Seth Rogen and Knocked Up

There’s an extraordinary noise echoing through the elaborately over-designed halls of the Haymarket Hotel in London, a booming laugh – Hur Hur Hur – emanating from the curly-headed, barrel-chested Seth Rogen as he appears in the doorway and saunters across the room to shake my hand, nod politely and slouch down in a bulky, lime-green armchair. The 25 year old Rogen has emerged from the crowd to lead a new generation of comedic actors, writers and producers. Starting out as a thirteen year old stand-up comedian in his native Vancouver, “delivering one-liners about how there’s nothing to do in Canada, basically”, Rogen moved to Los Angeles when he was sixteen. He soon landed roles in Knocked Up director Judd Apatow’s two critically acclaimed television sit-coms, Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, on which he was also hired as a staff writer at the tender age of 18. In 2005, “after serving my apprenticeship” Rogen graduated to a supporting role in Apatow’s smash hit comedy The 40 Year Old Virgin, while also writing the first series of the US version of Da Ali G Show for Sacha Baron Cohen.

Having settled in his chair, I ask the supernaturally relaxed-looking actor about his steady progression, from the sarcastic background character to leading man. “As far as being a leading man goes, I know I’m no Jude Law, right. It’s more about my own level of comfort in front of the camera. At the start, on Freaks & Geeks, I really had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I really wasn’t an actor at that point. As the series went on, I was telling Judd that I wanted to do more, and he took me at my word and gave me the opportunities. When it came around to The 40 Year Old Virgin, initially my role was just to be one of the guys who occasionally comes out with a wise-crack. I went to Judd and said that I was ready for something a little more, to be a real character that becomes friends with Steve and gives him advice and encouragement and he said, ‘OK, cool’. It’s as if he was waiting for me to come to him and express that desire, you know”. I ask him if now, after working for a couple of years, he’s finally comfortable in calling himself an actor. “Almost, dude. I wrote ‘actor’ on that customs form when I arrived in the UK, so once it’s on a government document, it’s official, right?”

Shortly after the cherry-popping sex-comedy opened in 2005, to rave reviews and phenomenal box-office, Apatow came to Rogen with the idea for Knocked Up. “His notion initially was, ‘Seth Gets A Girl Pregnant’, which he found to be absolutely hilarious. I didn’t take it personally, so we started from there and went backwards. We asked ourselves, ‘what’s the worst kind of girl that this could happen to?’ Somebody who is very together, beautiful and ambitious. What kind of job could she have that would be completely ruined by such an event – a glamorous entertainment television presenter. So that was enough to get started.”

In the movie Rogen plays Ben Stone, a clueless, marijuana-smoking twenty-something who lives with his friends in a run-down house in an Los Angeles suburb. One night, while out at a club, he meets the beautiful Alison (brilliantly played by Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl). They go back to her place, where one unlikely thing leads to another. A couple of weeks later, soon after getting a promotion at work, Alison discovers she’s pregnant and after contacting Ben, decides against her better judgement to keep the baby and see if they can make it as a family. “What we like to do is cast the roles as early as possible, and try to create the characters around specific actors. It was really hard to cast the role of Alison because a lot of actresses are physically small and you would fear for their safety when it came to doing an energetic sex scene with a man of my size. Added to that, I can be very loud and very aggressive and rambunctious, you know, so some 95 pound actress would find it a challenge to stay upright. Literally, my voice would knock them over. When Katherine came in, she is around my height, she’s very statuesque and strong and beautiful to the point of being intimidating. When she yells, and she has to do a lot of that with my character, you feel your hair move, you know? We thought she was perfect.”

Knocked Up opens with a montage of a gang of immature guys sitting around the house, smoking bongs and dancing spasmodically to hip-hop. Rogan unleashes his booming laugh again, Hur Hur Hur. “That’s directly lifted from the real, absolutely wasted lives of all those people you see, including my good self. Those guys are my actual best friends and I’ve lived with all of them at one point or another. I hate to admit it, but that’s how it was. We all have girlfriends now and have grown up a bit, but if you were to visit my apartment two or three years ago, that’s exactly the scene you would have faced, down to the tiniest detail.”

