we really thought people would like it. We thought it'd be funny. And I think we just had faith that our motivations weren’t self-indulgent, they were to entertain people...

Evan: Really?

Seth: Yeah, exactly. (laughs) I think we just had to have faith that since that was our actual goal and wasn’t born out of some self-aggrandizing thing, that people would just get it. They usually just get it, and they seem to get it, which is nice.

The “meta” angle – when did you arrive at that? When did you decide – because this could have been John and Jim.

Seth: A few years ago.

Evan: The apocalypse idea was with the short that we made with Jason Stone, that he directed. The people playing themselves was a totally different idea. Seth and I used to fiddle around. The first one was – it literally came out of a conversation that was like, “What if, like, you and Busta Rymes were working at Sony and he was making a music video and you were making a movie, and the Earth opened up and, like, ant men attacked.

Seth: Literally, that was the joke movie we used to tell.

Evan: Literally, Seth and Busta Rhymes versus the ant man.

Seth: That was the joke.

Evan: And then we were like, “Eh, we should probably do Brad Pitt instead of Busta Rhymes,” or something, and we were like, “Ahhhh, we can’t deal with a dude like that, I don’t know if it'll work.” Then we were like, "It'll probably just be our friends." And then we were like, “What movie would we do that in?”, and we were like, “Well, that apocalypse idea is rad,” so...

Seth: And we used our real names in the short which I think always kind of is what gave us the thing. And we were like, it could work for that.

Evan: We keep bumbling onto that mistake. We used Seth and Evan as the names in Superbad, and Fogel, which is our other buddy, just 'cause we were lazy and we were like, “We’ll come up with names later.” And then some studio exec is like, “It’s really smart how you left your names in here, people will remember you.” We were like, “Yeah! Totally!” And then it happened again on this. We were like, “What do we call 'em?” And we were like “F___ it. Jay and Seth. We’ll figure it out later.” Then they were just Jay and Seth, and it sparked the idea of –

Seth: – what if we were Jay and Seth?

Now, in terms of the cast, you have All of Comedy in this movie. 

Seth: Most of it. (laughs)

So, how did you decide on the quartet – or the fivesome, that you ended up with?

Seth: There’s six.

Evan: He's not including you 'cause he was talking to you.

Seth: Yeah, okay. We really just thought who are the people that we'd really want to –

Evan: – the people we wanted to work with that the audience will say, “That's the same group.”

Seth: Yeah.

Evan: Like, we didn’t want to go and grab Jason Sudeikis, 'cause we don’t work with Jason. He's a funny guy, and whatever, but –

Seth: We wanted it to be people that they associate with us. Even if you aren’t that familiar with any of us you probably have some vague sense that we're in movies together.

Evan: Like Jay and Danny are in Tropic Thunder together. Most of them were in Knocked Up...

Seth: We're almost all in Knocked Up. Odds are you've seen one movie, probably. I think, that almost always that one of the other guys is in one of the other movies. So that is all we were kind of going off of as far as the social connection goes.

People would buy that you were friends. 

Evan: And the other super important element was that we needed improv-ing machines. Everyone had to be, like, the greatest improv-er in the world. I think we got probably the six greatest improv-ers in the world. Though I suppose Larry David is pretty good...

Seth: We knew that’s what we wanted it to be. It's like, we wanted it to feel like you're stuck in the house with the guys, so we wanted the rapport – even though it's insane – we wanted  it to feel kind of naturalistic.

What I dug about it is that it plays straight with the scenario. In that sense it reminded me of Shaun of the Dead a little bit, where you buy that this is a real threat, but the comedy is just you guys engaging each other. And actually, these are all heightened versions of yourselves, but what reality crept through there? What would people be surprised to see like, “Oh, well, this is kinda true”?

Craig: When I sang “Take Your Panties Off,” that was real.

Seth: You sing that!

Craig: I sing that.

Seth: You sing that at parties! Like, the reason we got that idea, honestly, is Evan and I – literally, I’ve seen that exact situation play out at Evan's house.

Evan: Is it the party that I had where Ken Jeong and you – we set up a band in my living room? Was that you?

Craig: Quite possibly.

Seth: Yeah, that's right. You played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that night...

Evan: We got our friends to make a band, Ken Jeong was singing and dancing in a leotard, and he sang “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I think he might have sang “Take Your Panties Off” at my engagement party.

