TORONTO - Seth Rogen may have a laugh like a machine gun and happily answer David Letterman's questions about smoking weed, but, it turns out, he's a darned good friend.
Will Reiser, a pal and a fellow writer on "Da Ali G Show," learned in 2005 that he had a rare cancerous tumor growing along his spine. He was just 25 years old at the time, and even today, when he walks into a hotel room to talk about the movie "50/50," he looks so young.
"Seth didn't know how to deal with it. He definitely was an idiot at times, but he was there every moment and any time I needed anything," Reiser told reporters during the Toronto International Film Festival.
"There's a scene at the end of the movie where he's changing Joe's dressing, and Seth was my nurse at certain points after my surgery where he changed my dressing. Where he'd give me rides, where he visited me in the hospital.
"I only have the utmost gratitude. Was he perfect? No, and I think that's the point of the movie. That no one knows how to deal with it, and everyone deals with it in his own way and as long as you can just talk about the fact that you don't know how to deal with it and laugh about that, that will make the entire situation a lot more manageable and easier."
That was one of the takeaway lessons. "Also, I think you should call your mother more often."
Reiser fictionalized his experience for "50/50," starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a 27-year-old Seattle resident with a public-radio-producing gig, an artist-girlfriend and a best friend played by Rogen who tries to use Adam's diagnosis to lure women into sympathy sex.
Rogen also was one of three producers of the dramedy that manages to be funny, insightful, tearful and uplifting all at the same time.
"Most movies about cancer are very sad and sentimental and emotional and there's a lot of people hugging and crying and making these big, bold life decisions, and that just wasn't what we went through," the bespectacled Rogen said, in a separate session punctuated by laughter and the occasional expletive.
"To us, it was very scary and absurd and it was really funny at times because we very rarely talked about what we were feeling, any of us," he added.
The tone they wanted to strike had not been attempted before onscreen, which led to "50/50" with its line about famous people who beat cancer. Rogen's character, Kyle, reels off the names of Lance Armstrong, the guy from "Dexter" (meaning actor Michael C. Hall) and Patrick Swayze.
"That was improvised," Rogen said. "The joke is, I don't know he's dead. That's the extent of it. It's funny and it gets laughs ... in a place where we needed them."
Preview audiences liked the line, and it stayed. What didn't was the film's original title, "I'm With Cancer."
"Honestly, we worked really hard to make a movie that was inclusive, and we knew a title like that was potentially repellent to people," Rogen said. "It just seemed like the movie itself should be the risk, and a title like that was silly to take a risk on. We know what people's limits and buttons are."
In real life, Reiser did not undergo chemotherapy or shave his head, but he initially was told his cancer was terminal, then was plagued by misdiagnoses and stung by friends who disappeared.
"I lost friends, which is a horrible thing to say, but I lost people because they were so freaked out by the situation," the cancer survivor said. "They just bailed, they just totally disconnected, and to this day, those friends still have trouble talking to me."
Even he acknowledges, though, that he didn't know how to handle his illness. "I dealt with it in a horrible way. I shut off emotionally, I stopped talking to my mother. I was not the best person in the situation."
It had been some misguided chatter that helped to inspire the movie, which he started outlining in late 2006 and finished penning in 2008.
"We were at a party one night, and I was talking about how everyone has this misconception that cancer is like the bucket list, this idea that you have this checklist of all these things you've never had the chance to do and now you're going to live out all your fantasies -- go on a safari in Africa and kill a lion and go to Egypt. ...
"I felt horrible, and all I wanted to do was sit at home and watch baseball. I felt so sick, I had no energy. I remember I tried to go on a hike. I walked, like, 200 yards and had to stop I was so exhausted."
Gordon-Levitt shaved his head on camera on Day One.
"We improvised almost all of it, which is very stupid to do during a scene you can only do one time," Rogen said, and the star then either went topless or wore a series of wigs.
"It went really well, thank God. It was interesting to see how Joe approached it. We didn't really tell him anything. It could have been anything from him crying hysterically to him making jokes. ... I don't think there was even any dialogue written for that scene," although Rogen was ready with a list of famous bald men.
The scene helped to chart the declining health of Adam because the filmmakers weren't sure how much sallow makeup and baggy clothes would telegraph.
Reiser, who consulted on everything from the set design to the wardrobe, was open to answering questions from Gordon-Levitt about his experience.
"After the surgery when he was on morphine, it was really important that I just instruct him what it feels like and what your limitations are. When you have a surgery like that, you're virtually paralyzed (temporarily) from your torso down. They'd just cut all your muscles, there's nerve damage."
Gordon-Levitt was a last-minute replacement for James McAvoy, who was called away to England because of a family emergency. A mutual friend got the script to the "3rd Rock From the Sun" star who had just a week to prepare but earned the approval of director Jonathan Levine, the producers and writer who each had veto power over the lead.
In case anyone is wondering, Reiser does drive, unlike his onscreen counterpart.
"I wanted to show this character who was just kind of afraid of taking control of his life, of someone who lived in fear, who worried a lot, who was nervous all the time. Even though he has this sense of calm over him, deep down he's someone who's living in a state of panic. Worrying about everything. He's a control freak.
"That is who I was back then. I'm not that person anymore, but that is very much who I was when I was 25."
Writing, making and releasing the movie has been cathartic, and he has no regrets about Adam's fate.
(Spoiler alert: Paragraphs below reveal part of movie's ending.)
After showing his first draft to some friends, they suggested maybe he should have the character die. "I remember thinking, I can't do that. As cynical as I can be at times, as difficult as the situation was, I am an incredibly optimistic person.
"I feel like I wanted to make a movie that felt hopeful. I didn't want to make a movie that would leave people feeling depressed, I didn't want to go that dark. I just feel ultimately that wouldn't be true to who I was.
"And I lived. People live. People go through cancer and they live and it still sucks, and I think it's OK to make a movie about that."