Saturday, August 30, 2008

Seth Rogen and James Franco Light Up "Pineapple Express"

Feature Story by Brad Balfour

Over the last few years, producer/writer/director Judd Apatow has made himself into a mini-mogul while shepherding along a string of R-rated comedies that have varied from brilliant to inane. Along the way, he has provided a platform for a crop of like-minded talents ranging from Steve Carrell to Seth Rogen.

With "Knocked Up," Apatow cast Rogen as the slacker pothead who gets lucky one night and scores a drunken babe—only to find out he's gotten her pregnant. Given that she's played by Katherine Heigel, he ultimately convinces her to have both a relationship and the kid. For Rogen, it was a benchmark, establishing him as a new star and uber-sex symbol in reverse. Once Rogen had scripted last year's sleeper hit, "Superbad," it looked like he and Apatow could slip any off-beat concept past the studio and financiers.

So that's the case with "Pineapple Express," a stoner flick with a twist. Process server Dale Denton (Rogen) and newfound pal, street-level dealer Saul Silver (James Franco) get caught in the middle of a drug war between the established smuggler Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and the Korean gang who is trying to take over his turf. With this synthesis of action flick and slacker comedy, Rogen is beginning to look like he can do no wrong.

Stars Rogen and Franco—his buddy from Apatow protean television series, "Freaks and Geeks" and star of straightforward action flicks like the "Spider-Man" trilogy and "Flyboys"—joined a small roundtable to trade truths and quips about this riotous headbuster of a film.

Q: On paper, a stoner action flick doesn't seem like the most appealing proposition. So how did you pitch this script to Sony?

SR: We went to them with this pretty soon after we went to them with "Superbad." I think we literally started shooting this around three weeks after we finished shooting "Superbad." And "Superbad" was getting made and it was looking good. They pretty much just wanted a "Superbad" sequel and we were like, "No, but we have this other movie if you really want to make one."

They really gave us no notes, and it's a cheap enough movie [with a budget of $25 million] that they kind of just let us do whatever we wanted. Amy Pascal, the head of Sony, admitted to me at the first test screening that she did not get the movie and wasn't sure if it was a terrible idea or a good idea, but she just decided to let us go for it. And now she loves it, thankfully. But every time I watch, it I'm shocked we got away with it. To me it's crazy, and I can't believe we had as little involvement as we did with the studio, and they really just let us make a crazy movie.

JF: They had one note: "No blood on the face," for some reason.

SR: And we ignored that pretty much! [laughs]

Q: David isn't exactly the first director who comes to mind to make this type of film. How did you go about choosing him to direct your screenplay?

SR: We were very aware from the get-go that there was a very bad version of this movie [that could be made]. We could tell just when we told people the idea—you know, it wasn't an idea where people were like, "Oh, that sounds awesome!" It was, "You're writing a weed action movie? That's the stupidest thing ever." So we knew that we needed to hire someone that would elevate the material and take it very seriously, and not make the version that everyone was clearly picturing when we told them the idea.

We had met [actor/writer] Danny McBride after seeing [his film] "The Foot Fist Way," and he introduced us to David and told us how funny he was. We had seen his movies and thought, "Well, he's clearly a very thoughtful, intelligent person with a visual style and emotional sense to these things." He really liked the script, and we thought, "This might be weird enough to work!"

Q: How do you and writer Evan Goldberg collaborate on screenplays?

SR: We really write together the same way we did when we were 13 years old. Basically, we just sat in front of the computer and wrote. But one of the luxuries of having a few movies that did well is that the studio trusts you a little more, and they did let us go into the shooting of some scenes without a script at all.

Q: How much of the dialogue was improvised?

JF: The original script was very funny. But the way that Seth and Judd had been working on the last few movies is, if an actor wants to throw anything in at any time, it's fair game. I like it because it keeps the actors on their toes, and it makes it more natural if you know that anything can come your way. We usually do a version of the script, and then keep the cameras rolling and you can try whatever. And then there were some scenes, particularly the last scene, where there was no script and it was kind of just talking.

We know these guys are skilled improvisers, and if you have enough time, something good will come. And for the last scene in the movie in particular [in the diner], we knew we wanted it to be very organic and take it all back to the friendship that the audience is tracking in the first place.

We knew it would be hard to script, so we just convinced them to let us shoot for a day and not have a script, and just find it as we went along. And I think it's one of the best scenes in the movie. It really feels real, I think, and when you watch it you think, "There's no way this is written," because we're all talking at the exact same time.

JF: Like [the late seminal director Robert] Altman.

SR: Exactly, he writes that stuff! This is our Altman.

