How '50/50' Writer Will Reiser Changed Lives and Became an Accidental Icon

Will Reiser Writers Guild Awards- P 2012
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Will Reiser Writers Guild Awards- P 2012

By channeling his experience with cancer into a hit film, the young screenwriter touched many -- and earned a very unique award.

Illness is isolating, and even more so when you're young. When Will Reiser had cancer, it meant "going to the basement at Cedar-Sinai with people two to three times my age," and awkward conversations with healthy friends and peers who couldn't grasp his pain or frustration. When he beat the disease, and decided to write a screenplay about the experience, it meant keeping the work secret, out of fear that his personal reflection on his fight as a twenty-something with the life-threatening disease would somehow offend those who had also tangled with the sickness.

So it is a surprise to Reiser, to say the very least, that he will be celebrated for his very unique film, 50/50, by a group of young cancer patients and survivors -- not to mention that it take place in a bustling Las Vegas hotel/casino, which in both decor and exposure is a world away from chemo in the bowels of the hospital.

Reiser will be honored over the weekend at the annual weekend convention of youth advocacy and support group Stupid Cancer, which will present the young screenwriter with the first-ever Extreme Survivor Award. It marks the latest positive turn in Reiser's long, strange road; he was diagnosed with the disease in 2005 while working as a TV writer in Hollywood, beat it despite difficult odds and then translated loosely his experiences into the film he wrote with best friend Seth Rogen (who played a version of himself in the film). Joseph Gordon-Levitt played the fictionalized version of Reiser, expertly hurting, brooding, laughing, stumbling through uncomfortable discussions and disconnects, and deteriorating from treatment. 

"Being honest was the number one priority, for it to feel real and authentic and honest, and we wanted it to feel like these were real people." Reiser explained to The Hollywood Reporter about his approach to writing the film. "We were definitely taking a risk and we could have failed miserably and it would have been really embarrassing and soul crushing. I really kind of felt like because it was an experience that I could relate, because in the movie, Adam's experiences were close to mine, I felt like I was willing to take that risk, and the people that lived through it with me, they were willing to take those risks as well."

The risk paid off, not just in the critical praise -- he was nominated a Golden Globe and WGA Award, and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay -- but in impact the film has made in the very audience he feared angering.

Matthew Zachary, a cancer survivor who founded Stupid Cancer in 2007, said that he was in tears during a sneak screening of the film months before its release. For him, the trigger came not from dramatic speeches but the little things, the conversations and glances and traumas of wonted, throwaway moments that could only be ripped from memory and put on the screen by someone who had gone through the same fight.

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"The overbearing mom, the girlfriend who leaves you, I know these were sort of fictionalized," Zachary told Reiser during the pair's conversation with THR, referring interchangably between Reiser and the Gordon-Levitt-portrayed character, "but in social concept alone, the massive breakdown in the vehicle by yourself, getting mad at your friends, having the doctor that doesn't know how to talk to you, getting wheeled away from your parents in the operating room -- that's the scene that just blew everyone away -- you wrote this movie so organically, but yet it touched this point in everyone's soul who saw this film, it brought everyone together in such an unanticipated commonality and I think that's what drove it home."

The two laughed at how conventional films portray cancer, and the trying, dramatic storylines they concoct around what is a debilitating disease.

"The number one cliche that I see is you have a middle aged misanthrope who has alienated himself from his family and has spent his life making money and not building emotional connections with people," Reiser observed. "And he's diagnosed with cancer, reconnects with his long-lost son, has this profound a-ha moment, and then he dies. And I feel like, that's not every cancer movie, but those are the kind of movies that portray cancer that I grew up watching, and I can't relate to that." 

To write a film, then, that truly reflects the experience of the disease, and touches people en masse, is an accomplishment in itself. But Zachary credits Reiser with doing far more than pulling heart strings and providing a friend on screen. A medical report released in 2006 revealed that young adults with cancer suffer some of the worst outcomes and survival rates, which led to Zachary forming his group; five years later, having already made substantial progress in pushing awareness for the twenty-something's struggle with the illness and created an active community of self-supporting active and recovered patients, the activist says the film offered a true calling card and rallying point.

"I think the film gives people a lot of pride. It's almost like this is our rainbow flag," he said. "This is like this is our young adult cancer pride, this film. People have used this film as an example of how to talk to people, they've used this film to break the ice with people, I've had people put bits and clips together for their own personal way to communicate with friends, they did their own private screenings. We take so much pride in the fact that it was done and it's going to be there and we can refer to it, and it's this beacon of unity, that's not about any one thing except our own self-interest."

Now, Zachary says, the film is being used to train doctors at the Mayo Clinic and other top organizations in how to deal with young patients. After all, one of the film's (painfully) funniest scenes comes when Gordon-Levitt's doctor tells him he has cancer in such a cold, efficient and mundane way that it's impossible not to feel his shock and horror erupt through the screen.

Reiser, for his part, admits that he didn't write the film to change lives or spark revisions in medical treatment -- that would lead to self-censorship and, most likely, those hokey cancer films he disdains -- and so the response has been more than a pleasant surprise.

"It's really amazing how people come up and share their stories," Reiser said, remembering various screenings he held ahead of the film's release. "There was one event, I don't remember where it was, somewhere on the east coast with Seth. A guy had come up to me and told me his step father died of cancer 20 years ago and his mother had never been able to talk about it, and the first time she was able to talk about it was at the movie theater after seeing 50/50. And to think our movie could have that kind of effect on people, it's really moving and really special."

The fifth annual OMG! Cancer Summit for Young Adults will take place over the weekend at the Palms Casino & Resort in Las Vegas.