The origins of the Seth Rogen-starring comedy, An American Pickle, trace back to 2013 when writer Simon Rich asked himself one crucial question: How would he fare in a bare knuckle brawl against his great-grandfather?
A humorous, exaggerated query, to be sure, but Rich’s amusing hypothetical arose from examining ideas of family, generations, and progress—or the seeming lack thereof. Modern life had become quite comfortable for Rich, a successful novelist, short story crafter, and TV writer (Miracle Workers, Man Seeking Woman). How would his ancestors, whose lives were anything but, feel about that?
“I’ve always been interested in my ancestors’ story,” Rich says. “All of my ancestors were Eastern European Jews who immigrated to the United States with very little money. They had extremely difficult lives. They were all fleeing oppression and in contrast, my life has been incredibly easy and privileged in every conceivable way. They all had very grueling, physically challenging jobs, and I’ve spent my career making up stories about robots and monkeys. So I always assumed that if they met me, they would be very disappointed in how I turned out and consider me worthless in pretty much every way, and possibly even want to beat me.”
The result of that assumption became the New Yorker-published short story “Sell Out” in 2013, in which Rich’s fictional great-grandfather was preserved via pickle brine and awoken in the modern day to express disappointment in his great-grandson. Now, after being optioned back in 2013, the concept is finally ready to make its feature film premiere with An American Pickle, which arrives in the U.S. on Aug. 6 via HBO Max and in theaters in the U.K. on Aug. 7.
In An American Pickle, Seth Rogen adopts potentially his most difficult and sophisticated role yet… or two roles, really. Rogen plays both the Simon Rich-cypher Ben Greenbaum and his pickle-preserved great grandfather, Herschel. After Herschel goes through hell to make it to America from “Schlupsk, Eastern Europe,” he falls into a crate of pickles and enters into a briney suspended animation until he’s uncovered in the modern day. As fate would have it, the family-focused Herschel has one living descendant remaining.
Throughout An American Pickle, Herschel deals with all the usual “man-out-of-time” issues (Twitter proves to be particularly challenging for the sort-of centenarian). But the biggest challenge remains one generation connecting with another. Herschel is a man of the earth, a ditch-digger turned rat-killer. Ben is a millennial app developer—whatever any of those words mean.
Coming aboard to shepherd that story of intergenerational conflict is long-time Rogen collaborator and first-time director Brandon Trost. Trost has worked with Rogen and his producing partner Evan Goldberg as a cinematographer since 2013’s This is the End. Like Rich, Trost sees family, inheritance, and lineage as the crucial themes in An American Pickle.
“I have a five-year-old, and a one-year-old. I can see them asking one day, ‘What were my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents like?’ There is something really relatable about it,” Trost says.
Trost views the opportunity to explore that intergenerational curiosity through Rogen’s performance as two characters.
“That’s the whole premise, and I think it’s why it works so well. Because you really are seeing a mirror of yourself, even though there are past generations, but we explore those different ideals that come with that generational change. What was important to someone 100 years ago is different from what is important to someone now.”
Of course bringing two Seth Rogens to the screen to create that poignant mirror image requires some technical sophistication and effort. Though plenty of other TV shows and films have deployed this technical storytelling strategy over the years, it was Trost’s first attempt aside from Dave Grohl’s “Play” music video.
Like many other properties in need of one actor playing two roles, An American Pickle utilizes split-screen technology to capture both performances. One complicating factor, however, was Rogen’s very lush and very real Herschel beard. So production shot an entire movie from Herschel’s perspective first, then essentially reshot that same movie from Ben’s perspective, with Rogen clean-shaven and fed Herschel’s lines via earpiece.
“It was a pretty radical process to go through for what is effectively just a two-handed movie,” Trost says.
Trost points to Herschel and Ben’s first introduction at Ben’s apartment as a deceptively difficult scene, due to the need for camera angle, set dressing, lighting, and many other factors having to match exactly.
“It did nothing but make our job more difficult. But I was also really happy that we were forced into this process because it allowed us to find each character separately,” Trost says. “We had to finish out Herschel’s character and really find it, and then we got the answer to that with Ben. I think it actually helped distill each performance separately. Everybody sees two different characters and two different people, even though Seth is obviously the same actor.”
The degree of difficulty involved is high in Rogen’s performance, but at the end of the day it may have been worth it, with many reviews noting that the characters, particularly Herschel, are among Rogen’s best work. For Rich, who previously wrote for Saturday Night Live, Rogen has been the most obvious choice for the role since the concept made its way from short story to feature film.
“I’ve been a fan of his since high school watching him on Freaks and Geeks. We actually met at Saturday Night Live when he hosted in 2007. That was the first time I had a chance to work with him. Then five or six years later when this story came out, and I decided I wanted to try to adapt it, he was the first person I brought it to.”
Though Rogen takes up two important roles in the film, the unspoken third star of the film might just be the humble cucumber pickle, long consumed by humanity, yet rarely enjoyed. In addition to being the vehicle through which Herschel Greenbaum is able to time travel (his voiceover in the film assures the viewer that everyone is satisfied with a scientist’s explanation of how such a preservation can work) pickles continue to pop up as Hershel’s way to outwork and upstage his great-grandson. The end result for An American Pickle was a production positively beset for the salty green cylinders.
“[The prop team] made all the pickles themselves,” Trost says. “Right when I got there they started practicing brining pickles, and there were pickles in the production office kitchen all the time. We definitely went through just bags and bags of cucumbers on this movie.”
Why pickles though?
“I knew that I wanted this character to be preserved for a hundred years, and if you look at the Venn diagram of methods of preservation and Jewish objects, the overlap is very clearly pickles,” Rich says.
An American Pickle is out now in the U.S. on HBO Max. It premieres in U.K. cinemas on Aug. 7.