Interview: Seth Rogen Talks PG-13 Comedy, Aging in Movies & More
by Ethan Anderton
May 8, 2014
This weekend Seth Rogen does just a little bit of growing up in the fantastic comedy Neighbors (read my glowing review right here), directed by Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Thankfully, Rogen had some time to sit down and talk about being the guy that everyone wants to smoke weed with and how that effects his maturing on the big screen at 32 years old. Our chat mostly focuses on comedy on the big screen in general, but we also dive into working with Zac Efron on an improvisation heavy set, the staying power of Christopher Mintz-Plasse after being discovered for Superbad, James Franco staring in all of his movies, and how PG-13 comedy just doesn't work for him and collaborative partner Evan Goldberg.
Everyone always asks what gets you interested in a project, and the answer pretty much always is the script, because that's where any good movie starts. So besides just being funny, what do you specifically look for in a script that catches your interest?
Seth Rogen: These days more and more we get on board before a script even exists. So we generally have a hand in shaping the script which allows us to make sure that by the time it is a script, that we like it. For this movie, our friends brought us just a rough idea and…I don't know, it's hard. It just kind of becomes an instinctual thing. There's something very relatable about it that speaks to you as a person, something that makes you laugh, that is just inescapable entertaining, or funny, or original to you. It's those kinds of things.
Is there anything that you try to avoid? You're directing, producing and writing a lot of your stuff, is there anything that you kind of just avoid or that you don't want to get involved with comedically?
Rogen: Anything that's not R-rated generally [laughs]. I'd say universally that's kind of the only rule that I would say we have. But other than that, it could be anything. There's not a sweeping generalization I could make.
What do you think is so hard about making a really good comedy when you have to deal with PG-13?
Rogen: I just think that for us, it just directly negates what makes us funny, you know? [laughs] And I don't think it's like that for everybody. You know like like Will [Ferrell] and those guys and Adam McKay, they can make very funny PG-13 movies. But for us specifically, I think our humor leans more towards the edgy and maybe subversive and raunchy some may say. Violent some may say. Horrific some may say [laughs]. Whenever we have just some line that we know we're not allowed to cross, it's like we're being stifled.
Within all your movies, whether you're working with Judd Apatow or Adam McKay, now you're working with Nicholas Stoller on Neighbors, there's obviously a lot of improvisation on set. Is it hard to know when you've crossed a line, and not necessarily the line with regards to blue material, but when you start getting away from the movie or the scene? How hard is that to do when you're in the moment on set?
Rogen: It's something I have a pretty easy time recognizing. Different people I would say, uh, have different abilities for that. Some people will indulge an idea that maybe doesn't on the surface seem like it would be in anyway usable for a little longer than others would, but sometimes they do lead to something that is quite usable. On set, you have to be open and exploratory and not too much of a stickler. You really have to make sure you're thinking of the story and you have everything you need to make the story function, but once you have that, then you don't want to be the guy that's like "We shouldn't be talking about that." Because you never know. Maybe that will then lead to a brilliant thing that no one ever knew was going to come up.
In the production notes, I noticed the writers (Andrew J. Cohen & Brendan O'Brien) said that they wrote the character specifically for you and they thought that was interesting because of your previous roles as being a party guy, smoking weed and being relatively irresponsible was fun to play with as a new parent. Do you think that as you get older, it's a bit of a challenge to move into those kinds of characters because there's that public perception of you, whether it's a character or whether that's how they think you actually are in real life?
Rogen: We haven't found it to be difficult. I would say in a lot of ways this movie is a direct result of that and it seems to have gone really well [laughs]. So I would say, "No!" Organically, we have found a pretty good way of transitioning. I think we always make movies that are very, like I was saying, likeable and personable to us. It's not like we're writing high school movies as 32 year old men. We're writing movies about 32 year old men. I think the fact that I'm in a lot of our movies, by nature, forces us to make movies that are about people our age. John Hughes, as a grown man, wrote some of the best high school characters you could ever hope for, but for us, right now, we've had a better time writing stuff that is more along the lines of what we're going through.
Zac Efron is awesome in this movie, and you guys went to him with this role. What is it about his talent that drove you to want him in this movie? I've been a proponent of him since 17 Again and Me & Orson Welles, it ruined any skeptical idea I had of him becoming a big actor as he aged after High School Musical. So what was it that drew you to him for this role?
Rogen: When Andrew and Brendan brought us the idea, he was always their first choice. I met him a few times and Leslie Mann is in that 17 Again movie, and I remember her talking a lot about how funny she thought he was, and how talented she thought he was. He was just always something that I thought was really good. I thought he was kind of like a young Tom Cruise. He can kinda do anything. He can be in action movies, he can be in comedies, he can be in dramatic movies, and not a lot of guys can do that. So he was just someone I always thought was one of those rare breeds of handsome movie star guy.
