Seth Rogen Walks Us Through 10 Years of Dominating Hollywood
Prominently exhibited in Seth Rogen's cozy offices on the Sony lot in Culver City, California, is a framed depiction of the late rapper Eazy-E having sex with the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, doggy-style. At first glance, it's just a crude, childish, ridiculous image by illustrator Alex Pardee. But ruminating about it reveals other potential levels. Easily, N.W.A's most enduring song is "Fuck the Police," and Robert Patrick's shape-shifting Terminator wears police garb -- perhaps the ultimate symbol of the emotionless, uncaring, militarized LAPD. And yet, even with the T-1000's knife-arms extended, Eazy-E remains dominant, the drawing of an anti-authoritarian battle cry!
Or maybe it is just two disparate pop-culture figures boning, because it's funny.
That's Seth Rogen's work over the past 10 years, encapsulated in one image. It seems like a trifle on the surface, but it can mean much more if you allow it the opportunity. Take 2007's Superbad, his first produced script, co-written by his creative-partner-since-childhood Evan Goldberg: the movie works as an uproarious high school comedy, but also has lots to say about insecurity and the teenage experience. Amongst the apocalyptic surrealism and brutal decapitation jokes of 2013's This Is the End is a touching commentary on evolving friendships. Last year's Sausage Party was advertised as an R-rated cartoon about the grocery aisle and contains an epic orgy scene, but the real subversion is in its commentary about organized religion.
In the decade since the release of Superbad -- which came out a few months after his star-making vehicle, Judd Apatow's Knocked Up -- Rogen has become a prolific, driven Hollywood power player, to a degree that seems at odds with his love of pot humor, and pot. After dropping out of high school in British Columbia at age 16 to join the cast of Apatow and Paul Feig's brilliant-but-cancelled 1999-2000 series Freaks and Geeks, he's consistently tacked on other credits: writer (Apatow's brilliant-but-cancelled Fox show Undeclared), producer (Knocked Up), and director (This Is the End). Last year, he and Goldberg decided to add television producer to their resumes; Preacher, their slyly violent AMC series, adapted from Garth Ennis' comic series about a criminal-turned-clergyman possessed by an all-powerful demon, returns for its second season this Sunday.
We sat down with Rogen under the watchful, ever-boning eye of Eazy-E for a wide-ranging chat about his furiously busy and successful decade past.
After Freaks and Geeks, you'd struggled to to gain traction, getting little things here and there, a couple of roles in Judd Apatow projects. How in the hell did you get Superbad made?
Seth Rogen: [Evan and I] started writing it when we were 13. There were drafts that go back to the '90s. We finished it soon after I got to LA -- 1999 was when we started trying to make the movie. American Pie had come out around that time and it did really well… [At the time] I was just like, [Superbad] wasn't that different from it. [But] if you look at the script we had then, it was different. I guess we didn't know what a movie was supposed to have. It shouldn't have these long, ramble-y scenes of people talking, especially if it's a high school movie. It should have these big, physical set pieces, like, all the time. Our movie wasn't really like that. It was more about the conversations and arguments they were having. I guess that's what threw people, but at the time it seemed psychotic and that's what made me really angry.
I was young and cocky and angry for no fucking reason. I was really frustrated that Superbad was taking so long, that no one wanted to make it. We kept getting close and some producer would attach themselves and that producer would become the head of a studio, then not make it. We never actually sold it to anyone. We always owned it, which was good. A bad version of it never got made, which in retrospect is kind of a miracle, really.
I look back it at now and realize the tone is so different and maybe that's what scared people. We did develop it: [We added] set pieces, but it was more about the conversations around the set pieces. Some of the funniest things in the movie were people just talking. It's not that crazy by even some of the movies we've made more recently's standards. As far as, like, physicality, the biggest physical thing that happens is Jonah carries Michael out of the party.
It was almost all based off shit that happened to us. It was heavily personal and we were around that age, so we felt strongly that we wanted to represent a certain thing that we really understood that wasn't that represented. We liked American Pie and thought it was funny, but we didn't watch it and think in any way that it resembles us. These people look like they're 30 years old. No one that looks like these guys has not had sex in high school. It just seemed crazy, just the look and feel of it and aesthetic of it didn't look or feel anything like our high school. To us, it was the small things we thought were funny, like trying to get a fake ID and trying to get liquor. In American Pie, you go to the party and there's just kegs of beer and everyone is drinking and I was like, "I'd rather watch a movie about them trying to get that keg."
