Seth Rogen’s secret to great comedy

Yes, you need laughs—but as his latest, ‘Long Shot,’ proves, you need heart, too

Not surprisingly, a whole lot of Seth Rogen’s formative childhood moments happened at his local cineplex. Rogen grew up seeing comedies like There’s Something About Mary and the South Park movie in theaters, and vividly remembers them as uproarious—and communal—experiences. He wants his audiences to experience a similar kind of shared (and hilarious) journey when they watch his movies. And despite the success of straight-to-streaming movies like Netflix’s Roma, Rogen thinks that’s hard to do if you’re watching them at home.

“I personally want to make movies for theaters because it’s how I grew up seeing movies, and it’s how I understand how to make our comedies function—in a room full of people,” Rogen said Sunday during Variety and NATO’s SXSW Filmmakers Panel at WeWork 600 Congress Ave in Austin. He joined a conversation with Charlize Theron—the two co-starred and co-produced romantic comedy Long Shot—and director Jonathan Levine, moderated by Variety New York bureau chief Ramin Setoodehal.

While Theron said she believes all of the new platforms for movie-watching are promising, and is glad for the freedom it has opened up for more diverse filmmakers, “there’s a magical thing that happens when you’re in a room with a bunch of strangers,” she said “Comedy is such a shared experience.”

Long Shot follows Theron, a powerful woman running for president who impulsively hires a free-spirited journalist (Rogen) as her speechwriter; chemistry and comedy ensue. The film’s three collaborators shared how they worked together to successfully bring that vision to life, creating a movie the Daily Beast has already called “irresistibly charming.”

They infused humor with emotion. There’s almost a formula for a perfect Rogen comedy: The story has to have the right amount of weight to it, and it must be grounded in enough reality that the viewer feels real compassion for the characters muddling through ridiculous, riotous situations. “It’s easy to be funny,” said Levine. “But it’s much harder to keep in mind that you have to be kind or thoughtful or romantic or emotional. The funny stuff with [Rogen and Theron] is super easy. Keeping an eye on emotion was really my only job.”

They seized a moment. “Regardless of your ideology, you would have to say politics are different now,” said Rogen. In the original script, Theron’s character was more in the “Aaron Sorkin mode” of a traditional presidential figure, explains Levine. But the filmmakers quickly decided they couldn’t make a movie about modern politics “without addressing the crazy [stuff] that goes on every day” lately. So they revised the script. “Reality made it very easy for us to push the envelope, to be more playful, more satirical,” Levin explained.

And Rogen says that while many outsiders saw the idea of making a comedy set in the current political climate as a huge mountain to climb, they saw it as an opportunity. “It was an exciting opportunity to make a movie—and I think we’re the first big movie—that acknowledges the world we’re living in and takes place in that world.”

They focused on listening—and learning. Finding a balance between making viewers laugh and truly care about the leading characters wasn’t something Theron had much experience with before Long Shot. Recognizing that—and seeing the project as “a front-row seat at the best acting/filmmaking workshop you can imagine”—helped her gain new and valuable perspectives. “I really came on this project with my head down, my mouth closed, and my ears open,” Theron said. “I learned more on this movie than anything I’ve ever done.”

They relied on instinct. “Everybody was really open to not being set in their ways and feeling like there’s one way to go about this,” said Theron. Trusting one another’s instincts also meant they were able to bring each scene to its best place. During production, she, Rogen, and Levine said they could feel it when a joke truly landed. But that open feedback loop helped, too. “We look at each other and trust each other to say, ‘What do you think?’” said Theron. “And maybe there were some times where I didn’t feel something and Jonathan would say, ‘Trust me, it really works,’ and he was pretty much always right.”

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