The Interview Screenwriter Dan Sterling on Writing the Movie That Caused the Sony Hacks

Screenwriter Dan Sterling. Photo: Courtesy of Dan Sterling

"About a year ago today, I was on a soundstage and I was at the monitor watching Seth Rogen, who was completely naked except for a sock around his penis," says screenwriter Dan Sterling. A lot has changed for him since then. A movie based on his first produced screenplay is finally hitting theaters on Christmas Day. Which is great. That movie is The Interview. So there's that. John Horn, host of Southern California Public Radio's new daily arts and entertainment show "The Frame," talked to Sterling about The Interview and what it's been like to be behind the movie that resulted in the Sony hacks. (Listen to part of Horn and Sterling's interview below, and subscribe to "The Frame" at iTunes or Stitcher.)

It’s very rare that a screenwriter talks about breaking news. So, I guess my breaking-news question is, what the hell’s going on?
Yeah, that’s a good question. Well, I just know what’s going on in my email inbox, which is an increasing flood of people asking me if I’m okay, both emotionally, physically, and financially.

Now, are these people who have your emails ... through the Sony hack, or are these actually friends of yours?
These are, so far, friends of mine, but a lot of them start off the email by asking, "Is this still really you, or is this a North Korean plot?" or something like that.

And what is your answer? What do you tell them?
You know, I was at a party on Saturday night where the host was introducing me to everybody at the party as, "This is the guy that brought down Sony." Yeah, it was funny.

Were you flattered by that?
Well, the first 400 or 500 times the joke was made, it was funny, except actually, in a way, it’s not funny to me. It’s been a surreal experience. I’m still very much in the middle of it. The one thing that I’m not happy about is actually the real suffering that is going on at Sony, not just by the person who green-lit my film so bravely, but also by all the other people affected by the hack. I'm quite concerned about them.

What about the reaction to the film itself has been the most surprising to you?
About a year ago today, I was on a soundstage and I was at the monitor watching Seth Rogen, who was completely naked except for a sock around his penis, and he had a bunch of salami tucked between his buttocks that a German shepherd was eating out of because the scene involved him being sniffed by a bomb-sniffing dog. And I was laughing my head off sitting next to his mother who seemed to be used to these sorts of things, and she was knitting a scarf. And at the time, nothing like any of this could have occurred to me because this movie was just supposed to be an outrageous, somewhat provocative, totally hilarious comedy, which I think that it is. But the reaction by the North Korean government was surprising to me, [as well as] all of the things that have ensued. I was quite naïve going into this.

From the very beginning, was the idea that it would be the real leader [who would be assassinated]? Because I’ve read conflicting stories about it being a fictional North Korean leader and then it becoming the real leader. What happened there?
It never occurred to me that we would be allowed to use the real leader’s name. I wrote the script without any instructions from anybody, with a fake name. At the time, Kim Jong-il was the leader of North Korea. I wrote a name called Kim Il-hwan, and that was the version that the studio green-lit. And when we were meeting — once the movie had been green-lit, we were having an early pre-production meeting. We agreed in that meeting with the executives and with Seth and Evan there that I ought to go off and see what happens, try writing a draft with Kim Jong-un and just see how it looks, and that’s what I did. And as soon as I did it, Seth and Evan and I all knew this is absolutely the way to go.

There was concern, but not resistance from the studio. In other words, they said, "I guess we’re in." I mean, was there a negotiation about how real this person was going to be?
Well, not at first. But when we got up to Vancouver, we were getting towards production. Seth and Evan got a call and the studio said, I think they said, "You guys should probably change it to something else or shoot it in a way where we can take out that name if we need to or be less specific about it somehow." And Seth and Evan resisted.

“Resisted” as in “said no.”
I wasn’t on the phone conversation, but I think they were pretty firm in their objection to that note, and I think ultimately the studio said, "Well, we can’t make you. Do what you gotta do, I guess."

A couple things happened. The first of which is that North Korea, without having seen the film, described the movie, I think, as “an act of war.”

When that happened, were you guys a little bit flattered, saying, "This is kind of what we’re after"? Were you at all concerned at that point?
Yeah, it would be disingenuous to say that that was not exciting to us. I think we were like, "Wow! Who knew that that—" There have been other comedies made about dictators, and there was Team America, and that didn’t get much of a reaction out of Kim Jong-il. I don’t even think that The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s movie, got much of a reaction out of Hitler. But Kim Jong-un, in some ways, I guess is less reasonable than his predecessors, dictatorially. And so we were surprised and kind of excited and a little bit nervous because I did think, Well, gosh, if he really is serious, I certainly don’t want to be responsible just with this silly comedy about having anyone harmed in any way.