I remember we'd drive behind bars and steal kegs from the back of bars and put them in the trunk of my friend's car. We couldn't open it, because we'd have to have a tap and it was like a bunch of idiots trying to hit a keg with a hammer, and then what do you do with the beer? That was always the stuff we thought was funny -- the minutia of it, rather than these big ideas that were in high school movies then. It's funny, because we didn't see Say Anything... or any of those movies at the time, but we watched them after and look back and were like, "That's much more what we're trying to do." Fast Times [at Ridgemont High] is another good example. That we had seen: Not when we first started writing, but throughout the process we started to catch up on those kinds of movies, because we were so young when we first started writing it. It wasn't until we were 16, 17, 18, 19 that we started watching older movies and were like, "Oh, these are the movies we're inspired by."
After Superbad, you and Evan had no trouble getting your scripts produced. But what launched you into directing, and how hard was it convincing someone to give you a shot?
Rogen: It was harder than we thought it was going to be. The Green Hornet was the movie that did it. If you asked us during Pineapple Express if we wanted to be directors, we would have said no -- we liked being writers and working with these directors. But then Green Hornet was the most complicated movie you could possibly make on a technical level. It had everything. It had giant practical effects, huge sets, giant crowd scenes, car chases, tons of CG, fight scenes. It had things that I literally just didn't understand how they did them in movies, because we made small $20 million comedies, and I was never even exposed to that stuff.
Then, seeing that from start to finish and being there every step of the way was what made me and Evan think, "We can do this." There are few things that could stand in our way, like on a technical level. Few things can come up at this point that we have not dealt with in some way on that movie, which was not the easiest movie to make. So, you know, there are tons of issues and problems we were being exposed to in pretty rough conditions a lot of the time.
We wanted Sam Raimi to be a producer [on This Is the End]. We sent him the script, and he really liked it. We had decided to direct it, but we weren't confident enough to not have someone godfathering the process. Making a horror comedy, we were inspired by him and huge fans of his and we thought maybe he would be a producer on the movie and he would help shepherd us. We met with him and showed him all our stuff, and we had concept art and storyboarding and rough pre-viz for some of the action sequences. He was like, "You don't need me. Just go do it. You seem quite prepared for this." Like, just do it. That was one of the reason we felt comfortable just going and doing it: "If Sam Raimi thinks we can do it, then yeah."
Also, before that point, we could never have looked at ourselves and said, "We're the only people who could direct [any of our scripts]." But then when we wrote This Is the End, we were like, "We are the only people who could make this movie." Largely because we're the only people all these actors will actually listen to and feel comfortable enough doing this with. I don't think they would have done it with anybody else, and the fact that I am one of them made it easier to bridge discomfort, because I was doing it too. It eased whatever problems there would have been… I'm always thanking them. I feel fortunate that these people I think are so talented trust us with these crazy things.
Is it helpful for you to keep working with the same people over and over, like a repertory company?
Rogen: The more time I have, the more thankful I am for it, and the more rare I realize it is. I guess the first thing is, if you can work with people you like and enjoy talking to, then that's a fucking miracle. Most people hate the people they work with, just on a day-to-day level.
On top of that, I have been friends with some of the most talented people around, and it's something that was instilled in us from the beginning. I'm still friends with [James] Franco. He's the first actor I ever acted on screen with in my entire life, and I think everyone appreciated it… [But] there was a moment where we were like, "Should me and Franco never be in a movie together ever again? Do people see it as just a gimmick? Are people sick of it? Does it seem lazy?"
We're in this movie The Disaster Artist together [based on the making of the awful cult classic The Room]. Even when I watch, it doesn't feel like it's me and him in the movie together. What he's doing is so drastically different from anything and the dynamic is so different. That's the test we have to keep putting ourselves through, if we keep doing it. We can't just be doing it because we like each other, and it especially can't seem like we're doing it because we like each other. People love, like, "Oh, it looks like they're having fun," but at the end of the day people don't want to pay to watch assholes hang out with each other. It's just not an ideal entertainment scenario. That is something we are aware of and we do talk about.
