By Melissa Maroff.
As this article is being published, Sony have decided to withdraw The Interview from release, in response to death threats.
When Dennis Rodman no longer cuts it as the bridge between the United States and North Korea – what else to do but send in James Franco and Seth Rogen?
The Interview, screenwriter Dan Sterling’s anticipated and controversial latest offering, was set to open Christmas Day, co-starring Franco as the vapid TV tabloid host Dave Skylark, who learns that tyrannical North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is a fan of his show – and jumps at the coveted chance to interview him.
The problem is convincing his producer Aaron Rapoport (Rogen), who just wants to be taken seriously as a celebrity “journalist” – that this interview is their ticket to ratings war victory. The CIA, on the other hand – sees it as Skylark’s ticket to killing Jong-un.
“When I set out to write the script for The Interview, I didn’t know if anyone would ever make the movie, and it certainly didn’t occur to me that the people we are making fun of would take it seriously. Turns out I was naïve; they did take it seriously,” Sterling says. “Very seriously.”
Serious to the tune of the North Korean government warning President Obama that they consider the film an “act of war” and threatening a “resolute and merciless response” if it’s released. (That response is largely believed to be the recent hacking of Sony Pictures’ computer system.)
“The response surprised me and I had a number of reactions. Initially, I couldn’t believe that the most infamous man in the world knew about my script – but most importantly, I would never want something I wrote to lead to some kind of humanitarian disaster. I would be horrified if anyone got hurt over this,” says Sterling.
According to Sterling, the original basis for The Interview came in 2011, when Sterling, Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Rogen’s collaborator) kicked around the premise: “what if a journalist scored an interview with Osama Bin Laden?”
“Sasha (Baron Cohen) was getting ready with The Dictator, so he sort of cornered the market on Middle Eastern tyranny jokes around that time,” Sterling muses. “I went and wrote the script with a fake name and fake country, but after discussing the project with Seth, Evan and the executives at Sony, we decided I ought to try writing it with Kim Jong-un. Once it was in there, we knew it was the way to go.”
Sterling initially landed on Rogen and Goldberg’s radar thanks to a script for his romantic comedy Flarksy that Rogen was set to star in and Goldberg to direct. The film (currently in development) centers on a political journalist trying to hook up with the female U.S. Secretary of State, who happens to be his old babysitter.
In spite of the controversy and technical changes that had to be made, which pushed the opening date back a couple of months, Sterling reports that no major revisions had to be made to the script.
“I don’t actually think our government is currently obsessed with whacking foreign heads of state, so with certain speeches in the film I took the opportunity to get out the message that the way to deal with oppressive dictatorships is not to assassinate their leaders or make the choice to be interventionist and aggressive with foreign policy. I wanted to avoid glamorizing the film’s premise, and make it clear why it’s not OK to do that…almost like a disclaimer,” Sterling explains. “The movie is intended to make fun of a lot of things – including the CIA, America’s obsession with celebrity journalism, and so on. So this wasn’t meant to be a statement of any kind.”
When it came to writing Jung-un’s character, Sterling wrote him as vulnerable and a somewhat sympathetic tyrant.
“I didn’t want to make him two-dimensional or a stereotypical James Bond villain dictator,” Sterling says. “Randall Park (who won the role) walked into the audition and played him as shy and self-deprecating, which was surprising and funny. We knew we wanted to hire Randall; we liked his take on the character.”
To show Jong-un’s vulnerability, Sterling decided to make pop star Katy Perry his kryptonite, if you will.
“I wanted to inject a bit of myself into the character, and I’m not ashamed of my Katy Perry fandom,” he says. “Also, being into American culture is a common trait among the Kims and other dictators, so we liked the idea of having this artist be Jong-un’s weakness.”
Sterling, who didn’t start out writing political humor, reflects: “I wrote fart and poop and sex humor. My family background was political, so it was somewhat inevitable that politics would make its way into my writing. It’s much more satisfying if the fart, poop and sex facilitates social commentary.”
You could say his television-writing career took that same trajectory. He came to LA as an aspiring sitcom writer. In 1997, his friend Matt Selman went to meet with Trey Parker and Matt Stone for a writer’s position on South Park, but instead ended up writing for The Simpsons. Selman passed along a spec script to Comedy Central that Sterling had written for 3rd Rock From the Sun that centered on a man who mistook a boxing match on TV for a homosexual encounter, which spurred him to question his own sexuality.
