Sony assumed North Korea would hate the movie. The question was: What would it do? Pyongyang had just tested its atom bomb and threatened "pre-emptive 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, Dave 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 December 25 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.
Then things really got bad.
Nine days before Christmas, an anonymous group calling itself the Guardians of Peace vowed to launch a 9/11-style attack on any theater showing The Interview. By the next morning, the five largest theater chains in America had dropped the film. Hours later, Sony folded: The Interview was canceled. Said the studio, "Sony Pictures has no further release plans for the film." Amid the predictable backlash, the studio on December 23 announced that it had decided to authorize some screenings of the movie. As we went to press, local Alamo Drafthouse theaters had scheduled showings through this week.
Was North Korea behind the attack -- and the subsequent threats? A government spokesman denied involvement but accused Sony of "abetting a terrorist act" and suggested the studio "reflect on its wrongdoings." U.S. officials, meanwhile, say they have found "a linkage to the North Korean government."
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 that government 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 where 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.)
Second, because of the "facts" they've found, which sound fake but aren't. The Interview's Kim Jong-un has convinced his subjects that he talks to dolphins. An even bolder claim: Kim Jong-un doesn't have an anus. "He has no need for one," says his fictional press handler, Sook (Diana Bang).
"I've heard defectors say that, too," North Korea expert James Person of the D.C.-based Wilson Center confirms. "The cult of personality is built to such an extreme that it's something you would never think of: the leader defecating."
"As idiots, we obviously gravitated to that one," Rogen says. "We couldn't even put in a lot of the shit that is real because it almost starts to feel like we're just making shit up." Fun "facts" he and Goldberg couldn't use: that Kim Jong-un designed every building in North Korea, that he was born with a unicorn in a magical cave and that he invented the hamburger.
Third, despite all of that, the closing credits insist that The Interview is a work of fiction, in which any similarities to persons living or dead are coincidental.
"It's legally the weirdest shit ever," Rogen says. "Normally in a movie like this, they would make up a guy -- it would be Kim Song Bob."
But he and Goldberg had fought a similar battle the year before with the rapture comedy This Is the End, in which Rogen, Franco and friends played themselves fighting the demons of hell. Initially, the studio said no. They fretted it would be too confusing. But Rogen eventually won that debate and This Is the End went on to make quadruple its budget. This time, when the studio resisted, his counter-argument was prepared.
But Sony's lawyers weren't satisfied. They fretted over things Rogen and Goldberg weren't expecting. In the film's opening scene, a North Korean moppet sings that she wishes Americans would "drown in their own blood and feces." The lawyers weren't nervous about the lyrics. They were nervous that she was superimposed in front of an actual North Korean monument. Legally, movies need permission to show most monuments, Rogen says, no matter what country they're in. (Sony did not answer requests for clarification.) They're works of art. But who would grant it?
"Some things that are not quite legal were done under the assumption that North Korea won't sue us," Rogen says. "But then other things, they just for some reason decided we have to operate under the assumption that North Korea might sue us."
Studio lawyers said The Interview could keep the name Kim Jong-un, the flirtation between the dictator and Skylark, the anus joke, the real-life monument and even the line where the Supreme Leader leers, "Guess what I get tons of? Pussy!" But they asked Rogen to digitally erase Kim Jong-il from the buttons on the North Korean military costumes, for fear that it would be considered blasphemous.
"That's what you want to change?" Rogen guffaws. But he agreed. Apparently to North Korea, it would be no laughing matter.
'Comedy is the greatest way to attack anything like a totalitarian regime," said Ray Bradbury.
He was speaking of The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin's bold lampoon of Adolf Hitler. The Little Tramp was furious when the Nazis called him a "disgusting Jewish acrobat." Chaplin wasn't Jewish. But that wasn't the point. He was upset that being Jewish was an insult -- and worse, that more people weren't offended.
"Hitler must be laughed at," Chaplin insisted.
He and Hitler were born just one week apart in April 1889. Both were raised in troubled homes and pursued artistic careers -- albeit, in Hitler's case, temporarily. "He's the madman, I'm the comic," Chaplin said. "But it could have been the other way around."