In the movie, Rogan and his slacker friends have formed an internet company that provides a catalogue of female nudity in Hollywood movies, not the actor’s first experience with web-based celebrity skin. “No, not at all. Far from it, in fact. I’m online nearly every day, and that stuff is unavoidable. But more than that, the idea for the internet company came from us thinking what a great job it would be to watch movies and pick out the naked bits, We were thinking, ‘what’s the worst thing you could tell a girl that you do for a living’, and that seemed funny to us. But hey, I could go on all day about nude scenes in movies. It’s what I know best.” We pass a giggly couple of minutes discussing our most memorable moments. Rogan doesn’t have to think for long in selecting his. “Fast Times At Ridgemount High. Number one of all time. Oh, man. I remember thinking when I saw Phoebe Cates taking her bikini top off that I had made it happen with my brain. I wanted to see her breasts so badly that I had willed it to occur.”

One of the funniest films of this year, or any year, Knocked Up is far more than just a succession of easy dope jokes and sex talk. The uproarious comedy is generously cut with genuine, sweet emotion, which pours from the generously drawn, likeable characters. I ask Rogen if the underlying theme is that any guy – even a smut-peddling, pot-addled slacker like Ben – can be redeemed by the love of a good woman. “Well, that’s part of it”, he replies. “I do think that any guy can be redeemed but I think the real message is that, like Spike Lee said, ‘just do the right thing’. That’s all you need. What we start out with is the real emotional stuff and we assume that the comedy will follow after. It’s a weird thing to say, but the comedy really is the easy part of making a movie like this. The hard part is finding the right flow of events and finding the right moments that the audience can relate to and believe in. Jokes come later, when Judd gets his cast together and gives them the freedom to be funny. He’s better at that than anyone, I think. He trusts us to be funny and that’s a powerful thing.”

I tell Rogen that I read somewhere that Apatow had shot about 1.5 million feet of film on Knocked Up, more than enough for four or five movies. “That does sound like a lot”, he explains, “but that comes from the way that we work, which has a lot to do with improvising in character.” I tell him that I had always had the impression that comedy was difficult, that being truly funny was something that required a lot of hard work and long nights at the keyboard and he answers with a shrug. “It depends on what you’re doing. When I wrote for Ali G, it was like that, because we had to try and predict what people’s reactions would be to this character. That was tough, planning five steps ahead of where you were at any given moment. But when you’re going for something naturalistic like we are in Knocked Up, and you have a lot of very funny people around, the hard thing becomes keeping track of the story and making it emotionally resonant.”

He describes the approach, which to an outsider, sounds more like playtime than work. “In rehearsals, we don’t just read the script, over and over again, but we sit around and talk about things that we’ve done in relationships and the hopes and fears that we have. Just talking, really. A lot of that stuff works its way into the script and even if it doesn’t, we write it down in a book and keep it there to remember. There’s a part in the finished movie where we have this long talk about a time-machine. That was something that came out of a conversation we had throughout the rehearsals that somebody wrote down and we kept coming back to. So when Judd is shooting the scene, we’ll hear this voice coming from behind the camera – “talk about the time-machine”, so we riff for a couple of minutes. It becomes very difficult to distinguish between something we improvise and something we’ve written in the script, because the whole process leads itself to a lot of talking and laughing at the jokes that come out.”

Belying his sleepy, slacker attitude, Rogan is also the executive producer on Knocked Up (more than just a vanity credit, he assures me), and has written and produced the marijuana-themed high-school comedy Superbad and the action-comedy adventure The Pineapple Express, which recently wrapped production with director David Gordon Green. It’s difficult to believe that Rogen is still just 25 years of age. “Believe it, baby”, he replies. I ask him what part of the work he likes best, writing, producing or acting. “My favourite part of the entire movie-making process is just being on set and being part of it all. The way we work, it’s difficult to distinguish between the parts that we play in making it all happen. I can find myself acting, writing and producing simultaneously, or at least that’s what it feels like. But, those are just titles. The point is that we are all trying to make a movie and trying to make it funny. That’s all it is, really. Me being called a producer simply means that people have to listen when I talk and in case you haven’t realised, I’m a guy with a lot of opinions”. He says something else, laughing as he does so, but when I played it back later all I could distinguish was that deep sonic-boom, distorting his words into a charming babble of crackle and hiss.

