For nearly a decade, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have created some of the funniest and most profitable comedies released by major studios.
From their first script, 2007’s “Superbad,” which the two started at age 13, to the stoner comedies “Pineapple Express” and the monster hit “Neighbours” — which earned $270 million worldwide on an $18 million budget — the duo have figured out how to get movies green-lighted and do them with little studio interference.
One reason for their success actually had to do with the failure that was 2011’s big-budget comedy-action movie “The Green Hornet.” With Rogen playing the lead and cowriting the script with Goldberg, it was panned by critics and made just $228 million on a $120 million budget.
They licked their wounds and went back to what they knew best. They created the production company Point Grey Pictures — named after the school they attended in Vancouver — and have found great success and freedom writing and producing movies with modest budgets and stories that go beyond the “stoner comedy.”
As they prepare to release their first sequel, “Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising,” we talked to Rogen and Goldberg about what goes into making movies, North Korea and the Sony hacks, and how a night out with Jonah Hill led to them making the upcoming R-rated animated comedy “Sausage Party.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Jason Guerrasio: How nerve-racking was it to make “Neighbours 2” and try to match the success of the original?
Evan Goldberg: I would like to pretend that it was easy, but it was kind of the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do.
Seth Rogen: With a movie with so many dildo jokes, we put a lot of thought into it.
Goldberg: It was really daunting because you have your laughs per minute, and then you also have the plot and the character structure, and they all need to be as good or better.
Rogen: But what made us think we could do it was really that, above everything, the characters are what people liked the most about the first movie. So it felt like we could very organically ask what happened next, basically, and kind of get into their emotional stories and get into the heads of where they would be a few years later. That really guided us through the process as much as anything.
Guerrasio: Many of the jokes are original. You don’t regurgitate the ones that worked in the first one.
Goldberg: We did a few of them.
Rogen: Yeah, it’s not like we didn’t do an airbag-related gag. [Laughs] But in general we really tried to make a movie that wasn’t highly referential of the first one. That the joke wasn’t just like, “Well, here are the same things again.”
Goldberg: I’m extremely upset when I see a comedy sequel and they are delivering the same exact thing. You want to have the feeling of the first one, but you don’t want it to be literally the same thing.
Guerrasio: You sent the script to a professor of feminist studies. Why?
Rogen: Because it was written by five men. [Laughs] Pretty quickly it was evident that five guys should not be the sole creative individuals behind this, and so we wanted to get the opinions of a lot of smart girls.
Goldberg: We also had a writer’s roundtable with 10 extremely talented women, and we hired two of them, Maria Blasucci and Amanda Lund [cocreators of the web series “Ghost Ghirls“], to be on set all day. It made a serious difference, and I think we can all agree that the movie just wouldn’t have worked if we kept it a literal sausage party. That’s our other project. [Laughs]
Guerrasio: How did they contribute?
Rogen: We were very open. We didn’t pretend to understand how women act. I think that was the big part of it. It was understanding how groups of young women relate to one another and speak to one another. We just did not pretend to understand what that was like. We really looked to the actors in the movie and the writers we hired to help us understand what it would be like the first night three 18-year-olds met each other in a dorm room and hung out.
Goldberg: We made a sorority-rush video, and the first version was something we wrote. It was very funny but we slowly realised it had a lot of stuff guys would like. And from the help we got from other people, our wives, and the writers who were women, we managed to find the proper balance.
Rogen: Things like “The Fault in Our Stars” party we would have never thought of.
Goldberg: Yeah, we wrote a paintball scene at one point. Man, was that wrong.
Rogen: Sometimes what male writers do to make females seem cool or to make it seem like a feminist thing is they just write them exactly like men, and it’s just wrong to pretend that a group of 18-year-old women do the exact same thing that a group of 18-year-old men do. They might do a lot of the same things, but there are also very different things that they would do. And we tried to get as much insight into that as humanly possible.
Guerrasio: Did test screenings help?
