Seth Rogen on the Insanity of Preacher and the Big Problem With Comic-Book Movies

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Seth Rogen. Photo: Getty Images

Seth Rogen has quietly entered a new stage of his career. First he was an actor, then he was a writer and director, and now — alongside longtime professional partner Evan Goldberg — he’s become one of the leading producers in the ongoing comics-adaptation boom. Rogen and Goldberg are developing projects based on unconventional comic books like The Boys and Invincible, and the crown jewel of that effort is AMC’s Preacher. A kind of supernatural Western, Preacher is based on a comics series of the same name by Garth Ennis and the late Steve Dillon, and it just entered its second season. Vulture sat down with Rogen at a posh restaurant in downtown Manhattan to talk comics, casting fan-favorite characters like Herr Starr and the Saint of Killers, and the joys of filming drug binges.

What did you learn from season one about how to do season two? What were some lessons?
It was interesting. I think it was the first time that I had worked on something where you were able to watch it, go back, and be like, “Oh, we can change some things.” It was interesting in that regard. I think we — by we I mean me, [showrunner] Sam Catlin, and Evan — were all very proud and we loved the show. We took a step back and were like, “There are so many shows on TV right now, we think Preacher is very unique,” and at times, the show was doing things that felt like they could only exist on our show, like scenes and moments and tonal concepts. These things where we’d watch them, and every once in a while, we’d hit on this moment where we felt like, that’s something that couldn’t exist on any other show in television. I think, if anything, going into the second season we were like, “Let’s try to do that more. Let’s try to take more big swings. Let’s try to really think. We have such a unique framework, what can we do that really pushes our show to its limits and does things so you feel like when you’re watching the show, you’re seeing things happen that couldn’t happen on any other show on television.” Again, at a time when there are so many shows on TV, we were like, “That would be nice.” [Laughs.]

What’s an example of a moment like that, where you felt like the show was truly Preacher-y?
In the first season?

Yeah.
I think there were a lot of them. The fight scenes — the fight in the hotel room where the angels kept regenerating. I think some of the characters, like where the guy gets his dick blown off, the idea that Jesse and Tulip are bonding over almost murdering this guy and that’s a romantic thing for them. There were these weird dynamics and things that would play out. They would happen once or twice or three times an episode even, and we were just like, “What if we really doubled down on the concept itself and the fact that, tonally, we were doing something that could support these moments more than other shows?” It’s funny, it has action, it has horror, it has drama, it has all these things. We thought, “How do we double down on that and really try to use the fact that we can do things that most shows can’t do?” We can be funny in ways that most shows can’t be. We can have action in a style that other shows can’t support necessarily.

You can show people in Heaven taking somebody hostage and forcing him to pretend to be God.
Exactly! We can do that kind of stuff. We can have Hell. We can have Hitler! We can have these things that, again, you can’t really do in other shows. To us, there were so many moments. When you get a little nervous, those are the exciting moments, I think. As we were doing it, we were like, “This is a little weird. Should we be doing this?” Those are the moments where we were like, “Yeah, I think we should be.”

How hard was it to cast Herr Starr, who’s obviously a character a lot of people care about?
I thought it was going to be the hardest role ever to cast, and then we saw this guy, Pip Torrens, and it was just instantaneously like, “Yes, that’s him. That’s exactly him.” I can’t remember if he read for it or if we just offered it to him, honestly. [Laughs.] It just seemed clear he could do it. He looks exactly like the character! The performance was so bizarre, so strange, and funny, and off-kilter, that it’s become one of my favorite parts of the new season. [Evan and I] didn’t get to direct any of the scenes with him, which was a bummer. It’s one of those things where, as I watch the episodes as they come in, as a fan of the comic, I’m shocked. It’s shocking to see one of those things that I’ve imagined for so long and then to see it come to life. It’s so what I would have hoped it would be. [Laughs.]

Another character I want to talk about casting is the Saint of Killers. How did that go?
We saw a lot of people. It was hard. It’s a tricky role to cast, and what we also realized was that the character itself, as it was written in the comics, was kind of unsustainable in TV. It was like the Terminator, basically. He was kind of cold, emotionless; just a killing machine. Which he is also on the show, but you have to also understand this person and where he’s coming from and why he’s like this. We needed an actor who could do both, whom you felt for in some way and at least understood why he was so bad. It took a long time, but when we found Graham [McTavish], we were like, “He can do all that.”

