‘Sausage Party’s Seth Rogen On Meeting With Tom Rothman & Dodging Pitfalls Of Controversial Comedy

Make no mistake—Seth Rogen and company take their comedy quite seriously, particularly when it comes to Sausage Party. A triple threat bringing his skills in writing, acting and producing to the Sony animated release, Rogen fought for more than three years to secure financing for the film—which brandishes his and creative partner Evan Goldberg’s signature brand of hilarious raunch—even after securing a staggering roster of A-list actors who would lend their voices to the film.

Eventually finding a home at Sony Pictures, with backing from Megan Ellison’s Annapurna PicturesSausage Party can certainly be considered a successful experiment, receiving good marks from critics and raking in over $100 million worldwide, balanced against a budget of some $19 million. Below, Rogen addresses Sausage Party‘s long road to theaters, exciting avenues to be explored in feature animation, actor Edward Norton’s surprising behind-the-scenes role in the film, and his hopes for an evolving industry.

Where did Sausage Party come from, as an initial concept?

It started maybe around 10 years ago, when me and Jonah Hill and Evan first started talking about the idea of doing an R-rated animated movie. It was really mostly out of a love for, like, Toy Story [laughs], and the other Pixar movies that were starting to come out around that time. And really, we just kept thinking, “Someone’s gonna do an adult-oriented one of these, at some point, and we just really want to be the ones to do it.”

Parallel to that, we would always joke around about this idea of food in a grocery store. It’s funny—I was actually looking through my computer at old files the other day, and I found the very first outline we ever had for it. It was from 2008, I think, and it was very similar, in some ways, and very different in a lot of ways—you could see the themes for what became the whole movie, but the thing that we really loved was this theological analogy that we could make, this idea that food had a belief system, and that the movie could kind of become about the food exploring its own existence, and really pushing the limits of the rules of these animated movies in some ways.

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Speaking to the genesis of Sausage Party, Rogen says, “We just kept thinking, ‘Someone’s gonna do an adult-oriented one of these, at some point, and we just really want to be the ones to do it.'” Sony Pictures

Generally speaking, as an actor looking at animated projects, what are the unique opportunities inherent in that medium that excite you?

When I first started doing it, honestly, it was just kind of the novelty of it. I was a big fan of animated movies, and so the idea of getting to see myself even represented in animation was incredibly exciting. But the truth is, a large part of the reason this was so exciting for us was because I was doing a lot of child-oriented animated movies, and as much as I loved them, it was becoming increasingly difficult to muster the enthusiasm for them, at times.

I just knew, as good as these movies are, they’re not the kind of movies that I always run out to go see; they’re movies that I always watch eventually, but they’re not the kinds of things that I’m generally incredibly enthusiastic about, because they’re largely geared towards children. That’s why this one was different, I think, and so much fun, because it had all the fun and the novelty of acting and performing in an animated movie, but the knowledge that I was actually making something that I, as a filmgoer, would be really excited about.

Were there specific inspirations for Sausage Party? You’d mentioned previously that this film is certainly without precedent.

Really, the Pixar movies were an inspiration, but when you’re making an R-rated animated movie and the closest thing you have to go on is a Pixar movie, there’s a lot of room there. [laughs] So there was no precedent—that is true. A lot of our exploration and the journey was finding a tone and a style that worked, and how do you balance the subversive nature of it with the child-like quality of it? And the fact that it looks and feels and has the skin of a movie that is more traditionally geared toward children. How much can they swear, and how far can it go? How violent can it be? What are the rules of the violence?

We really found that the only way for it to function in our heads was if every scene was very analogous to a conversation we could imagine ourselves having in real life, basically, and as soon as it was just about food stuff, we couldn’t wrap our heads around it anymore. It always had to be like, “OK, it’s a hot dog and a bun talking, but with the analogy, it’s two high school kids who are in Catholic school and have a crush on each other, and they know they’re not supposed to do anything, but they kind of are fooling around behind the sports shed.” And then, “OK, this is the scene where you are starting to have less faith, and your partner is starting to have more faith, and so you argue about that.” “This is the scene where you’re trying to convince someone that their faith is stupid, but you don’t realize you’re being insensitive in doing that, and only reaffirming their thoughts.” [laughs] That’s what we found we had to do for every scene in the entire movie, no matter how weird it seemed like it was; it had to have some anchor firmly in a conversation that we ourselves could picture having.

Rooting a script like this with dramatic stakes seems like a real challenge, although it certainly works in keeping the film from veering off into sketch territory.

Sketch realm, or something that you just don’t relate to in any way, emotionally. It’s food talking to each other about food stuff, and you don’t care about that, but as long as you always can see what the food is talking about is directly paralleling something you yourself have experienced, then it’s not just food talking. That took us a while to learn—there were times when there were some jokes or scenes that were just based on being food. “We need to find refrigeration, or we’ll start to rot!” And it’s just like, what is that? [laughs] I don’t relate to that in any way.

