How 'The Interview' screenwriter Dan Sterling became 'the guy that brought down Sony'
The screenwriter talks about getting the studio to greenlight the James Franco-Seth Rogen comedy and how the drama surrounding it has affected him.
UPDATE Dec. 17: Today the five largest theater chains — AMC, Regal, Cinemark, Cineplex and Carmike — said they would not show "The Interview."
"The Interview" is the first produced screenplay by Dan Sterling, whose previous work includes writing for TV shows such as "South Park" and "The Daily Show." It’s fair to say that "The Interview" is not exactly the movie debut he had in mind.
The comedy is about a pair of TV journalists, played by Seth Rogen and James Franco, who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The movie doesn’t open until Christmas Day, but it’s already sparked a massive international incident.
North Korea has declared the Sony Pictures comedy is an act of war. Many people believe the communist dictatorship is behind a huge data breach at Sony, in which a flood of embarrassing emails, personal information and movies has been hacked.
“The Interview,” co-directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, opens on Christmas Day. That’s when the hackers — known as Guardians of Peace — have vowed to release more documents they’ve stolen from Sony.
Screenwriter Dan Sterling stopped by The Frame to talk about getting Sony to green light "The Interview" and how the fallout has affected him.
What's one way the drama around "The Interview" and the Sony hack affected you so far?
I was at a party on Saturday night where the host was introducing me to everybody at the party as, "This is the guy that brought down Sony!"
Were you flattered by that?
The first four or five-hundred times the joke was made it was funny. Actually, in a way it's actually not funny to me. It's been a surreal experience. I'm still very much in the middle of it. The one thing that I know that I'm not happy about is actually the real suffering that is going on at Sony, not just by the person who green lit my film so bravely, but also by all the other people affected by the hack. I'm quite concerned about them.
What about the reaction to the film itself has been the most surprising?
About a year ago today, I was on a soundstage watching Seth Rogan, who was completely naked, except for a sock around his penis and he had a bunch of salami tucked between his buttocks that a German Shepherd was eating out of. Because [in] the scene he was being sniffed by a bomb-sniffing dog, and I was laughing my head off sitting next to his mother, who seemed to be used to these sorts of things, and she was knitting a scarf. At the time, nothing like any of this could have occurred to me, because the movie, in our minds, was supposed to be an outrageous— of course, somewhat provocative, but totally hilarious — comedy, which I think that it is. But the reaction by the North Korean government was surprising to me. I was quite naive going into this.
What was the beginning of the story in this film? Was it something that you pitched? Was it something that you talked to Seth Rogan and his co-director Evan Goldberg about?
I had written a spec screenplay called "Flarsky" that came out a few years ago in The Blacklist [an annual list of the best unproduced screenplays]. It was very politically-oriented and had a huge international scope to it, much like "The Interview" does. Seth read it and he and his producer, Evan Goldberg, both attached to it. They came to me with this nugget of an idea. They said, What would happen if a journalist got an interview with Osama bin Laden? Wouldn't he be tempted to kill him?" At the time, bin Laden was still alive. But we knew we couldn't do a movie about bin Laden because Sasha Baron Cohen was moving towards production on "The Dictator," so he, for that time, just owned all jokes about Middle Eastern tyrants. So I went off and tried to figure out, Where do we [set] this? I knew it had to be somewhere real and somewhere that has big stakes, and North Korea was the obvious place.
From the very beginning, was the idea that it would be the real leader?
It never occurred to me that we would be able to use the real leader's name. I wrote the script — without any instructions from anybody — with a fake name. At the time, Kim Jong-Il was the leader of North Korea. I wrote a name called Kim Il-Wan and that was the version that the studio green lit. Once the movie had been green lit, we were having an early pre-production meeting. We agreed in that meeting with the executives, and with Seth and Evan there, that I ought to go off and see what happens, try and write a draft with Kim Jong-Un and just see how it looks ... As soon as I did it, Seth, Evan and I all knew that this was absolutely the way to go.