The Great Dictator was pre-emptively banned in Franco's Spain, Mussolini's Italy and all Nazi-occupied territory -- no surprises there. The one time a projectionist snuck it into a military theater, German soldiers fired pistols at the screen. But thanks to the Hays Production Code, which frowned upon breaking Hollywood's neutrality stance, screenings weren't even guaranteed in America or Chaplin's native England.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt learned that Hollywood was giving Chaplin a hard time, he urged the filmmaker to press on. Roosevelt even attended The Great Dictator's premiere in 1940 -- by that time, hating Hitler was politically smart.
Rogen and Goldberg wanted to screen The Interview at the White House, but they were turned down, Rogen says. "We got back a funny email, like, 'Given the subject matter, we do not feel that this would be appropriate.' " And so far, The Interview will not be shown anywhere in Asia.
The genius of The Great Dictator is that it doesn't just attack Hitler's policies. As in The Interview, the film makes the dictator a buffoon. Chaplin's dictator falls down the stairs, gets soiled by a baby, frets about his social status and gets caught in his own cape. He doesn't rule with an iron fist -- he's ruled by his emotions.
But Chaplin held back by dubbing his mustachioed, Jew-hating tyrant "Adenoid Hynkel." The Interview aggressively names names.
Plus, Chaplin ended The Great Dictator with a four-minute speech in which he addressed the camera and pleaded for utopian peace: "Let us fight to free the world -- to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance." It's no spoiler to say that Rogen and Goldberg end their film with less sincerity.
Clearly, Hitler's own favorite film about himself, Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, can be defined as propaganda. Audiences have a harder time using the word to describe Chaplin's work, though both are unquestionably films designed to further a cause.
"Is this movie propaganda?" Rogen asks of The Interview. Well, yes. Imagine America's patriotic anger if North Korea green-lit the same script about Barack Obama, or even George W. Bush. But that's the curious thing about propaganda: It only feels outrageous when we disagree with it.
When a movie upsets people, its defenders insist that it's only entertainment. But movies have power. Imagine you live in Pyongyang, where literally everything in movie theaters and on TV is made by the government, usually telling you how great the Kim family is.
Three generations of Kims have ruled North Korea, starting with Kim Jong-un's grandfather, Kim Il-sung, in 1948. But it wasn't until the late 1960s, when Kim Jong-il increased his clout within his father's regime, that the Kim family's cult of personality took root. Kim Jong-il realized the ability of cinema to shape minds.
A cineaste since age seven, Kim Jong-il took over the country's film studios as writer, producer, executive and critic; made the country's most famous actress, Song Hye Rim, his mistress; and even penned a book called On the Art of Cinema. He ordered his directors to give every movie what he called a "seed."
"You read that and think, well, okay, 'plot,' " Person says. "But it's beyond that. You need to have an ideological message that reinforces this narrative of absolute loyalty and subservience to the Kim family."
Kim Jong-il's seed sprouted. The directors may have quietly resented his intrusions on the set, if only because he cost them equipment -- every camera lens he touched was then taken to a museum. But to the entertainment-starved North Koreans, local movies were incredibly popular.
Still, Kim Jong-il didn't greenlight funny films -- he didn't understand the power of making audiences laugh. Unlike Germans under Hitler, most of whom had seen Chaplin films before the war began, the North Koreans have little awareness of irreverent comedy. They revere their leader.
"That's why they're so sensitive to the idea that Westerners are making fun of this person who they truly believe is making every sacrifice for the country," Person says. "They don't even think the guy defecates, and here's this movie showing him as this comical figure."
And in a country with no concept of free speech, where every movie is Kim family-approved, it would be hard for North Koreans to comprehend that The Interview was made by individuals. To them, this insult was made by America.
What's funny is that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg aren't even American. They're Canadian.
What's funnier is that, as Rogen puts it, "We're just two fucking dudes! I don't have a lot to offer in the political arena."
