“I wanna see how it plays now that everyone thinks North Korea hacked Sony,” Seth Rogen cracks as he walks into the fluorescent-lit lobby of a multiplex in Manhattan’s East Village in early December. On deck is a preview screening of The Interview, Rogen and his pal James Franco’s latest comedy. They star as the producer and host, respectively, of a lowest-common-denominator talk show, Skylark Tonight, who land an unlikely interview with Kim Jong-un — and are promptly tapped by the CIA to assassinate Dear Leader. Rogen’s about to sit through it one more time, along with a hundred or so of his drunkest fans.
Well, barring any unfortunate last-minute developments, that is. This summer, a North Korean UN ambassador decried the insolence of these buffoonish American filmmakers as a “most undisguised sponsoring of terrorism as well as an act of war.” That was followed by a peculiarly timed missile test. But that was just an amuse-bouche. Earlier this day, a massive, embarrassing batch of internal Sony documents were leaked, with reputable outlets reporting that the hack may have been perpetrated by vengeful North Korean cyberspies.1
A group known as Guardians of Peace claimed credit, declaring, “Stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War,” which some observers interpreted as misdirection. North Korea, which does have an “elite cyberunit” called Bureau 121, denied culpability but did refer to the hacking as a “noble deed.”
It was lighthearted at first, with most of the fun coming at the expense of coddled movie execs. But in the last few days, as the hackers threatened terrorist violence against movie theaters showing The Interview, the conversation transformed. First, small theaters canceled plans to show the movie, and then the major chains followed suit. Finally, on Wednesday, Sony decided to cancel the release altogether. It’s an unbelievable, unprecedented development with dangerous implications.
And in New York, on an agreeably pleasant December night, it is almost impossible to imagine. “Thanks for coming,” Rogen says, introducing the movie at the front of the theater, for what may well be one of the last times it will be seen in that type of venue. “Now I’m not the only one on North Korea’s shit list. Change your emails! Erase your dick pics! I know I have.” He pauses for a beat. “Not all of them.”
One hour earlier, Rogen sits at a small wooden table topped with ramen, pork buns, shumai, Asahi, and cold sake in a noodle shop down the street. “It was our intention to educate people exactly as much as the movie educates you,” he says of The Interview, already rolling into his throaty laugh. “Which is a little bit.”
In the movie, Franco plays Dave Skylark, a preening TV host overjoyed by Matthew McConaughey bestiality rumors; Rogen is his liege, who pines for more substantial subject matter. When he presses Skylark to move away from fare like “Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing with puppies,” that’s when they end up with Kim.
“The conversation we’re having in the movie, that’s the conversation that led to the movie,” Rogen explains. “Should we try to inject some content into our fluff? Yeah. A little bit.”
Rogen’s “fluff” has stretched for 15 years now, from his tender work on Freaks and Geeks up through the deranged apocalypse of last year’s surprise box office smash This Is the End. There was a time when he and his crew could do no wrong. “You want to make a movie about fightin’ robots?” Rogen once recalled telling his pal Jonah Hill, as Hill was debating an offer for Transformers. “Make your own movie about fightin’ robots. You can do that. That’s on the table now.” But inevitably, the fall from grace came.
There was the Rogen-costarring Funny People, which garnered Judd Apatow’s first lukewarm reviews since the latter man took command of comedy Hollywood. There was the relative flop of The Green Hornet, an aspiring superhero blockbuster that cost $120 million to make and had Rogen as an ill-conceived, crime-fighting heir ne’er-do-well. By then, there was a general sense that perhaps Rogen, King of the Bros With Heart, had overstayed his welcome.
Rogen’s response was simple: He just kept working and pursuing interesting parts. Long before the box office tallies came in for Hornet, he’d moved on to the commendably uncloying cancer comedy 50/50; it was also the first movie that Rogen and his writing and directing partner and childhood best friend, Evan Goldberg, produced themselves. He played a lovable schlub in Sarah Polley’s quietly crushing Take This Waltz. In Jody Hill’s Observe and Report, one of the most misunderstood movies of the last 10 years, he went to dark places.
“We made that movie before I had ever been in a movie that didn’t do really, really well,” Rogen says. “A lot of the reason it got made is because people weren’t sure if I was on some unstoppable Jim Carrey streak.” He shifts into the yap of an excitable exec: “‘We can put him in anything!’ And — yeah. That proved not to be the case. At all. I was just another guy.”
There must have been relief in that?
“It was actually nice!” he says, tiny white sake mug in hand. “Yes. Very much so.”
