‘Twas seven weeks before Christmas and, sitting down in a Beverly Hills hotel suite to talk about their new holiday comedy “The Night Before,” Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie were feeling suitably jolly. “We’re not miserable,” Rogen said. He let out his familiar, rumbling huh-huh-huh laugh, like Santa Claus after a bong hit. “We’re not on, like, the Daniel Craig press tour, where he just wants to kill himself in every interview.”
Every year as Christmas approaches, Hollywood’s elves busy themselves rolling out holiday-themed movies filled with warmth and good cheer. (In this weekend’s “Love the Coopers,” to name the most recent example, a dysfunctional family rekindles their bonds during their annual Christmas gathering.) Suffice it to say, “The Night Before” is not one of those movies.
Joined by “The Night Before” director and co-writer Jonathan Levine, who previously worked with Rogen and Gordon-Levitt on the 2011 comedy “50/50,” the film’s stars — showing the same easy rapport offscreen that they do in the film — discussed what they love about Christmas movies, the challenge of becoming full-fledged adults, life after the Sony hack and more.
There haven’t been very many R-rated Christmas movies over the years. There’s “Bad Santa,” “The Ref” ...
Gordon-Levitt: “Die Hard.”
Was that the main appeal of doing this movie — that you could push this family-oriented genre to more adult places?
Rogen: Aside from the rating, the appeal was just getting to do a Christmas movie because I just love Christmas movies. Growing up, I honestly didn’t have any emotional connection to Christmas whatsoever, but “Home Alone” was one of my favorite movies of all time. Christmas just really lends itself to movies; the music is great, the lights are pretty, snow looks fantastic on film. To me, it’s almost like the best application of Christmas is in film. If we could reserve it exclusively for that ... [Laughs]
Levine: When we were sound-mixing “50/50,” Seth and [producing partner] Evan [Goldberg] asked me if there was anything else I wanted to do, and I had a very early form of this idea, which was just that there’s no Christmas movie for our generation. Living in New York, I had always gone out with my friends on Christmas, and crazy things would inevitably happen.
That was the initial seed of the movie, and once the idea came up that these guys’ tradition of going out on Christmas had all started because Joe’s character didn’t have any family — that was when it really sort of crystallized. The holidays are such a time of reflection. There are a lot of tonal things you can explore there, and the umbrella of a Christmas movie allows you to squeeze them all in without it seeming bananas.
Gordon-Levitt: That’s the thing about a holiday like Christmas: You see the passage of time. You compare this Christmas to last Christmas and you can measure how your life has evolved. So there’s a bittersweetness to the Christmas movie because there’s a nostalgia that comes along with that ritual. I love that this movie goes for that. It’s not just a romp on some holiday night. It’s a movie about your past and your history and how things change and how these guys are moving into the future. And that’s what Christmas feels like to me.
Christmas just really lends itself to movies; the music is great, the lights are pretty, snow looks fantastic on film.
The big theme of the movie is that, as these guys are becoming adults, they’re realizing they need to leave some of their old ways behind. You are all in your 30s, some of you have kids — is that something you can relate to?
Mackie: No question. I recently had my third kid, and it just messed up everything that was my reality. It just changes your entire perspective on the world. Even traveling is an issue now — I’ve got to buy five tickets! I look at my parents — they had six kids. I always wondered why we never took vacations further than Florida or the Gulf Coast — it’s like, “Oh, because they couldn’t afford eight plane tickets, so you just put all the kids in the Lincoln and drive to Florida!”
Gordon-Levitt: Speaking as a new father, I actually think the baby storyline in this movie is really sweet and actually quite subtle and honest and way more resonant to me than your average Hollywood comedy about new parenthood.
Levine: [Joe, Anthony and I] all had babies within like two months of each other. I do feel like there’s a certain part of my ability to hang out with my friends that’s gone now, and it’s scary because you don’t want to lose them in that way.
