It was in 2004, on the set of HBO’s “Da Ali G Show,” that Seth Rogen, then 22 and working behind the scenes as a member of Sacha Baron Cohen’s writing team, met Will Reiser, a producer slighter of frame and two years his elder.
Today, the best friends — in good health and spirits, albeit jet-lagged — are touring the country to promote “50/50,” their first big-screen collaboration, due Friday.
What happened in between — Reiser’s grueling quest to beat a deadly disease, made more bearable by Rogen’s unwavering support and much-needed comic relief — served as the inspiration for their poignant new comedy.
Just a year after that initial meeting, Reiser was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in his back; “50/50,” which he wrote and produced, is a loosely autobiographical account of his bumpy road to recovery.
It also served as the creative outlet that helped him come to terms with reality.
Even as he underwent chemotherapy, and later surgery to remove a tumor from his spine, Reiser, Rogen and fellow “Ali G” writer Evan Goldberg (“Superbad”) tossed around ways to use the illness as the foundation for a farce — an R-rated take on “The Bucket List,” perhaps.
Yet as Reiser recovered, they settled on a more naturalistic, serious-minded story that combines some of his real-life experiences with “pure fiction.”
“Adam was written as an extension of me, so in that sense I relate to him,” he says of his “50/50” alter ego, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
“But when I see Joe on the screen, it feels like I’m watching him playing a character he created. I don’t see myself — I’ve moved on from that. Even when I was doing rewrites on set, Seth and Evan kept introducing new ideas and new jokes so we could tell the best story possible, not necessarily my story.”
The movie treads a fine line, deftly balancing the gravity of Adam’s condition with the jokes that he and Rogen — who plays Kyle, a goofier version of himself — used both as a coping mechanism and a selling point for a screenplay that could have been darker and, frankly, more unsettling.
But neither Reiser nor Rogen wanted to dwell on the physical and emotional lows of recovery.
“It could’ve been really depressing,” says Rogen. “We didn’t want to make that movie. We wanted people to leave the movie connected, happy to be alive. And we know it’s happening because we’ve seen it — and that’s what I want to take away from this.”
IF YOU GO
- Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston
- Written by Will Reiser
- Directed by Jonathan Levine
- Rated R
- Running time 1 hour 40 minutes