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How Seth Rogen and Michael Cera got away with showing an orgy in 'Sausage Party'

If Seth Rogen and Michael Cera have their way, you may never look at a hot dog quite the same again.

Nearly a decade after the two first worked together on the raunchy 2007 high-school comedy “Superbad,” Rogen, 34, and Cera, 28, voice a pair of sexually frustrated, existentially angsty frankfurters in the R-rated animated comedy “Sausage Party,” in theaters Friday. A demented and gleefully profane spin on animated kids’ movies, the film is set in a supermarket where food items — including Rogen’s Frank and Cera’s Barry, as well as a hot dog bun (Kristen Wiig), a bagel (Edward Norton), a taco (Salma Hayek) and others — dream of a Valhalla-like world beyond the doors of the store.

Take the most adorable characters in a Pixar movie like “Toy Story” or “Cars” and imagine them saying and doing the most offensive and wrong things imaginable and you’re in the ballpark.

For Rogen — who, along with longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg, was a writer and producer on “Sausage Party” (Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir co-wrote the screenplay) — the film is the latest in a string of R-rated genre twists on his resume, from romantic comedies (“Knocked Up”) to apocalyptic movies (“This Is the End”) to Christmas films (“The Night Before”). Directed by animation veterans Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon at a modest budget of under $20 million, the film is expected by the studio to open at around $15 million.

Over lunch in Beverly Hills on a recent afternoon (bowls of pho, not hot dogs), Cera and Rogen talked about food orgies, the film’s edgy racial humor  and pushing animation to places it’s never gone before.

Seth, how did the idea initially come up to do an R-rated animated movie about talking food? Was this something that came to you guys stoned in a grocery store?

Rogen: I think me and Jonah [Hill] came up with the original idea when we were at dinner one night. It was just something we would joke around about.

Cera: It’s like that talking-cupcake joke Jonah tells: Two cupcakes are in an oven. One turns to the other and says, “God, it’s hot in here, isn’t it?” And the other one goes, “Oh, my God! It’s a talking cupcake!” [laughs]

Rogen: When we were promoting “Superbad” and “Knocked Up,” journalists would always ask us, “What’s your next movie?” And as a joke we would say, “It’s called ‘Sausage Party’ ” — because we just knew that sounded like the kind of movie that journalists expected us to be making next.

We had talked about making an R-rated animated movie, and this joke would just keep coming up: “So what would ‘Sausage Party’ be?” “Well, it could be set in a grocery store, it could be hot dogs and buns, the different aisles could be like different nationalities...” 

It took a while to get anyone to make it. As much as I’d love to say we’re the first people to come up with this idea of adult-geared animation, we’re not. We’re like 20 years behind. There’s “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “South Park,” “Ren & Stimpy,” “Beavis and Butt-Head.” But it just hasn’t been done in a mainstream movie. 

Everyone was like, “Well, it’s never been done in a movie, so we can’t do it.” They don’t like risk. They couldn’t point to any other R-rated animated movie and say it did well or it didn’t do well.

In some ways, this might be the filthiest movie you’ve made. There are things you could never get away with in a live-action movie, like an orgy that goes on for several minutes.

Cera: You’re so not used to seeing that. You’re used to seeing cartoons wrapped up in, like, protective bubble wrap. It’s shocking. To really have fun with that and jump in and commit to it – that idea alone was exciting. 

Rogen: It’s true. We were able to get away with stuff that I wouldn’t even have attempted to do in a live-action movie because it would be pornographic. But because it’s food and it’s not real and it’s not anatomically correct, it gives you that leeway. I think you almost have to push things a little further in order to arrive at the same place in animation because of how cute and not real the scenarios are.

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So when you submitted this movie to the MPAA for a rating, what kind of notes did you get back?

Rogen: We got less than we thought we would, honestly. I’m honestly shocked by what we got away with. We actually had a longer version of the orgy and we ourselves sort of self-censored. Some of the physical stuff the animators came up with made me really question their sanity and their mental well-being.

There’s also a lot of racial and ethnic humor in the movie, the kind we haven’t seen much of in films since the days of “Blazing Saddles.”

Rogen: Because the movie is really about that these different aisles believe different things and they won’t get along because of it, it was a rare organic opportunity to really delve into those things. It would have been weird if the different aisles didn’t represent what they were.

And it’s actually a real Disney convention. You watch “Cars” and it’s like, the Fiat is a little Italian tailor. If you wanted to, you could probably be a little offended by some of these things. At the same time, it’s hard to be offended, because they’re cars.

I really don’t think we single out any particular group or culture. I think it would be hard to say we’re harder on any one group than anyone else. Really, the point is that it’s all ridiculous. All of it is false. We should look past all of it and get along with each other. 

Seth, what made you think Michael was the right guy to be the voice of a slightly deformed hot dog?

Rogen: Look at this guy for five minutes and tell me you don’t think of a deformed hot dog! [laughs]

Cera: I mean, it’s basically the diet I grew up on.

Rogen: There was just something perfect about it. One of the many things he’s able to do so well comedically is this kind of innocent character. And we also knew he could do the very dark shades of that from working with him on “This Is the End” [in which Cera played an obnoxious, coke-snorting version of himself]. We wanted to take Barry on this journey from the most vulnerable character to the most badass kind of John McClane character, and Michael did it very well.

Sony has been very careful to make it clear in the marketing that “Sausage Party” is R-rated. But it seems safe to say that some parents will see posters with cute-looking talking food and take their kids to it anyway.

Rogen: That will happen. I would love to talk to those people.

Cera: I saw “A History of Violence” with my mother and there’s like an eight-minute [sex] scene. It’s not fun. You’re only thinking about your mom. It’s awful.

Rogen: [laughs] If any of you reading this do take your kids to “Sausage Party” accidentally — or defiantly — I’d love to hear what the result is. I don’t recommend it. But I am curious.

You’ve both done voice work in kids’ animated movies. Michael, you’re going to be the voice of Robin in “The Lego Batman Movie.”

Cera: It’s really good work. I mean, you have a chamomile tea and you look like [garbage] and nobody cares. In terms of performing, you’re only worrying about your voice. It’s hard not to like it.

Seth, is it ever frustrating to have to keep it PG-rated when you’re doing something like “Kung Fu Panda” or “Monsters vs. Aliens”?

Rogen: I definitely swear accidentally when I’m doing animated movies that aren’t R-rated. I just have a limited vocabulary and sometimes they ask me to improv and I go right to my normal well, which is not always good. [laughs]

For sure, I had more fun recording “Sausage Party” than the kids’ animated movies. And honestly,  I don’t know how many more kids’ animated movies I have the will in me to be in. When I first started doing them, it was a lot of fun, because there was a certain novelty to being in them. But now I really try to make movies that I myself would be very excited to go see.

That said, those “Kung Fu Panda” movies are good. And the Lego movies are targeted at young audiences, but they’re 100% hysterical.

You guys are both from Canada. What is it like for you to be living here during the most insane presidential election in our lifetimes?

Cera: I think it’s probably as weird for us as it is for anybody. It’s kind of unfathomable. 

Rogen: It is very strange. But I don’t know, it’s always been strange to me, honestly. I don’t think I’ve ever lived here at a time when there wasn’t some weird political climate. It’s funny to see people get all worked up about it. To me, it’s kind of par for the course a little bit. 

If this movie does well, do you have any ambitions of turning “Sausage Party” into an ongoing franchise?

Cera: Somebody asked me today if the plan was that “Sausage Party 2” turns into a universe where we meet the characters from “This Is the End.”

Rogen: [laughs] There it is! We got it!

josh.rottenberg@latimes.com

On Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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