And he’s quite tall.
He’s gigantic! He’s very tall, he’s very big. He’s the sweetest guy and he’s a huge fan of the comics. It was easy to talk to him about the character. He’s a very communicative and easy actor to work with — very collaborative and is willing to try different things. We were admittedly, at the beginning of the second season, finding out, “How does the Saint of Killers exist in our world?” When he’s in a cowboy town, everything’s kind of sepia, it all kind of works. As soon as he’s standing outside a gas station, you’re like, “Oh, it’s different now.” You can’t do the same thing, or it just looks ridiculous. He almost can’t act the same because it’s all different now. We were very honest with him, we were just like, “We might want to try a few different things even as we’re filming it, first just to see, because we have pulled you out of a fictional side-story and brought you into the reality of the show, and we have to make sure that that works.” It’s a weird thing to be doing, totally and stylistically. He really made it function, and he was very helpful.

Speaking of the comic, how often do you talk to Garth Ennis?
Around press things is when I talk to him. He’ll email with notes sometimes — weird little things. I think he talks to Sam more than I do. Sometimes it’s visual things, making sure people are carrying certain weapons and stuff like that. I think part of it is the novelty to him, in some ways. Like, “I finally get to see this come to life, so it’d be cool if this guy’s carrying this gun I always pictured him carrying and this person has this sword I always pictured him having.” Or something like that. Sometimes it’ll be pointing out a lapse in logic that we haven’t noticed. [Laughs.] What’s funny is, from my experience, he doesn’t say a lot. When he does, it’s generally a pretty good idea or a bizarre, minute request. I think it’s so he can see something he’s always wanted to come to life come to life in a certain way.

You mentioned Joe Gilgun. What’s it like to direct him? He seems like such an interesting character.
He’s actually quite easy. He’s very professional and he tries really hard. Me and Evan have really enjoyed directing dramatic actors. Honestly, there’s some relief involved with the fact that they’re probably going to do pretty much the same thing every time. It allows you to shoot the scenes much differently. You plan them much more, because you see what they’re going to do, you rehearse the blocking, then they pretty much want to do that and perfect it basically — as opposed to comedians, who don’t want to be blocked into something, and halfway through filming, they might come up with a whole different thing. With all of [the Preacher actors], it’s actually been incredibly educational. They’re really the first actors we’ve worked with that are trying to make one thing better as opposed to constantly trying to explore new things. When I do work with comedians, I’m like, “Can you just fucking say the same thing over and over?” [Laughs.] It wouldn’t be as funny, but as a director, we could make it look much more interesting.

One of my favorite scenes in the two episodes that you directed in season two was the drug-binge scene with Cassidy and the depressed angel.
Oh, yeah. [Laughs.]

Can you tell me about putting that together?
It was funny. We had this big hotel room and we had them just go crazy. It was written much more sparsely than that, and me and Evan have directed a lot of drug montages in our lives: This Is the End has several drug montages, The Interview has a drug montage. It’s one of those things that we come back to a lot. Because of that, we like the challenge of coming up with new and exciting ways to do it. [Laughs.] The fact that neither character can die allows you to play with much harder drugs. That was fun. It was fun to shoot. It was hilarious. Tom Brooke, who plays [the angel] Fiore, he’s so funny to me, and him and Joe together are so funny. They’re actually both comfortable improvising. Some of that stuff was just us telling them, “Wrestle on the bed and play Frisbee. Run around. Build a fort.” They’re both very comfortable doing that, which was nice. Not everybody you can tell to build a fort. They’d ask some questions, probably.

How much stock do you put in the opinions of fans, especially ones who tweet about the show?
I believe in consensus, I guess. With Twitter, especially, you’ve got to be careful, because sometimes the vocal few outweigh the non-vocal many who are watching the show. I think I can tell when a fan says something that I know is true versus when someone is just complaining about some shit. It doesn’t bug me when people say, like, “You changed it, why’d you change it?” I know we’ve changed it for good reasons and Garth was a part of changing it. I would read some stuff like, “It feels boring.” I don’t agree, but it shouldn’t feel boring. I think the things we drew from the first season, that we gleaned from interacting with fans, were that maybe it was a little bit slower than it could have been, maybe it was a little bit more confusing than it could have been, and maybe there were some things that were good mysteries and some things that were unclear for not-good reasons.

