He opened his laptop, where the desktop image was the Wu-Tang logo rendered in rainbow colors so that it resembled the ‘80s-era Apple logo. Rogen clicked over to a folder marked ESCAPE, revealing hundreds of documents within. Every time he and Goldberg have an idea for a movie, Rogen explained, they start compiling lists of “ideas for anything: characters, scenes, lines, plot twists, turns — it could be as general as, like, ‘Someone locks themselves in the closet while trying to hide,’ or it could be like, ‘OK, this character’s been this way their whole life. … ’”
Over time, whether they’re in the same room or emailing back and forth, as they’ve done during the pandemic, Rogen and Goldberg sculpt these lists into outlines, then sculpt those outlines into scripts: “You start to say, ‘OK, these 10 things could go together,’” Rogen said. “Or, ‘OK, that’s a chunk of a movie,’ or, ‘If we want all these ideas in the same movie, what’s a character that could support that?’”
He scrolled through the folder. “These are our ‘Escape’ files — oh, Jesus — going back to January 2016,” he said. He glanced at an early list. “This totally changed,” he said, opening another. “These are gags,” he explained. Rogen and Goldberg had collected dozens of Keaton-worthy ideas, which he asked me not to reveal. He scrolled to another document, dated February 2019 and titled “Boarded Action Beats” — “These are gags we started to actually draw,” he said.
Working with an illustrator, Rogen and Goldberg had completed what was in essence a digital flip book diagraming every scene in “Escape.” “We’re literally storyboarding every second of the movie,” Rogen said. One open-ended, three-word gag I’d seen in a list from May 2019 — centered delightfully on something you could buy in a hardware store — had been storyboarded into an elaborate action sequence. Rogen showed it to me frame by frame, narrating as he went. “She’s trying to go from there to there … these guys are chasing her. … ” His finger tapped the right arrow. “She grabs that guy, he’s falling, bam, whoop!”
Even in flip-book form, the scene was funny. “We need to know if these jokes are working, and if the timing is right,” Rogen said, “and you can’t do a table read and see if people laugh or not, because that would be me saying, like, ‘He throws the thing, it bounces off the door, it hits him in the face.’” He laughed. “We need to be able to see that!”
There’s a story Mark Rogen tells about the early days of Seth’s career: When the family first moved to L.A., for ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ Seth signed with a manager and a lawyer, and after some time, “his lawyer threatened to fire him, because Seth kept getting offered different gigs and saying, ‘I’m not doing that, that’s not a movie I’d go see and it’s not a movie I’d want my friends to see me in.’”
Rogen’s self-assurance might be the most enviable thing about him: The fact that, with rare exceptions, he has only ever seemed to work on exactly what he wants to work on. Rogen once recalled his friend Jonah Hill’s approaching him for advice after being offered a part in a “Transformers” sequel. “I can see if Steven Spielberg’s calling you, asking you to do something, how that’s hard to turn down,” Rogen told an interviewer, recounting the exchange. But in this case, he told Hill: “You want to make a movie about fightin’ robots? Make your own movie about fightin’ robots. You can do that. That’s on the table now.” This story has an echo in “Yearbook,” in a chapter where Spielberg himself actually invites Rogen and Goldberg to collaborate on a project inspired by the 1984 sci-fi movie “The Last Starfighter.” The same idea had already occurred to them, and they decided they’d rather just make their own version. Rogen isn’t overly concerned in the book with flattering the powerful. There’s also a funny story about George Lucas — that, within moments of meeting Rogen and Goldberg in 2012, he expressed his certitude that the world would end later that year (Lucas, through a representative, denied this account) — and an even funnier story about Nicolas Cage pretending to be a white Bahamian for a possible role in “The Green Hornet,” bellowing improvised dialogue in a Caribbean patois.