You mentioned Team America, which is by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. You worked on South Park, which did not spare anyone from satirical skewering, but it didn’t really seem to spark an international crisis like this movie has. So, what’s the difference between what you did on South Park and what you have done in The Interview?
I can only guess, but I think some of it is that the particular government and the particular leader that we’ve attacked is more sensitive. That’s one thing. Another thing is these are real, moving images and realistic depictions in some ways, not portrayals. But this is film, these are not marionette puppets. This is not a cartoon. This is a big studio movie, and so maybe that’s part of what has escalated the stakes.

But South Park, in some ways, must have been very good training for you in terms of the idea that nothing is off-limits. As a writer, I would imagine, that’s very liberating that if you find a target that you think is ready for comic skewering, go for it.
I don’t think this movie would have ever happened without South Park. My worship of Trey Parker and Matt Stone is so great, and their influence on me is so huge. Yeah, it was there. Not just while I worked there, which was very brief, but also just being a fan of that show where I realized that the highest comedy, to me, is an attack on something. An attack on an idea, on a person, on a truth about life, and those guys really attack hard. And they’re really funny.

The Interview has a lot to say about the media and about media manipulation and character creation, and it’s not really a spoiler to say that once they get to North Korea, things are presented through the media as being a little bit rosier than they are. Was that something that you felt very strongly that you wanted to focus on?
Most things about North Korea aren’t funny. It’s a tragedy. It’s one of the great tragedies in modern history, and it’s still going on. What is funny is their efforts to hide it and to paint this absurd picture that they think we’re all buying and we’re not. And we did a lot of research, and we watched documentaries and we read books, and there is a certain hilariousness that they present themselves as a place where unicorns live and that they have leaders that don’t pee and poo. We felt like we had to. How do you do a comedy about North Korea and not show that and skewer that?

And there’s also in your movie a very strong interest in a Katy Perry song. Where did that come from, and was Katy onboard to make sure you could use that song?
It was important to us to show something vulnerable about Kim, something that he felt ashamed of and wanted to hide. I'm not ashamed of my fandom of Katy Perry. For a straight male who’s over 40, my iPod has a lot of teen idols on it — Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. I'm always afraid that somebody’s going to find my iPod. Originally we were going to use a Taylor Swift song in that tank scene, but the Katy Perry song “Firework” just worked so much better, and so I put that in there. And I don’t know that we ever spoke to Katy Perry, but we definitely got her permission because that song costs a lot to use.

Do you have any idea whether or not anybody in North Korea’s actually seen the movie?
I have no idea if they’ve seen it. I guess my feeling is that if they had seen it, they would see how silly it is and that this is not a polemic. This is not propaganda because we’re making fun of ourselves as well as them. My hope is that the movie will be snuck into North Korea on USB drives and that people in that country will see it and that it’ll start a conversation. But that is a very grandiose, lofty hope.

This is a movie that was so perilous to Sony. I guess a little bit of you is probably very grateful that Sony didn’t cower and didn’t tell you to change the ending in the film.
Yeah, I’m blown away that they let us do this movie and that they really didn’t make us make any significant changes. I am grateful for it. I don’t think that it was going to change North Korea, but I thought it might change the way people approach comedy and encourage people to make bolder movies. I don’t know now.

What do you mean by that?
Well, this is a big, broad, crazy comedy, but it is bold in some ways and it addresses subjects that are controversial, and they’re risky. And I want comedies to do that more. I don’t want to go just see comedies about people switching bodies or men dressing up as women or something. I’m not that excited about a lot of comedies that come out these days. I wish that they would attack bigger subjects. The fantasy was that this would be a huge box-office success and that they would hold me and Seth and Evan up on their shoulders and carry us all around, saying, "From now on, we’re going to do comedies that are really risky and that attack big political subjects and find ways to be funny." I’m not clear now whether that happens. I guess we’ll have to see how the box office does.

Are you worried that that won’t happen, that even if the movie is successful, people will say, "We can’t go there. We can't offend people because look what happens."
Yeah, I’m a little worried about that. We still don’t know whether this is North Korea or what, but [I’m worried] that all this controversy and trouble will have a chilling effect, and that is just the opposite of what I wanted.

So, I guess, do you actually believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity, or is this actually bad publicity?
Will you ask me that again on January 10 after box office? The publicity has been exciting except that I think that it has sharpened the knives of some critics who are going to review it by the standard of, was it worth all the trouble? And I think the only way a comedy should be judged is, is it funny? That’s what comedians always say. They say, "If it’s funny, then it was worth it."