True, The Interview has more jokes about buttholes, homoeroticism and explosives than about foreign policy. But there's a suspicion that the pair are more politically sharp than they'll admit.
Rogen has described his parents, who met on a kibbutz in Israel, as radical Jewish socialists. His father, Mark, is the assistant director of a nonprofit that promotes Yiddish culture. His mother, Sandy, is a social worker.
During the summer, Rogen's parents sent him to a "granola, super-left-wing, labor Zionist socialist" camp on an island off the coast of Vancouver, where, instead of making macramé, the children studied poverty and social justice.
The kids had fun, but they also worked, Rogen says. "You got a job in the kitchen, or you would clean the camp. There was a gardening group, a painting group, a repair squad if something broke -- it was awesome." Even though the counselors made him march the grounds carrying rocks.
Goldberg, a private-school kid, went to the other camp, "the rich, more neocon, right-wing one," Rogen says. When the two boys met over bagels and chocolate milk in bar mitzvah class, they realized they had tons in common, like their love of Pulp Fiction and Mel Brooks.
One afternoon in 1995, while watching a terrible movie on TV, Goldberg and Rogen agreed they could do better. So they went upstairs to Goldberg's sister's pink bedroom and began writing a script on the family computer.
The script was Superbad, or at least its ancestor. (They rewrote it 18 times.) It was slow going. Rogen also was doing stand-up. At 16, he won the Vancouver Amateur Comedy Contest and a part in Judd Apatow's TV series Freaks and Geeks and moved to Los Angeles.
Goldberg stayed behind. He taught aquatic fitness and enrolled in college as an American history major (in Canada), figuring he'd eventually join Rogen in Hollywood and it "would help me understand America better." He and Rogen half-joke about writing a comedy about the War of 1812, between Canada and the United States.
Goldberg says, "History is stories and they're real -- and they're generally crazier than the shit people come up with."
Rogen and Goldberg have always grounded their scripts in truth -- at least, their own emotional truth.
"We wrote Superbad when we were in high school; we were unemployed when we wrote Pineapple Express; we were getting notoriety when we wrote This Is the End," Rogen notes. Now, like their fictional Interview counterparts Aaron and Dave, they have a voice. What do they want their movies to say?
"We have a lot of people's attention," Rogen says. "Should we try to maybe do something with a little more substance? One could argue that we are the last people on earth who should do something with a little more substance -- maybe just stick to the arena that we're good at."
"There's no two ways about it, we're doing something political by making this movie," Goldberg admits. "Anyone in a country that's democratic and free should criticize a country that's clearly as bad as North Korea."
To James Franco, Rogen and Goldberg have been writing serious movies all along.
"They pick subjects that are actually pretty deep, like in This Is the End, the end of the world and religious beliefs," Franco says.
In fact, if you freeze-frame The Interview, it looks like a serious drama. Instead of the bright, cheery cinematography of most studio comedies, the colors are solemn and gray -- more Jason Bourne than James Franco screaming at Seth Rogen to shove a secret weapon in his ass.
"I believe that Seth and Evan are being just as serious in their satire as Zero Dark Thirty," Franco says, "but because it's couched in comedy, they can in some ways hit a lot harder."
To the hackers bedeviling Sony, The Interview is a full-on assault. Online, they've commanded, "Stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War!"
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North Korea's gravest concern isn't that Westerners may see the film. It's more worried about its own people seeing The Interview -- a challenge that has gotten harder to control as people from China and South Korea smuggle flash drives into the country.
Kim Jong-un knows that his fly-nowhere nuclear program isn't North Korea's most powerful weapon. It's the media, the movies, that keep his country in line.
Hazy links make North Korea the No. 1 suspect in the Sony online attack: the country's two-year university hacking program with a Chinese study-abroad, the 3,000 hackers on the government's payroll, the traces of Korean script on the servers, the suspicious timing and the cryptic denials.
Still, the clearest reason to question North Korea isn't physical evidence but rather the absence of it. The hackers stole five new, completed movies from Sony's servers. Yet only The Interview has, so far, been left alone -- and it's the one film Kim Jong-un doesn't want you to see.