The Devil In Disguise: Michael Bay & Transformers

There’s no sinister kettle-drum beat when the director of Transformers lopes into the room. The window’s don’t rattle, the sky doesn’t darken, there’s no flash of lightning. The man Entertainment Weekly once called The Devil is a lanky, long-haired Californian with a tanned face, a wide grin and an easy handshake. Why do people hate you, Michael Bay? “I dunno”, he drawls. “Maybe those guys just don’t like having a good time. That’s a thing, you know. A psychological thing”.

Bay guffaws. That's the best word to describe it. "No, but if you go back and read that article, and I’ve actually put it on my website, that writer really got me. He says that my movies have been held up as representing everything that’s wrong with Hollywood, but explains how that perception is incorrect. I changed how action movies were made, changed peoples idea of what an action movie could be. All the way though the history of movies, whenever a director changed how things were done, they were hated for it, because it meant everyone else had to change too, to follow the lead. If you know anything about directors, they hate to be followers, yeah?”

The 42 year old Bay changed things in Hollywood Spinal Tap fashion, by turning every dial up to eleven. Since his debut with 1995s Bad Boys, quickly followed by The Rock, Armageddeon, Pearl Harbour and back again for Bad Boys II, Bay has been all about scale – the biggest stars, biggest budgets, the loudest explosions, the most destructive action. It’s a formula that has worked, his films have generated a billion dollars so far, and although when we sat down the director wasn’t to know it, Transformers looks like being his biggest success yet, passing the $400 million mark just two weeks after opening around the world and garnering the best reviews of the director’s career.

“Did you say formula?”, Bay asks, shaking his head slowly with exaggerated regret. “I don’t believe in formula, either on this movie, or anything else that I’ve done. People like to think they can figure it all out, but I just want my movies to be fun and entertaining”. Transformers is unexpectedly funny, so to get around his resistance, I ask him how he achieves a balance, between the action stuff, the metal robots, and the humans at the centre of the story. Bay likes this question a little better. “It is important to have a balance, like you put it, between all the various elements of Transformers. You have to draw the audience in with the action, obviously, but with touches of humour and romance and whatever observations you can make about society, because characters can’t be taken out of the world that they live in. If I can do that with a joke, that’s all the better for me”.

Back in 1984, Transformers – ‘robots in disguise’ - took the world by storm. The Pok√©mon of another generation, they were an internationally successful Japanese cartoon series that sold countless millions of plastic toys, alongside comic books, lunch boxes, t-shirts and even an animated feature that boasts Orson Welles’ final performance. Bay’s take on Transformers has rising stars Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox playing high-school students who find themselves caught up in an ancient battle between two races of giant alien robots, whose fight has erupted on present-day Earth. For the first hour, the movie is a funny, beautifully observed Southern Californian teen comedy which then becomes a breathtakingly realised triumph of action cinema. It would be easy to dismiss the movie as a money-grabbing exercise in recycling and bombast, but Bay’s Transformers is that rare thing nowadays, a surprisingly entertaining summer blockbuster that outperforms expectations; of the concept itself and the director who made it.

I ask him how he got involved in reviving the property and Bay, who says he has been offered countless superhero movies over the years and turned them all down, puts his thumb and little finger up to his ear. “It was a phone call from Steven”. The Steven is Spielberg, the executive producer. “And it went like this”. “Michael, I want you to make Transformers. We don’t have a script, but it’s about a kid buying his first car. Turns out the car is an alien robot. Isn’t that great?” “So I said, cool Steven, I’ll think about it”. Bay replaces his imaginary handset, leans back in his chair and says “There’s no way I’m doing this stupid movie”.

Seeing as he’s sitting here, having done the stupid movie, I ask him what changed his mind. The director recalls his initiation into Transformers lore, which is surprisingly dense and complicated for a Saturday morning cartoon, describing the various robot names and their unique characteristics. “I learnt all this at the Hasbro museum. They have an actual museum at the factory where they made the toys back in the 1980s. It’s in New Jersey. I watched the whole cartoon series there, went through their collection and read everything they had. Eventually I was just completely turned around on it. I like to think I know my own mind but it goes to show, you should challenge your own assumptions sometimes. Your first reaction isn’t always the right one.”

