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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An artist of protean talent, Michel Gondry began his career making music videos for his French rock band Oui Oui, where he was the drummer. The stylization of these videos caught the attention of Icelandic singer Björk, who asked him to direct the video for her first solo single “Human Behaviour.” The avant garde video, a surrealist take on the children’s tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” would garner six nominations at the MTV Video Music Awards and announce a new talent. The Gondry/Björk collaboration would last a total of seven music videos, with Gondry going on to direct videos for Daft Punk, The White Stripes, Radiohead, Beck and more.
Gondry has also created several award-winning television commercials. He invented the famous “bullet time” technique made famous by “The Matrix” in a 1998 commercial for Smirnoff vodka, and his Levi’s 501 Jeans “Drugstore” spot holds the Guinness World Record for “Most awards won by a TV commercial.”
Gondry, along with fellow music video helmers Spike Jonze and David Fincher, soon segued into film, making his feature directorial debut with 2001’s “Human Nature,” garnering mixed reviews. His second film, 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” would better utilize many of Gondry’s image manipulation techniques that garnered him acclaim in the music video world, and received critical praise, including an Academy Award win alongside Charlie Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth for the film’s screenplay. Gondry also directed two films in 2006: the musical documentary “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” which followed comedian Dave Chappelle’s attempt to host a free mega-concert in Brooklyn, and “The Science of Sleep,” starring Gael García Bernal as a young man whose imagination conflicts with reality. In 2008, he directed his first Hollywood film, “Be Kind Rewind,” about a pair of sad sack video store employees who are forced to make DIY home videos to salvage their business.
If you’re still not convinced of Gondry’s ability, feel free to check out this video of Msr. Gondry solving a Rubik’s Cube with his feet. Satisfied?
His latest film marks a return to the documentary milieu he explored “Block Party,” but this time it’s personal. In The Thorn in the Heart (L’épine dans le coeur), Michel Gondry chronicles the life of the Gondry family matriarch, his aunt Suzette Gondry, and her strained relationship with her son, Jean-Yves.
MMM sat down for a long conversation over lunch with Michel Gondry – with a special cameo appearance by his artist-son Paul – chatting about his most personal film to date, filmmaking techniques, his upcoming superhero film “The Green Hornet,” starring Seth Rogen, Cameron Diaz and Christoph Waltz, and much more.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: What made you think your aunt would make such a good documentary subject?
MICHEL GONDRY: It was my son, actually. He told me that when she visited here in 2004 while I was shooting “Eternal Sunshine,” she was taking care of my son and started to tell her stories, and he said, “Dad, you have to make a movie about Suzette.” So, I obeyed my son.
MMM: How did you gather so much archival material?
GONDRY: We are a very visual family. Those microfilms look like sperm invading an egg! [Laughs] My father introduced my cousin to Super 8 technology and he was into it. He had this digital editing system and he’d make them himself. So, we have tons of footage from the ‘70s in my family. We’re big in Super 8. And I was taking a lot of photos and printing them myself, but none you see in this documentary.
MMM: Why did you decide to shape the documentary the way you did?
GONDRY: Initially, I wanted to visit all the schools that Suzette had taught in because it’s driven by the department, so she would always be sent around the 8 schools in the place where she lived. Some had been destroyed and some had been taken over by habitation. I thought I would follow her teaching years chronologically, and it took me two years, but she didn’t want to talk about her problems with her son. She knew I was interested so we asked him to cook for the crew, and then we started to interview him as her pupil, then the mother/son relationship started. I remember my DP said, “Oh, you wanted some drama? There you are!” That became the axis of the documentary.
MMM: How does your filmmaking approach change when you’re doing a documentary as opposed to one of your feature films?
GONDRY: You don’t have a screenplay of course and I think it’s very important to go when you don’t know your answers. I think you have to be able to come back with the opposite answer from what you expect. To me, the interest is to be recording what you discover and why you’re finding it, which allows the audience to be part of it. So basically, I prepare for not being prepared. But then I have to be really courageous to ask the questions. When I watch “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” I have all these questions that I think I should have asked, and the next time I’ll be asking those questions.
MMM: Were there some answers that were too painful or embarrassing to be included in the film?
GONDRY: No… There was a story about some jewelry that my grandmother had given to her that apparently she didn’t share. I confronted her in an interview but it wasn’t interesting. During the process, there were a lot of dark stories like in any family. Doing the documentary, I clarified all that and I feel better with my relationship with my aunty. Some people don’t like her in the family because she’s quite hard sometimes, and I think she’s much softer now. I wanted to show that. That’s why I made her cry – not really purposely. I know that’s terrible, but I think she’s a kind person.
MMM: Has Suzette seen the documentary?
GONDRY: Of course. She was very sad in the beginning, especially when she saw the title, because she thought I was just focusing on the negative part. I had to write her a letter saying it was my way to show who she really was. We showed it to my village and it was very nice. People really appreciated that we talked about things honestly. In France, it’s a country where people are very harsh and enclosed and don’t communicate very much. My cousin, even though it was tough on him, he enjoyed it because of the attention. My son, on the other hand, doesn’t jump to see my work. He’s 19 right now and he wants to be his own person. [Laughs] He lives on his own in Brooklyn.
[Michel leaves the interview to go grab his son, Paul Gondry. Paul enters the room in a trilby hat, three-piece suit with vest and paint-stained leather shoes.]
