Film and TV

Scary Funny: Seth Rogen Learns What Frightens a Dictator

Sony assumed North Korea would hate the movie. The question was: What would it do? Pyongyang had just tested its atom bomb and threatened "preemptive nuclear attack." And the Supreme Leader with his finger on the trigger was barely over 30, with less than two years of experience.

But Kim Jong-un didn't care about Olympus Has Fallen, even though the violently anti–North Korean 2013 film showed his people strangling women, murdering unarmed men, kidnapping the U.S. president and even executing their fellow citizens. That wasn't worth a fight.

A year later, North Korea had a bigger enemy: Seth Rogen.

In the new film The Interview, which Rogen directed with longtime writing partner Evan Goldberg, he plays trash-TV producer Aaron, who has become bored with pop culture gossip. Then he and his bimbo host, Dave Skylark (James Franco), score an interview with Kim Jong-un (Randall Park).

There's a catch and a twist: First, a CIA agent (Lizzy Caplan) commands Aaron and Dave to assassinate Kim Jong-un for the good of the world. Second, Skylark and Kim Jong-un instantly hit it off and spend the trip cruising in tanks listening to Katy Perry, banging chicks at orgies and bonding over the pressures of media scrutiny and disapproving parents. Sighs Kim Jong-un, "You know what's more destructive than a nuclear bomb? Words."

In June, two weeks after Sony released The Interview's first trailer, the Korean Central News Agency slammed Rogen as a "gangster filmmaker" who had made a "blatant act of terrorism and war." The country promised stern and merciless retaliation and warned that Kim Jong-un himself would see The Interview.

"We were told that they have good hackers in North Korea and that they've probably hacked into Sony's servers and watched the movie already," Rogen says.

Sony had been worried about The Interview for months. At its Tokyo headquarters, the company had a front-row seat to Japan's diplomatic efforts to soothe relations with North Korea. Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai reportedly asked studio head Amy Pascal to tone down the film, which she told Rogen was the corporation's only creative command in her 25-year career. "You have the power to help me here," Pascal emailed Rogen.

One month before The Interview's Christmas opening date, computer hackers imploded Sony's online network, vaporizing its communications, pirating five new films, publicizing employee Social Security numbers and spilling embarrassing inside information. By the time pseudonymous emails threatened Sony employees' families, some workers were so exhausted that they stood in the hallways and wept.

Was North Korea behind this attack -- or the subsequent threats on American theaters? A government spokesman denied involvement but accused Sony of “abetting a terrorist act” and suggested the studio “reflect on its wrongdoings.”

What's most telling about Kim Jong-un's regime, a mind-controlling, monolithic dictatorship beyond the wildest dreams of Joseph Stalin or Mao, isn't that it was furious at a Hollywood film. It's which film.

It wasn't Olympus Has Fallen, the cruel action flick with three Oscar nominees in its cast.

It was the comedy written, directed by and starring a man last seen sword-fighting with a dildo.

Here's why the North Korean government didn't mind Olympus Has Fallen: It made them look capable of blowing up the White House. By contrast, The Interview dares joke that Kim Jong-un — gasp! — is scared to drink margaritas because his dad, Kim Jong-il, convinced him they were "gay."

Fear is fine. But humiliation means war.

In response to the Korean Central News Agency threats, Rogen tweeted, "Apparently Kim Jong Un plans on watching The Interview. I hope he likes it!!"

Does he really?

"I don't know, he probably will hate it because it literally has a goal to debase him and humiliate him," Rogen says.

But at least The Interview does so with a smile. As Randall Park plays him, Kim Jong-un is, well, adorable. At least at first.

"It was important for me to bring a vulnerability to him," Park says. When he meets Franco's Dave Skylark, Park squeals with excitement. Park based the moment on the Vice documentary in which Kim Jong-un is visibly nervous before meeting basketball player Dennis Rodman.

Kim Jong-un's classmates from his international school in Switzerland remember the future leader forever doodling pictures of Michael Jordan, "something that I probably did when I was younger," Park says.

"As an actor, I'd have some reservations about playing a living dictator," says Rogen, who later admitted to Park that he was the only actor to audition. "I'm impressed that he did it, honestly."

The reaction Park was most afraid of was that of his parents, both immigrants from South Korea. Luckily, they gave him their blessing. "They just thought it was a really funny concept — and daring," he says.

"It's all based on real shit!" Rogen exclaims. Which is crazy for a few reasons. First, because this is the first script Rogen and Goldberg ever bothered to research. ("If North Korea was a Jeopardy! category, I would do well," Rogen insists.)

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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications – DenverWestword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly – and in VMG’s film partner, the Village Voice.

Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.