Film & TV

Seth Rogen on The Interview: " I Don't Have a Lot to Offer in the Political Arena"

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He was speaking of The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin's bold lampoon of Adolf Hitler. The Little Tramp was furious when the Nazis called him a "disgusting Jewish acrobat." Chaplin wasn't Jewish. But that wasn't the point. He was upset that being Jewish was an insult -- and worse, that more people weren't offended.

"Hitler must be laughed at," Chaplin insisted.

He and Hitler were born just one week apart in April 1889. Both were raised in troubled homes and pursued artistic careers -- albeit, in Hitler's case, temporarily. "He's the madman, I'm the comic," Chaplin said. "But it could have been the other way around."

The Great Dictator was preemptively banned in Franco's Spain, Mussolini's Italy and all Nazi-occupied territory -- no surprises there. The one time a projectionist snuck it into a military theater, German soldiers fired pistols at the screen. But thanks to the Hayes Production Code, which frowned upon breaking Hollywood's neutrality stance, screenings weren't even guaranteed in America or Chaplin's native England.

"Hitler must be laughed at," Chaplin insisted.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt learned that Hollywood was giving Chaplin a hard time, he urged the filmmaker to press on. Roosevelt even attended The Great Dictator's premiere in 1940 -- by that time, hating Hitler was politically smart.

Rogen and Goldberg wanted to screen The Interview at the White House, but they were turned down, Rogen says. "We got back a funny email, like, 'Given the subject matter, we do not feel that this would be appropriate.' " And so far, The Interview will not be shown anywhere in Asia.

The genius of The Great Dictator is that it doesn't just attack Hitler's policies. As in The Interview, the film makes the dictator a buffoon. Chaplin's dictator falls down the stairs, gets soiled by a baby, frets about his social status and gets caught in his own cape. He doesn't rule with an iron fist -- he's ruled by his emotions.

But Chaplin held back by dubbing his mustachioed, Jew-hating tyrant "Adenoid Hynkel." The Interview aggressively names names.

Plus, Chaplin ended The Great Dictator with a four-minute speech in which he addressed the camera and pleaded for utopian peace: "Let us fight to free the world -- to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance." It's no spoiler to say that Rogen and Goldberg end their film with less sincerity.

Clearly, Hitler's own favorite film about himself, Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, can be defined as propaganda. Audiences have a harder time using the word to describe Chaplin's work, though both are unquestionably films designed to further a cause.

"Is this movie propaganda?" Rogen asks of The Interview. Well, yes. Imagine America's patriotic anger if North Korea green-lit the same script about Barack Obama, or even George W. Bush. But that's the curious thing about propaganda: It only feels outrageous when we disagree with it.

When a movie upsets people, its defenders insist that it's only entertainment. But movies have power. Imagine you live in Pyongyang, where literally everything in movie theaters and on TV is made by the government, usually telling you how great the Kim family is.

Three generations of Kims have ruled North Korea, starting with Kim Jong-un's grandfather Kim Il-sung in 1948. But it wasn't until the late 1960s, when Kim Jong-il increased his clout within his father's regime, that the Kim family's cult of personality took root. Kim Jong-il realized the ability of cinema to shape minds.

A cineaste since age 7, Kim Jong-il took over the country's film studios as writer, producer, executive and critic; made the country's most famous actress, Song Hye Rim, his mistress; and even penned a book called On the Art of Cinema. He ordered his directors that every movie had to have what he called a "seed."

"You read that and think, well, OK, 'plot,' " Person says. "But it's beyond that. You need to have an ideological message that reinforces this narrative of absolute loyalty and subservience to the Kim family."

Kim Jong-il's seed sprouted. The directors may have quietly resented his intrusions on the set, if only because he cost them equipment -- every camera lens he touched was then taken to a museum. But to the entertainment-starved North Koreans, local movies were incredibly popular.

Still, Kim Jong-il didn't greenlight funny films -- he didn't understand the power of making audiences laugh. Unlike Germans under Hitler, most of whom had seen Chaplin films before the war began, the North Koreans have little awareness of irreverent comedy. They revere their leader.

"That's why they're so sensitive to the idea that Westerners are making fun of this person who they truly believe is making every sacrifice for the country," Person says. "They don't even think the guy defecates, and here's this movie showing him as this comical figure."

And in a country with no concept of free speech, where every movie is Kim family-approved, it would be hard for North Koreans to comprehend that The Interview was made by individuals. To them, this insult was made by America.

What's funny is that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg aren't even American. They're Canadian.

What's funnier is that, as Rogen puts it, "We're just two fucking dudes! I don't have a lot to offer in the political arena."

True, The Interview has more jokes about buttholes, homoeroticism and explosives than about foreign policy. But there's a suspicion that the pair are more politically sharp than they'll admit.

Rogen has described his parents, who met on a kibbutz in Israel, as radical Jewish socialists. His father, Mark, is the assistant director of a nonprofit that promotes Yiddish culture. His mother, Sandy, is a social worker.

During the summer, Rogen's parents sent him to a "granola, super left-wing, labor Zionist socialist" camp on an island off the coast of Vancouver, where, instead of making macramé, the children studied poverty and social justice.

The kids had fun but they also worked, Rogen says. "You got a job in the kitchen, or you would clean the camp. There was a gardening group, a painting group, a repair squad if something broke -- it was awesome." Even though the counselors made him march the grounds carrying rocks.

Goldberg, a private-school kid, went to the other camp, "the rich, more neocon, right-wing one," Rogen says. When the two boys met over bagels and chocolate milk in bar mitzvah class, they realized they had tons in common, like their love of Pulp Fiction and Mel Brooks.

One afternoon in 1995, while watching a terrible movie on TV, Goldberg and Rogen agreed they could do better. So they went upstairs to Goldberg's sister's pink bedroom and began writing a script on the family computer.

The script was Superbad, or at least its ancestor. (They rewrote it 18 times.) It was slow going. Rogen also was doing stand-up. At 16, he won the Vancouver Amateur Comedy Contest and a part in Judd Apatow's TV series Freaks and Geeks and moved to Los Angeles.

Goldberg stayed behind. He taught aquatic fitness and enrolled in college as an American history major (in Canada), figuring he'd eventually join Rogen in Hollywood and it "would help me understand America better." He and Rogen half-joke about writing a comedy about the War of 1812, between Canada and the United States.

Goldberg says, "History is stories and they're real -- and they're generally crazier than the shit people come up with."

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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014.