DEVELOPING [Dec. 17, 2014]: Sony Pictures said on Wednesday it canceled the Dec. 25 theatrical release of its North Korea comedy “The Interview,” after major U.S. theater chains pulled out of showing the film following threats from hackers.
*Over coffee at a Larchmont Village café on the morning of Dec. 9, screenwriter Dan Sterling seemed genuinely shocked that his new comic film, “The Interview,” has launched an escalating international maelstrom, sparking North Korean ire that some have suggested may have provoked the devastating hack into Sony Pictures Entertainment computers on Nov. 24.
The raunchy comedy, directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, spotlights a cheesy TV celebrity talk-show host, Dave Skylark (James Franco), and his producer, Aaron Rapoport (Rogen), who land an unprecedented interview with Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea, the most secretive country on Earth (turns out Kim is a huge fan of their show). The CIA then recruits the bumbling journalists to assassinate the dictator, amid plenty of comic pratfalls and scatological jokes.
“The point of this movie is that it’s not a polemic; it’s a comedy,” said Sterling, 43, who was alternately hilarious and thoughtful during an interview. And so he was startled, back in June, when news reports revealed that North Koreans were labeling the film “an act of war” and warning of “merciless countermeasures” should the United States government allow the movie to hit theaters. He was even more stunned in late November when hackers, identifying themselves as the Guardians of Peace (but suspected by some to be the North Koreans), hacked into Sony computers and made public droves of sensitive data: stars’ Social Security and telephone numbers; the salaries of thousands of employees, which could make the studio vulnerable to gender and racial discrimination lawsuits; and scandalous emails in which Sony Co-Chairman Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin wrote racially insensitive remarks about President Barack Obama, among myriad other damaging missives.
North Korean officials have continued to deny sponsoring the cyberattack, even as the Guardians of Peace sent another message several weeks ago warning of further consequences should Sony release what they intimated might be in the film.
“I had numerous emotions,” Sterling said when he first learned of North Korea’s anger over “The Interview” back in June. “One of them was obviously, ‘Wow, it’s kind of cool that a world leader would spend his time focusing on this stupid, truly absurd Hollywood movie — and that a world leader knows what I’m up to.’ But then I felt that if this leads to something bad in any way, I’d have a difficult time not feeling that I had some responsibility. So that was rather scary. But the other emotion was just surprise, because I had been really naïve about the whole thing; I didn’t see what was controversial about the film. It was never intended to be a ‘message’ movie. It’s not an Aaron Sorkin or a Paddy Chayefsky sort of thing. It’s broad and absurd, and nothing that happens in it could happen nor should happen.”
When Sterling read news of the hacking, he said, “I had thought Sony was quite ballsy for making the movie, so if somehow there was a connection, a part of me felt bad because they’re really suffering; this hacking has been a real catastrophe for them. I rarely will say this about a multinational conglomeration, but I don’t like the thought of them being hurt.”
Sterling — who is Jewish — said he never could have imagined the explosive response to “The Interview” when Rogen and Goldberg approached him to write the script several years ago. Rogen and Goldberg have said that they needed a screenwriter with political expertise to pen the movie; they reportedly turned to Sterling because he had been a co-executive producer of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and also because of his screenplay “Flarsky,” a political comedy that made Hollywood’s 2011 Black List of best unproduced scripts.
“We needed someone smarter than us,” Goldberg wrote in an email of why he and Rogen thought Sterling was the writer for the job.” He is more politically savvy, and is generally more of an intellectual. He let us take our crass humor and inject it into a more sophisticated arena than we’re used to playing in.”
“Seth and Evan were talking about what would happen if you were a TV journalist and you got an interview with Osama bin Laden, who at the time was alive. Would you be tempted to kill him?” Sterling said of their premise for “The Interview.”
“So I went off to write, and we already knew our dictator couldn’t be Osama bin Laden, because Sacha Baron Cohen was already heading toward production with ‘The Great Dictator,’ and he was going to own all the jokes about Middle Eastern tyrants. But if I wanted to write about a world leader who had that bin Laden level of mythological evilness, who was it going to be? It could have been maybe [Vladimir] Putin or something, but North Korea is just so hidden and so remote that there’s just this shroud of mystery about it. And in some ways, they’re fair game for attack.”
Apart from North Korea’s menacing small nuclear arsenal, its concentration camps and starving people, there was plenty of comic fodder to mine about dictator Kim Jong-un and his late father, Kim Jong-il: their claims, for example, that they neither urinated nor defecated; that Kim Jong-un can speak to dolphins and Kim Jong-il was capable of smashing an American spy satellite with a rock. “What’s funny about the Kims is this insane mythology that they’ve propagated and the way they try to block people from seeing what’s really going on behind the curtain,” Sterling said.
He originally wrote the script with an imaginary version of the North Korean dictator; it was during a meeting with Sony executives, he said, that the filmmakers decided to have Sterling rewrite the script featuring a fictional version of the real leader, Kim Jong-un. “We immediately realized that [that would be] so much more exciting, provocative and funny,” Sterling said in the film’s production notes.
Even so, the screenwriter said he attempted to “humanize” the character of Kim Jong-un (played in the film by Randall Park), attributing some of his flaws to daddy issues, for example, to avoid a clichéd mustache-twirling kind of villain. And his screenplay skewers American celebrity journalists and culture as much as it does Kim Jong-un. “I don’t really want to make a career out of attacking other countries; I’m mostly interested in what’s stupid about us,” he said. Rogen and Goldberg reportedly toned down the gorier aspects of Kim Jon-un’s death scene following a request from Sony’s parent company in Japan last summer.
The film also includes one Jewish joke. When Dave Skylark bonds with the dictator at one point in the movie, he tries to prevent his producer, Aaron, from killing the leader via a strip of poison attached to his palm. “Don’t shake his hand … [he’s] a Jew!” Skylark says. “Oh, gross,” Kim Jong-un replies.
Sterling grew up in a non-religious Jewish home in Philadelphia, where his parents and grandparents preferred political activism to religion. His grandmother, an author who wrote about the abolitionists and the civil rights movement, once found a Ku Klux Klan cross burned on her lawn. His father, a retired neuroscientist, had been jailed while serving as a Freedom Rider who was helping to integrate trains in Mississippi, and Sterling’s mother, a psychologist, had demonstrated at civil rights sit-ins at Woolworth’s counters and elsewhere.
Sterling said he had always aspired to become a television comedy writer; by the age of 26 he had been hired to write for the first season of “South Park,” where he learned from creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone that the highest form of comedy was a “target-based attack” against evil and hypocrisy in the world.
Sterling went on to write and produce for the Fox animated series “King of the Hill” and for “The Sarah Silverman Program,” and served as co-executive producer for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and for the final season of NBC’s “The Office” before Rogen and Goldberg came calling about “The Interview.”
These days, he’s hoping that the hackers’ most recent threats won’t cause Sony to cancel the movie’s release, slated for Dec. 25. (This issue of the Journal went to press on Dec. 16.) “I’m glad that I’m not [Sony Chairman and CEO] Michael Lynton right now, because it seems like an impossible situation,” said Sterling, adding that he has spoken to his own financial advisers about protecting his assets in the event of a future hacking. “I can’t say that I feel as safe now as I did prior to all of this.
“But I think it’s a very bad idea to let these kinds of people have a chilling effect on free speech. Without having a full understanding of what the consequences could be, I can only say I hope the film is released … because I think it’s a very dangerous idea to start making a habit of every time somebody comes out and hacks, to shut up. If they want to bomb somebody for their free speech, I would like to be at ground zero, because I don’t want to live in that kind of world.
*This story has been updated from the original version