Originally published September 25, 2011 at 7:01 PM | Page modified September 26, 2011 at 6:21 AM

Will Reiser's brush with cancer led to '50/50'

An interview with screenwriter Will Reiser, who was diagnosed with cancer at age 24 and now has a comedy/drama, "50/50," to show for it. The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, and opens Sept. 30 in Seattle.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie preview


Opens Friday at a number of local theaters. Rated R for "language throughout, sexual content and some drug use."
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TORONTO — At 24, Will Reiser was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Six years later, he's got a clean bill of health and something else — a movie, based on his cancer experiences. Oh, and it's a comedy.

"50/50," starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, opens in theaters Friday; its title comes from the survival odds given to the main character.

"It's fiction," Reiser emphasized earlier this month, in an interview the day before the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. But the movie came from his own "really absurd, surreal experience" of being a cancer patient as a young, single adult. "Everyone else around you who's sick is much older than you. You feel like a kid."

When he became ill, Reiser was an associate producer on the HBO comedy series "Da Ali G Show," alongside his friend Seth Rogen. "Seth was my closest friend at the time, and he pretty much went through it with me," Reiser said of the experience, which included complex surgery to remove a large tumor from his spine, followed by a long and painful recovery. "Our way of dealing with it was that we would make jokes, we would try to find the humor in it."

Friends would ask him if the cancer inspired him to do all the things he'd never done, like a bucket list. "I'd say to Seth, all I want to do is go home and go to bed. I'm sick, I don't want to go to Africa!" he said, laughing.

With Rogen and fellow "Da Ali G Show" writer Evan Goldberg, he toyed with the idea of writing a buddy comedy about two friends — one with cancer, who doesn't want to do anything — who take a road trip to Las Vegas.

But that script took a back seat to treatment and recovery. Later, when Reiser was healthy again, Rogen and Goldberg urged him to write, and a different kind of movie began to take shape: still a comedy, but a more realistic one, with elements of drama.

"I didn't want to necessarily write a movie about me," Reiser said. "But I would say Adam [Gordon-Levitt's character] is very close to me, he's definitely an extension of me."

He noted, though, that the character of Adam's raucous best friend (played, in a life-imitating-art stroke, by Rogen) was "a bit of an exaggeration. Seth does not talk to women like that. At that time in our lives Seth and I were too terrified of women to even talk to them!"

But much of "50/50" (directed by Jonathan Levine) rang true to Reiser's experiences — for example, the complex dynamic between Adam and his mother, played by Anjelica Huston. "No mother wants to see their son sick, and especially consider the idea that their son might die. But for me, the last thing I wanted my mother to do was take care of me. I wanted to take care of myself. So that was difficult for us. Although Anjelica's character is not necessarily my mother, that relationship rang very true to me."

Now, with "50/50" opening across the country, Reiser has come full circle: Not only can he watch his screen alter ego go through an experience now firmly in his past (he's six years in remission, and "everything seems good"), he's finally made enough money to pay off the last of his lingering medical bills.

And he's well-launched in his screenwriting career, working on an American version of the German comedy "Men" and developing a movie called "Jamaica," based on his own experiences on vacation as a 14-year-old with his grandmother — who had just developed Alzheimer's.

"It'll be drama and humor, tied into one," he said of "Jamaica." "That's what I'm most passionate about doing."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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