What happens when you lock six comedians in a house for almost the entire length of a feature film? A lot of improvisation. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg teamed up to write and direct the summer blockbuster hit This Is the End, but when Rogen, Craig Robinson, James Franco, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill, and Jay Baruchel were put in the same room, no script could hold them down. Not that it wanted to.
Below, co-writer/co-director Evan Goldberg reflects on some of his favorite improvised moments from the film, and talks about how the film’s retro ending — Backstreet Boys! — came about.
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As told by: Evan Goldberg
On his favorite improvised moments: I’ll start with what I think was my best. I’ll always remember it because Jonah [Hill] always reminds me that it’s the hardest he’s ever laughed in his life. And in reality, what I’m about to say kind of gets less laughs than a lot of the other jokes in the movie. Every now and then you just leave one joke in for yourself and this was it — it gets like a medium laugh, but it doesn’t kill. It’s when Jonah’s got Seth [Rogen] pinned down and he goes, “I’m going to titty-f–k you, Seth. What are they, big B’s or small C’s?” That line — “What are they, big B’s or small C’s?” — was mine. That really killed Jonah. We had to cut and wait a minute because he was laughing so hard. When Seth pushed his chest together, I thought that was incredibly funny.
My favorite improv of the movie might be when [James] Franco says, “It’s like Neapolitan ice cream” in reference to the father, son, and the holy ghost. That just kills me. I thought that was one of the funniest jokes I’ve ever heard.
Quite unforgettable for me was when Craig Robinson improvised — he had it pre-planned, I know, but not fully — that, “Here’s Terrence Peterson, my monkey flashlight key chain.” And they say, “What’s its name again?” “Terrence Peterson.” And then there’s a pause, and someone says something else, and he goes, “Terry Pete.” That’s just the weirdest. I don’t even know why it’s funny, but audiences love that one.
There are some Jay [Baruchel] said that are too offensive for me to repeat. That’s what I got off the top of my head.
On how much of the film was improvised: I would say the movie was 85 percent improv. It’s mostly improv. I think Seth and I are pretty solid writers, but sometimes a movie just begs to go one way, sometimes it begs to go the other. Like Superbad, there’s some great improv in it, but Superbad is like 95 percent what we wrote. Pineapple Express is like 50 percent what we wrote, maybe 40 percent. But this, when you have all those guys there, it’s just almost impossible to top them, so maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but the vast majority of the movie was improv.
On that masturbation argument: I proudly say that that is, to a point, exactly as scripted — until [Danny McBride] says my proudest written line in the film, which is something like, “You got iPads on the wall and Buck Rogers and all this, and you’re jerking your d–k like a goddamn Pilgrim.” Until that line, it was all as scripted. But then, from that point onwards, Franco and Danny took it to another level, so that to me was like the ultimate combination of writing and improv. It was half our writing and I’m so proud of it, and half their improv.
On the Emma Watson “rapey” scene: That was pretty scripted because you can’t play around too much with that topic. We had to make sure that we actually had it and that it wasn’t offensive. But you know, there was no scene in the movie that didn’t have improv at all. That one had a few good moments: The whole stuff about the elephant in the room, Craig, and “that’s racist” — that was improv. I think the rest was scripted, give or take a few.
On having to cut improv: Happened all the time. That was one of the biggest tricks of the movie. As a director, you can’t stop a guy if he thinks something’s hysterical, because if you do, then he’ll get depressed because he thinks he didn’t come up with a good joke. So if a guy’s going on some run and it’s killing him, and he thinks it’s hilarious, you gotta do enough so that he thinks you can use it in the movie. While me and Seth would know that we’re not going to use it in the movie, we’re just trying to make sure that we don’t hurt their feelings because everyone needs to be in a positive attitude to do their best job at improving comedy. So you let them get it out of their system just enough, or try to segue into something else without them realizing that you’re doing something manipulative.
On one unforgettable duo: People always jump to the bigger moments — the cannibal, or the jerk-off scene, or this or that — but the first day of filming was Seth and Jay in the car when Jay gets picked up at the airport. We did two 30-minute takes of Jay and Seth in that car. We lightly wrote what was going to be in it, and then they improvised the vast majority of it. Jay and Seth hadn’t worked together in a really long time, and everyone’s a star of the movie, but those two are the core emotional point of the film. They’re the two main characters, and it was just incredible. It was like someone putting on — I’m doing the wrong analogy — an old pair of pants. You know what I mean? They were just like back in action. And Seth and Jay used so much of their actual personal lives: like Jay doesn’t live in L.A., Jay does live in Montreal. He doesn’t like coming to America as much and Seth does, and Seth’s fine with it and accepted that he lives there now. And they really harnessed reality to make things extra funny in a really good way. That’s not the thing that stands out most to people in the movie, but it starts the movie on a really, really good note, and it’s just the strongest block of improv I’ve almost ever seen.
On adding The Backstreet Boys at the last minute: We initially didn’t have that. We wrote a bunch of different heaven sequences, and we just didn’t have that at first, and we showed the movie to some people, and they were like, “What the f—? Where’s the heaven sequence?” And we were like, “We should’ve shot it,” because we wrote it. And then we all kept shooting around different ideas, and we had that song, “(Everybody) Backstreet’s Back” in the sequence where Seth and Jay are smoking weed and hanging out again. We use that song there because the boys are back to hanging like the old days. It occurred to all of us like, what if we just had The Backstreet Boys come back? And they’d just so happened to watch the trailer the day before we reached out to them. One of them showed it to all the other dudes and was like, “How funny is this?” Serendipity. Just worked out.