CULVER CITY, California — At first glance, schlubby "Knocked Up" comedian Seth Rogen and overemoting "Spider-Man 3" actor James Franco might not seem like an obvious team. But with two of the summer's biggest hits under their belts, everybody is talking about them these days — which is fortunate, since they can't talk about "The Pineapple Express."
"I don't know if I can say what it really means," Rogen explained recently, punctuating the statement with his now-famous staccato laugh. "Well, it's the name of a drug. It's the name of a type of pot that is the catalyst for the main story of the movie. It's the pot that gets us in trouble, I would say. This is a cautionary tale about the Pineapple Express."
"It's about the two guys who are least equipped to deal with any type of danger, and they are thrust into danger," said Franco, standing in the middle of a Sony Pictures soundstage wearing a long-hair wig. "I play a low-level pot dealer, and Seth plays my client. Because of some circumstances, we get into a lot of trouble."
Ask Franco about "Express," and he'll say flat-out, "It's a comedy." Ask Rogen, and he'll reply, "It's an action movie." And to make things even more confusing, it's being directed by one of the most acclaimed art-house filmmakers of the past decade.
"We knew the action would be cool — you just get a good stunt coordinator and a good [director of photography], and it's going to look cool no matter what," said Rogen, who also serves as co-writer and producer on the flick. "But we wanted to make sure that the story was really good, that the characters seemed real and that it was emotionally resonant at the same time. So we thought indie guru David Gordon Green would be able to inject all of that."
"After doing four relatively dramatic films, I thought it was an important thing for me to get a breath of fresh air, sit back and have a good time," Green explained. "But my process is pretty similar in both [comedies and dramas]. It's all about having a good time and getting a good group of people who work creatively and collaboratively."
Green, the visionary director behind such eye-popping low-budget epics as "George Washington" and "All the Real Girls," is the third wild card in the "Express" equation. On the set, as Franco tried to get into character, Rogen cracked jokes with a production assistant and Green meticulously choreographed the umpteenth take of a silly scene, one couldn't help but wonder: Who introduced these guys to each other?
"Judd Apatow," Franco said, dropping the magical name that fuels so many film productions these days (see "Steve Carell, 'Virgin' Co-Stars Have Hot Summer Ahead"). Apatow is serving as a producer on the flick and has contributed to the story as well. "He's done '40-Year-Old Virgin' and 'Knocked Up,' and the script [for 'Pineapple'] is pretty out-there. Then they hired David, who usually does very art-house films. So I think it's the perfect combination to make a funny movie, one that is somehow elevated above the rest of the stoner movies."
So imagine, if you will, Harold and Kumar caught up in the world of "Donnie Brasco." Cheech and Chong meeting Tony Montana in a back alley. Or ... sequels to barely remembered action flicks starring Bruce Willis and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper?
"Shane Black was a big inspiration to us," Rogen said of the script he co-wrote with "Knocked Up" co-producer Evan Goldberg. "He wrote the 'Lethal Weapon' movies and 'The Last Boy Scout.' I'm a big fan of his."
"We've used those as references a lot, but I've used John Carpenter's 'They Live' with Roddy Piper," Green revealed. "I've watched that a lot, in terms of the fights that feel like real people really getting hit. I've also looked to movies like 'The Blues Brothers' and 'The Big Lebowski' as movies that work within genre conventions but don't use the textbook in their engineering."
In the scene we witnessed, Rogen frantically abuses the downstairs buzzer to Franco's apartment, disturbing the stoner's half-conscious state. Getting up from his couch, Franco gazes lovingly at a hilariously over-the-top portrait of him and his grandma hanging above the TV, tends to the panicked voice on the other end and then starts returning to the couch. His foot-shuffling is interrupted, however, when Rogen maniacally buzzes again. "I missed the door!" he shouts.
"Me and James, we witness a murder and it sends us on the run from a drug dealer played by ['Office Space' actor] Gary Cole," Rogen said of the scene. "We're basically the two dumbest guys in the world trying to figure out how to outsmart these criminals and save our loved ones, and we become good friends in the process, which is nice."
In real life, Rogen has befriended the on-set medical crew, as he's learned that being an action star isn't as easy as it looks. "There are many fight scenes and car chases and AK-47s being shot throughout this movie," he said. "I broke a finger, and I got many, many bumps and bruises along the way. There are a lot of injuries, I would say, on this set."
"I got three stitches right in my head — I ran into a tree," Franco added. "They cut it down after."
"Franco cracked his head open our first week of shooting," Rogen teased. "We're not action people. Well, I'm not — Franco is. But I've done more physical activity making this movie than in the past 10 years."
"Everybody gets injured on action movies," explained Franco, getting ready for another take. "One of the best things about doing all the action on this thing was Seth's reaction. If a punch was thrown or a gun was fired, he was excited. But I think he soon realized that you get injured in action scenes, so he started tallying up all the injuries."
We'll see how this oddball mix comes together when "The Pineapple Express" hits theaters in August 2008, but this much seems certain: The heat coming off Franco, Rogen and Apatow virtually guarantees Green the biggest opening weekend he's ever had.
" 'Spider-Man 3' [made] film history by breaking the opening box-office-weekend record," Franco teased his director. "Do you think 'Pineapple' will beat that record?"
"I have a wonderful track record on the other end of that financial spectrum," Green replied.
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