The Secret to Seth Rogen's success: Make it cheap, make it dirty and ignore the studio
The first movie they wrote together, “Superbad,” grossed $169 million and entered the pantheon of high school comedies. The first movie they directed, “This is the End,” playfully riffed on the summer of the apocalypse and scored $126 million in the process. “Neighbors,” their latest movie, was this summer's first breakout comedy, and may spawn the first sequel of their career (more on that later).
Yet their approach to producing is born out of failure and frustration. Flummoxed in the past by studios, ratings boards and other producers, they demand the complete creative control only success (and a tiny budget) can provide.
“Our overarching philosophy is to find out the most money they will give us and go away,” James Weaver, their producing partner at Point Grey Pictures, said Saturday during a panel at the Produced By Conference.
Rogen and Goldberg began their career in the protective bubble of Judd Apatow, whom Rogen glommed onto after his stint on Apatow's TV show “Undeclared.”
“I just decided I would be around all the time, and I entrenched myself in Judd's office,” Rogen said. Apatow earned the right to do whatever he wanted after producing “Anchorman,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Talladega Nights” — all three of which were hits.
He then produced eight films in a two-year span, writing three and directing one, “Knocked Up.” Rogen and Goldberg executive produced three of those — “Superbad,” “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express,” and Apatow was so busy that Goldberg was left as the primary producer on “Pineapple Express.”
“I did not have the skill to do that yet,” Goldberg said. “I didn't realize the bubble we were in. … We just thought that's how movies were; they give you $20 million and they let you do your thing.”
The next movie they wrote together, “The Green Hornet,” is the one major failure of their career. Based on a character from an old radio show, the movie cost more than most of their previous collaborations combined.
“That was a massive budget, runaway freight train of franchise creation,” Weaver said. “We watched how that challenges the creative process.”
Weaver was Rogen's assistant when they made that movie, as he had been on Apatow's “Funny People.” He began his life in Los Angeles as a manager of a discount clothing store before landing on the desk of agent David Kramer.
His experience in the agency world prepared him for his current role alongside Rogen and Goldberg: dealing with executives, publicists and agents — the exact people Rogen and Goldberg hope to avoid.
“We didn't want to play the game, and that probably made people really frustrated with us,” Rogen said. “It made us seem immature. We were already young, so that didn't help.”
Weaver would call the agents and studios back, paying lip service to the dealmakers.
“Seth and I both dressed like homeless potheads,” Goldberg said. “Having someone whose shirt was not wrinkled…
“We had a shirt tucked-in guy all of a sudden,” Rogen interjected, to much laughter.
Though Rogen and Goldberg found someone who could manage the delicate egos of agents and studio executives, Weaver's primary goal was to exclude them from the creative process.
“Our brand of hard-R comedy does not go well with a lot of studio influence,” Goldberg said.
Again, “The Green Hornet” was instructive. It is hard for a studio to risk offending people when the movie costs $120 million. Rogen, Goldberg and Weaver have made four movies since “The Green Hornet,” and not one cost more than $40 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
The success of “50/50,” “This is the End” and “Neighbors” have awarded Rogen and Goldberg the freedom they desire — the freedom to flout the MPAA's ratings system.
“The ratings system is so stupid,” Rogen said. “Why enter a system that's archaic and stupid?” Armed with an R-rating, “you can do pretty much anything you want, except penetration.”
So how will they next offend people? They just directed “The Interview,” a comedy set in North Korea starring Rogen and Franco, and they are in production on “Sausage Party,” an animated comedy about literal sausages.
“People ask us, ‘Do you dudes just get baked on a couch and come up with ideas?” Goldberg said. “With that one, yes.”
Here are some other takeaways from the session:
A ‘Neighbors’ Sequel Could Happen. Goldberg said he, Rogen and Weaver were having “a lot of meetings” about a potential sequel to “Neighbors.” While they would love to make one, “comedies tend to have shitty sequels.” Apatow has never made a sequel, though “This Is 40” spun off from “Knocked Up.” And “Neighbors” director Nick Stoller made “Get Him to the Greek,” a spin-off of his own “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”
McLovin Was Never Supposed to be in “Superbad.” Christopher Mintz-Plasse's iconic alias in “Superbad” was a placeholder joke. As they tested it, it became clear that the audiences loved it. “We didn't think McLovin was that funny,” Rogen said. Goldberg still doesn't.
They Won't Be Making a Drama Any Time Soon. Goldberg said they have plans to make more dramatic material, but they are in “no rush to go there.” He and Rogen spend a lot of time on movie sets, and comedy makes that process enjoyable. “It makes me respect people who make '12 Years a Slave,'” Goldberg said. “I couldn't functionally handle that.”