Free beer and popcorn — I must admit, that’s what lured me out on a recent rainy evening in Cambridge to see Seth Rogen and a screening of "The Interview."
One day before the Sony Pictures hack, Rogen presided over a Harvard event on the intersection of humor and politics. He joked about the initial response from North Korea when the trailer came out and expressed hope the release would occur without incident. "I would hope they would have better things to do,'' he said.
A day later, the computer attack began a controversy that escalated when Sony Pictures canceled the release of the film Thursday. President Obama, in a news conference Friday afternoon, called that move a mistake. "We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States,'' Obama said.
At Harvard, just 17 days ago, the mood was bright and, well, funny. Here are excerpts from Rogen's talk with writer and former Daily Show contributor Lizz Winstead and Harvard Lampoon president Alex Wilkinson:
Alexis Wilkinson: When the movie was first announced they threatened ‘merciless retaliation’ and now obviously your movie isn’t the first to mock a real place. The most notable example being Borat and Kazakhstan and they weren’t too happy about that either. Obviously they don’t have nukes. So how did this idea for the movie come about and how did you think North Korea would actually respond?
Seth Rogen: The idea came about from … anecdotal conversation like, ‘Oh, Mike Wallace interviews Osama bin Laden.' He’s in a room, like journalists are in a position to be in a room with very elusive dangerous people hypothetically, and I’m not saying they should kill them, but were they so inclined, they’d be in a good position to do that — and that became something we would talk about. Meanwhile, we were very fascinated with North Korea. It’s a bizarre place and the more you read about it, the more bizarre it is. The more mysterious it is and the deeper you dig, the deeper the mystery goes just as to WTF is going on over there. So, eventually, we just combined the ideas and thought, ‘Oh, we can make a movie about a journalist who gets an interview with Kim Jong-un and then is asked to kill him.'
AW: Are you at all fearful that they will actually do something?
SR: Not really, no. I would hope they would have better things to do. Don’t take that as a challenge. I would hope they would have better things to do there.
Lizz Winstead: Is this streaming in North Korea?
SR: I don’t think the movie is being released in North Korea. I expect low box-office revenue.
After the lecture, Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg, who was sitting in the audience, invited the crowd to see a free screening of "The Interview" at a theater down the street. I’m no film critic, but I did laugh. Seth Rogen's character, Aaron Rappaport, is a producer for the smarmy newsman Dave Skylark (James Franco). “Skylark Tonight” is a highly-rated, highly-successful, celebrity gossip news magazine. But Rappaport feels the pangs of “real journalism” and yearns to do legitimate, hard-hitting news.
And I couldn't help but chuckle at the minor parallels to today’s churning news cycle, where kitten stories — and I might even go so far as to say, “bizarre North Korea” stories — become clickbait. The double irony is that the film ultimately ends up being that very same “look at the bizarre hermit kingdom.”
So, was it a good film? Again, I laughed. And I did feel somewhat queasy about laughing, knowing all of the very serious human rights abuses happening in that country.
To be fair, there's a scene when Dave Skylark finally realizes that, too — when he comes to understand that the supermarket he was shown on his tour of Pyongyang was just a false front. And that a beautiful grapefruit he had so admired was ceramic.
(CORRECTION: The Harvard event was Dec. 2, not Dec. 8 as initially reported.)