On Wednesday, Sony canceled the theatrical release of The Interview after hackers linked to North Korea threatened violent reprisals against any theater caught screening the film. It was an unprecedented step, made all the more bizarre by the fact that the film at the center of the mess was just a goofy comedy from the guys who made This Is the End. How did two stoner comedians end up at the center of a serious geopolitical incident? Here’s a timeline:
Some emails have been edited for spelling and clarity.
Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg start knocking around an idea for a movie about a journalist who’s tasked with assassinating a foreign dictator. “I feel like it’s a conversation a lot of people have,” Rogen tells Rolling Stone later. “Like, ‘Oh, Barbara Walters could have killed Bin Laden,’ or whatever.” Rogen and Goldberg eventually decide to set the film in North Korea, and hire former South Park writer Dan Sterling to work on the script. At this point, the team is unclear if the North Korean dictator in the film should be Kim Jong-il or a fictional counterpart called Kim Il-hwan.
December 17, 2011
Kim Jong-il dies in real life. (The culprit is a heart attack, not James Franco.) He’s succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un; Rogen, Goldberg, and Sterling decide to table the dictator discussion until they can get a sense of the younger Kim’s character.
February 26, 2013
Dennis Rodman makes his first visit to North Korea, which only further convices Rogen and Goldberg that they’ve got a great idea on their hands.
March 13, 2013
Rogen and Goldberg officially sign on to write and direct The Interview for Sony. The object of the film’s assassination plot is said to be “the North Korean prime minister.”
Sometime in 2013
During a pre-production meeting with Sony executives, Rogen, Goldberg, and Sterling decide the screenplay’s next draft should feature Kim Jong-un, just “to see what happens.” They’re pleased with the result. “Kim Jong-un is a lot closer in age to Franco and me, which is better comedically,” Rogen tells Rolling Stone later. “And he also just seems a lot funnier. You see him in pictures, he’s, like, laughing hysterically, but he’s an evil fuck! You’d probably like him, but you shouldn’t like him.”
October 10, 2013
The Interview begins shooting in Vancouver, Rogen and Goldberg’s hometown. Right up until cameras roll, Sony executives are squeamish about making Kim a character in the film. “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,’” Sterling recalls later. Rogen and Goldberg refuse, and the studio backs off. Filming ends December 10.
Sony begins worrying about how the film will play abroad. Nigel Clark, the studio’s head of international marketing, emails the script to Li Chow, Sony Pictures’ general manager in China, to ask if the Chinese government will have any objections. Li is cautiously optimistic: “In recent years, China seems to have distanced itself from North Korea and it is unlikely that Sony will be hurt by making the film.”
May 10, 2014
A rough cut of the film is assembled for Sony’s international distributors. Most of them don’t like it. Sony U.K. executive Peter Taylor calls the film “desperately unfunny and repetitive … with a level of realistic violence that would be shocking in a horror movie.” Still he adds, the movie will probably make a decent amount of money in Britain thanks to how much people there liked Rogen in Neighbors. Most other international box-office forecasts are less rosy.
May 12, 2014
Sony marketing executives assure Rogen that they’re doing everything they can to make the film a success. “I fucking hate that it seems like you guys have not been a priority for us,” Columbia Pictures’ marketing head Dwight Caines tells him. “We love your movies and frankly yours is the most important relationship we have.”
June 11, 2014
The film’s teaser trailer is released. It ends with Rogen telling Franco, “I’d love to assassinate Kim Jong-un. It’s a date.”
June 20, 2014
The real trouble begins. Kim Myong-choi, executive director of the Center for North Korea–U.S. Peace, condemns The Interview in an interview with The Telegraph, saying the film “shows the desperation of the US government and American society.” He also calls on President Obama to stop the film’s release. Though Kim is based in Tokyo and has no official relationship with the North Korean regime, the story is widely aggregated as reflecting Kim Jong-un’s position as well.
Sony starts freaking out almost immediately. Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal emails an underling, “We need Sony’s name off this ASAP everywhere.” Instead, she says, the film should be re-marketed as a release from Columbia Pictures, a Sony subsidiary.
June 25, 2014
The North Korean government makes its first official statement about the film when a minster is quoted in state media saying its release would be “an act of war” for which there would be “merciless retaliation.” Rogen jokes on Twitter, “People don’t usually wanna kill me for one of my movies until after they’ve paid 12 bucks for it.”
In an email to Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, Rand corporation consultant Bruce Bennett advises that the North Korean threat is probably “bluster, since they use the term ‘act of war’ so commonly.” Bennett also tells Lynton that in his opinion, the film could be useful propaganda: “I believe that a story that talks about the removal of the Kim family regime and the creation of a new government by the North Korean people … will start some real thinking in South Korea and, I believe, in the North once the DVD leaks into the North (which it almost certainly will).” He hints that this thinking is shared by the State Department.
