There's no delicate way to discuss exploding heads over email.
In September, when Sony Pictures' Amy Pascal relayed concerns from corporate headquarters in Japan about a climactic scene of The Interview—featuring the fiery, slow-motion assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to the tune of Katy Perry's "Firework"—director Seth Rogen responded with a concession.
“We will make it less gory," the Canadian comedian offered. "There are currently four burn marks on his face. We will take out three of them, leaving only one. We reduce the flaming hair by 50%." In October, Rogen sent Pascal a follow-up message with the subject line "Kim Face Fix," noting that "the entire secondary wave of head chunks" had been removed. A special-effects technician later weighed in with an update: "the goop from the head pop is darker, specifically to make it less flesh-like and more surreal."
But that's the thing about The Interview: Far from being surreal, the film revolves around a very real, very-much-still-ruling world leader, whatever the color of the goop spraying from his head. It involves a plot in which the CIA tasks two American journalists with killing that leader. And that leader's government, which presides over nuclear weapons and a population of 25 million, has described the movie as an "act of war" and, according to the U.S. government, ordered hackers to respond with a massive cyberattack on Sony Pictures—a breach that produced the leaked email exchange above. It's hard to contain outrage about a head exploding, when that head is a sitting head of state's. It's even harder when that exploding head is a punchline for a 112-minute joke.
This week, those same hackers threatened to harm Americans who see the film in theaters, prompting an unparalleled cybersecurity crisis and an unprecedented decision by Sony to cancel The Interview's release altogether. Tens of millions of dollars have been lost. Hollywood stars and free-speech advocates are fuming over the retreat by major studios and movie-theater chains. And Washington is considering retaliation against Pyongyang that could bring the two countries into direct conflict.
There is some precedent for theatrically portraying the assassination of a real world leader. In the 2004 film Team America: World Police, the creators of South Park killed off Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il, by impaling him on a spiked German helmet (technically, Kim, who is played by a puppet, doesn't die, morphing into an alien cockroach instead). At the time, the movie provoked little more than a (rejected) North Korean request that the film be banned in the Czech Republic.
But the Team America approach is exceedingly rare for a major studio movie, and there are plenty of options in between not making a movie and making one about murdering a national leader. The 2001 comedy Zoolander involved a plot to assassinate the Malaysian prime minister. But it differed from The Interview in several key ways: The Malaysian premier had a fictitious name and was not modeled on an actual politician, the main characters saved rather assassinated the endangered leader, and the country in question, Malaysia, was not a sworn U.S. enemy convinced of American conspiracies against it (even so, the movie was banned in Singapore and shunned in Malaysia). The political drama The West Wing normally integrated real countries (though rarely real leaders) into its episodes. But when, in a post-9/11 plotline, President Bartlet ordered the assassination of a defense minister who was orchestrating terrorist attacks against the United States, the show's writers had the official come from the fictional Middle Eastern country of Qumar.
Another option is to nod and wink at the real without being specific, as Charlie Chaplin did with his Hitler-like Adenoid Hynkel character in the 1940 film The Great Dictator. The English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen made a similar calculus in The Dictator when creating the character of Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen of the Republic of Wadiya, a hybrid of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi and other strongmen around the world. In an interview with NPR, he recalled consulting with an Arab official before the 2011 Libyan revolution about possible problems with making a movie loosely based on Qaddafi:
I said to this acquaintance, "Is Qaddafi still dangerous?" And the man answered, "Yes, he tried to kill my father." And then I said, "Well, is he still killing people?" And he kept saying, "Yes." And I said, "Well, alright, what happens if there's a problem and he tries to somehow jeopardize the making of the film?" Because we didn't know how far his reach extended. Obviously [the] Lockerbie [bombing] was a few years beforehand, but you never really want to risk an international terrorist incident while you're actually filming. ... As a result of that we released this statement saying that [the movie] was based on a book by Saddam Hussein in order to kind of slightly mislead the public and allow us to shoot the film.
Artists don't always make these kinds of choices out of concern about provoking their subject. Sometimes, there are more creative motivations.
"The minute you make a specific choice, you're locked within the internal physics of that choice," explained F. Miguel Valenti, the director of Quinnipiac in Los Angeles and author of More Than a Movie: Ethics in Entertainment. "It's a double-edged sword to pick a specific, existing country because while it gives impact to the audience, it also limits you to the world of that country that your audience understands and knows from the news." Nobody's going to call out The Dictator's title character for saying something Qaddafi would never have said.
The makers of The Interview clearly went back-and-forth on whether to make the movie's villain real or fictitious. Leaked emails suggest that a Sony executive may have picked Kim, but Rogen and fellow director Evan Goldberg have also indicated that it was their idea and that they originally conceived of a movie about Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011. According to the Associated Press, Rogen and Goldberg conducted "'a big old search' of the world's dictators, settling on North Korea because its bizarreness ... was rife for comedy." They were inspired by reality-based comedies like Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show. "Why would we have, like, King Jong Jon, a fake dictator of East Korea, when we could just do something real?" Goldberg said in an interview with AP. Presented with the idea of portraying the real Kim, Sony executives asked, according to Goldberg, "'Is that really the funniest way to go?'"
If that was indeed the overriding consideration, then, as Valenti told me, the filmmakers were "reaching a long way for a joke." And they were entering dangerous thematic territory.
"If you look at the distribution patterns historically of U.S. films, the one thing that doesn't play well overseas is comedy," Valenti, a filmmaker himself, explained. "We know with Seth Rogen's name on the poster, before we see the film, we know that he's not taking it seriously. ... The Koreans do not. ... We poke fun at anything and everything. The rest of the world thinks that that's disrespectful and rude. They don't laugh at it."
It is also perhaps easier to assassinate a real leader on film if that leader is far away. "I think [Rogen] would have had a lot more trouble if this film was about assassinating Chris Christie," Valenti said, noting that a lawsuit based on U.S. libel or slander laws could halt such a film's release for years. Rogen was also "very careful not to pick a country that we have any allegiance to," Valenti added. "It's not only an enemy, it's an enemy we have almost no contact with, know almost nothing about, and the American press has already made the leader look like a buffoon. If there is a safe target, he's picked a safe target."
Rogen himself employed similar reasoning in explaining why he made Kim Jong Un the villain. "It’s not an edgy position to take," Rogen told The New York Times. "It’s not like, 'Well, politically, you’ve got to look at both sides.' He is bad. It’s controversial to him. But to everyone else, it’s fine."
One of the many open questions this week is whether the makers of The Interview, in sizing up a soft target thousands of miles away, dealt it too direct and forceful a blow.