Goldberg: Yeah. The writing process was the core of it all, but in editing we learned so much and changed a lot of very large things.
Rogen: But a joke that people liked was the reframing of some of the ideas in the first movie through the women’s perspective.
Guerrasio: Something like “bros before hos” not working this time.
Rogen: Exactly. But overall the testing process was very educational and luckily ended very well.
Guerrasio: The ending feels like you’re putting the franchise to bed. Or do you want to do more “Neighbours” movies?
Goldberg: I’m aggressively pushing for a “Neighbours 3” — “Fast & Furious 9” mashup.
Rogen: Yeah. Where we move in next to Vin Diesel. Wait, I think they blew up his house in the last one.
Goldberg: That’s why! He needs a new house, so he moves into the neighbourhood because he wants to be in the safe suburbs, away from trouble. And he finds a group of young frat and sorority kids who made a coed frat-sorority.
Rogen: That street race! Oh, that’s a really good idea actually.
Goldberg: We gotta go — we have to write this. [Laughs]
Guerrasio: You founded Point Grey Pictures with the idea of making movies on a smaller budget so that you would have less pressure from the studios. Was it the disappointment of doing bigger movies such as “Green Hornet” and “Guilt Trip” that led you to this model?
Rogen: Yeah. Something we realised over the years was that the more control we had, the less stressed out we were.
We realised over the years was that the more control we had, the less stressed out we were.
Because a lot of our stress came from a fear that other people were going to ruin the stuff we were working hard on. And we thought we’d be much happier if we ruined the stuff we were working hard on. So we made a company that really tried to make movies in a way that felt protected, and we felt were responsible and made in a sustainable model, which is something that we talk a lot about. Not out-pricing ourselves, not making movies with budgets that we don’t think realistically we’d make back given their subject matter.
Goldberg: And we found that we operate well in a box. If you say there’s $500,000 and you want to accomplish these three things but you can’t, trying to solve that problem kind of creates a better product in a lot of ways.
Guerrasio: Does it all start with keeping yourselves restricted in the writing of stories?
Rogen: It doesn’t.
Goldberg: We write like we’ve got a billion dollars and figure it out after.
Rogen: Exactly. I think you can make any movie for any amount of money if you approach it intelligently.
Goldberg: Like the movie “Chronicle” is gigantic in scope and costs less than every superhero movie — and had better superhero moments than the big ones.
Guerrasio: So how do you get to the budget that will get you to make the movie you want but keep the studio at bay?
Rogen: It depends on the cast.
Goldberg: It’s complicated because if it stars Seth and another person of comparable fame that’s a [budget] figure, or Seth and two other people who aren’t at his level of fame, or Seth not in it and all new people, it changes the financial structure massively.
Rogen: But no matter what, we are making movies that are between $10 million and $40 million, basically. Anything more than that, there’s just a level of involvement from the studio. We just never want to be their biggest problem. When we were making “The Green Hornet” we were the studio’s biggest problem, and so all they could do was focus on us. And as they were focusing on us, we realised a lot of other people were probably getting away with a lot of really cool stuff because they were busy focusing on us.
Goldberg: When making “This Is the End,” I don’t know what their biggest problem was, but it wasn’t us.
Rogen: That was more the lesson that we learned — don’t be their biggest problem. Be the thing that they aren’t paying attention to while they are focusing on their biggest problem. [Laughs] And then be the thing that turns out really well and can maybe be their most profitable movie, which we’ve been several years for several studios. I’m sure it was the last thing they expected, but it’s always a possibility, which is one of the reasons people make our movies.
Goldberg: And I also think when they come to set and see that there are 10 of us jammed in one half trailer —
Rogen: We are really putting it on the screen. [Laughs]
Guerrasio: “Neighbours” has always been reported as being budgeted about $18 million. Is that the same number for “Neighbours 2”?
Goldberg: No. The first one was one of those situations where everyone kind of took less to get it done because we all wanted to make it. This time it’s a bigger movie. We still kept it very low. But I think it was around $35 million or $40 million.
