When I spoke to screenwriter Will Reiser and Seth Rogen at Canter’s deli last fall, they were about to premiere their film, “50/50,” which is loosely based on Reiser’s battle with cancer while in his 20s. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rogen as stand-ins for the real friends, the film now has Reiser competing against Woody Allen and Diablo Cody in the Writers Guild of America Awards original screenplay competition.
This comes after Reiser already racked up an Independent Spirit nod for best first screenplay and won best script from the National Board of Review. His alternately raw and poignant “50/50” has roots in how Reiser’s life and relationships — including his friendship with Rogen — evolved after he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor of the spine in 2005.
The WGA winners will be announced on Feb. 19 in simultaneous ceremonies in L.A. and New York; besides Woody (“Midnight in Paris”) and Cody (“Young Adult”), Reiser’s competition includes Annie Mumalo and Kristen Wiig (“Bridesmaids”) and Tom McCarthy (“Win Win”—McCarthy shares story credit with Joe Teboni).
In March, Reiser will be honored by a perhaps even more personal set of colleagues: He’ll receive the first ever “Stupid Cancer Extreme Survivor Award,” at the 5th Annual OMG! Cancer Summit For Young Adults. According to a press release, OMG! is the premiere oncology conference and social networking event for the young adult cancer movement. Reiser’s getting the irreverently-titled award for making a movie that’s helped change how people view these patients.
“It got very confusing, just how people would talk to me,” Reiser told me of his own experience with cancer. “A lot of people had this warped idea of what I should do — like ‘Go travel the world.’ They’d want to hug and coddle you, when you felt like sh—.”
Rogen admitted he felt ill equipped to deal with his friend’s cancer. He said his character, Kyle, is based on the “dumbest” version of himself when Reiser was sick; while Kyle cares, he doesn’t know how to articulate his feelings, so he tries to make light of the situation and have fun with it. “But Kyle is rather insensitive about it,” Rogen said, while eating matzo ball soup. “I was telling Will to write a movie about his experience, which was probably my insensitive version of telling Will to travel the world or get laid.”
“I don’t think there was a cancer survivor who saw this film and did not believe for one second that it signified a cultural shift in how the public relates to cancer,” said Matthew Zachary, Founder and CEO of the I’m Too Young For This! cancer foundation, in the release. “For too long, the voice of the underserved young adult cancer patient has gone unheard and through Will’s vision, ‘50/50’ brought this cause to the mainstream in a way no other film has done.”
“I was trying to tell a good story that felt real and honest; exposing all the absurdity, humor, tragedy and dysfunction I encountered while dealing with cancer in my mid-twenties,” Reiser said. “What I didn’t anticipate was how much the movie would resonate and connect with other young adult cancer patients and survivors. I’m honored and humbled to receive this award.”
Reiser is proud he was able to turn his gruelling experience into a film—and that he made the movie with his friend, Rogen. The WGA nomination and other nods, he regards as “icing on top of the cake.”
Registration for the OMG! event can be found online at http://OMG2012.org.