Q: You had mentioned Danny McBride. What members of the supporting cast really surprised you?

JF: A lot of Danny's movies hadn't come out [yet]. I'd seen "The Foot Fist Way" and David's movie "All the Real Girls"…

SR: He was very surprising constantly, though. He made up so much of his own stuff. The whole thing with the cake for the cat – he made up all that. I can't imagine why you would write that [laughs], but he's crazy. I'm glad he's on my team.

Q: Was Danny the one who was the most prone to cracking you guys up on set?

JF: David Gordon Green had to leave the set because he was laughing so much and ruining all the takes during those scenes.

Q: As the screenwriter, did you intend to make this film so much of an action movie?

SR: We love action movies. Those are really our favorite types of movies. We make comedies, but I don't run out to see "The Love Guru"—I run out to see "Batman." Those are the types of movies that I get excited about, and those are the types of movies that I'd love to make.

Q: There are a lot of action movie influences in the film. How aware were you of these specific elements?

SR: Sometimes more aware than others, I think. We knew we really wanted it to have this action movie feel which was similar to the action movies we liked growing up, from the late '80s and early '90s. And David [Gordon Green] as a director is very influenced by '70s filmmaking—like Robert Altman and [John] Cassavetes. So the more '70s influences came from David, and the more '80s action movie feel came from what we wrote into the script.

Q: James, did you approach the action in this film any different from your previous films?

JF: Well, it's like the most expensive pot movie ever made, but the cheapest action movie ever made. The budget on this was probably like a day of work on "Spider-Man." So what that translated to was doing the action scenes in a very short amount of time, and the actors doing their own stunts—which was also done for comedic reasons. We're not as skilled at fighting as stuntmen, so when we fight it looks more awkward. But that also meant a lot more injuries. I anticipated some injuries, and there were some. I busted my head open [running into a tree], and Seth sprained his finger, and Danny busted his head open [on a breakaway bong]. I love the end result, but—

SR: It looks like we're hurting ourselves, and that's why.

Q: Are you going to be the new model for the action hero?

SR: I'd like to think [so]. I think The Rock will soon be obsolete, and this will be the new mold of physical perfection [laughs].

Q: Who is better with the guns?

JF: You kind of took to that pretty well.

SR: I enjoyed it a lot.

JF: We did a lot of hand-to-hand action scenes before the guns. And we all got hurt.

SR: You throw a pumpkin grenade a lot better than I do, but I shoot guns pretty good! My favorite thing, though, is the "Street Fighter" punch that you did at the end.

JF: Yeah, that was Ryu!

SR: That played great at Comic-Con. Tiger upper-cut!

Q: James, when you're sitting there in a car with your foot through the window, and your leg sticking out there, did you think to yourself, "This is the weirdest point in my career right now?" SR: That was pretty funny, because you couldn't take it out for awhile there…

JF: It was actually kind of relaxing.

SR: [Laughs] That was the least weird scene we shot at that point!

Q: James, did you use any of your "Spider-Man" action expertise in the fighting scenes?

JF: Um, no… I pretty much was not thinking of "Spider-Man" throughout filming. [Laughs] Doing this movie was a great experience for me. "Spider-Man" movies aside, I was really unhappy with a lot of the movies I'd done, and this was just a chance to have fun with friends and have a good time, and I'm so happy that the movie's turned out well. Who would've thought the movie I had the most fun on would be the movie that people are responding to.

Q: What are some of the stoner movies that inspired you to make this one?

SR: Well, we were inspired by both good and bad stoner movies; certain things to stay away from, and certain things we like. The "Cheech & Chong" movies were very cool when I first watched them, but they don't have very good stories per se, and they don't hold up that well. I think if you didn't smoke weed, you would not like those movies at all, potentially. But movies like "Friday" kind of transcend a little bit; they have a plot that's more than two guys just smoking weed the whole movie.

Movies like "The Big Lebowski" are just about stoners, and they show that just because your main character's a stoner, doesn't mean the movie is primarily for stoners. And movies like "Half Baked" were some interesting cautionary tales, because I loved that movie, and then the end is like, "And never smoke weed again!" And it's like, "What the fuck? What do you think I'm doing? You make me wanna smoke weed for two hours, and then you make me feel guilty about it?" So we didn't want to do that also. We watched them all, and took good and bad lessons from them.

Q: You're not a huge pot smoker. What inspired this character?

JF: Well, I certainly smoked my fair share when I was younger, it's just not a part of my life anymore. But I met a lot of pot dealers before we did the movie, and even hired one on the crew—

SR: [Laughs] Which really was a pain in the ass!