Rogen: Which is still less than most movies. Again, part of our plan is to make these reasonably.
Goldberg: For “Neighbours 2,” we came to that number with the studio and we were like, “Great, that seems reasonable,” but I always think when they turn the corner they’re like, “Yeah!”
Guerrasio: “We got them again!”
Goldberg: Yeah. [Laughs]
Guerrasio: How often do you get notes from the studio?
Goldberg: It depends studio by studio. And we have an extremely good relationship with Universal [which released both “Neighbours” movies], and we respect them creatively — and their financial instincts. Some places you clash heads. Universal, not one of them.
Rogen: We are always willing to hear their notes. We just don’t always take them. But we are very happy to have the conversation, and we like having a good relationship with them, and we try not to be confrontational in how we work. Even if their notes aren’t specifically right, often it speaks to something that might not be functioning properly in the script or the movie. I think because we know at the end of the day that we can mostly do what we want, it’s not stressful to listen to everyone’s opinion. Sometimes they will point something out that is totally not the right thing, but it makes you realise that there is another problem.
Goldberg: Right. “Well, if he thinks that, would the audience think that?”
Guerrasio: Paul Feig [director of “Spy” and the upcoming “Ghostbusters” movie] told me once that what he does is videotapes the audience at the test screenings, so when he talks to the studio he can point out to them that he’s right about a scene or a line because he can show footage of the audience laughing.
Rogen: We do that, for sure.
Goldberg: And we cross-reference them. Sometimes we will have four test screenings and we’ll point out, “See, at three of them it didn’t work,” then the joke’s out.
Rogen: And we seek rougher and rougher audiences for our test screenings. In the past, I feel like some of our movies have been disserved by only having really good test screenings, which can happen, and it’s not always representative of a good movie. Recently we haven’t told the audience what movie they are seeing. It’s finding ways to put as many roadblocks between us and a good test screening, and really be hard on the material and make sure it is all working.
Goldberg: And in our mission to find harder audiences we encountered this funny thing where there will be one guy in the theatre who’s like “I did not sign up for this!”
In our mission to find harder audiences we encountered this funny thing where there will be one guy in the theatre who’s like ‘I did not sign up for this!’
Rogen: For the first screening of “Neighbours 2” we didn’t tell the audience what they were seeing and one of our editors was sitting next to someone, and when the audience was told “You’re about to see ‘Neighbours 2,'” the guy next to him was like, “I don’t want to see that!” That guy probably gave us the best notes.
Guerrasio: The movie you guys did that I don’t understand why it didn’t do better was “The Night Before.” Did that test well?
Goldberg: Tested really high. It was one of our better-testing.
Rogen: The truth is, the studio never really found the way to market it incredibly effectively. It’s one of those things I hear a lot, which means it wasn’t marketed right. I keep hearing “That movie was really good — I didn’t think I was going to like it, but I did.” That means it was not presented in a good way. And I will say, the movie doesn’t have as clean-cut a concept as “Neighbours” or “Sausage Party.”
Guerrasio: I think “The Night Before” is going to be a movie people go back to and appreciate five or 10 years from now.
Rogen: I hope so.
Goldberg: Jonathan Levine, the director — the whole reason he wanted to make that movie with us was he wanted to have something that will play once a year and that over time will be remembered.
Rogen: As we were making it I felt like, for me personally, it was some of the funniest stuff I had ever done. And it was actually a little disappointing that more people didn’t go see it in theatres, because I was incredibly proud of it. I feel a lot of us took big swings in that movie. Michael Shannon delivers one of the funniest performances ever.
Guerrasio: How are things with you guys at Sony since the release of “The Interview”?
Rogen: Time heals all wounds. A lot of the same people who were there before are still there. There are some new people there as well, and we’ve tried very hard to develop good relationships with them.
Goldberg: We were all in a similar boat and went through a lot of similar things.