There was concern, but not resistance from the studio. In other words, they said, "I guess we're in?" Was there a negotiation about how real this person was going to be?
Not at first, but when we got up to Vancouver we were getting towards production. Seth and Evan got a call and the studio said that you guys should change it to something else or shoot it in a way that we can take out that name if we need to. Seth and Evan resisted...
Resisted as in said no?
I wasn't on the phone conversation, but I think they were pretty firm in their objection to that note, and I think ultimately the studio said, Do what you've got to do, I guess.
A couple things happened, the first of which is North Korea described the movie as an act of war. When that happened, were you guys a little bit flattered or were you at all concerned at that point?
It would be disingenuous to say that that was not exciting to us. I think we were like, Wow! There have been other comedies made about dictators. There was "Team America" and that didn't get much of a reaction out of Kim Jong-Il. I don't even think "The Great Dictator," Charlie Chaplin's movie, got much of a reaction out of Hitler. But Kim Jong-Un, in some ways, I guess is less reasonable than his predecessors dictatorially ... So, yeah, we were surprised and kind of excited — and a little bit nervous. I did think, Gosh, if he really is serious, I certainly don't want to be responsible just with this silly comedy with having anybody harmed in any way.
You mentioned "Team America," which is by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. You worked on [their series] "South Park." "South Park" did not spare anyone from satirical skewering, but it didn't really seem to spark an international crisis like this movie has. So what's the difference between what you did on "South Park" and what you have done in "The Interview"?
I think some of it is that the particular government and the particular leader that we've attacked is more sensitive. The other thing is these are real moving images and realistic depictions, in some ways, not portrayals. This is film, these are not marionette puppets, this is not a cartoon. This is a big studio movie and so maybe that's part of what has escalated the stakes.
This movie has a lot to say about the media and about media manipulation. Was that something you felt very strongly that you wanted to focus on, about the whole idea of how things are portrayed, whether or not you should trust your own eyes?
Most things about North Korea aren't funny. It's a tragedy, it's one of the great tragedies in modern history and it's still going on. What is funny is the fact that their efforts to hide it and to paint this absurd picture that they think we're all buying, and we're not. We did a lot of research and watched documentaries and read books and there is a certain hilariousness that they present themselves as a place where unicorns live and that they have leaders that don't pee and poo. How do you do a comedy about North Korea and not show that and skewer that?
This was a movie that was so perilous to Sony and part of what's been leaked out is that [studio co-chief] Amy Pascal was consulting with the head of Sony in Japan about what could and could not be shown in the movie. With all of this concern she also didn't back down from what the movie was going to be. A little bit of you is probably grateful that Sony didn't cower and didn't tell you to change the ending of the film.
I am blown away that they let us do this movie and that they really didn't make us make any significant changes. I'm grateful for it. I am terrified, however, that what I wanted was for this movie — I don't think it was going to change North Korea, but I thought it might change the way people approach comedy and encourage them to make bolder movies. I don't know now.
That's a very interesting point.
Well, this is a big, broad crazy comedy, but it is bold in some ways and it addresses subjects that are controversial and they're risky and I want comedies to do that more. I don't want to just go see comedies about people switching bodies or men dressing up as women. I'm not that excited about a lot of comedies that come out these days. I wish that they would attack bigger subjects. The fantasy was that this would be a huge box office success and that they would hold me and Seth and Evan up on their shoulders and carry us all around and say, From now on we're going to do comedies that are really risky and attack big political subjects and find ways to be funny. I'm not clear now whether that happens. I guess we'll have to see the box office.
Are you worried about that even if the movie is successful that people will say, We can't go there, we can't offend people because look what happens?
Yeah, I'm a little worried about that. I'm a little worried — I mean, we still don't know if this is North Korea or who [behind the Sony hack] — that all of this controversy and trouble will have a chilling effect. And that is just the opposite of what I wanted.