Seth Rogen is no Christian Bale. A scruffy, mild-mannered Canadian whose voice is laced in sarcasm, with seemingly every statement punctuated by a “Huh-Huh-Huh” chuckle, Rogen is best known for his stoner-slacker roles in films like “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express.” Even his bodily transformation for his role as billionaire playboy-cum-masked vigilante Britt Reid in THE GREEN HORNET wasn’t nearly as drastic as Bale’s – Rogen merely went from pudgy to out-of-shape. He is, in many ways, the anti-superhero.
First conceived as a radio program in 1936, then a comic, then a short-lived TV series in the 1960s – most notable for the first stateside appearance of martial artist Bruce Lee as the ass-kicking chauffeur, Kato – Britt Reid (a.k.a. The Green Hornet) is the original billionaire playboy (sorry, Bruce Wayne). Unlike Batman, however, The Green Hornet suffered a far more arduous journey to the big screen. The property was first being shopped around in 1992 with George Clooney attached in the title role, until he left to film “Batman and Robin.” Then, in 1997, Michel Gondry signed on to make his directorial debut with Mark Wahlberg in the lead, but it was stuck in development hell, and all parties left. In 2000, Jet Li was attached to play Kato, but again things fizzled. Then, in 2004, Miramax president Harvey Weinstein hired cult filmmaker and comic book writer Kevin Smith to write and direct the film, and Smith approached Jake Gyllenhaal for the lead, but by 2006, Smith left the project.
Finally, in 2007, producer Neal Moritz (“The Fast and the Furious” films) obtained the rights, optioned them to Columbia Pictures, and hired Seth Rogen to star as Reid and co-write the screenplay with his writing partner, Evan Goldberg (the duo wrote “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” together). Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle”) signed on to direct and star as Kato, and Nicolas Cage was in talks to play the villain, but Chow soon left, and Cage reportedly wanted to play the villain, Chudnofsky, with a Jamaican accent, and left the project over creative differences.
So, over a decade later, Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) was brought back to direct THE GREEN HORNET, with Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou cast as Kato, and Cameron Diaz in the role of love interest Lenore Case. The film concerns billionaire playboy Reid, heir to a newspaper publishing fortune, whose father (Tom Wilkinson) dies mysteriously. Reid must reassess his life, and eventually assumes the identity of a masked vigilante, The Green Hornet, who, along with his Kung Fu fighting chauffeur, Kato, cruise around in their souped-up ride Black Beauty, ridding the streets of crime. Their main target in Benjamin Chudnosky (“Inglorious Basterds’” Christoph Waltz), a Russian mobster who controls the Los Angeles criminal underworld.
MMM sat down with Seth Rogen to chat about how this project finally came to fruition – including the hilarious opening scene featuring James Franco, why it’s in 3-D, and finding the right mixture of action and comedy.
MMM: Can you talk about how Gondry and Cameron Diaz came into play?
ROGEN: After Stephen Chow left we were really just charged with finding a new director. We met with tons of people and Gondry was really passionate about it. He had been attached to a version of it fifteen years ago. It was the first movie that he was ever attached to as a director. He really just oddly seemed to get what we were trying to do. He really wins the award for being the most different than you think he’s going to be. You picture him for being this very pretentious kind of artsy fartsy guy, but he’s not. He’s really funny and he’s in no way pretentious. He’s incredibly sloppy in his appearance and disorganized seeming, but when he came in and met with us he really just seemed to get what we were going for. It was clear that he’d be able to do the action in a way that was really original and to us that was really important because we were pretty sure we’d be able to make an interesting story and we’d make it funny, but we knew that in order for it to stand up against these other superhero movies that the action had to be something exceptional. We wanted to make sure that we had a director who could do that and he definitely could.
MMM: And Cameron Diaz?
ROGEN: Cameron. It’s funny. We didn’t know if we were going to get enough money to hire a big actress or a little actress or what. The studio was in a good mood that day, I guess, and they were like, “You can get a big actress,” and we were like, “How about Cameron Diaz?” And they were like, “All right.” I mean, sometimes things just work out well. We called her and I think it was like a few hours from when we called her to when she said yes to doing it. I don’t think she even read the script fully before she committed to it. She just liked the idea of me and she liked mine and Evan’s movie. She loves ‘Pineapple Express’ and she likes Gondry, and so she was just like, ‘Sure, yes. Why not,’ which was amazing. She’s really cool.
MMM: Can you talk about how long it took to do that scene with James Franco and if it was improvised?