We do keep putting [our group of regulars] to that test. With Sausage Party, we were like, "Are people going to like that it's all of us again?" and people seem to like it. We try to listen and see the response and be aware of it because we want to make good stuff that's entertaining. If we thought it was hurting our work at any point, I think we wouldn't do it.
When you were making Freaks and Geeks, did you have any indication that these relationships would carry on?
Rogen: Not at all. It's crazy. I was having dinner with Franco a week ago and we were marveling at how long we've known each other and how long we've been friends. If you asked me after Freaks and Geeks, "Will you ever talk to James Franco again?" there's a good chance I would have been like, "No, I will never see James Franco ever again for the rest of my life." I still see [Jason] Segel, Martin [Starr]. We're still really good friends with a lot of the same people that we've been working with a really long time. It's great. It shows that we've chosen people who are good people to work with. At least I think they are, because I became friends with them. Other people might think differently.
Let's talk about The Interview. What started as an outrageous high-concept political satire suddenly became much more serious, what with threats from North Korea, the cyberattack against Sony that ultimately led to studio chief Amy Pascal stepping down, and the cancellation of the film's theatrical release. Looking back, how do you feel about that time?
Rogen: It's weird. I mean, I'm at peace with it. It doesn't bother me anymore. If anything, it was one of those experiences that was so extreme that it's kind of mellowed me out when it comes to the ups and downs of the entertainment industry. We've been through and came out of something that few people in the history of movies has ever gone through: Your movie becoming a real story, not just an entertainment news story, and being at the focus of something that is truly on a global scale.
In the end, honestly, it did fuck with me, but luckily I wasn't making anything that funny at the time. I did [Danny Boyle's] Steve Jobs movie right after: [The Interview controversy] happened in December and I worked on [Steve Jobs] the first week of January. Then we made Preacher. We kind of just kept working, which was really the only thing we could do.
"We were not wrong to humiliate Kim Jong-un and portray him getting his head blown up."
[As for the movie], I stand by it. I wouldn't do anything different. Maybe add another set piece in the second half. That's honestly what I look at: Structurally, it could be tightened up a little bit. It could use one more big laugh. But I think [movies like The Interview are] exactly what people like me should be doing. Attacking the people who they think are the worst people on the planet and satirizing them and going at them and exposing their idiocy and their flaws and their evil and doing it in a way that's accessible and entertaining and is engaging people who would never want to think about that shit in a million fucking years. When I look back, that's exactly what we were trying to do. I would try to do that exact same thing again.
Maybe not in that exact way -- I think Sausage Party was a good example. There was a moment where we were, like, "Do we ease up on some of this shit?" And it was like, "No, we go at it and do exactly what our instinct is," because I think we had the right instinct with that movie. And we were not wrong to humiliate [Kim Jong-un] and then portray him getting his head blown up in a comedic action moment. You should be doing shit that people who see it ask, "Are they allowed to be doing that?"
When I see something like that, I'm heavily inspired. What makes me want to do good work is when I see someone else do something and I'm like, "I didn't think anyone could do that." Pixar movies make me think that: They're kids movies, and then they confront the most intense subject matters. Like fucking Toy Story.
Whether we [succeeded at that] or not, who fucking knows? Some people say no, it was our worst critically received movie. That did bum me out a lot because our movies generally get pretty good reviews. I like that, on paper, it appears we've made movies that are generally viewed as good movies. Now looking back, [the reviews] weren't that bad, considering, and no one could have judged it objectively at that point. By the time it was being reviewed, it was so distorted and blown up and had so much piled onto it, it was like, who knows how the fuck people are going to react to it by the time they actually sit down and watch it? All that is a way of saying I'm at peace with it and, in the end, it has made me more calm and, if anything, affirmed the power of movies. It's shown that you can do exactly what you want to do -- the result just might not be what you want it to be. If your goal is to clown a dictator, you can do that. You don't know what he is going to do back, but you can do it, so that was a good lesson.
It's interesting to compare when you made The Interview and now.
Rogen: We were a little ahead of the curve, I think!
