Just over a year before the cyberattack and subsequent threats that replaced a potential Christmas blockbuster with a heaping hunk of red-inked coal, Seth Rogen and James Franco were having a blast on the Vancouver-area set of The Interview. It was late November, 2013 – just over 11 months before the film would implode spectacularly: a result not of a bomb at the box office but of threats involving the real thing. Blissfully unaware of what was to come, Mr. Franco and Mr. Rogen had agreed to do an actual interview on a Friday toward the end of production.
Sitting at a little table off in a corner of the Burnaby studio along with Mr. Rogen's old Vancouver pal and long-time creative partner Evan Goldberg, they offered thoughtful analysis of the comedic process, their partnership and the project – about a U.S. TV crew that lands a one-on-one with the North Korean leader, and then gets roped into an assassination attempt.
Mr. Goldberg, relaxed and casual in a grey T-shirt, was explaining how the idea started with Osama bin Laden, but migrated away from the Middle East – too controversial.
"Seth came to work one day and was like, 'If Charlie Rose or someone got to interview bin Laden, why wouldn't they just kill him? They'd be saving so many people.' And then we started to be like, 'That'd be a good movie.'" (The script is written by Dan Sterling with story by Mr. Rogen, Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Sterling.)
Looking for a less contentious part of the world that would be able to elicit laughs – jokes about anything to do with Sept. 11 were not going to go over, and "the Middle East is like a hornet's nest" and "super complicated," explained Mr. Goldberg – they came up with a different leader for the assassination plot, Kim Jong-il. When he died, they moved to his son, the new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Safe, they figured.
Cue the hornets.
At the time, Mr. Rogen, Mr. Franco et al seemed genuinely unconcerned with any potential political fallout – whether during the real life interview, or while shooting scenes for the film on the set done up as Kim Jong-un's mountain retreat. In character, Mr. Franco embodied the cocky, dim-witted celebrity TV interviewer Dave Skylark; while Mr. Rogen as Skylark's brainy, long-suffering producer Aaron Rapaport provoked involuntary (and stifled) laughter from the set.
"Because it's about such serious stuff it makes making jokes way easier. Like Seth and I this morning were saying I think the crew is laughing more on this than anything we've ever done, and I hope audiences do in the same way," Mr. Goldberg said when asked whether it was hard to be funny about something so serious – meaning the assassination of a country's leader (and an actual human being) and the geopolitical implications of such a scenario.
"The crew is like super into this and they get the jokes, 'cause they have reality upon which to play off in their own heads. … When Kim Jong-un tells a peeing joke, it's extra funny because they're like, that guy's playing a real person."
Back when North Korea was merely a punchline for this project – and not a fatal blow – Mr. Rogen and his collaborators were pretty stoked about it.
"It feels like all the other movies we've done with the added bonus of the kids get to control [it], the kids are in the kitchen," said Mr. Franco, referring to the fact that Mr. Rogen and Mr. Goldberg are co-directing and producing (Mr. Franco, whose relationship with Mr. Rogen extends all the way back to the TV series Freaks and Geeks, is also an executive producer). "There's no boss. There's no one overseeing anything any more, so it feels very free and it feels very creative because of that; super fun in addition. But it's like we get to do exactly the movie that we want to do."
Nobody is talking about freedom in connection with The Interview these days. After a threat of a Sept. 11-like attack, screenings were pulled by theatres and then the Christmas Day release was cancelled altogether by Sony, still reeling from a massive hack that leaked all kinds of private and embarrassing information. No joke.