Rogen: But we have more movies with them, and I think, honestly, “Sausage Party,” thus far, is going incredibly well, and we really are on the same page and they seem to be very excited about its potential. They really seem like they are going to get behind it.
Guerrasio: But during that time you guys must have been walking around the Sony lot and getting dirty looks.
Rogen: Oh yeah, lots of people. [Laughs]
Goldberg: That was just for two weeks, though.
Rogen: That ended eventually. But every once in a while people are still surprised to see us there.
Goldberg: But it’s not like, “What are you doing here?” It’s like, “Huh, you’re still here?”
Guerrasio: This is the crazy thing about what happened with “The Interview.” “Neighbours 2” focuses on women empowerment, a popular topic partly because Jennifer Lawrence spoke out about getting paid less than her male costars, which she found through the Sony hack. So if anything, you guys should be proud for pushing forward the conversation of the gender pay gap in Hollywood.
Rogen: If it wasn’t for us no one would know. [Laughs]
Goldberg: That’s why we made all those things happen.
Rogen: We made that movie in hopes of empowering women. It finally paid off.
Guerrasio: Today, do you guys still wonder if North Korea really did the hacking?
Rogen: We debate about it a lot.
Goldberg: Oh yeah.
Rogen: It was f—ing crazy.
Goldberg: Every now and then we look at each other and one of us will say, “Remember that?”
Rogen: And we still work with a lot of the same people. We’re making a movie with Amy Pascal [the former head of Sony, who stepped down after the hack]. We’re in the same places a lot. We’re dealing with the same marketing people. It’s impossible not to bring it up. And we still debate whether or not it was North Korea.
We still debate whether or not it was North Korea.
What do you think?
Guerrasio: I don’t know. Someone must have thought it was someone nefarious because you guys had security around you at the time.
Rogen: We did.
Goldberg: I feel that was an insurance issue, who knows.
Guerrasio: Did that experience change how you guys write? Did it make you gun-shy?
Rogen: No. I would probably maybe not make a thing about North Korea again. We played that card, and all I can say is, touché.
Guerrasio: Is it true you came up with the idea for your next movie, “Sausage Party,” while smoking weed with Jonah Hill?
Rogen: Yeah. It actually came from me and Jonah and my wife having dinner together. We started talking about what it would be like if we made a Pixar-style movie about food and how f—ed up that would be and how potentially hilarious it would be. And that was almost 10 years ago, and we’ve been tirelessly trying to make it ever since then.
Guerrasio: What were the roadblocks? I’d assume a lot of that time was getting an education on how to make an animated movie.
Goldberg: Oh yeah. Long, complicated education.
Rogen: But it was mostly just trying to get someone to make it. It’s truly f—ing crazy and when there’s less precedent for something the harder it is to get it made. There’s literally never been an R-rated computer-generated animated movie, so it made it really hard to get someone to agree to make it because we couldn’t point to anything to show them that it wasn’t a terrible idea. Which to us was why it was a good idea.
Goldberg: And it was a lot like “Superbad” where we would go in, pitch it, people would go, “Oh God, that’s so funny.” Laugh the whole pitch. And then be like, “No, we can’t do that.”
Rogen: Yeah, it was a lot like “Superbad.” I remember one studio head — who I won’t name — literally was crying with laughter, in hysterics with laughter. And I remember thinking, “Oh my God, of course they are going to do it!” I had never seen someone react like that. And then they were even like, “We just can’t do it.” It took [producer] Megan Ellison to come along and cofinance the movie and Amy Pascal, who at the time was the head of Sony, agreed to make it, and we took the money and ran.
Guerrasio: Because it’s animated, is it more money than you usually work with?
Rogen: No. We found a way to do it for a more responsible price than most animated movies. It’s just being finished now, and as it finally comes together it’s unbelievably gratifying. I don’t know how the world is going to react to it, but I know we made a movie that we ourselves are incredibly entertained by.
Guerrasio: What was the biggest takeaway from showing it as a work-in-progress at South by Southwest? Have you done any tweaks since then?