We're in a place where the President of the United States gets offended when someone makes fun of him. Do you think political satire is going to be able to continue in this form? Does it help the world?
Rogen: I don't know. It's interesting, part of me thought when Veep came back on it would be so tame compared to how crazy the world is, but then I watch it and I still love Veep. This shit's hilarious and not less funny to me. I don't have an answer to that. I could see how, intellectually, it'd be easy to argue that political satire is dead. If anything, it's probably more important. It's just probably going to change its shape. Like, people seem to be liking The President Show [on Comedy Central], I think. I've only seen bits of it, but it seems very funny. People are still doing it, they'll just have to find new and exciting ways.
You mentioned going from The Interview to doing the drama Steve Jobs. Was transitioning to a more serious role a big adjustment for you?
Rogen: I enjoyed it. It doesn't feel drastically different, on a moment-to-moment basis. The process was different, like the rehearsal process; I think it was more like doing a play in some ways. The Aaron Sorkin-iness of all of it was a unique experience, but the fact that it wasn't funny didn't feel that different. If anything, it was at times easier because when we make our movies, we're trying to do everything that a drama does and be funny. We're spinning one more plate. It just felt like there was one plate I didn't have to spin. Just be real and present and remember my lines and connect and do the blocking. Usually, I'm supposed to do that and also be funny.
Was it freeing?
Rogen: In a way, it was. I felt a little out of place. I'm glad I did it… The most exciting part of my job is that I get to do new things. I'm 35 and I just got a whole new job four years ago. I used to do stand-up comedy. I stopped doing that. I acted, now I direct. I really appreciate that I get to do things that make me uncomfortable, because it's also very easy to fall into a cycle of just doing the things that make you comfortable.
I really appreciate when I feel like I'm doing something that makes me feel. I get numb to these things. It used to be you present an award and you get really nervous, then you do that 10 times and you don't get quite as nervous. You go to the Oscars and you get nervous, then you present a few Oscars. It's weird, as a human, how you can get used to anything. I'm aware that I've gotten used to some things that are truly exceptional experiences. I still appreciate them, but they don't give me that "heart jumping out of my chest like I'm about to jump off a cliff and I don't know where I'm gonna land" feeling, so whenever I can do something like that, it's exciting to me.
You don't like the same movies in your 20s as you do when you're 40.
Was that part of why you did an action movie like Green Hornet?
Rogen: Our instinct has always been to do whatever the biggest swing was, and at that time, that was it. What if we make a giant superhero movie starring me? We love action movies. Our biggest blind spot at that time was the level of creative control we thought we'd be able to have in comparison to what we had on our cheaper movies. We just did not understand once it's that expensive, you don't have a lot of creative control. The goal was to take as big a swing as we could, to do something completely different from what we had been doing. The problem with that is sometimes you will spectacularly fail in front of the entire planet. But I've done that many times.
You don't usually deal with a lot of script notes and micromanaging?
Rogen: We generally don't make the most expensive movies. We make that movie in the budget range that everyone says they don't make anymore, which is $20-$35 million. As the years have gone on, we still make movies like Sausage Party at $20 million. The Night Before, $35 million. Neighbors 2, $45 million. We don't make movies as big. I think that has been a key to our longevity -- we haven't out-priced ourselves.
Now you're doing Preacher, a TV series, which was another leap into the unknown for you. What was it about Garth Ennis' graphic novel that got you and Evan excited?
Rogen: It was just something that we loved for a really long time. I think a lot of our sensibility is based on Preacher. We loved it so much when we were growing up. It is both inspired by and went on to inspire things that we were big fans of. I think the tone of it and the mixing of genres was something we really gravitate towards.
The first meeting we had for Preacher was when we were filming Pineapple Express -- that's how long ago we tried to get the rights to it, and we didn't. We were like, "Oh, this is is kind of like Preacher -- it's violent, but it's funny, but it has real stakes, but at the same time it's totally ridiculous." That was the first thing we did that bounced between genres. I remember in the [first meeting], we showed them action scenes and were like, "Look, it's funny, but it has fighting" -- there's still life and death stakes in the scene. People are trying to kill each other and not get killed.
