Interview: 50/50 Screenwriter Will Reiser Talks About Surviving Cancer and Finding the Laughs Therein

Will Reiser survived cancer in his twenties and lived to tell the tale. Now, with the help of real-life friend and co-producer Seth Rogen, his story has been brought to life in 50/50. Reiser sat down with us to discuss the differences between the challenges in adapting real pain for the big screen, finding the more comedic side of the story and avoiding the more maudlin tendencies of similar films.

Q: How’s it going for you, going around and being the mouthpiece for your own experiences and, at the same time, something that’s clearly a fictional interpretation of them?

Will Reiser: The main thing I like to stress is that it is fictional, because I feel that… there’s this widespread assumption that it’s my autobiography. When I set out to write this movie, I didn’t set out to write a movie about me. I just wanted to write something inspired by the experience, to take the experiences I had and turn them into something. And it’s weird, because Adam really is an extension of me. He’s fictionalized, but his emotional directory is very similar to my own experience, and the way he is, the way he grows, is very similar to me, and [Seth Rogen’s] character is also an exaggerated version, more of an extreme version of him, so there is this overlap. It’s definitely talking about my experiences and comparing them to this fictionalized version of what I’ve created. In some ways, what I think is great about it is, what I set out to do with the movie was confront something that people don’t really like to talk about, which is illness and cancer. And I felt like, if I can make people laugh and can get them really invested in a character and just confront it, it’ll create a larger discussion, and I feel like that’s what happening. To me, that’s really great. It’s not about me, it’s about the way we identify with illness, the way we look at illness and the way we each have to confront it. It’s much more than about myself, which for me is the most gratifying thing.

Q: How do you strike that balance between initial catharsis and something that’s going to be on 2,000 screens? At what point do you willingly admit that “we need a Seth Rogen-type character” or “we need a character like Rachael” who, although she’s not entirely villainized, is clearly the one person who doesn’t seem to cope?

WR: Do you mean at what point does it no longer become about my own catharsis? … I think it’s no longer about my own. Initially, it was a way for me and Seth and also [producer Evan Goldberg] to confront it and deal with it. We’re comedy writers, so we didn’t talk about how intense or how scary it was. Instead, we make fun of it, and we make fun of all the absurd things that were happening to me, and we would talk about making a comedy about it. For us as friends, that was our way of dealing with it, so in that sense, it was very cathartic for all of us in our way of examining it. I think for me, writing it, I really was able to extract a wide range of emotions that I felt and didn’t know how to express at the time that I was able to put into the script that enabled me to move past it. This is the most painful experience of my life, so it’s amazing where we are now, that we’ve made a movie about it, that I was able to take something so traumatic and making something good out of it.

Q: How much of the story was stuff like the chemotherapy, which you didn’t actually go through but you know is the common conception of how something like this is treated?

WR: Well, when I was writing it, Evan Goldberg’s mom was undergoing chemotherapy, and having that experience, specifically with her but with other people as well, helps inform me as a writer and I was able to talk to her a little bit about her experience. I think that my actual experience with cancer was not normal, not that any of it is normal, but this, Adam’s journey, is a very sort of typical cancer path, and that’s the most identifiable, so I think that makes it easier for people to understand what he’s going through. It worked really well into creating a better story.

Q: Beyond the mindset of approaching it as a comedy, you guys have clearly seen movies like Terms of Endearment and other shameless tearjerkers. How do you approach this and make something real and painful and yet, at the same time, not make it one of those films?

WR: I think we all, and [Jonathan Levine] especially, from the way he directed the movie, he nailed it, sort of walking that line, not just between funny and dramatic but not getting too maudlin, without going there. Jon really did an amazing job, and it’s just about staying true to the characters and staying honest, keeping it honest. I mean, I love Terms of Endearment. I can’t really say anything critical about that movie, but I do know there are a lot of movies that depict illness in this way where you just have these scenes where everyone is crying hysterically, with this sort of manufactured emotion. We kind of felt like if we just stayed true to the character and follow him on his journey, you’ll be invested and it’ll feel real and everyone will just be invested with you. I think that was the key, just never letting anything get too unrealistic, whether it was the jokes or the dramatic, just making sure it didn’t get too far into one direction where it felt unbelievable. But also I should say that, because I went through something like that, I think it was very easy for me… to stay true to my experience in that sense and portray what it was like.

Q: This isn’t a “seize the day” movie, it’s facing death and then hoping that your life will continue. I know that sounds really bleak, but this isn’t a “I’m going to go climb a mountain!” movie, it’s a “I might learn how to drive!” movie. How much of this was about how reasonable the character growth is, so that it doesn’t end with Adam taking off and seeing the world? How much of it was about him beating this as opposed to checking something off his “bucket list”?

WR: You want to show growth, and I think Adam really does grow over the movie, but his character is a bit of a control freak in his own way. He lives this very stable life and has a lot of order, and cancer disrupts that order. Cancer just comes in and disrupts your life, but what it does is reflect back on Adam and it reflecting on me all these dysfunctions in my life that were already there and just brings them to the surface. The relationship with the friend, the relationship with the girlfriend, the relationship with the mom, understanding how he feels about having a father who’s sick, all those things are things that pre-existed before he got sick, and now he’s being forced to confront them. For me, his growth was being able to confront those and take control of his life in a way where he was not sort of this passive victim. For the first half of the movie, Adam is really just trying to take care of everyone else and not really dealing with himself. By the end, he’s really looking at himself and I think that that happened for me when I was sick. You just can fall into this passive victim role. You feel like you have these doctors and nurses, you feel like you go to the hospital and they’re mechanics who are treating you like a car. You don’t feel like a human, and the only way you can break out of that is to start connecting on some sort of human level outside of that and taking control of your life in other ways. I think that’s something we all relate to. I don’t think a “bucket list” is something we dream of, but I don’t know anybody who’s really been sick and actually done that, so I wanted to stay true to what the actual experience was. For me, that was the main thing and for everybody, for Jon and Seth and Evan, we all agreed to make it feel real, keep it honest and not get away from ourselves and make this into some other kind of broader movie. I think it staying true to the characters, we’re staying true to ourselves, and how we would really react and behave and conduct ourselves in this situation. Which we did.

50/50 opens this Friday. You can read our review here.