Melissa Maroff

The Interview: an “Act of War”

The Interview: an “Act of War”
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"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.” Dan Sterling discusses his controversial latest film, The Interview.

By Melissa Maroff.

Dan Sterling

Dan Sterling

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.

James Franco as Dave Skylark and Seth Rogen as Aaron Rapaport in The Interview

James Franco as Dave Skylark and Seth Rogen as Aaron Rapaport in The Interview

“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.

Sony Entertainment

Sony Pictures Entertainment

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.”

Randall Park as Kim Jung-Un in The Interview

Randall Park as Kim Jung-Un in The Interview

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.”

Katy Perry

Katy Perry

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.

South Park

South Park

After South Park, Sterling wrote for the sitcom Jesse, starring Christina Applegate, for a season, followed by King of the Hill.

Mr Hankey

Mr Hankey

“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.”

The Sarah Silverman Program

The Sarah Silverman Program

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.

The Great Schlep

The Great Schlep

“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.

Lizzy Caplan as Agent Lacey, with James Franco and Seth Rogen in The Interview (Photo Credit Ed Araquel)

Lizzy Caplan as Agent Lacey, with James Franco and Seth Rogen in The Interview (Photo Credit Ed Araquel)

“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.”

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21 Responses to The Interview: an “Act of War”

  1. Avatar
    Neo December 18, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    A very interesting read. Might want to edit the two repeating paragraphs though. Typos infuriate Supreme Leader. .

    • Avatar
      Enrico Pallazzo December 18, 2014 at 7:37 pm

      and also work on quotation marks, i remember learning how to use them in the second grade

      • Avatar
        Grammar Geek December 18, 2014 at 7:56 pm

        Usually happens in editing when paragraphs are moved around; quotes are inadvertently omitted. Glad you got the gist of the article though.

  2. Avatar
    Who me? December 18, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    If Kim took it like the movie that came out before 911 that had meteors slamming into the trade centers that was possibly taken from how the 5 dollar bill was folded in a way that looked like the trade centers were on fire. Then Kim might have reckoned that the same thing would eventually come his way. Time has a way of making forgotten things happen.

  3. Avatar
    Ryan E December 18, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    Seriously Newt Gingrich is an idiot, America lost its first cyber war?? News flash Newt, America contains a majority of the worlds DNS servers, we could shut the Internet off to the whole world if we really wanted to. Secondly, this isn’t a Cyber war or attack, when passwords get leaked internally or companies are breached internally I’d hardly call it a cyber war. These old crusty politicians who can barely use a calculator need to do the world a favor and gtfo. Your technology education levels are hindering Americas ability to continue in a technological age.

    • Avatar
      Kyanwan December 18, 2014 at 5:43 pm

      So, clearly you are an expert on this sony “cyber attack”. Passwords aside – what is the root of all of this leaking? Bad IT departments.

      Me? I’ve been working in the Information Systems/Tech 16 years as an Analyst – 10 years as a security/PCI-DSS auditor. I know what I’m talking about.

      As much as you’d like to think “REPUBLICAN WRONG, ME DEMOCRAT (PROGRESSIVE?), ME RIGHT ” – Gingrich is right, whether you like it or not. This Sony hack is a failure of our Information industry, our mindset in the US. We can not allow our security to be managed by NSAs / Foreign & outsourced help. Do you know what an NSA is? If you don’t – please, don’t discuss network security – ever again, you just failed connecting your PC to the internet 101.

      Why did Sony fall victim to this hack? Terabytes of data stolen – TERABYTES. Do you understand how long it takes to move Terabytes of information across the internet – especially to some s–thole like N. Korea? If someone were on my system taking -GIGABYTES- of info, I’d notice it.

      Of course, seeing your doge avatar – I doubt you could do the math to multiply out your connection speed to calculate how long your cable/fios would take to move 2 terabytes in “academic-vacuum conditions” would take. I’m sure your knowledge of how IT Security works is purely academic, if not wikipedia and/or reddit.

      Despite his crustiness, polarizing nature, and views that even I don’t agree with him on – he is right.

      Now You GTFO – you have no clue what you’re talking about.

      • Avatar
        Abner December 18, 2014 at 6:45 pm

        Sony is a Japanese company.

        • Avatar
          Kyanwan December 18, 2014 at 6:55 pm

          News flash: The hack happened in the US.

          Aren’t you brilliant!

          • Avatar
            OldMetalHead December 18, 2014 at 7:01 pm

            It’s probably worth mentioning that all of the death threats were against the US also. Sony had already decided not to release the movie in Japan or South Korea.

          • Avatar
            Ryan E December 19, 2014 at 12:05 am

            Do the world a favor, Google the word Proxy……. Tool

          • Avatar
            Kyanwan December 19, 2014 at 12:16 am

            A Proxy. Dude, I don’t need to google proxy ; I’ve written a Perl http/https proxy of my own. I have no idea where it went, I can sit down right now and write a NEW one – give me about 15 minutes.

            So a proxy will be the end all of hax0r? Enable even the likes of you to be elite?

            Like I said, you should just sit on your hands before that hole of fool you’ve dug yourself into gets any deeper.

          • Avatar
            Ryan E December 19, 2014 at 2:14 am

            Oh Perl coder I’m impressed, Proxies are any node used to gain access anonymously, it could be a hijacked computer with code on it, bot nets, it’s all pretty self explanatory and really very common knowledge. Everyone knows how they use remote computers to access networks so they can’t be traced. I could be writing this response to you from anywhere in the world right now. Further more, noticing gigabytes of data missing? Please show me the software that alerts you when someone internally starts to use a network drive . LOL you’re a tard.

          • Avatar
            Kyanwan December 19, 2014 at 2:31 am

            Son, you’ve just failed. You should hide your posts.

            This use of proxies has what exactly to do with vulnerabilities or breaking into a system? *laugh* You keep making a bigger fool out of yourself.

          • Avatar
            7nationarmy December 20, 2014 at 9:57 am

            LOL, KYANWAN= WINNER BY KNOCKOUT. Please Kyan, be a good sport and ease up on putting Ryan’s mouth on the pavement – though I find it funny how Newt lives in this libtard’s head, rent-free.

    • Avatar
      Jcjivef December 18, 2014 at 5:45 pm

      Are you autistic?

  4. Avatar
    Tim Staffell December 18, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    This is all very well, but if the roles were reversed and North Korea made a satirical movie featuring the same kind of lampooning; especially if there were a republican administration; the outrage would be incandescent. I don’t like this kind of isn’t what I’d call satirical; and it doesn’t matter to me, I don’t care..but the hypocrisy is tangible…

  5. Avatar
    Mut December 19, 2014 at 1:14 am

    Release it for free, for the sake of freedom

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