Sausage Party.jpeg (Jonah Hill) and Barry (Michael Cera) in Columbia Pictures' SAUSAGE PARTY.
“There was no precedent—that is true,” Rogen says of venturing into the world of R-rated animation. Sony Pictures

This film took a while to bring into reality. Does no amount of star power guarantee backers for a riskier or more experimental project?

No amount of star power makes it easy to do something that just hasn’t quite been done before. That is terrifying to studios, in general, if they can’t point to another thing that’s worked that is like the thing you are trying to sell them. But as a filmmaker, the problem we constantly run into is we kind of only want to do stuff that you can’t point to another example of, because it’s only then that we feel we’re doing something that is creatively relevant and exciting. Honestly, the [original] script was pretty much the script that we made—we were very proud of the script, and we thought it was going to be a very original idea.

We thought that people would just flock to it, and that we would have a bidding war, and there would be this amazing frenzy for it. And the exact opposite of that happened—everyone really seemed to appreciate it, and the studios we pitched it to all would laugh, and they’d say, “Oh, this is so funny! This is wonderful…Good luck getting it made.” It was incredibly encouraging in some ways, and then very discouraging, because nobody wanted to make it. It literally wasn’t until Megan came along and was like, “I’ll co-finance this with a studio, and maybe that will take some of the weight off, and some of the fear away, and mitigate the risk in some capacity.” And Sony did it. It would not have happened otherwise.

It’s interesting to see what people can get away with at the moment when animating for television, rather than for film. 

Yeah, for sure. It is something that we always were very adamant that there would be a market for, because on TV, the most successful cartoons are for adults. It was because of that that it was even more perplexing that people looked at us as though we were trying to sell them the London Bridge. [laughs] We were like, “No! There’s no movie precedent for it, but The Simpsons is one of the most successful shows in the history of television, and it’s an adult-oriented cartoon. This isn’t that weird a concept.” But it was weird enough that it just hadn’t been done in movies, and so part of our approach was to just approach it like we would approach one of our live-action movies; our whole philosophy with live-action movies is like, what is the amount of money we can make it for, and the amount the studio will give us with no notes in any shape or form, and just leave us alone? [laughs]

To us, the budgeting of the movie is as much a creative decision as the director, the actors or anything like that. It ultimately dictates a lot, and we’re not the kind of people, also, who are just always trying to get the most amount of money they possibly can for their movies, because we want to be sustainable, and we also don’t want to be known for being irresponsible, and taking ideas that are viewed as having a lot of risk and not acknowledging that.

That being said, when it works, it pays off better than anything, and that is also part of what we try to sell ourselves on—if it hits, it could hit big. But I sat in a room with [Sony boss] Tom Rothman, and I was like, “This will work. I just have a sense that people will like this.” And it’s funny because we had released The Night Before already, and I was like, “You know what I didn’t do? I didn’t sit with you in a room before The Night Before and tell you that this is going to be a massive mainstream hit. I didn’t do that; I’m doing that with this movie. There’s a difference. I think that this is something people will actually be really excited about because of how different it is.” And they got behind it, and are continuing to get behind it.

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“We very much wanted [the film] to have political commentary, and social commentary, and theological commentary,” he shares. Sony Pictures
Bearing in mind the film’s entertainment value, did you intend for it to have a strong political or social commentary, as well?

Oh, yeah! Tons. We very much wanted it to have political commentary, and social commentary, and theological commentary. To us, as people in our mid-30s, that was the most exciting part of the movie, was getting to explore ideas that we are genuinely fascinated by. When you’re doing it in such a silly way, you can actually address things that are much more serious than most dramatic movies are willing to address. You can actually go at very serious subjects and not get weighted down by them because you’re always balancing it out with levity. But to us, it’s a movie about belief and questioning your existence, and about questioning the rules under which we operate, and how those rules came to be—and who those rules benefit, and who they don’t benefit.

But we always knew that that is not, on a commercial level, something people generally are psyched to go see, and that it had to be disguised, basically. I think everyone who saw the movie got what we were trying to say, in a lot of ways, but I think that it should also, as you said, just have face value entertainment, and you shouldn’t feel that you’re being lectured about Seth and Evan and Kyle [Hunter] and Ariel [Shaffir]’s thoughts on theology.

When you’re handling issues that could be deemed controversial—whether sexual, religious, cultural or gender-based—what approach have you taken to navigating that territory?

