“A tumor? Me? ... That doesn’t make any sense though. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink -- I recycle.” 27-year-old Adam’s eyes glaze over as he stares blankly at the doctor sitting across the office desk from him. With clinical terms, statistics and prognoses being tossed at him, his mind seems to go blank, meaningful sentences replaced by a dull ringing in his head. And so begins the narrative journey of new film “50/50” which hits theaters today, Friday, September 30th.
Starring Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the movie is both heartbreaking and hilarious, somehow fitting the full range of human emotion into an hour and 40 minutes. But beyond the (well-worth seeing) finished product, the really fascinating story lies behind the film.
“50/50” was penned by screenwriter Will Reiser, real-life best friend to Seth Rogen, based on his own experience battling spinal cancer -- with which he was diagnosed at the age of 24. The pair began discussing the idea for the film while Reiser was still undergoing treatment, and spent the last few years bringing it to fruition. The pair’s filmmaking process was a journey in itself and both have expressed that making a movie based on their own experiences of grief and trauma was cathartic. Rogen spoke to The Huffington Post’s Jordan Zakarin, saying:
The movie really forced us to have a lot of conversations that we didn’t have while we were going through all this stuff, and I think we found, very quickly, the more conversations we had the better the whole movie was going to be. The more we talked about who was insensitive and who could have communicated better and what people’s expectations of each other specifically were at that time, and how they maybe didn’t meet those expectations or didn’t understand those expectations -- I mean those were not conversations we had while we were going through it at all.
Will Reiser and Seth Rogen are far from the first to find solace and healing through art. In fact, there are an increasing number of organizations dedicated to supporting artistic expression for cancer patients and their caregivers, recognizing it as an integral part of the healing process. The Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, D.C. is one of these organizations. “Most of us understand what curing is -- getting rid of the illness, finding a successful treatment,” says Shanti Norris, Executive Director of the Smith Center. “Healing is different. Healing is very related, but … [it] is what the patient brings to the experience of illness. It can happen on the physical, mental, emotional [and] spiritual level. Where the arts lie is at that intersection of healing.”
One of the Smith Center’s major initiatives is its Artist-in-Residence program. The organization trains professional artists to go into hospitals and work with adult cancer patients. These artists have a range of specialties, from visual art and music to writing, comedy and storytelling. Norris, who has an art background herself – she attended The Cooper Union in New York City – spoke about the “life force” she sees awakened in people when they begin to engage with art. “Something shifts; it can be quite profound,” she says. “[They realize] -- life is bigger than this hospital room.” Even mainstream organizations, such as the American Cancer Society, have begun recognizing the value of art as a therapeutic tool, especially when used in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiation.
Jackie Ogg has seen firsthand the powerful role that the arts can play when coping with an illness like cancer. When her son Brendan, then 19, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in December 2008, he immediately turned to poetry. (For the purpose of full disclosure, I know the Ogg family.) “For Brendan, as soon as he was diagnosed, he went to [the bookstore] Politics and Prose right away and got books of poetry. He was always a writer and I think he really leaned into that,” says Ogg. During his treatment, Brendan underwent a number of brain surgeries, which left him with what Jackie termed “Swiss Cheese Memory.” The arts – particularly music and writing – became important exercises for his brain and triggers for his memories, as well as an integral part of the more spiritual side of coping with his illness.
Both Norris and Ogg spoke about importance of artistic expression for young people, (Norris believes that the millennial generation is particularly open to creative modalities) – especially as most cancer support programs are geared either toward children or toward older adults. “You are between worlds,” says Ogg. “[There’s] just not really a lot there for this age group. It’s a tough age group to support, but yet, they need it too.” And, of course, it’s not just the patients that need support through this experience, but their peer groups as well. “50/50” puts this role at center stage, with Seth Rogen’s character, Kyle, who uncomfortably navigates the role of best friend and partial caregiver.
And just as Rogen’s participation in creating “50/50” allowed him an outlet to process his friend’s illness, some of Brendan’s peers also took to art to work through their experiences. Rachel Kopilow, who was studying film and history at Northwestern University during the time of Brendan’s illness, eventually turned to movie making during her senior year to put into film what she may not have been able to express as easily in day-to-day conversation.
Before he passed away in February 2010, Brendan had written a book of poetry, entitled “Summer Becomes Absurd,” which was published later that year. Since then, Jackie and artist Francie Hester have established Words As Legacy, an art collective celebrating the words and lives of Brendan Ogg and fellow community member, Diane Granat Yalowitz. Jackie expressed that this project has served as one way for the community to collectively grieve and heal. “You’re left with this jumble of pieces around you,” she says, “and you have to get up and decide what you’re going to take with you moving forward.”
Watch Will Reiser discuss his experience writing "50/50" and check out a trailer for Rachel Kopilow's short film, "Chase."