Rogen: We did do some tweaks. But we really listened to the laughs. There were some jokes that for sure overstayed their welcome, and there were some themes that weren’t landing as well as we were hoping they would. It’s a movie we haven’t been able to screen a lot because of the animation process, so we kind of treated it like a test screening. We changed the ending a little bit. It was actually incredible for us.
Guerrasio: Looking back, if “Green Hornet” did amazing — which probably means, Seth, you’d still be making sequels for it to this day — would you have been able to make these movies you came up with? Was it good that “Hornet” bombed?
Rogen: You know, I have never thought of that. Ever.
Goldberg: That never occurred to me.
Rogen: You’re probably right.
Goldberg: I feel like people get one movie between each franchise.
Rogen: Yeah, we wouldn’t have been able to make as many movies, which I don’t know if anyone would be complaining about that.
Goldberg: “The Green Hornet” was just the greatest education possible in the history of the world for us.
Rogen: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after “The Green Hornet” is when we started producing, writing, and directing way more movies that, to some degree, have a larger rate of success. It taught us so much about every element of filmmaking on the biggest scale you could imagine. We took those lessons back to how we make movies on a much smaller scale. We were able to direct “This Is the End” because of what we learned on “The Green Hornet.” I think we were able to produce “50/50” and all the other movies we’ve produced since because of what happened on “The Green Hornet.”
Goldberg: The movie was like, 89 shooting days, so on day 60 you just turn to the cinematographer and are like, “How does that camera work?”
Rogen: Yeah, you just start learning about things you see. Action sequences put together on the biggest scale. You see how visual effects work. We literally, out of everyone we knew who were working in movies, had an in-depth course on giant-budget filmmaking at a very early time in our careers, relatively speaking. We use those lessons to this day. And we met Neal Moritz, so we wouldn’t be doing “Preacher” if it wasn’t for that movie, which is also weird to think about. [“Preacher” is an AMC TV series based on the popular comic that Rogen, Goldberg, and Moritz are executive producers on.]
Guerrasio: Is “Preacher” your way of redeeming yourselves in doing the comics you wanted to adapt back in “The Green Hornet” days?
Rogen: Yeah. That was a comic property we loved and truly —
Goldberg: We’re going to do it our way.
Rogen: We’re going to maximise the potential while using our strengths as people who make movies. We tried to do that with “The Green Hornet” and due to the process and due to our inexperience, it just did not go that way. But with “Preacher,” for many reasons, it’s playing much more to our strengths. I think us in combination with [cocreator] Sam Catlin have done a much better job reimagining the material in a way that is better for audiences.
Guerrasio: Is the Tom Cruise gag still in the pilot episode?
Rogen: Yeah, of course.
Goldberg: Oh hell yeah.
Guerrasio: In the movies you want to make, why are the studios still important? I’m sure you could easily pull an Adam Sandler and sign a four-picture deal with Netflix, where you’d have even less interference.
Rogen: We are not against working with Netflix in any capacity, honestly, but we just think the best way to see a comedy is in a theatre full of people.
Goldberg: I went to see “Deadpool” alone when it came out, and it was a revelatory experience because me and 400 people were all on the same wavelength and doing the same thing and it’s just not the same at home.
Rogen: I saw “Hateful Eight” in a theatre and it was just so much fun.
Goldberg: That’s funny. I was on a flight yesterday and I was going to watch “Hateful Eight” and I was just looking at the little screen, and I was just like, not going to do it.
Rogen: I think it’s the opposite of what people like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg say — the only movie that’s worth going to see in a theatre is a big-budget visual-effects movie. You can see that at home and sit 3 feet away from your giant television that most people have and get a very similar experience. What you can’t replicate at home is the shared group experience of being with 300 other people as you all are laughing hysterically or looking at each other marveling that what you are seeing was even allowed to be turned into a movie.
Goldberg: Without those moments, humanity will fall apart.
Rogen: Exactly. It’s the most important thing you should be doing. [Laughs]
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