Rogen’s trajectory begins with Freaks and its spiritual sequel, Undeclared, another one-season cult object in which “everyone was hooking up with everyone and getting fucked-up every free moment they had.” Then we move to the white heat of the Apatow takeover, which came with the requisite moneyed overindulgence. “We’ve done all that stuff over the years,” he says. “Thank god, for some reason we were never of interest to tabloids. If I was, I would have been very entertaining to watch.” These days, Rogen is happily married to writer and actor Lauren Miller, with whom he shares custody of a Cavalier King Charles spaniel. And he now is fully engaged in the third phase of his career: a nice, steady little groove.
For This Is the End, he reassembled the old crew to play neutered versions of themselves — and then he killed them all off, himself included. There was a clear implication there, a cleansing. It helped that that strange movie — in which the devil is real, and has a giant dick — did so well. According to (ahem) leaked information, it was Sony’s most profitable film of 2013, netting $50 million in “ultimates.” A happy ending, especially considering that it was rejected, Rogen says, by “every studio in Hollywood” before Sony said yes.
Neighbors fits snugly into Rogen’s meta narrative, too. No longer the addled man-child, his character is a father living next door to his former self, heartbroken by envy as he watches man-children from a fraternity party. There’s a marked maturity, as well, in Rose Byrne’s character. As Rogen’s wife, she’s an equal if not greater force for destruction and chaos, manipulative and totally nuts. Once, Katherine Heigl dismissed female characters like her role in Knocked Up as “shrews, as humorless and uptight,” and was subsequently excommunicated. But Rogen, it’s clear, was listening. And that played, too: Neighbors earned $268 million worldwide.
For all its broad strokes, The Interview is also a step forward. The explosions and nukes and violence — the bat-shit, screeching, finger-chomping violence — are new for him. And for the first time in his working relationship with Rogen, Franco is let entirely off the leash. Seeing him net praise for his bonkers work in Spring Breakers — which was “like, all the shit we tell him not to do” — Rogen had a realization: “People have a much higher tolerance for it than I would have ever imagined!”
And then there are the aforementioned geopolitical ramifications. Thanks to the leak, we learned that The Interview was cause for Sony’s chief executive, Kazuo Hirai, to meddle in the work of the tacitly independent Sony Pictures for the first time in at least 25 years. Tokyo is only 800 miles from Pyongyang; Japan can’t quite see North Korea as a faraway joke.
In question was the possibility of toning down the nature of the inevitable death of Kim Jong-un. In a flurry of emails exchanged by Sony execs about the process, all manner of unusual phrasings were thrown around: “there is no face melting, less fire in the hair”; “the head explosion has been considerably obscured by fire”; “I would still like to see them eliminate the tendril of flesh of the left side of his forehead that comes just before the fireball.”
“I don’t feel like falling on my sword for this one,” the hack-maligned Sony chief, Amy Pascal, writes at one point. “No other studio would even touch this movie and we all know it.” It’s certainly a bold swing: Depicting the killing of a sitting world leader — even when it’s a nuclear-armed bogeyman like Kim Jong-un — will make many incredibly uncomfortable.
There is a precedent here, ranging from the recent — Team America: World Police’s handling of Kim’s father, then alive and well — to the more distant. During World War II, a burgeoning breed of cartoonists would delight in depicting their superheroic new creations knocking around the fascist kings of Europe and Japan. The latter tradition is memorialized in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
Early on, the titular duo’s creation, the Escapist, is seen on a comic-book cover with his “big right fist arcing across the page to deliver an immortal haymaker,” leaving none other than Adolf Hitler “flying at you backward, right-crossed clean out of the painting, head thrown back, forelock a-splash, arms flailing, jaw trailing a long red streamer of teeth.”
“The violence of the image was startling, beautiful, strange,” Chabon writes. “It stirred mysterious feelings in the viewer, of hatred gratified, of cringing fear transmuted into smashing retribution.”
“This shit has been done,” Rogen says. “We’re walking in the shadows of a lot of smart people that have done it a lot more effectively.” He seems genuinely surprised by the blowback. He insists on generally benevolent intentions. “This wasn’t to piss [North Korea] off or incite them. It didn’t even occur to us until halfway through filming that they might even be aware of the movie in any capacity.”
So, is he worried about the ramifications? Does he worry about his physical safety? On the day of the screening, it does feel a bit ridiculous to ask. But since the actual release of the movie has been canceled, everything is on the table.
In early December, Rogen can still laugh about it and wave a hand around the restaurant: “Yeah, all these people are my security. No, I mean [North Korea] has never harmed anyone on U.S. soil. Ever. Not that we had the conversation a lot, but in the moments that we did, that’s what we fell back on.” He stops and thinks, rolling again into his laugh. “It would be amazing if we were the first ones … ”
With dinner wrapped, Rogen walks down the street to the Village Pourhouse, where a fan meet-and-greet has been arranged by popular bro-culture website the Chive. Outside the bar, the recognition starts. An NYU kid lugging a flat-screen stops, stares, and inquires, “Are you Seth Rogen?!”
