That time ‘Freaks and Geeks’ spawned the most important movie of the year

On Christmas day, thousands of movie-goers flooded theaters to see the biggest film to hit screens this year. It wasn’t the latest Oscar contender, but rather a goofball comedy that has, as of its opening, become a symbol of free speech, and a triumph over censorship.

Despite a limited release and mixed reviews, The Interview managed to sell-out showings, pull in an impressive $1 million dollars on its opening day and boast bold front-page headlines that mixed box office jargon with political rhetoric.

It’s hard to imagine all that was the product of what one industry website dubbed a “pot-smoking comedy” and a reunion of the Freaks and Geeks co-stars back in 2013, when plans for the film were announced.

It’s been a long road for The Interview, and one that started 15 years ago when actors Seth Rogen and James Franco, the former just 17, the latter 21, met on the set of the short-lived—but classic—series Freaks and Geeks.

“Seth was writing stuff that we all talked about doing,” Franco said in a recent New York Times interview about the early days of the show. “There was a point where most people on the show didn’t like me, because I took myself too seriously. I thought I was Marlon Brando or something. . . So everybody didn’t like me, I think, except for Seth.”

Now Rogen and Franco are both well into their thirties and have spent the past decade collaborating on comedies like Pineapple Express and This Is The End. In their onscreen collabs (Rogen and his behind-the-scenes partner Evan Goldberg co-wrote the former and co-wrote/co-directed the latter), the comedy was edgy but tempered with broad “bro” humor. Pineapple Express pokes fun at drug culture, whereas This Is The End makes light of a religious apocalypse. Both relied on a mixture of smart, observational humor and lots of weed jokes.

The next Rogen-Franco film endeavor was never going to be a quiet, tame affair. That said, no one could have predicted how explosive their venture, a little movie called The Interview, would be. Franco and Rogen respectively played a talk show host and his producer who travel to North Korea to interview the country’s president Kim Jong-Un, and are enlisted by the CIA to carry out the assassination of this world leader while on foreign soil.

You basically have to have been living under a rock NOT to have heard about all The Interview insanity, actually, scratch that, even if you WERE living under a rock you probably would have heard about this. The months leading up to the release were fairly uneventful, billboards went up, trailers were released, some commented that it sounded  a little edgy” to make a comedy about the assassination of a real-life contemporary world leader (one with access to nuclear codes, no less) but overall the comedy was treated as just that, a goofy film that would come out on Christmas as counter-programming to Oscar bait.

Everything changed this autumn in the wake of the Sony hack, in which the perpetrators, a group that identifies as “The Guardians of Peace,” made a wealth of private Sony employee information (including e-mails and social security numbers) available to the public, and when it came time to make demands, the group warned America not to show the film, threatening to attack movie theaters that hosted screenings. As a result, all major movie chains dropped the film from their holiday lineup, and even though smaller theaters (like the super-famous Alamo Drafthouse of Austin, TX) were down to show the film. At first, Sony completely cancelled the release of The Interview. No theater, no VOD, no nothing.

And people got PISSED. Celebrities flocked to their platforms to decry the cancellation of the film’s release, which they labeled an act of censorship, an agreement to negotiate with terrorists and bow down to the demands of this extremist fringe group, and an affront to America’s most dearly cherished 1st Amendment. Also, everyone you know on Facebook all of a sudden, like, REALLY cared about things like free speech, the current state of the film industry, and North Korea, or at least they did if your feed looked anything like mine.

Meanwhile, President Obama also voiced his extreme disapproval that the movie was cancelled:

“We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States” he said in an extremely strong answer to a question about the hack of the studio. “Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like, or a news report that they don’t like — or even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended. That’s not who we are. That’s not what America is about.”

So, when you get that stern of an “I’m very disappointed in you” dad-lecture from the President, you, as Sony, kind of have no choice but to backtrack hard and find a way to get your movie out there, which led to the grand un-cancellation of the film on December 23rd, just two days before The Interview’s scheduled Christmas release.

The Interview had an out-of-control opening day. Even though it was released in only 331 theaters as opposed to the original 3,000 in which it was supposed to screen, the film sold out a significant number of screenings and is expected to bring in a few million dollars before the holiday weekend is through. Also, the movie currently ranks #1 on YouTube and Google Play’s lists of top movie rentals.

And while, of course, the quality of the film matters, this is a film that has become more than a film. It has become a symbol of free speech, a stand-in for the power and the privilege that is being able to make art in a country that does not censor creativity,  and during a season in which we count our blessings, we have to be thankful that The Interview saw the light of day and that we live in a country that celebrates and honors free speech.

Unwittingly, Rogen and Franco are partly responsible for a paradigm shift, exposing the politics of the film industry and the politics of film in general. Certainly, the movie industry won’t be the same, and when we look back on the year’s most pivotal films, The Interview, despite its critical floundering, will unquestionably rise to the top.

Who would have thought two guys from the Freaks and Geeks stoner crowd could have made such a mark on history? In fairness, it was a really, really good show.

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