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NEW ORLEANS - If you're looking for a place to stage the end of the world, it seems to me that New Orleans is a pretty good choice.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are a formidable creative partnership. Standing on a soundstage for the first film they're co-directing, I was struck by just how laser focused their vision for their career has been and how well they've managed to build a space for them to make the films that genuinely make them laugh. When I first met Seth, it was at the premiere for "Anchorman." If you don't remember his role in the film, I wouldn't blame you. He plays a news cameraman, and in a film that seemed to be a showcase for one incredible character bit after another, Seth was one of the few people who didn't really have a giant moment.
The party after the premiere was at the Roosevelt, and it was a particularly rowdy celebration. That was a film that almost didn't happen several times along the way during development, and it seemed like everyone assembled understood just how much of a miracle it was that it even existed. At one point during the evening, I saw Seth Rogen sitting by himself at a table, and I walked over to say hello.
I introduced myself, and I told him how much I enjoyed both "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared," and we talked for a few minutes. At that point, there was nothing that I knew of that was in development for Seth, and I wasn't trying to ingratiate myself with a rising star or anything similar. I just wanted him to know how much I liked the things that did get made. His work on "Freaks" is sort of amazing, and he's a stealth weapon on the show. On "Undeclared," there was a great confidence to what he was playing, and then came a lull.
The next time I saw him was on the set of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," and this time, it was one of those sets where everyone felt like they were firing on all cylinders, doing something that was a possible breakthrough moment. Watching him throw improv around with Romany Malco, Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, and Jane Lynch, I was flattened by how great they all were, how well they were clicking as an ensemble.
From there on, seeing Seth at work was a regular occurrence, and pretty early on, I was introduced to Evan Goldberg, his partner in crime. I've seen them happy when they were having really exciting creative experiences, and I've seen them when they were deep into a process that wasn't going as well, fighting their asses off to make something work. I've seen them work "under" Judd Apatow, perceived as him giving them a break, and I've seen just how much Judd always valued their voices in the mix, viewing them as important collaborators. I saw them go through the experience of "Superbad," tapping into their real-life friendship and turning it into something that was both personal and commercially successful.
To go from that to "Pineapple" to "Green Hornet," engaged in what felt like an ongoing constant conversation, I've really come to believe that these guys are building a foundation for a collaboration that's going to yield all sorts of unexpected returns in the years ahead. In many ways, "This Is The End" feels like a film that is going to close the book on a particular stretch of career, especially with Seth and Evan making the jump from writing and producing to writing and producing and directing. Remembering that first conversation with Seth off to the side of the room that night of the "Anchorman" premiere, realizing just how far he and Evan have come since then, I couldn't help but smile. It is inevitable that they would end up directing, finally, and that they would wrangle a cast full of people who have been part of these films and these experiences that have put them in this position.
When we arrived as a group on the soundstage that day, the guys were drawing straws to see who was going to have to venture outside "James Franco's house," which was the main set that was built on the stages. And by "the guys," I mean Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, James Franco, and Jonah Hill. They were sitting, all of them together around a table, and Seth and Evan were shooting the scene as one long Steadicam shot. It was great hearing Seth call "Action!" for the first time, then watching the shot unfold. The camera started on Danny, then moved around the table in a circle as each of the guys drew a straw.
At this point in the story, the guys have been through a fair amount of abuse, and they were all looking worse for the wear. While each take was substantially different because of the loose and natural improvisation, they all ended up at the same point. James Franco said, "Alright, who wants to go first?"
It's Craig who finally breaks and speaks up. "I'll go first."
Franco encourages him, saying, "Well, you've got the best odds. Definitely."
Craig milked the moment of selection, taking as much time as possible. Finally, the others started to goad him. When Craig did pick his straw, it was obvious right away that it was the short one, and everyone else erupted into celebration quickly before stopping, suddenly awkward and apologetic to Craig, like they'd already killed him just by selecting him to head outside.
As they finally broke after several takes, they brought us Danny McBride to kick off our conversation about the film. Knowing that the guys are playing themselves in the film, we asked them about how they were approaching that challenge. "I'm playing myself so I am an international superstar playboy extraordinaire." On a more serious note, he described the way the script laid a table for the guys, indicating just what the angle is that Seth and Evan wanted them to explore.
Beyond that, he seemed to also just plain love the script "The script is absolutely nuts. It’s just another one of those movies where you get it and you’re just pleased that someone is willing to pay money for something so insane, y'know?"
We asked if it was hard to make the transition to Seth and Evan being the guys behind the camera, but Danny brushed off that idea. "If you’re on a good run, Seth and Evan will encourage you to keep going or throw things your way if you’re going down the wrong path. It’s actually been very easy working with them as directors." They've always played some variation on that role on the sets I've visited, so it sounds like it has indeed been a natural transition.
When talking about how the film features "heightened" versions of the actors as themselves, Danny said that they're not just playing themselves as terrible. "Jonah’s character is very nice. They are variations on us, playing into the celebrity a little bit of each person. But we are in very desperate situations and so sometimes the worst comes out of people."
By now, much has been written about the improvisational nature of the comedy in these films, and this one is no exception. The big difference here is how many people there are in each scene, which definitely adds to the challenge. "You really have to be really paying attention to what’s happening in a scene. You’ve got to be able to feel those rhythms of when someone is going for a run. You’ve got to step back and let them do it."
Asked how the heightened version of Danny McBride handles the end of the world, he said, "If this were like 'Night Of The Living Dead,' I’m the dude that’s definitely causing trouble and freaking out and wanting to make a lot of the wrong choices in the situation." He laughed about how gory the film is, adding, "I’ve seen a lot of celebrities die very grisly deaths on this film." Asked what the goriest death is, he considered it and said, "A lot of people in this movie meet an end that I would not… choose one over the other, from people having their faces ripped off to arms ripped off to terrible things being put inside of them."
Uhhhh… yeah. That's awful.
McBride promised that the scale of the action isn't just confined to the house, although they are definitely milking the claustrophobia of being stuck in James Franco's house during the end of the world for all the comic value they can. "You have a bunch of people in there that are supposed to be friends, but as time wears on, those bonds quickly break and it just becomes every man for himself." The more we talked about the film, the clearer it was that this is another genre-bending bit of lunacy that almost feels like a miracle just because it exists, and we asked McBride if there's a secret to getting something like this made. "You have to prep the movie very fast and just get them spending money before they know what they are doing."
In our next piece, we'll look at how they pulled that off, and we'll hear from Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, and the host of the party, James Franco himself.
"This Is The End" opens June 12, 2013.