“When I look back, it sounds like a terrible idea, implausible – but it was good enough for Brian Graden (South Park producer), who seemed to like it.” He hired Sterling as the first SP writer in addition to Parker and Stone.
After South Park, Sterling wrote for the sitcom Jesse, starring Christina Applegate, for a season, followed by King of the Hill.
“I had no connection to Texas when I was hired to write for King of the Hill. I was an East Coast private school Jew kind of guy,” Sterling laughs. “I was worried about it, but it turned out my purpose on that show was just to submit jokes and provide the East Coast/California liberal mentality that served as the opposite viewpoint to make fun of on that show.”
After King of the Hill ended, Sarah Silverman was looking for a showrunner for her new Comedy Central show and read one of Sterling’s South Park scripts, the classic Mr. Hankey episode skewering political correctness and religious sensitivity. “It was filled with poo and political humor and she liked it,” Sterling says. She hired him, but the show was put on hold.
A chance meeting at an Emmy Party with Jon Stewart then led to Sterling’s 6-month stint as a writer for The Daily Show.
“I asked to be introduced to Jon just so I could tell my mother I met him,” Sterling recalls. “We chatted and he said he already knew about me and that I ought to come on The Daily Show. I went away laughing, not taking it seriously, but got a call the next day and went to work for him.”
When The Sarah Silverman Program came back together, Sterling felt like they needed him more and left The Daily Show to run that show. He looks back fondly on his three seasons with Sarah.
“She and I were simpatico on our sensibilities, which allowed me to be more of myself as a writer. The show was totally absurd and anarchistic. It was the most fun I ever had in a writer’s room, and probably ever will.”
Silverman also enlisted Sterling to co-write The Great Schlep, the viral video she was recruited to write and star in, urging elderly Jewish people in Florida to get out and vote for Obama during his first run for the presidency. In it she warns of how Al Gore got f*cked by Florida when he ran against George Bush.
“It took me by surprise when it went viral. It was cute, but not that outrageous compared to demons flying out of Sarah’s vagina. Comparing it to that it was tame,” Sterling says. “I must not have a sense of what it takes to make something go viral. It was so striking to watch. I had never written anything that had that kind of impact before.”
More recently, Sterling has been a consulting producer on Girls and Executive Producer on The Office, and is currently working on a pilot for CBS, executive produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 and 22 Jump Street).
Given his resume, which includes an array of female-driven shows, Sterling offers this: “It’s extremely important to write women well, to make them realistic, funny and flawed, which is even more true in feature films where one or two or three, and often none of the main characters are women. With TV it’s tougher to be lazy and inaccurate in your portrayal of women due to the focus on sexuality and likeability,” he explains. “You have male viewers being repulsed by women that are too overbearing, and female viewers who are especially harder on women. I try to take notes and instead of complain, take opportunities to be more creative.”
“I’ve received decent feedback on writing for women, and several established actresses have expressed interest in playing the female lead in Flarsky,” he adds. “I’d like to think of that as validation. It’s very important to write women well, and I hope I’m good at it. If you’re not a woman, it’s important to get feedback, and vice versa with women who write for men.”
Sterling notes that it wasn’t a conscious decision to make the two female leads in The Interview, one American and one Korean, the smart ones. “It was an obvious one; the guys already filled the idiot quotient. You can do the math and see we didn’t need anyone else to be dumb,” he explains.
“We managed to have smart female characters who were funny – rather than smart purely for exposition to tsk tsk the outrageous male characters. The North Korean female lead is moral, sane and intelligent. I didn’t want to send the message that the North Koreans can’t solve their own problems – plus, we needed a romantic story,” he further elaborates.
In any case, in light of all that’s transpired before The Interview has even hit the screen, Sterling has this to say:
“No film has ever sparked a war; comedy makes fun of everyone. Comedians shouldn’t be held accountable for acts of violence – and those we satirize shouldn’t be silenced. Sarah Palin is hilarious, and I would never want her silenced. It informs the debate. The problem is the people who make the threats. If Iran made a comedy titled Eat Shit and Die, America, I’d be the first guy in line – but then again I have a Pollyanna view. If all countries made satirical movies about each other, and that was the only way we all fought – what a great world we’d live in.”