Is there a period where you guys have to adapt to each other with you acting styles or anything like that? I'm sure it can be kind of overwhelming for someone to come into this world where there's a lot of imrpov. How difficult is that?
Rogen: It's not like we do it without any instruction, so we understand that we work differently than a lot of people. We don't just like to say, "Now make up stuff!" We throw out lines, the writers are on set all the time coming up with new lines. As long as you're open and confident and trusting, then it's really easy. And Zac was very much all those things. He didn't get too in his head about it. He had a thing he wanted to do, but he was still willing to experiment and do other stuff. He was very open and would say the stuff that we told him to say without needing to have a whole conversation about it. As long as you do that, it's very easy. When actors start to say, "What's up with that? I don't know if I want to say that," that's what it starts to get weird.
You guys basically launched the career of Christopher Mintz-Plasse with Superbad. Now he's turned into this great young comedic actor. And it's so funny looking at what he did as McLovin' in Superbad compared to the kid of character he plays in Neighbors. What's it been like watching him grown up on screen and see him blossom into this great career?
Rogen: It's been so awesome. Part of me honestly though after Superbad that I would never see him again [laughs]. And then I saw him in other stuff, and I was like, "Oh, wow. He's like a really good actor." He can totally do it. Which was really thrilling, I was so happy. I always liked him so much personally that it was so cool to see. And we're always looking for opportunities to work with the same people over and over again.
You've made movies outside of your wheelhouse and the people you frequently collaborate with. You've done 50/50 and Take This Waltz. Is it difficult when you start venturing out, when you start doing movies without the people you're so comfortable working with?
Rogen: It can be. With 50/50, we were the producers, so even though we didn't know a lot of those people that well, we ultimately were in control of the project on the whole, so there's a feeling of safety there. With Take This Waltz, I was just an actor in that movie, I didn't even have that big of a role. With something like that it's really fun to just kinda hand yourself over to someone. It has to be someone you trust and think is really talented, which with Sarah Polley was really easy to do. But yeah, with something like that it's fun. It's way easier. It's a relief of pressure in a lot of ways. I get to do one job instead of five jobs.
How difficult is it to have all these different hats? With writing, directing, producing and acting, it seems like you're busy all the time. How do you manage all those responsiblities?
Rogen: It generally is pretty busy. Times like right now, I'm fully in post-production on The Interview as I'm on my Neighbors promotional tour. Times like this, it's really hard. I'm really feel like I'm doing a lot of shit all the time [laughs]. I go back to my room at night after doing press all day and watch the latest cuts of the scenes and give notes. And then I come back and promote this more. Then we're also in production on Sausage Party, our animated movie, and we're in pre-production on our Christmas movie. Right now I think this is the busiest I've ever been in my entire life. In one week I will be much less busy and it will all seem much more manageable. It's generally pretty manageable. I just work all day, and whatever I don't finish that day, I'll do the next day.
What's the most frustrating part of the filmmaking process? And you can say the press tour, and I won't be offended.
Rogen: I was gonna say, the marketing and the promotion is probably… the promotion isn't that bad. The marketing of the movie is hard. Because you spend so much time making a movie, writing it and crafting it, and then you basically boil it down to a two-and-a-half minute trailer and 30 to 15 second TV spots. And thinking about what that material should be is probably the most stressful part of the process is the most frustrating in a lot of ways.
How involved do you get in the marketing side of things? I assume you have to approve a lot of the material that comes through, but how much of the final decision is from the studio?
Rogen: We're very involved in it. Sometimes they just bombard you with testing scores, and sometimes even though you don't like something, they convince you it's good because it's tested well among some imaginary group of people. More and more we're comfortable telling them to shove those numbers up their ass [laughs]. Just do something that we like regardless of how well it tested. It's hard to make the decision when you're just like, "You know what, I'm gonna say no even though I will be blamed for this movie's failure." It's taken years to get confident enough to do it, but more and more we just say, "No. We don't like it. It's not good enough. Give us something we like."
Are there any directors you're dying to work with as an actor or on the other end, any actors that you would want to work with when you're behind the camera?
Rogen: Yeah, I'd love to work with Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers or Martin Scorsese. Any of those guys, that would be great. As a director, I don't know. As a director I get scared working with people I don't know [laughs]. Because I know they'll do whatever the fuck I want [laughs]. I'm totally fine if James Franco stars in every movie I ever direct [laughs].
Thanks a lot Seth, I appreciate your time.
Rogen: No problem, thank you.
My thanks to Universal Pictures for this interview opportunity during Neighbors promotion.
Neighbors hits theaters starting tonight with evening showings and will be playing everywhere starting tomorrow, May 9th. Read my positive review of this positively hilarious summer comedy right here.