A surprisingly large fraction of this summer’s movie releases take the destruction of human life on earth as their premise. None has taken that vision to such an extreme as “This is the End.” The Hollywood apocalypse comedy resembles a Hieronymus Bosch painting with wiener jokes. Bushels and bushels of wiener jokes.
The film marks the directing debut of its 31-year-old star and writer. Seth Rogen shot to fame as the cuddly slacker love interest in “Knocked Up” and an ingratiating player in several other Judd Apatow bromances. Most of Rogen’s own projects as a screenwriter/star/producer mishmash broad humor and violence to subversive effect. Having spoofed genres from science fiction (“The Watch”) to superhero (“The Green Hornet”) to drug thriller (“Pineapple Express”), Rogen tackled the most ponderously self-important film category of all, the Armageddon saga.
In “End,” Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Rihanna and a slew of other young Hollywood celebs play childish versions of themselves at the housewarming party for James Franco’s bachelor mansion when quite literally all hell breaks loose.
Rogen’s affection for old-school hair-raisers influenced many of the choices he made with his co-director, co-writer and longtime creative partner, Evan Goldberg. As Rogen explained in a recent phone conversation, “I think our personal taste kind of lies toward edgier fare. We really approach these movies like movie fans in general. We really think like we’re just regular guys going to go see a movie, what would we want to see? We’re fans of action movies, we’re fans of violence in movies and we’re fans of comedy. So we try to combine all those things. And it’s the stuff that when you’re shooting it is the funniest and most fun.”
While Rogen has creative clout in most of the films he’s associated with, actually directing a film was a new level of involvement and responsibility. “Directors get to do stuff that producers and writers don’t get to do. We got to decide what the shots were going to be, to define how the movie looks, something we’ve never had any control over before.”
“Usually we’re writing 40 jokes a minute and somebody uses two of them,” said Goldberg, also making his first outing as a director with this film. He defined his contribution as holding Rogen’s hand, fixing all the mistakes he left scattered in his wake. “He was like a blind man being led,” Goldberg said. “A blind child.”
“The biggest difference is that the director is able to yell at the actors. The producer and writer do not have that honor,” Rogen said. “It was nice to be able to curse at the actors a lot.”
“This is the End” is studded with recognizable cameo players including Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari. With such a comedy dream team on hand, the co-directors let their performers call their own plays much of the time. “We write the scenes and try to make them as good as possible. Then we let the actors try to beat us, and when you’ve got guys this good, they beat you about half the time,” Rogen said.
Given its mass-extinction theme and R rating, “This is the End” features scenes of comedy that arise out of gory dismemberment The tonal challenge was to put the audience’s nerves on edge, then provide a cathartic comic release, they said.
“The movie’s more broad than, let’s say, ‘Saw,’ ” Rogen said. “When we cut someone’s arm off it’s funny as opposed to disgusting and abhorrent. Our reactions to it are what make it funny. What happened was horrific but they’re dealing with it in such a funny way that you have to laugh at it.”
The film is packed with in-jokes in the corners of the overstuffed frames. The set of Franco’s mansion features noted modern artists alongside appalling, bad-day-care-fingerprinting paintings by the actor himself. “We tried to play off public perceptions and I think he’s known for being really into art, involved in the art community. He actually made a lot of the art in the house. He came out a week early and painted a lot of it himself. There’s this big ‘Freaks and Geeks’ mural that he painted, a couple canvases with our names that he painted.” Asked whether the smeary works were intended as jokes or represented Franco’s true best efforts, Rogen tactfully replied, “I think he was just practicing.”