ROGEN: A day, and it was great. Again, sometimes you just ask someone to do something and they say yes. That was one of those things. He had some free time and it just worked out really well. We had this funny idea for the scene of how to introduce Christoph [Waltz] and we really wanted to give it something to kind of add some importance to it, I guess. Franco is one of the funniest dudes that I know and so we asked him and he said yes and it worked out well.
MMM: Was it your idea or Evan’s [Goldberg] idea or both, coming up with this unorthodox idea of the superhero and the sidekick getting into major brawls as part of the story?
ROGEN: It was me and Evan, definitely. I mean, from the first conversation we had about whether or not we should do this movie, that was really the only idea that we had. It was really the only reason that we had to do it, that we just started thinking, “It’d be funny if we did ‘The Green Hornet’ and it’s all about how him and Kato don’t get along well and they don’t feel like they appreciate each other in the right way.” That was really all we had initially and I think because the idea was so simple it’s the only reason that it actually kept going. With all the weird ups and downs that the movie had the fact that you could always look back to that idea, like, “Oh, it’s just about a hero and a sidekick and they don’t get along well,” I think that’s what always kept it moving forward. At its core it was just this really simple idea that everyone understood and liked and could picture what was funny about it.
MMM: Did you have any hesitation in making this a comedy since it’s sort of small, but vociferous fan base is loyal to the serious tone of the ’60’s version?
ROGEN: Not really. We just wanted to go for it. I view comic book movies and comic books themselves as two completely different things. As cool as ‘The Dark Knight’ is that’s not really how Batman is portrayed in a lot of comic books. If you’re a comic book purist then you probably wouldn’t make the argument today because you’d look stupid because the movie is so awesome, but you could make the argument that ‘The Dark Knight’ is actually completely unrepresentative of how Batman is often portrayed in the comic books. And so that was never really a fear of ours, or a consideration. We wanted to make the best movie possible, but at the same time include all the stuff that you expected from a ‘Green Hornet’ movie whether you were really familiar with it or completely unfamiliar with it. I think if you’re really familiar with it there are a hundred references that we put in that you should be able to find. And if you’re completely unfamiliar with it then hopefully every time one of those things happen you don’t think, ‘Oh, it must be something from the TV show. That’s why I don’t understand it.’ We really wanted to try to have it so if you knew nothing it all seemed funny and interesting and original, and if you knew everything it seemed like we were kind of honoring the source.
MMM: Regarding references, did you have a map of all the things that you wanted in the script? How did you decide that?
ROGEN: We went through the radio show and we watched all the episodes of the show and just every once in a while a thing, like, the Pony Room. There’s an episode in a Pony Room. We were like, “Oh, that’s a good name for a bar. If there’s a bar in the movie we should call it the Pony Room,” and there were things like that. The Zephyr was the original Black Beauty and so we thought, like, “Oh, if we can get a zephyr in there somewhere that would be cool.” Literally, the whole end action idea from the movie is actually from an episode of the TV show wherein I’m trying to conceal this bullet wound that I’ve gotten. So we tried to take it all out. We really went through everything and thought, “Yeah, that could be cool. That could be cool,” but again the first priority was to make a good movie and if possible include as much of this stuff as we could. And we got a lot of it in there.
MMM: Whose idea was it to Bruce Lee in it?
ROGEN: I think that was actually [Michel] Gondry’s idea, to put the Bruce Lee drawing in it. Me and Evan were honestly very cautious about drawing any attention to the Bruce Lee thing in any way, shape or form, but Gondry was right. He was like, “Everyone likes Bruce Lee. We should acknowledge it.” He thought it was a cool idea if this guy likes Bruce Lee, that the character himself is a fan of Bruce Lee’s. What you say to that is what all smart filmmakers say. “We’ll shoot it and decide later.” So that’s what we did and we tried versions without it and then we put it in one day and everyone was like, “That’s awesome.” We were like, “I guess we were wrong.”
MMM: How did you come up with the features for the car? Obviously it’s a character in the movie.
ROGEN: There was some stuff that we just knew we wanted because it was cool like machine guns and missiles and all of that stuff. Gondry just really got into what original things we could add. He had the idea for the doors that swing out with the machine guns hidden inside of them. I mean, we really just started to get into the fun of looking at this car. There was one sitting in the parking lot at Sony. We’d literally just go out and look at it and be like, “Oh, you could hide a flamethrower there. You could do this thing.” Our production designer, Owen Patterson, who’s awesome and did all ‘The Matrix’ movies was very helpful in coming up with a lot of stuff for it. He had a big play in designing the car, also. But then we also wanted to make sure that as the car did stuff it did in some way feel like it was a part of the story itself, especially in the third act. So, in the design of the final car chase we really wanted to have all these weapons tell a small story of what the car could do, like, at first it only shoots straight, but then it has the missiles and then it has the doors that open and can shoot and then it gets cut in half and it can still drive and it has the seats. We got into the idea of giving this car its own little story as it gets reduced down to nothing as the big end action sequence goes on which turned out, again, really cool.