Honestly, the short answer [for why we did it] is just because we liked it. We fucking dug the shit out of it and we thought we could do it. Not a lot of people dive into religion and approach comedic violence the way we do. As we got older, we were becoming more and more suited for this, and I'm so glad we didn't get it when we tried in the first place because we were 24 years old and television wasn't like it is today.
Did you always feel that it had to be a television show, or did you ever consider it as a movie?
Rogen: We would have taken anything, honestly. At first, we pitched it as kind of a Band of Brothers thing, but we were also like, "Or we could do it as a movie." We were kind of open, we just wanted to be the people who did it. It was one of those things where, like a lot of the things we work on, I gauge how jealous I would be if someone else did it. That's the thing we talked about with Sausage Party a lot. What if someone else did an R-rated animated movie? We were just going to be so fucking jealous of those people. With this, it was a similar thing. We would be so jealous of whoever decides to do it, we'll take any version of it. It just bounced around for-fucking-ever. I found an email from 2006 or '07 that I wrote to Sam Mendes because he had the rights to it, and I was like, "If I could be in it or have anything to do with it I would like to because I love it."
Do you feel any pull to direct a big-budget movie?
Rogen: As you direct more, the forbidden fruit becomes resources: time, equipment, cranes, helicopters, and a day to shoot someone walking up to a fucking building. We've been directing a lot of television lately and what's interesting about that is, you have no fucking time. We, in a way, kind of demoted ourselves, as far as just how much time and resources we had as directors. We wanted to direct as much stuff as possible, as fast as possible, just because we felt like we started directing late compared to the other stuff we were doing. But as you do that, that's the thing you start to look at with envy when you watch these big movies: "Wow, it looks like they had a lot of time."
That becomes the temptation. It'd be nice to have a ton of resources, but I'm constantly watching really inexpensive movies that seem to creatively be doing everything the people want to be doing, and I've made incredibly inexpensive things that do the things I want them to do creatively.
We're writing the Invincible movie, which is a comic book [about a superhero, written by The Walking Dead's Robert Kirkman]. Until we're done, who's to say what will happen with it. We can write it and they'll say they don't like it, but there's a version where we would potentially direct that, if it all turned out the right way. But, even for a superhero movie, I would still ask for a modest budget. That might be very naive. We could chicken out. It seems like that would be a nice middle ground, to make a bigger R-rated movie that's not the budget of these superhero movies, but also has a little more resources than what we've been having. Also, I'd probably just be happy making these same-sized movies forever.
When I look at This Is the End, we got to do whatever the fuck we wanted. There's monsters. We destroy the whole planet. That's a $32 million movie. That's a lot of money. I don't scoff at the massive amounts of money studios give us to essentially make art projects with our friends, so I don't want to push it. I'd rather keep working than try to hit the jackpot every time as far as investment and return.
You're still only 35. As you get older, do you want to play with other genres? Do you want to do things that maybe don't involve violence and action and boners?
Rogen: I mean, we have. 50/50 [which Evan and I produced] was kind of a venture like that. I think we just want to keep doing whatever seems exciting to us at the time, acknowledging that our sensibilities are going to change over the years and have changed over the years. Again, Preacher is not something I could have done when I was younger. The directing of Preacher feels very adult, at times, especially for us, but also feels completely ridiculous and not adult.
I think that's the fun of it, that balance. We just want to be able to do whatever seems exciting to us creatively at that time, whatever seems like an expression of our sensibilities. You don't like the same movies in your 20s as you do when you're 40, and I don't expect to make those movies either. I think it has changed, to some degree, but I think some of the things we're working on now are maybe a step in that direction.
I look at a lot of big comedies now and I don't get these movies. Then I look at the combining of genres and people seem more excited about that. Those are the kind of movies that l like. The Coen brothers are people I greatly respect and look up to. That's something me and Evan talk about: Is there a way to still be funny, but not have to do these movies known as big R-rated comedies? I look at the movies that come out and I don't want anything to do with that. It doesn't feel like it's in my world anymore. I think we try to do things that feel different. Sausage Party is a big R-rated comedy that felt different to us. That's how we were able to wrap our heads around it. I look at the stuff that we're doing -- it probably is grown up. I guess there's still boner jokes, but there's room for that, I think.