Seth Rogen’s jokes about angering a nuclear power haunt him

2014-12-18 10:14

A few weeks ago, when a freshly stoned Seth Rogen sat down for a lunch interview about The Interview, the likelihood of trouble seemed remote.

“You’re always hoping nothing horrible is going to happen, obviously,” said Rogen.

“If something horrible happened and they were like, ‘It’s inappropriate to release this movie now’, we would ultimately go: ‘Yeah, we got to make it and got paid in advance.’”

Unfortunately, Rogen’s chuckling hypothetical has come to pass. After a devastating hacking attack on Sony Pictures and threats of terrorist attacks when The Interview was set to open in theatres on Christmas Day, Sony cancelled the release of Rogen’s film yesterday. The real-world geopolitics that initially served as fodder for parody in The Interview have upended one of Hollywood’s biggest holiday releases.

The Interview, which depicts a hapless assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, enraged a country extremely sensitive to portrayals of its dictator and the film has led to one of the worst cyber-hacking crimes in corporate history.

A US official said yesterday that federal investigators have now connected North Korea to the hacks that have roiled Sony Pictures and aired its dirty laundry in huge leaks of private emails.

The still unravelling effects have put an uneasy spotlight on a goofy, R-rated comedy, with some questioning Sony’s decision to make a film that was sure to provoke an isolated nation. The filmmakers – who declined requests to add to their earlier, pre-hacking comments – describe striving to push the limits of what a major studio would support.

“When it comes to the movies we’ve made at Sony, they’ve just got [guts],” said Goldberg by phone before the hacking leaks.

“They just all agreed to it really quickly, much to our luck. And before anyone knew it, we were filming the movie and it was too late.”

Rogen and Goldberg initially conceived of the film as about North Korea’s former leader, Kim Jong-Il, who died in late 2011. Goldberg says they did “a big old search” of the world’s dictators, settling on North Korea because its bizarreness, he said, was rife for comedy.

There are precedents. In The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin played a version of Adolf Hitler, dubbed Adenoid Hynkel.

Rogen and Goldberg could have similarly fictionalised their central character. But the two, weaned on quasi-real comedies like The Larry Sanders Show and greatly influenced by their spell as writers on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali Show, wanted to keep the film grounded in reality. In their last movie, the apocalypse comedy hit This Is the End, its stars played variations of themselves.

“When you’re on that set with James Franco playing James Franco and Mike Cera playing Mike Cera, you’re like: ‘Well why would we have, like, King Jong-Jon, a fake dictator of East Korea, when we could just do something real?’,” said Goldberg.

“We were always like: ‘It’s more exciting than making a regular movie,’” said Rogen.

“It adds a link to the real world, which is exciting.”

After seeing a Mike Wallace interview on 60 Minutes, Rogen and Goldberg came up with the idea of centring the movie around an entertainment TV show host (James Franco) landing an interview with Kim and being tasked by the CIA to kill him.

Though the movie ultimately ends in a fiery death for the Korean leader, the film equally satirises American culture. Franco’s vapid host and Kim pal around together through much of the movie.

“I’m sure back [when they were writing it] some of the stuff seemed absurd, like this could never happen – a pop culture figure from America going to hang out with the head of North Korea,” said Franco.

“But since we’ve made it, Dennis Rodman went over there. Reality is matching the craziness of the script.”

With only one box-office slip in Rogen and Goldberg’s history (2011’s The Green Hornet) and coming off the success of This Is the End, The Interview was financially a good bet for Sony. Costing a relatively modest $40 million, the film was expected to make about $30 million in its opening weekend.

But the bigger risk for Sony was always inflaming an unpredictable regime. Leaked emails revealed that Kazuo Hirai, chief executive of Sony in Japan, asked for the film’s climatic fatal explosion – including an image of Kim’s face melting – to be toned down. Other emails reveal Sony Pictures chief Michael Lynton moving to distance Sony’s name from the film in promotional materials.

An email from Rogen to Sony Pictures co-chairperson Amy Pascal showed him arguing against too much sensitivity: “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy,” he wrote.

Soon after the release of the trailer for The Interview in June, the North Korean Foreign Ministry responded by calling the film “an act of war” and declaring its maker a “gangster filmmaker”.

Rogen compared the response to the closest a comedian can come to winning an Oscar.

“We did a lot of high-fiving,” said Rogen, who noted they were quickly pulled into a meeting with concerned studio executives.

“When an entire country – a nuclear power – condemns you and your movie, it’s really exciting.”

As alterations were made to the The Interview (emails show back-and-forth through early October on the explosion scene), its October 10 release date was pushed to December. Test screening suggested the film was playing well. Little had been heard from North Korea since the summer.

“Going into the testing process, there was an anxiety: What if it is just offensive? What if we’ve done something that’s just deemed inappropriate?” said Goldberg.

“And every preview went awesome.”

“At its core, it’s just a movie,” said Rogen.

“And I mean that in the very best way.”

Rogen said they were “90%, 99% sure” that North Korea would only respond with bluster. But some of his comments in November now seem ominous.

“I don’t even know if they’ve seen it yet,” he said.

“We heard they might have been able to hack into one of our servers and actually watch the movie.”

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