I rewatch the first season and it’s not like I go, “That I would do differently and that I would do differently.” I think it works really well. The first season, you have to establish some kind of authenticity with these characters before you get into angels and demons and actors playing God and things like that. Now that a lot of that is established, it gives us freedom to have fun with the world, and maybe not have to tease out some ideas that are strange. I think now the audience — if they’re still watching the show — has wrapped their head around some of these big, crazy ideas. Then some of the other big, crazy ideas aren’t quite as big and weird. That’s something we also talk about, like, “How much weirdness can we process at once?”

How have you seen Dominic Cooper, Ruth Negga, and Joe Gilgun grow into their roles in season two?
The truth is that they have grown extremely close to one another, and they really love one another. It’s kind of intoxicating to be around, in a weird way, because they’re so close with one another. I think it really comes across. One of the things we talked about the most is that in the first season, there are almost no scenes where the three of them are together. They’re almost never together. There’s a couple scenes where all three of them are together, and they’re never on the same page or in a good mood, really. That was something that we were very aware of. In the second season, it really starts that way, and then it ultimately goes south for pretty much everyone as things progress. But the idea that you finally have these three people together, pretty much on the same page, that they pretty much have the same goal — at least on paper — there’s no deep conflict yet brewing between them, we wanted to really have fun with that. And they’re very funny together, so the idea that we could have the three of them playing off each other, we want to truly maximize it. You didn’t get it a lot the first season, and things get pretty dark throughout the rest of the second season.

You and Evan are developing a bunch of comic book properties right now. Is that a niche you want to hit?
It’s interesting. We have always been huge comic book fans. In some ways, we were a little ahead of the curve on making a superhero movie [The Green Hornet]. I think we got in too much on the ground floor, maybe, on that trend. It’s something we’ve always been very drawn to. That being said, we’re not as drawn to making Marvel or DC [superhero] movies, just because procedurally, it doesn’t seem like something that would be as fun. Doing things like this seemed like a great middle ground between what we’ve always wanted to do and what would actually be enjoyable to do. We’re getting to bring these things to life that we’ve always liked — Invincible is another one that we’re working on right now, and The Boys — but they’re very much our sensibility. They’re very subversive, and they would be R-rated movies. With Preacher, every episode has 50 things that would make a movie R-rated, then you show it in television, which is absolutely wonderful. I won’t debate the logic of it.

Making superhero movies that are truly more subversive, that’s appealing to us. Now they’re doing that on a much more mainstream level, so who knows how long Preacher will even seem subversive before it becomes more normal. When you direct movies, resources become this kind of forbidden fruit. The idea of having a lot of resources, it becomes very appealing but comes with a lot of terrible baggage. That’s something that we’ve talked about, like maybe it would nice to do something where we actually get the resources to achieve these bigger ideas that we’ve envisioned. But how do we do it and not fall into a world where we’re forced to make something that’s similar to something else, or something that isn’t offending a certain amount of people, or something that is overly digestible? With TV, we’ve actually found that much more achievable.

That’s what’s so great about Preacher: It’s something we’ve always liked, we have complete creative freedom, almost never does something come up that we want to do that they’re like, “No, you can’t do that.” At worst, we have a conversation about it. As far as TV shows go, we have pretty good resources. As far as TV shows, we’re on the higher end of the spectrum, as far as budgets go. We’re nowhere near Game of Thrones or something like that, but with movies, we’re very much on the lower end of the spectrum as far as budgets. It’s been nice, even though compared to a movie you have way less money. It’s nice to get to play in a different arena, but on the scale of something that, at least in TV, has pretty good resources behind it and allows us to do things creatively that in a movie they would never let us do. That’s the other thing: There’s stuff we do on the show that they would never let us do in a movie.

Like what?
Like, Hitler is one of the things. Me and Evan, we were watching one of the cold opens from one of the later episodes like a week ago because we get sent them as the editors finish cutting them, and we were just sitting there like, “This is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen, and they would never let us do this in a movie.” They just wouldn’t buy this movie. They literally wouldn’t. No one would buy this movie. If they knew this was a part of it, no one would let us do it. It would be dead on arrival. That’s one of the nicer things about TV: You build to these crazier ideas, I think. Creatively, Preacher has been outrageously free. In our movies, we can pretty much do whatever the fuck we want, but at the same time, we have to be realistic of what they would make into a movie, basically. With Preacher, there’s a lot of shit that we’d have a really hard time getting into a movie.

Seth Rogen on the Insanity of Preacher