Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogan) has led a tough life. Hailing from the Eastern European shtetl of Schlupsk in 1919, he emigrates to America after the Cossacks launch an attack on his wedding day. He soon finds a job in a pickle factory but, after an unfortunate incident while clubbing rats, he falls in a giant vat of pickles and finds himself brined for 100 years… as you do. When he wakes up he hasn’t aged a day but everyone he knew is gone. However he’s soon introduced to his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum (also Seth Rogan) and the two have to navigate being a family while coming from very different lives.
An American Pickle sure has a unique premise, but one that’s very personal to its writer Simon Rich: “I come from a long line of Eastern European immigrant Jews and they had such difficult lives filled with such hard work and grit. My life, by contrast, has been extremely coddled and easy and I always wondered what they would think of me if they could see me in present day. My perception was always that they would hate my guts and want to beat me up!”
Indeed, once the time-travel novelty wears off, the vast differences in Ben and Herschel’s early lives lead to difficulties in their relationship. Herschel is ashamed that Ben seems to have lost his Jewish faith, while Herschel’s interfering leads to Ben’s life being turned upside down.
“I think that it’s thrilling to imagine that I would have anything in common with my ancestors because I know on so many levels that we would disagree about everything,” laughs Rich. “But the fantasy of the story and the film is that despite our many many ideological and clothing differences we’d still find some overlap, even if it’s just a couple of prayers and our love of pickles!”
Based on Rich’s own short story, Sell Out, which was published in The New Yorker, the heartfelt themes seemed perfect to be adapted to the big screen. So Rich approached the man who he felt would be perfect to play both Greenbaums: Seth Rogan. “I wondered if I could convince Seth Rogan to do it. I knew him a little bit because I had written his first monologue for Saturday Night Live, back in 2007. Then about five or six years later I went to his office and pitched it to him and his partner Evan [Goldberg]. I was thrilled that they thought that it was interesting enough to take a chance on!”
Rich wanted the characters of Herschel and Ben to be played by the same actor and believed that Rogan would be “excellent to play both parts”, but moreover than that, the choice to have one actor play the two parts was very personal to Rich. “Looking at photographs of my own ancestors [I was] shocked at the extent to which they look like me,” he says. “There’s something so viscerally intriguing about seeing a version of yourself from a different time. When they look like you it’s easier to imagine what it would be like to step into their clothes and live their lives. I have a framed photograph in my house of my great grandfather and it’s amazing how (obviously I never met him) we look remarkably alike. And yet you can tell from his expression that his life experience could not be more different than my own.”
With Rogan agreeing to play both Herschel and Ben in the movie, first time feature director Brandon Trost found himself faced with a challenge: “The technical challenge of trying to get the two of those characters in the same frame together, it really was monumentally difficult,” he tells us. “I tried to make it feel effortless and simple. I tried to make it so you don’t really notice the gimmick so much and you are just watching the two characters interact and just be together in an easy way.”
It may look easy on screen, but shooting scenes with the two characters was anything but! “Just a simple shot of them on a couch together flipping through a photo album means storyboarding and dozens of meetings and hours of preparations for something that is normally just a very easy shot to do. I feel like it comes across fairly invisibly throughout the movie. Which I’m happy for. But I feel like sometimes it’s so invisible that people don’t realise that we have about as many VFX shots in this movie as a Marvel film! They’re just smaller and more hidden, it’s crazy!”
Though this is Trost’s first feature film as a director, he’s an incredibly experienced cinematographer, and has worked with Rogan and Goldberg on numerous films, including another genre comedy: This Is The End. “They hired me to shoot This Is The End and I’ve shot most of their movies, with them directing, with them producing. It’s been almost a familial experience working with them because we work together so often,” Trost says.
Rogan and Goldberg were clearly impressed with Trost’s shooting abilities on their previous movies because once they agreed with Rich to adapt the story, they approached Trost with directing it. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and want to continue doing. But I never really promoted that with them, they just came to me and thought that I would be a good fit for the movie,” he says. “I think just based first and foremost off my technical experience. Because trying to achieve the movie where Seth plays two characters is not necessarily an easy feat to accomplish.”
Two characters being played by one actor is a test for those both behind and in front of the camera. “It’s a testament to Seth’s performance,” Trost enthuses. “I feel like he carved out that performance so distinctly that you can still tell which character is which. And it’s hard for that too because we shot it out of sequence. Normally you shoot both characters at the same time but because had that full beard that he grew, we wanted to preserve it. We didn’t want to use a fake beard so we shot Herschel first and then we returned to every single shot after the fact. Basically we shot the movie twice!”
Indeed, though filming the movie was a challenge, Trost relished the experience of being in the director’s chair for the first time: “You know, it was definitely stressful but in a good way. Fortunately I have a lot of experience working with different directors and I’ve been fortunate to also work with a lot of first-time directors. It was really helpful to shepherd a lot of directors into the director’s chair and be a filmmaking partner there. I think that experience really helped the transition feel more like a lateral move for me.
“It’s definitely a lot more work to consider. When you shoot a movie you just have to make the movie look good and then your job is done. That’s it, you walk away and no one blames you if the movie doesn’t work! So I have to wrap my head around that too, but fortunately people are liking the movie so far so I don’t have to worry about that too much!”
To say that Herschel is confused with our modern living is an understatement. But rather than being a ‘fish out of water’ story, An American Pickle instead focusses on the central relationship between Ben and Herschel.
