Cancer, Comedy & Friendship
Who is Will Reiser?
He’s the screenwriter and executive producer of the hit comedy “50/50” a film inspired by his own journey of coming to grips with a spinal cancer diagnosis at a young age. Kate Allen Stukenberg chats with Reiser about his emotional inability to deal with the cancer, the often futile but humorous efforts of others to help, and how funny man and real-life best friend Seth Rogan ultimately set him on his path to finally finding his emotional way.
KAS: You found out you had cancer when you were age 25?
WR: Twenty-five. Correct.
KS: Were you having some health issues or was it just a routine physical?
WR: I had been sick for a while. I was losing weight and having these really awful night sweats. I would just wake up drenched. My bed would be soaked. My clothes would be soaked. The people around me could kind of tell. I just sort of looked like I was deteriorating.
KS: What did you initially think was the cause?
WR: I basically went online and diagnosed myself. I had symptoms similar to a diabetic like the blood sugar crashes. I went to the doctor thinking that but it turned out to be something completely different.
KS: That must have been a definite shock. What type of cancer did you have?
WR: I had a tumor on my spine. When I originally went to the doctor they thought I had lymphoma. It was sort of misdiagnosed at first. It took a while for them to figure out exactly what it was that I had.
KS: How long is “a while?”
WR: A few months I would say…a few agonizing months with lots of tests. I was in the hospital three to four times a week undergoing lots of different tests. I had a really difficult time because this kind of tumor hides. It was hidden in the spinal cord and in the nerve.
KS: How big was it?
WR: They didn’t know. It was sort of a relief because when I was first diagnosed with lymphoma they thought it was low-grade lymphoma, which is incurable. So, like I said, it was a bit of a relief. It was kind of like this roller coaster. What the hell is going on?!
I went to specialists and multiple doctors. They finally figured it out.
KS: Did you go to your general practitioner at first?
WR: Well I didn’t even have a general practitioner. I had lived in Los Angeles for a year and a half. I didn’t have a doctor. A co-worker referred me to his GP. He turned out to not be the greatest doctor in the world.
KS: Did that doctor refer you to someone else?
WR: I had a friend who was good friends with the top lymphoma specialist in Los Angeles. I called his office and tried to make an appointment. His assistant said it would take four months to get an appointment. Obviously, I couldn’t wait four months so I called the hospital and had him paged. He called me back and said, “I understand you tried to reach me.” I told him I’m a friend of so and so’s and she said I should give him a call. Apparently this is the best way to get in contact with a doctor. Going through his assistant was not the way to do it. Then I went in to meet with him and he said I did not have lymphoma. Actually, he was the one who figured out that it was in my spine and back. He sent me on to a surgeon who could make a better evaluation. I went on to that surgeon and he confirmed it was in my spine and sent me to a neurosurgeon. And the neurosurgeon was the one who really figured out exactly what was going on. Along the way there were just a million tests and a lot of poking and prodding. It was pretty nerve- wracking.
KS: Where was your family?
WR: My family was in New York at the time and I was in Los Angeles. My mom came out to LA and she went with me to one or two doctor’s appointments. I could not handle it and put her on a plane back to New York. I couldn’t deal with having her there. I was not the most patient with her. I kind of pushed her away.
KS: I completely understand. We’ve all been 25 years old.
WR: Exactly. Who at 25 wants their mother taking care of them? I immediately put her on the plane.
KS: Well at that point did you rely on your friends to help you?
WR: Yeah. Seth Rogan is my best friend. He was there throughout the whole thing. He would give me rides. I had a few other friends who would come with me to appointments.
KS: But what about emotionally?
WR: I didn’t talk about it. I was always the first one to make light of a situation, but I couldn’t make jokes about this. When I was 25, I didn’t know how to talk about my feelings.
KS: Why did you decide to write a screenplay about it? What did you hope to achieve by doing it? Was it for personal reasons to help you feel better?
WR: Seth and I were at a party one night. I was sick and had been for a few months. Just the way people would talk to me was really strange and we were making fun of the situation. We would make fun of how people would touch and hug me excessively. They would talk to me like I was a sick child. It was incredibly funny. People would ask me if I had a bucket list, like the movie. They would ask me what I was going to do and if I was going to Africa on a safari or to India. But what cancer patient would go to either of these places? They are like the most feces-infested countries. There’s no way my immune system could possibly endure that. So we were just making fun of how no one knows how to react to a situation like that and also how there’s never been a movie that depicted the experience of having cancer at 25 and living a normal life. At that time we were constantly trying to think of things to work on together. We were always coming up with ridiculous ideas. And that night at the party Seth and I were like …”we should do a parody of the bucket list and we’ll call it the fuck it list.”
It would be this ridiculous absurd version of two young guys, one who is sick and just wants to do nothing but stay in bed all day and wallow in his misery, and his best friend who wants to exploit his friend’s cancer to do all the things he has always wanted to do. That was where the idea initially came from. We talked and joked about it but once I got better, Seth and my other good friend Evan Goldberg [Evan co-wrote “Superbad” with Seth Rogan] really kept urging me to write the story. There were so many stories and moments with doctors, friends, and family.
KS: So even if it didn’t go anywhere you knew you needed to write this stuff down?