MMM: Are you working on films as well?
PAUL GONDRY: Me? I’m working on a film. I don’t know if I’m going to work in films. I’m living in Brooklyn right now, taking care of [Michel’s] house.
GONDRY: He’s not taking care on his own. He’s taking care of my house with all his friends! [Laughs]
MMM: You were quite young on film and look much older now. Do you remember anything from the making of the film?
PAUL: I remember me, like, fucking around.
PAUL: Goofing around.
GONDRY: Yes. I prefer that!
PAUL: I was satanic at the time, so I was having crazy rituals at the house like drinking blood, crazy stuff. The house was really gothic which was hilarious. Suzette was trying to take care of me in New York, and I have some really funny memories about that.
GONDRY: It was easy for me because I didn’t know the answers to religious questions so since he believed in Satan, I didn’t have to get involved with that! [Laughs]
[Paul leaves the interview.]
MMM: Is Suzette your aunt by marriage?
GONDRY: Yeah, by marriage. No blood.
MMM: It’s funny because you two look so much alike.
GONDRY: Yeah, I know! I look more like her than her son looks like her! It’s funny. Maybe she’s the mother… I spend more time with her than my mom now, and she probably enjoys my company more than her son. You don’t choose your parents and you don’t choose your children in a way.
MMM: Were there moments where you ever wanted to stop filming? Because at one point, she starts to cry and you even say, “Oh no, I’m being mean.”
GONDRY: That’s where my function of director takes over. I always keep in mind the ethic, which is, “At the end of the day, the individual is more important than the film.” But if the film is not good, then it’s not good for her. I’m willing to go into those places. When I travel in a small plane I get very scared but if I’m traveling with a camera, I don’t get scared. I remember when I was shooting a video for Bjork and I was hanging out of the side of a helicopter and I would be terrified as soon as the camera was running out of film. But while the camera was rolling, I wouldn’t feel a thing. The camera allows me to be different then how I would be without it. But I try to be decent and supporting.
MMM: What do you think audiences will take away from this study of Suzette’s life?
GONDRY: Some people may think, “Why would you do a documentary about anyone like that?” And I think it’s poor thinking. One guy who gave me a bad review said, “Eighty-five percent of people’s lives are boring and that’s why we invented entertainment.” That was very flattering for me to hear because I believe exactly the opposite. I think that in eighty-five percent of movies we see, we see people who are already in the spotlight. We never film people who aren’t in something publicly. I’m not the only one to do a documentary of people in their family, it’s been done, but I think filming people for who they are, regardless of their achievement, it’s interesting. What I hope is that people don’t feel so bad about their own family after seeing the film.
MMM: But did you learn anything new?
GONDRY: I clarified a lot of doubts I had on Suzette, and I understood what was going on. I understood why it was hard for her to stand her son, because he’s a pain the neck! As great as he is, you have to deal with him. He came to visit me for two weeks in Los Angeles and I was happy when he left. Some people, you like them but you’re happy when you say goodbye too because you can breathe. Some people are so needy that they won’t let you think! I was trying to shoot the film and he was asking me questions every ten seconds. I found this guy while I was shooting who was very talkative and spoke French, so I got them talking together, and the guy ended up visiting France and seeing [my cousin]. Suzette and I are getting along because I don’t mind her telling me a story and she doesn’t mind not talking for hours. When my father passed away, I was staying with her at this house and we took a three-hour walk and we didn’t say one word. It was very comforting.
MMM: One of the most interesting elements of Suzette’s life is her time spent teaching both male and female Algerian children at a time when they were outcasts of sorts in French society. What drove her to do that?
GONDRY: It’s very interesting. Her perspective on nature is very specific. She’s part of a very mature environment. In her village, women would not sit at the table at dinner. They would stand in the kitchen while men would be eating about 50, 100 years ago. That was in the blood, the culture. She really worked very hard for people yet she’s a suffragette in her own way. So, there is this tolerance to teach to people who are not necessarily welcome. And she treats me like a king when I visit her. Everybody has to work but me and sometimes I feel embarrassed, because whenever anyone argues with me, she always takes my side!
MMM: We’re used to “Michel Gondry: Innovative Filmmaker,” and there are a few scenes in this film that are Gondry-esque, but, for the most part, it’s pretty straightforward. So was it difficult to restrain yourself from a technological standpoint in this film?
GONDRY: With the invisible costumes in the school, I wanted the children to enjoy the special effects in the project. Before the documentary was finished, we did a DVD and sent it to the kids, so it was to participate in the magic. With the animation, Suzette wanted me to do some because we shot “The Science of Sleep” in her house, and she had a great time. So I did it a little bit for her.
MMM: What are you doing next?
GONDRY: I’m finishing editing “The Green Hornet,” and I am working on a project with my son – an animated feature film – based on my son’s story and my contribution. My son is an amazing artist and wants to be his own person so I don’t want to say it’s about me too much!
MMM: You’ve said “Back to the Future” is one of your favorite films. Will the tone of “Green Hornet” be close to that? A comedic tone?
MMM: Are you planning on directing any music videos in the near future?
GONDRY: I’m directing a video for Mia Doi Todd. She’s a singer. We broke up recently after dating for a while, but she’s a great, talented artist.
THE THORN IN THE HEART opens in select theaters on April 2nd.