“We really wanted to focus on the two characters,” explains Trost. “When I first read the script it surprised me because it was so unique. You’ve definitely seen the fish out of water movie before but this just felt like such a unique take on that. It really inspired me. I feel like these days, I’m lucky to get involved in anything that isn’t a superhero movie or a sequel. So it’s also just fun to do something original.”
“I’ve always been interested in odd couple relationship movies,” Rich adds. “I used to work at Pixar and that’s been their template from the beginning – pretty much to take two characters that have very little in common and subject them to an epic quest. So I’ve always enjoyed stories like that.”
In An American Pickle, Ben is dealing with the loss of his parents and the subsequent loss of his faith. However, in the original short story, the character of Ben (or ‘Simon Rich’ as he’s known in Sell Out), was not quite as sympathetic a character as we find him in the film. “The character of Simon Rich is just unbelievably hateful and despicable in every conceivable way and is unrelentingly horrible,” Rich explains. “I could get away with it in the short story because he doesn’t have a lot of presence on the page as it’s a first person narrative told entirely from Herschel’s perspective. With the film, though, you do unfortunately have to make the film the third person. Or it would be very visually weird. And it’s important for all of the main characters to have some redeeming qualities and not be despicable. Otherwise, you would have to turn it off because it would be too horrible. So it was important that the Ben character be less of a nightmare than the Simon Rich character.”
There are numerous changes in the film from the short story but Rich is experienced in adapting his own work and had a good idea on what would work for the big screen. “I adapt my stories and novels a lot for the screen. I had a show called Man Seeking Woman which was based on a book I wrote called The Last Girlfriend On Earth. What I’ve learned over the years is to pretend that you never read the original story, much less wrote it! Because every medium is different and something that works on a page won’t necessarily work on screen and you have to try your absolute hardest to not feel any obligation to the original text.
“Something that helps with that is the fact that it takes years and years for a story to make its way through the machinery of Hollywood. So typically by the time I’m adapting a story for the screen, its been several years since I wrote it. So it feels way less precious to me. I think it would be hard to take the short story that’s currently on my desktop and turn it into a movie next week and not feel upset by the changes. But in five years I’m sure I’ll be able to slash and burn it and I don’t care about it any more!”
Further to the changes from the original short story, the script itself also went through numerous iterations before Brandon and Rich found themselves at a good balance for the movie. “We kept distilling the story down to its core, just trying to get the script right before we shot,” says Trost. “Every time we went through it and we had extra characters or extra themes trying to run through it felt like it was diluting the real allegorical family aspect of this movie.”
Being a heartfelt family genre comedy does require a careful balancing act between themes… “It’s a challenging movie, just from the trying to manage the tonal challenges,” Trost tells us. “The movie was all over the place by design; we kind of flanked the emotional highs and lows and the zaniness with a grounded-ness of the movie. For me I was almost trying sculpt the movie as if it was a living animated film. Because we really wanted this fairytale fable tone. Trying to balance that with the technical aspect of it was just a unique challenge that I’d never been a part of, even as a shooter.”
Luckily the team behind Pickle have dealt with balancing tones before. “Working with [Rogan and Goldberg], we’re all confident with our comedy chops but we wanted to make sure this movie worked first as a drama,” Trost enthuses. “And then we’re going to add in the jokes and really bring the humour forward so we could really make sure the story worked. It was an interesting process. I like it because if you can connect with the characters in any movie it’s always going to be more worthwhile. Whether it’s funny or not. I think if you’re just more invested it’s a better experience.”
An American Pickle may be a time-travelling movie about a man who becomes brined in a vat of pickles, but what shines through while speaking to the filmmakers is it’s weirdly relatable: “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to meet [my great grandfather]. I don’t know how much English he spoke but I wonder what would we talk about, if we would get along and if he would be ashamed of me or satisfied by how I turned out on any level,” Rich says. “That question is really what drove me to write this story and hopefully it resonates with some people.”
“I feel like there’s a certain sensitivity in the script that I really related to. In terms of family values and just dealing with legacy and grief. It’s multi-layered but I really responded to its overall sweetness,” Trost adds. “I think we could really use an endearing movie especially at a time like this, right now. I’m happy to be involved in something that can put a little bit of positivity into the world.”
Yes, with the world such a strange place right now due to the global pandemic, it’s significant that a positive and heartfelt film like this has been released to audiences. It’s also significantly a very different cinematic release due to the pandemic as it will be available in cinemas in the UK (where theatres have largely re-opened) but will be available via video on demand in the US via HBO Max due to not all US cinemas being ready to open just yet.
“I will say that I would rather we weren’t in a global pandemic right now, obviously,” says Trost. “It’s definitely bitter sweet. I’d rather it come out normal and everything, but at the same time this release – at least through the steaming platform – we have a really wide audience and for that I think it’s great. And HBO Max has been really wonderful for us, for the movie. Because we’re all in the same spot globally, it’s nice to put something into peoples’ homes and into theatres that hopefully distract and make people feel good about themselves at least for a little bit.
“That’s where I’ve landed with this whole thing. I’m not really interested in going to the theatre to see something that’s going to make me feel bad at the moment, we’ve got enough of that going on with everything else right now. But I’m happy it’s getting out there, getting released – I hope people can see it safely and responsibly.”
An American Pickle is out today in cinemas.