WR: Well, they really believed there was a movie there. I was really into it but I had never written a screenplay before. I had only worked in television. I was terrified because I was unearthing a lot of traumatic experiences. From the moment Seth and I came up with the idea I started thinking about the characters. Kyle and Adam were born out of those conversations. After I got better, I probably spent the next year writing down those ideas. I eventually sat down and wrote an outline for it. That was 2005. I finished my first draft January 2008.
KS: That’s a quick turn around for the movie to be in theatres in 2011.
WR: Yes. Ironically, the night that Seth and I came up with the idea for the movie is the night I introduced Seth to his wife. They ended up getting married the same weekend the movie came out into theaters.
KS: What did you learn from writing about your cancer story? You mentioned not having an outlet before so was this your new outlet for your feelings?
WR: It was incredibly cathartic. It forced me to look back and reexamine. The experience made me process a lot of what happened and what I felt…all the different emotions I didn’t know how to express. It was really a great way of saying all the things I didn’t know how to say when I was sick. It forced me to confront how I pushed my mother away and how unfair I was to her.
The first draft of the screenplay had a lot of the pieces of what was in the final version. What was missing was that the main character, Adam, wasn’t really flawed. He was neurotic like me and had all of my tendencies; but, he was sort of unflawed when everyone else around him wasn’t. I wrote myself as being perfect and the reason why is because I didn’t have the perspective. I was still really angry and I saw myself as this victim. It was unconscious but I think that’s really common.
Conversations with Seth and Evan about the screenplay forced me to look at how I behaved. How I maybe latched on to certain relationships and relied too much on them. How I didn’t know how to tell people what I needed and wanted. Just having that conversation really forced me to look at myself. It’s one thing to make fun of yourself but it’s another to really go back and examine some of the harder truths. This movie has been a great conversation starter for things that were unsaid. After writing the screenplay, I really let go of that experience. Coming out of it I really felt damaged by it; like a tornado came through and tore up my life. That’s what cancer does to a lot of people. You’re kind of left afterward trying to pick up the pieces. It helped me let go of that and the emotions I had suppressed.
KS: Did your diagnosis affect other people? How did they handle it?
WR: It was tough. It was really hard on everyone. In some ways, it can be easier for the survivor because everyone around him is feeling down. I was allowed to be grumpy or have a bad day. I didn’t have to be Mr. Personality all the time. Whereas the people around me had a lot of pressure to constantly be positive and supportive. That can be really hard. They didn’t know how to talk about it.
KS: At the time you can’t even appreciate it and you just want everyone to be normal?
WR: It was hard for me. It can be harder on the people around. I think for people to see that someone they love is sick and then not be able to do anything about it is really difficult. When you’re actually sick, you find a way to deal with it.
KS: Was it hard to watch the film?
WR: No. After writing it I had processed it; and, after making the movie I let go of viewing it as my story. Most everything I write is inspired by something I’m going through in some way or another. That’s how I connect with my characters. Watching it, I was thinking of it more as the filmmaker. Well, watching it with my family was nerve-wracking.
KS: How did they respond?
WR: I was really nervous about how my mother would react. I didn’t know if she’d appreciate the way the mother is portrayed in the movie…how the audience would respond to her character. It’s tough when someone is writing a picture of you and you have no control over it. I was pretty nervous.
KS: At least you had Angelica Huston playing your mother.
WR: She did an amazing job. My mom was really excited.
KS: What was your favorite scene in the film?
WR : It would be the scene where Seth’s character, Kyle, confronts Rachel about cheating on Adam. He basically kicks her out of the house. I just think Seth is so funny in that scene.
KS: How does your history of cancer play a part in your life today? And how has it changed you? Does it affect things about you?
WR: I think it affects me physically…just from the surgery. After six years of physical therapy I’ve pretty much gotten back to normal. I’m probably stronger and much better off physically than I used to be. I don’t really think about the cancer. I just think about how this movie has connected me with other cancer survivors. When I wrote the movie I was really writing from my point of view and I had no idea other people would connect to it.
KS: What’s the best thing you’ve heard from another survivor since this film has come out? How your film helped them?
WR: One guy told me his stepfather died from cancer 20 years ago and his mother had not talked about it once since. And after seeing the movie it was the first time she had been able to talk about it. That’s really validating and gratifying the way the movie can have that reach. That wasn’t the intention when making the movie; but, it’s nice to know the movie has created a broader discussion. It’s a really difficult thing to talk about so it’s gratifying to hear that from someone.
KS: What advice do you have for other survivors? Other people who have cancer? Maybe someone who’s 25 years old?
WR: Honestly, two things: first goes to the ability to talk about it. I think that communication is so important; and, that was something that was so hard for me. It doesn’t have to be “talking;” find an outlet and some other form of expression. And I also think humor is what brought me and my friends through it all. It was the only way we coped. In dark times people are sometimes afraid to laugh, but humor is such a powerful tool. If you’re in a situation where you don’t know what to say just making fun of yourself will help.
Category: Survivors in the News
Tags: 50/50, Angelica Huston, cancer survivors, CancerForward Survivor in The News, Evan Goldberg, parody, physical therapy, screenplay, Seth Rogan, spinal cancer, Will Reiser