“Yup,” he answers, and without stopping or missing a beat, “Are you stealing that TV?”
Inside the bar’s packed backroom, the pace escalates. Rogen is offered drugs within roughly four seconds. “Hey,” a young man whispers, before being politely rebuffed, “I got a pocketful of weed right now.”
As a girl fawns over Rogen, her boyfriend jokes that he might be single by the end of the night. “I’ve never been beaten up by a fan before,” Rogen banters back. “That’d ruin my press tour!”
A few beers later, Rogen is across the street in the theater. After his introduction, he settles into a back-row seat to watch. This is when it becomes clear how seriously Rogen takes his comedy.
Rogen and Goldberg are lucky that their tastes naturally align with the desires of the mass market. They’re good at making sure young people are still paying attention. But they also rely on an aggressively pragmatic process. They like to test-screen their movies, over and over. Sometimes they set up a test screening just to hear how one joke plays. They won’t always ask for written audience feedback; often, they just want to sit, listen, and gauge the laughter.
“What we try to avoid the most is a swing and a miss,” Rogen explains. “That destroys the trust. All of a sudden, [the audience] doesn’t feel like they’re in good hands.” They strip away the duds, working to make sure that the plot and characters are strong enough to carry the crowd to the next big joke. “We can never be the guys that no one can tell us, ‘It sucks,’” Rogen says. “We don’t need to listen when people tell us, ‘It sucks.’ But we should always have a system in place where a lot of people can, at any given moment, tell us, ‘It sucks.’”
But there is always a little panic. “Your instinct is to keep pushing things in a realm where it’s unsure if it’ll work,” he says. “That’s what makes it exciting, but also makes it really fucking scary. What I always worry about as I’m getting drunk with Evan at the TGI Fridays across [from] the theater before our first test screening is, there’s a conceptual element of the movie that people could reject. Like, ‘Fuck that. I’m done.’ And 30 seconds into the movie, we’re dead. Like, do people know who the fuck Kim Jong-un is at all?”
Thirty seconds into this showing of The Interview — which he’s seen countless times before — Rogen watches intently. An adorable little girl is onscreen. We’re in North Korea, and a government ceremony of some sort is taking place. She begins to sing, beautifully. And the subtitles fill us in: “May America die in a fiery hell!” The first laughs rumble in. For now, some relief.
Ed Araquel/Columbia Pictures
Removing his winter cap for the first time, Rogen sits and monitors the crowd. Just one row up, a couple of boozed kids talk loudly and sloppily, and Rogen strains to understand what they’re saying. “He’s explaining, ‘That guy’s the producer,’” Rogen reports back. “I didn’t think it was complicated!” A Lord of the Rings reference falls flat, and Rogen shrugs: “That’s an example of a joke only we find funny.”
In between chortling at every bizarre Franco facial expression, Rogen keeps up a steady DVD commentary the rest of the way.
These mountains are CG.
That song’s by the guy who plays Kato in The Green Hornet.
Franco’s dressed like the Joker in this one scene.
This is our psychedelic military porn montage.
That’s a real fucking tiger!
Just before a drug sequence: “This scene shows you how much people like Ecstasy. Just cheering for Ecstasy.”
Has Rogen done Ecstasy?
“Oh yeah,” he responds, over the sounds of the correctly predicted outburst. “Tons.”
The drunken cross chatter is strong, but at this point in the movie, the laughter is loud enough to drown it out. The audience is hooked, and is learning that The Interview — for all of its accidental warmongering and bold-faced absurdity — is a tale that Rogen has told many times, and told well.
Certainly, the dramatic real-life events have drowned out the actual content of the movie. Whatever happens, The Interview will forever be a talking point in the argument about the liberties permissible to art. At some point soon, we may know conclusively if this was an act of aggression by a rogue nation — the New York Times is reporting that North Korea was in fact “centrally involved” in the hack. But for now, we’ll argue: Are there some things too horrible to be wrangled into comedy? Or is there always value in trying? And should anyone ever be able to scare us into censoring ourselves?
For just a few moments, let’s return to the actual content on the screen and this movie with an uncertain future. Near the movie’s end, through the gunsight of a Soviet tank, Dave Skylark and Kim Jong-un come to understand each other as two kids starved for the love and approval of their fathers. The stakes certainly are higher, and the satire bigger. But once again, we’re talking about a couple of Bros With Heart.
And at this crucial juncture, a character poops his pants. Which seems completely gratuitous until you remember it’s a direct callback to an earlier scene, tying up the whole endeavor neatly. “It’s rare when you get to have someone organically shit themselves,” Rogen says, beaming. “It serves the story!”