50/50 writer Will Reiser tells Jeremy Kay about seeing the funny side of cancer — and balancing laughter and tears.
It cannot be easy to write a comedy about your cancer, but somehow Will Reiser pulled it off: the resulting film has won a
fiercely devoted following and is attracting awards buzz. 50/50 is directed by Jonathan Levine and stars Joseph Gordon-
Levitt as Reiser’s on-screen persona alongside the writer’s real-life friend Seth Rogen.
The writing process, Reiser says, “forced me to go back.” In February 2005 Reiser, who was 25 at the time, was diagnosed with a
massive tumour on his spine. “The movie was an incredible way for me to process my experiences,” the writer says. “When I was sick, I didn’t know how to talk about what I was going through. Writing it was a form of expression and a way for me to process it, [which] was very cathartic.”
Rogen and collaborator Evan Goldberg, friends from Da Ali G Show on which Reiser had served as associate producer, urged him to
write a screenplay about his experiences.
“I was probably the first person to joke about the situation, then Seth and Evan followed my lead. It was a coping mechanism,” he
says. In November 2006, almost 18 months after a potentially lifethreatening but ultimately successful surgery, he put pen to paper.
The screenplay was first called The Fuck It List, before morphing into I’m With Cancer and finally 50/50. Reiser cites The Apartment as
his favourite film, and says: “I love the films that make you laugh and cry. It took writing numerous drafts and the process of shooting it to help me figure out that balance. I learned not to always try to fi nd the joke; the comedy had to come organically.”
Many people believe it did, and Reiser is set to reteam with Levine on another true-life story about a surreal trip to a couple’s retreat in Jamaica with his grandmother. He is also writing Men, which Todd Phillips will direct.