Did you do it?

Evan: I took my wife's panties off.

Craig: Yeah, that's the kind of – that’s what I brought to the table.

Well, it's an important piece of the puzzle, right?

Evan: And the towel.

Craig: And the towel.

Evan: You know that you can only use "Mr. Robinson" towels from now on, right? It's a letdown for fans!

Craig: I have to get those. They made 50. The only thing I’m worried about that is that somebody now will get the idea, and somebody, like –

Evan: Grabs it from you?

Craig: Well, and committed a murder.

(all laugh)

Craig: Leave the towel behind. “There’s only one man with a towel like that.”

“Shouldn't have got it monogrammed!”

Seth: Monograms are responsible for a lot of wrongful executions. Millions are killed, roughly, in prison. Due to monogramming.

So, taking the short, and expanding it into a feature length. What was that process like?

Evan: Well, first we took the 8 minute short, reduced it to a minute-and-a-half trailer, and never showed anyone the short. You've only seen the minute-and-a-half trailer, because the short was –

Seth: It took us years, and honestly, it sounds so weird to say, because when you watch the movie it seems obvious, I guess in some ways. The audience seems genuinely surprised when it happens, but at the end of the second act, basically – we didn’t know what should happen in the third act. That was basically the biggest – that's what took us years to think of is like, “How does this movie end?”

Evan: Like, how do you not make it hopeless, pointless, they're in the house, what else?

Seth: Yeah what else happens? Like, we always knew the first two acts. Okay, you've set everyone up, stuck them in the house together, it’s easy to think of just funny s___. But then we think of, where does it go? Literally, that's what took us a really long time to crack, is like, how do you have a movie about the world ending, and you're kind of setting up that like that is what's happening, and it's a very dire situation.

Like, how do you end that in a satisfying way? And it actually just took us a really long time to come up with the very simple convention that is what kind of propels our motivation for the entire third act of the movie, and just literally arriving at that idea. One day it was like, “Whoa, what if this could happen?” And they were like, “Oh, that actually might work!” And then that was what really allowed us to sit down and write the movie for the first time as a script.

Whitney Houston was the answer.

Seth: Exactly! Who knew!

Evan: We sing high praise of the Whitney Houston camp.

Seth: Can you believe we got that song? It’s crazy.

Evan: It was just like, “Can we use it?” “Sure!”

Seth: Every time it plays, I think, like, “I can’t believe we actually got that song.”

And that made that scene, 'cause it was just so perfect.

Evan: Oh yeah, it was the greatest thing ever.

Seth: I can't believe we got it.

Evan: And our backup song was a Celine Dion song, and (whispering) I don’t think she would have said yes.

Seth: Yeah, exactly.

Evan: Maybe she would have...fellow Canadian...

Seth: She would have like the patriotic aspects of the film.

So, Craig, The Office just wrapped up. Did you expect that that would be a decade long commitment when you first –

Craig: Not even a little bit.

Evan: Was it ten years?

Craig: Nine years. I would go in once in awhile to start off. Every once in a while they'd call in Darryl. And then it turned 7 out of 13, and finally all episodes produced. So it just kept getting greater and greater, and each time I was just more surprised, like, “Really? More? Okay.” But it was fantastic.

And Hot Tub Time Machine 2?

Craig: Yeah, we start shooting on Tuesday.

Seth: How exciting is that?

I'm a fan of the first one.

Seth: Oh, it's so good!

Evan: You should Kickstart a new season of The Office right now.

Seth: Darryll!

Evan: The Office 2: I Darryl You...

Seth: Darryl's Revenge...

Evan: Double Darryl Down...

Seth: I Double Darryl You...

Seth & Evan: Double Darryl!

Seth: It's about you and your twin brother.

Who's also named Darryl.

Seth: Who's also named Darryl.

His other brother Darryl.

Seth: Yeah, from Newhart!

Evan: It's just spelled differently.


And that's where our interview ended, but as you can see, they probably could have carried on with titles for the hypothetical "Darryl" spin-off for several more minutes, and they'd all have been hysterical. Great thanks to Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Craig Robinson for being so generous with their time, and for making this one of the most fun interviews I've ever done. This is the End is now in theaters, and  is a wonderfully subversive breath of fresh air in the crowded summer movie marketplace. Listen for the audio of our conversation in the next episode of the MovieFilm Podcast!


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