July 7, 2014
Sony Pictures executives begin a long summer of freaking out about Kim Jong-un’s death scene after it becomes clear that Sony’s Japanese CEO Kazuo Hirai, who has never before interfered in the Americans’ business, really does not want it in the film. Lynton emails Pascal telling her to get Rogen to cut the scene, which features Kim’s head exploding after his helicopter is struck by a tank shell. “We cannot be cute here,” he writes. “What we really want is no melting face and actually not seeing him die. A look of horror as the fire approaches is probably what we need.”
July 19, 2014
Rogen refuses the cut the scene entirely, and so Sony execs begin trying to bargain specific instances of gore out of the scene. “I would still like to see them eliminate the tendril of flesh on the left side of his forehead that comes just before the fireball,” Sony Pictures executive Doug Belgrad tells Pascal. She informs Belgrad he’s in charge of getting the filmmakers to tone down the violence: “I don’t feel like falling on my sword for this one … No other studio would even touch this movie and we all know it.”
August 7, 2014
Sony pushes the film’s release date back from October 10 to December 25.
August 13, 2014
The Hollywood Reporter reveals that Sony is digitally painting over thousands of buttons worn by the North Korean military in the film. The studio reportedly fears that showing the actual buttons would be “blasphemous.”
August 14, 2014
An email from Pascal to Lynton shows that Pascal has assumed the task of trying to get Rogen to change Kim’s death scene. Apparently, he is not being very amenable. “Just arrived in Bali,” she writes. “Seth Rogen is driving me nuts.”
August 15, 2014
As if on cue, Rogen emails Pascal the next day to protest the proposed edits. “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy,” he tells her.
September 25, 2014
The two sides appear to make progress. “As embarrassing as this has been from my point of view, you have to appreciate the fact that we haven’t just dictated to you what it had to be,” Pascal tells Rogen. Rogen promises he’ll abide by most of Pascal’s suggestions, but tells her, “The head explosion can’t be more obscured than it is because we honestly feel that if it’s any more obscured, you won’t be able to tell it’s exploding. The joke won’t work.”
September 28, 2014
Pascal emails Hirai three different versions of the death scene, including a compromise version with “no face melting, less fire in the hair, fewer embers on the face, and the head explosion has been considerably obscured by the fire, as well as darkened to look less like flesh.”
September 29, 2014
Hirai approves the compromise version, but tells Pascal to push Rogen for more cuts. He also orders that the death scene be cut from international versions of the film.
September 30, 2014
Pascal emails Hirai that Rogen is “so happy” that the compromise was accepted, but privately keeps elbowing him for more cuts.
October 6, 2014
Rogen bows to the pressure, telling Pascal they’ve removed “the fire from the hair and the secondary head chunks.” At the end of his email, he pleads, “Please tell us this is over now.”
October 27, 2014
Clark sends an even-more-toned-down version of the ending to the film’s international distributors. Most take the softer cut, but the Australian distributor requests the unedited version, saying it would prefer to “sock it to ‘em.”
Sony’s marketing department creates a PDF on pitching the film to foreign audiences. “We have learned in testing that moviegoers respond very favorably to Kim Jong-un when he is seen as more of a recluse who can be charming at times as opposed to a person who is simply a dangerous dictator,” the department writes. “The benefit of this more complex view … is that it plays against the pre-conception that the film only offers a U.S.-centric view of a treacherous North Korea.”
November 24, 2014
Sony Pictures is hacked by an anonymous group calling themselves the Guardians of Peace. They release a message on every Sony employee’s computer threatening to expose the company’s secrets unless their demands are met; this message is accompanied by a scary picture of a skeleton.
November 28, 2014
The first speculation emerges that the hack is the work of North Korea.
December 2, 2014
Sources tell The Wall Street Journal that the hack bears striking similarities to a 2013 cyberattack on South Korean businesses believed to be carried out by North Korea’s intelligence agency.
December 3, 2014
As part of their ongoing leaks of Sony data, the hackers release The Interview’s budget, which reveals, among other things, that Kevin Federline was paid $5,000 to cameo in the film.
December 7, 2014
North Korea officially denies responsibility for the leaks, but says the hacking was “just punishment for [Sony’s] evil doings.”
December 8, 2014
Guardians of Peace releases a list of demands that includes a call for Sony to cancel the release of the film: “Stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break regional peace and cause the war!”
December 9, 2014
The hackers release the full trove of Pascal’s emails. The Interview’s behind-the-scenes drama slowly becomes public knowledge.
December 11, 2014
The Interview has its Los Angeles premiere at a heavily guarded Ace Hotel Theatre. At the event, Rogen publicly thanks Pascal “for having the balls to make this movie.”
December 16, 2014
The hackers threaten terror attacks against theaters showing The Interview, telling them to “remember the lessons of the 11th of September, 2001.” The Department of Homeland Security says the message is not “a credible threat,” but Sony cancels the film’s New York premiere and major theater chains begin moving it off their schedules.
Human-rights groups announce plans to drop DVDs of The Interview into North Korea via balloon.
December 17, 2014
After the top five theater chains in the country drop The Interview, Sony cancels the film’s theatrical release. Less than an hour later, government sources tell the New York Times that North Korea is “centrally involved” in the hacking.
December 18, 2014
Sony confirms it will not be releasing The Interview on video-on-demand or iTunes. The film is officially dead.