JF: He was a particularly good model. If I ever needed a list of different silly pot names or something like that, I could go to him. He had all that at his fingertips.

Q: Is this movie's going to help with the legalization of marijuana?

SR: That's a good question! [laughs] I think anything that throws it in people's faces is probably helpful—it gets people talking about it. The fact that you asked me that question now is a step in the right direction, I'd say… But probably not—as long as Pfizer has anything to say about it.

Q: Is there a dichotomy between you and Judd Apatow on the marijuana issue?

SR: This is funny, because these are conversations that have been happening since we wrote the movie in 2002, and they continue on through the release! [Laughs]

Q: In "Knocked Up," the protagonist turns his back on the stoner lifestyle to settle down and get the girl.

SR: Judd wrote that one [laughs].

Q: So do you guys balance off your sensibility about marijuana and Judd's, and it sort of comes out somewhere in the middle?

SR: I'd say with this one there were many discussions about the exact lesson we were imparting on people, and I think it came out somewhere in the middle. Some people come up to me and they're like, "I can't believe there's no anti-weed message!" And other people come up to me and they're like, "I can't believe how strong an anti-weed message there is!"

It's really whatever you take from it, and it's really interesting how that worked out. I don't think you get the sense that these guys will stop smoking weed after this movie ends. But I also don't think you get the sense that that's necessarily the smartest thing these guys should do, either.

JF: It's not like my character's the best role model either. I think it just would've felt phony at the end, too. There was a version like that, but I don't think it would've even been believable if suddenly at the end we were like, "We'll never do this again."

SR: We actually tried to shoot it just to make certain parties happy, and it just didn't feel real. It didn't feel like there was any context for anyone to even say anything like that.

JF: It would be like saying at the end of "Spider-Man," "And if you read comic books, you're a fuckin' nerd!"

SR: That's exactly it—you're alienating your core audience. But I have no doubt that when you watch this movie you will want to smoke weed! That's what I know I've nailed Judd on! Whether it has a message or not, people will want to get high when they watch the movie.

Q: You flouted social mores in the movie, like having a guy in his 20s dating the high school girl, and the whole "Bromosexual" thing.

SR: That's just stuff we think is funny. We tend towards the slightly more… lowbrow, I guess.

JF: And the high school girl, too, is a way to show the character's immaturity, like to grow from.

SR: Exactly. We wanted a kind of a reverse-relationship, you know? Normally in these movies it would be: the guy has a girlfriend, she's disappointed with him, then all this shit goes down with weed dealers, and he has to prove he's a good guy. We were like, what's the exact opposite of that? You're praying for them to break up!

The whole movie is basically the exact opposite. You're not praying that he's going to prove himself, you're praying that he's going to realize that he's being a creepy douche-bag and that he should not be dating a high school girl. And I related to it. When I was in high school, there's always that hot girl who's dating a 25-year-old guy, and you're like, "What is it? That guy must be a loser, because otherwise he'd be dating a 25-year-old girl."

Q: Had you guys always been looking to star in a project together ever since your "Freaks and Geeks" days?

SR: I would not describe it like that, to be perfectly honest.

JF: I mean, there wasn't really the opportunity. I was dying to get Seth for "Annapolis…"

SR: [Laughs] Exactly. I auditioned for Tristan [in "Tristan & Isolde"] but I didn't get it [Laughs].

Q: Do you guys see these characters as grown-up versions of your "Freaks and Geeks" characters in a way?

SR: Not really…

JF: I'd say those characters all smoked weed, but that's about the only similarity.

Q: So you've chosen to adapt "The Green Hornet?" Most people view The Green Hornet as the guy who popped up during the "Batman" series. But it was more famous for the sidekick: Bruce Lee.

SR: To us, the idea of exploring the relationship between a hero and his sidekick was very funny and to us, the Green Hornet had the most famous sidekick ever out of any hero. When you say "The Green Hornet," nobody says, "Hey, Van Williams was on that," they say, "Bruce Lee was on that!" To us, it became the ideal outlet for exploring that kind of relationship, and because there's some built-in fan base, Sony would give us money to make a big, crazy action movie.

Q: And there's a rumor you'll be starring in a "Ghostbusters" film alongside Steve Carrell?

SR: No, I haven't heard anything. Me and Steve Carrell? Wow, that sounds fun! I'm psyched about it! Are you sure I'm not playing Slimer?

Q: Is there a real 'Pineapple Express' killer marijuana strain?

SR: There probably is now, but at the time of the making of the movie there was not. We just invented it for the purpose of the movie, but it sounds like a weed. I'm sure there will be now!

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