“For me”, he explains, “there has to be a moral. It’s like when Optimus Prime (the red and blue leader of the good guys) says, ‘we’re a strong race, but we’re a violent race and we are in danger of destroying ourselves’. That’s something we can all learn from, right? Especially nowadays. What stands out for me, however, from the whole story is the line ‘No Sacrifice, No Victory’, and I think that’s true in life and its certainly been true for me”. Bay has a reputation for being a tough, demanding director but even before I can finish my question, he interrupts me. “I don’t get that. There’s no sacrifice there. I’ve been with the same crew for more than fifteen years now, which is a long time in Hollywood. I will tease them, encourage them, lead them, but they can see that I never leave the set. I’m there just as long as they are, from the first camera-set up in the morning. These are twelve hour days, you know. I work hard and fast and always ensure that I am organized to get the maximum out of the time and the money and if that means leapfrogging from one shot to another, and coming back and keeping both elements working, then that’s what it takes and I’m always ready to go”.

I ask him if there’s an element of risk in his approach and Bay takes it to mean physical risk. He explains how there is always danger in shooting action sequences, with fire and pyrotechnics and how everyone is trained and insured. I clarify that the risk I’m talking about is that by doing so much, so quickly, he might miss a trick. “No”, he says, “and I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. I think that by moving fast and keeping everybody going, I get more opportunities to work with my actors. I can do more takes, and keep them in the right place for longer I can try improvisation, which I love to do. By keeping that frantic pace, I can make more time for myself, if that makes any sense”. Bay goes on to describe the origins of a very funny scene between a flustered LaBeouf and his parents, played by veterans Kevin Dunn and Julie White. “That was something I made up there on the set, and asked the actors to work into the scene. I thought what was written was dumb, so I said, we have to come up with something and we have an hour. As far as the humour in the movie goes, that’s one of my favourite scenes. You can see it in the actors faces, too, it has that authenticity and immediacy and that’s part of the heart and the charm of the movie”.

With Bay, part of his own charm is his reputation for extravagance and swagger. I tell him there’s a story about him, since the early days, that he can order the US Army up like other people order Chinese food. “Yeah, that’s true”, he says, deadpan. “Nah, of course not, man. This is the United States armed forces we’re talking about here. The Military have been good with me because I’ve been good with them. On Transformers, I knew early on that from the script, that I’d be making an approach. I called my liaison guy at the Pentagon and I said, we’re doing this action movie and its about giant alien robots battling each other in suburban Los Angles. We’d really like if you could be involved.”

He just made the call. It’s that easy? “This is the guy who speaks for the President or whoever, right? He goes, ‘you know Mr Bay, if it really were the case that giant alien robots were invading Earth, we would be there to fight them’. So we all had a good laugh at that”. He seems to be having a good laugh now, but Bay clears his throat and goes earnest for a minute and admits that sure, Mr Hollywood has to carefully pick his way through the channels in order to secure that essential co-operation. “For a project this size, on any project, they don’t take it lightly. Short version, all the military care about is that they are portrayed in a realistic way. So if we shoot an air-strike, for example, it’s as close to reality as we can make it in our story. For this movie, we had the real pilots, in their planes, to do it for us.”

“The brass don’t really care about the fact that in the script, the robots are virtually unbeatable. What they are concerned about is that the service men and women we show are doing what it is they are supposed to be doing. That it is accurate and according to code. If you’re just making that part of the story up, then they don’t want to be involved.” Half joking, I ask him if he knows there’s a war on? “Our country is having some troubles, that’s for sure”, he replies, meeting my throwaway line with an unexpected gravity. “This war is a mess and everyone in America knows it’s a mess. Even the military people I talk to say it’s a mess. But if you knew the guys I talk to, you would respect them the same way as I do. I respect anyone who loves their country and it’s people enough to put their lives on the line to protect them. I think war is terrible, I really do, but I’m dealing in fantasy.” Just in case we hadn’t realised.