Rogen: I don’t have kids, but I definitely relate to it. I think we try to make movies that in some way reflect what we’re going through at the time. We couldn’t make “Superbad” now because I personally don’t feel that strongly about whether an 18-year-old is having sex.
Anthony, you haven’t really done much comedy. Had you been looking for something like this?
Mackie: Yeah, I was looking for it. When this movie came up, I thought there was no way I would get it. I just didn’t want to [mess] it up. Because I’m like, “’50/50' was a good movie, so if they add me and this movie sucks, I’m the problem. It’s 100% me.”
Seth, we’ve seen you smoke weed in plenty of movies, but with this one you elevate the drug-taking to a whole new level.
Rogen: We tripled down in this movie. It’s not aspirational — I don’t think you’d watch it and think, “That’s what I’d want my night to be like!” Cocaine definitely comes out looking bad — which it deserves.
When this movie came up, I thought there was no way I would get it. I just didn’t want to [mess] it up.
At the peak of his drug freakout, your character ends up at a church midnight Mass, vomits in the aisle and yells that the Jews didn’t kill Jesus. How did you all decide where to draw the line with the religious humor without pushing it too far?
Rogen: [Deadpan] We’re really good at that, basically. It’s kind of our specialty, knowing exactly how far to push things with no negative repercussions in any way, shape or form. [Laughs]
Levine: For me, being Jewish, that was always something I wanted to explore. It just felt like such fertile ground for comedy. But that scene in particular, even though taken out of context it feels like this provocative thing, it’s really just a guy who has stumbled into a situation where he feels completely out of place. It’s a guy acting inappropriately in a very solemn environment.
Rogen: We’ve made movies that attack Christianity. With “This Is the End,” we really tried to dissect.... This movie is not that at all. It’s not cynical. We like Christmas!
Levine: No, I think when you’re making a movie like this, more is more.
Rogen: I don’t think anyone was technically running the studio while we were editing the movie. [Laughs] I think we kind of landed in a little magical grace period.
Speaking of which, we’re coming up on the anniversary of the Sony hack. A year later, have there been any lasting repercussions for you, Seth?
Rogen: It’s amazing — on Friday we were at a meeting in [former Sony co-Chair] Amy Pascal’s office and she mentioned how Scott Rudin was going to have a meeting with her later in the day, and as we were leaving, we were like, “Nothing has changed!” Everyone kept working — maybe with new titles and in new offices, but everyone is fine and still on good terms with one another.
People move on very fast, and people love a new story. I’d been a part of the entertainment news cycle before, but it was weird to be a part of the real news cycle. And it made me respect the “news” news much less. You just saw how they dealt with it and you’re like, “They’re just as bad as the entertainment news!”
It’s not just a romp on some holiday night. It’s a movie about your past and your history and how things change and how these guys are moving into the future.
Was it hard to keep your sense of humor through all of that?
Rogen: I tried. It sucked. It was the hardest professional thing I’ve ever had to deal with. But on a personal level, I wasn’t afraid for my life. Me and my wife weren’t fighting about it or anything like that. No one was mad at us for it — we weren’t getting calls from the studio yelling at us. In some sense something traumatic had happened, and in some sense it was sort of like a movie bombing, which happens all the time to everybody. It’s nice that [Sony] just let us keep working. It’s shocking. Our office is still at Sony. They let us stay. It’s crazy. [Laughs]
At the very least, I’m sure you’re all relieved no embarrassing hacked emails about this movie have cropped up.
Gordon-Levitt: They don’t send emails anymore.
Mackie: They use carrier pigeons.
Rogen: We’re not that confident in ourselves by any stretch of the imagination. I wish I was one of those people who on the set was like, “Man, when this does well ...” I’m like, “Please, for the love of all that is holy, let this scrape up enough money that we don’t look like idiots.” I would make eight of these, though. I’d do every major holiday. “The Night Before Martin Luther King Weekend”!