MMM: Are you a car guy?
ROGEN: No. I’m not really a car guy at all.
MMM: What do you drive?
ROGEN: I drive a Toyota Highlander hybrid which since I got I’ve noticed is a car that’s marketed towards fathers in their thirties. I’m like, “Oh, man, I bought a family car.”
MMM: I really saw ‘48 Hours’ in the relationship between you and Kato –
ROGEN: I love ‘48 Hours.’ I think it’s amazing and that movie really goes for it a lot harder than ours does in a lot of ways. I mean, Nick Nolte’s character is very salty in that movie. But those were the types of movies that we talked about, these like buddy-action comedies. I think there have been a lot of those that have worked very successfully. So to us adding masks to the guys didn’t destroy this legacy of action comedies. Although in some people’s heads it would’ve, but we just thought that you could take this type of movie and tell it in this way and it wouldn’t destroy the universe.
MMM: Jay Chou came on very last minute to the film. He’s got a very different energy than Stephen Chow, who was supposed to have been Kato. What was it like to work with this guy who was making his first Hollywood film and what did his persona change in the character’s relationship?
ROGEN: We had quite a bit of time to re-imagine it, I would say. Me and Evan write pretty fast. So that’s helpful. The age difference was the biggest thing. Stephen is almost fifty years old and Jay is around my age. So that was actually really helpful, we thought, because it made the relationship much more like a brother relationship rather than like a father-son relationship which isn’t really what we wanted. So it made us much more like peers, which was very helpful. I would say that Jay did not know much English when we started this, and it’s funny, while we were filming, I’ll be honest, everyday would be like, “I understood that. Did you understand that?” “Yeah, I understood.” It was one of the most unbelievable relief’s of my life, the first time that we showed the movie to people and the lady asked the audience, “Who here understood Jay Chou,” and everyone raised their hand. So that was a huge relief because when we first met him he literally spoke no English whatsoever. I think we kind of saw the evolution and it’s hard to make the judgment when you’re there all the time. He’s just unbelievably cool and funny and by the end he was able to fully improvise and add tons of stuff into the movie. A lot of the funny stuff he says in the movie he totally made up on his own.
MMM: Can you talk about the 3-D version of this?
ROGEN: Well, 3-D was something that we were passionate about from the get go. Honestly, the first conversation that me and Evan and Gondry ever had about the movie was that we thought we were going to be filming it in 3-D, but so many things happened leading up to filming that kind of made us look insane that I think the idea of giving us a giant chunk of money and an incredibly logistically complicated filming method was just the last thing the studio wanted to do right before we started filming. It was more like, “You guys make your movie. If it turns out good we’ll let you make it into 3-D, and otherwise we’ll spend as little money as we can.” Luckily they liked it and we had enough time to really do the 3-D well, which was something that I’m happy about because it was a real pain in the ass.
MMM: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned as a filmmaker in terms of this experience and what advice would you give to anyone who’s going to go through this?
ROGEN: I’d say don’t make a really expensive movie unless it’s an idea that you really like because it’s harder. It’s really difficult to make a really big movie. I didn’t realize how much we were flying under the radar until we did this. I’m convinced that Sony never even read ‘Pineapple Express.’ We really got a lot of freedom in the past to do things and with literally no conversation, and ultimately with ‘Green Hornet’ we got everything we wanted. It was just a lot harder to get it, basically. The amount of scrutiny that a movie like this goes under is just exponentially more than anything than we’ve experienced before, both internally and externally. The fact that you meet with an actor and then you go online and read that that actor is the star of your movie and you’re like, “What the hell happened?” It was crazy to see the amount of attention that it was getting and to see how really things were happening on this movie that happened on every movie that we’d ever done, but just because of the perception of the type of movie it was all getting blown into this crazy proportion. The only reason that we kept with it was that we liked the movie and we liked the idea and it would’ve been really easy to bail. I mean, we could’ve made ten ‘Superbad’s’ in the amount of time that we made this. So we knew that we’d only get one opportunity to make a superhero-type movie.
THE GREEN HORNET is out now in theaters nationwide.
Tags: Bruce Lee, Cameron Diaz, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, George Clooney, Harvey Weinstein, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jay Chou, Kevin Smith, Knocked Up, Mark Wahlberg, michel gondry, Neal Moritz, Nicolas Cage, Pineapple Express, Seth Rogen, Stephen Chow, Superbad, The Green Hornet
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