The truth is just by being sensitive, and being hard on it—by really inviting the dialogue that criticizes that, in order to make sure that you are handling it in a way that people understand what you’re trying to say. And at the very least, handling it in a way that people aren’t hurt by it. A lot of it is just showing the movie to a lot of people in very early phases—we showed it to theaters full of random people. We’re pretty self-aware in that regard; we know where the potential quicksand lies, and that’s kind of the fun, in a lot of ways, and the danger of doing satirical comedy, is that you’re dancing on the razor’s edge at times. I think the best comedy feels like that, where it feels a little unsafe. Is this allowed, in some way? But we really listen, and we changed the movie a lot over the years based on that kind of criticism—based on some ideas going too far, some ideas just not being funny, some ideas, just us not articulating the point of the joke well enough, and so we’d have to go back and say, “OK, if people aren’t getting this, it’s our responsibility to make them get it.” That’s really how we deal with that—we lean into it, we don’t shy away from it. It’s really trial and error, and just really hoping that by the time the movie’s done, you have kept the level of excitement and the live wire energy of this, but at the same time, we don’t want people to have their feelings hurt, or feel as though they’re being targeted in any way.

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“I think the best comedy feels a little unsafe,” Rogen explains. Sony Pictures

What was the casting process like? How do stars like Edward Norton and Salma Hayek get involved in a raunchy animated comedy?

I’ve known Edward for a long time—I think I first met him when we were filming Knocked Up, and we’ve been very good friends since then. Evan and I told him the idea I think when we first came up with it, and he just loved it. He really latched onto it, and was a huge proponent of it, and said from the very beginning that he wanted to play a bagel that sounded like Woody Allen. [laughs] He was like, “If I’ve done my job properly, people won’t know it’s me until the end of the movie when they see my name in the credits. And I was like, that’s fantastic!

He really was the biggest cheerleader of the movie in a lot of ways, and he really gave us a lot of confidence because when you hear no a lot, or you’ve been working on something for years and years, it’s easy to start to question whether we should be dedicating a third of our lives to a talking hot dog movie. It was always nice to have him, someone who we could not respect more, and who, as far as the level of quality he’s seen over the years—he’s gotten to play in a very talented pool…His encouragement was always incredibly meaningful to us, and I’m 100 percent sure Salma Hayek would not be in the movie if it wasn’t for him. He essentially was our casting director on the movie—I think he was ultimately the one who talked Kristen Wiig into doing it, also. He really helped wrangle the cast, and because he was one of the first people involved in it, it was easy to get other people, because we always could say, “We got Edward Norton in the movie!”

Has a sequel to this film been discussed, or are you looking to continue developing purely original content?

We were never the kind of people who jumped at sequels, in general. We’ve very luckily, over the years, had a few movies that, if we wanted to, we probably could’ve made sequels to. And we always, fortunately, had a lot of other ideas, so it was always more exciting to us to work on something new. When Neighbors happened, we actually had another idea, so it seemed like the perfect experience to see how it went. We really enjoyed making it, but it seemed as though audiences in general would’ve preferred us to perhaps pursue more original material. [laughs] Which was something that I honestly understood. I think comedy, specifically; one of the things that makes it exciting is when it’s original. I think more than almost any other genre, original comedies really seem to do well, because I think comedy is so largely based on the unexpected, and playing with peoples’ expectations, so when they have no preconceived notions of this idea before you’ve told them about it, it’s a lot easier to do that, I think.

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Though a sequel to Sausage Party is conceivable, Rogen and Goldberg “were never the kind of people who jumped at sequels, in general.” Sony Pictures

It was interesting to see that after this summer with the two movies I did, the sequel to the giant movie didn’t seem to be received as well as the movie that’s wildly original, that nobody wanted to make for years and years. Honestly, if I had to choose a result—well, I’d choose that they both did incredibly well—but if I had to choose a second result, this is a good one. As far as Sausage Party goes, we’ve done the exercise, we’ve talked about it and it is actually one of those movies where as we were writing it, we had tons of ideas for sequels. It ends in kind of an open-ended way that implies more could happen, but again, our instinct at this moment is to just do another different R-rated animated movie, and to create a new world. So much of the fun of doing animated movies is creating the world, and creating the characters.

What are your hopes for the future, in terms of the way in which the success of this experiment might impact the industry at large?

I think overall, we just viewed animation as a medium, not a genre. It seems to have kind of become a genre, and I think stop-motion animation actually broke out of that in a very amazing way—there’s things like Anomalisa and very adult-oriented stop-motion animation, and there’s also adult-oriented 2D animation, but the idea of CG, 3D animation is that it’s for children. It just seems like too much fun to leave it to just kids—there’s too much opportunity to not have it expand into other genres. You meet filmmakers who are brilliant people, much smarter than us, who make very adult-oriented stuff, and I’ve been saying to them as I meet them, “You could make an animated movie.” If you’re a sci-fi director, you could make an R-rated sci-fi, CG animated movie; if you’re a horror director, you could make the scariest f*cking horror movie anyone’s ever seen, and make it a CG, animated movie. It doesn’t have to look like it’s for kids—you could do anything with it. I want to see what Fede Alvarez’s animated movie is like. That, to me, is what’s really exciting, and hopefully we’ve enabled that in some way.

This article was printed from https://deadline.com/2016/11/seth-rogen-sausage-party-edward-norton-sony-pictures-annapurna-news-interview-1201848120/