With An American Pickle coming to HBO Max on August 6th, film fanatics will soon be treated to yet another collaboration between Seth Rogen and Brandon Trost. The pair have worked together for years, but An American Pickle marks Trost’s second time in the director’s chair – the first being 2011’s The FP, which he co-directed with his brother, Jason Trost. His concurrent career in cinematography includes other Rogen flicks such as The Interview and The Disaster Artist, in addition to films like Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile and shows like HBO’s Barry.
An American Pickle follows Herschel Greenbaum, a struggling laborer from 1919 who quite literally “pickles” himself to the present. He wakes up in what couldn’t be a more different world and is guided by his only living descendant, his great-grandson Ben. Both Herschel and Ben are played by Seth Rogen – the classic comedic “twin” approach. Though, An American Pickle has a lot more about modernity on its mind than just straightforward gags and puns. Originally set with a theatrical release with Sony, Trost’s heartfelt comedy has found a new home on HBO Max.
To mark the release of his sophomore directorial effort, we were fortunate to sit down with Brandon Trost for an exclusive interview. We talk the specific challenges of creating An American Pickle, including the hurdles posed by Seth Rogen playing both lead roles, and the process of creating the film’s distinct “storybook” visuals. We also get insight into HBO Max’s distribution of the film.
You’ve been a cinematographer on many big films, but An American Pickle is your first major directing project. What made you choose this story as a directorial effort?
BT: Well, I really responded to the story first and foremost. Not only was this just a gifted opportunity because it was Seth [Rogen] and Evan Goldberg from Point Grey Production – who I work with and reached out to me in the first place saying, “Hey, we’ve got this script and we think you would be really perfect to direct it. What do you think?” – but when I read the script, I loved it. It’s a mix of a lot of what I love about films. There’s such a sense of wonder about this movie in a way that it’s kind of a fairy tale. It’s sort of steeped in magical realism. Just that on top of the fact that the story was just so sweet and emotionally pointed.
Also, it just attracted me. Maybe it’s just where we are right now as a society and country, but it feels just so much more worthwhile to put something into the world that’s positive and earnest. If that makes sense? If it’s something that can just, I don’t know, allow us to not think about all the negativity in the world at the moment.
The story itself really just spoke to me – how it deals with family and living up to family. Just about legacy and traditions and the idea of what it would mean to interact with your great-grandparents. Simon Rich, the writer, put it best. He said he looked at a photo once: his great-great-grandfather, this immigrant straight from Eastern Europe who came to New York searching for the American dream. He realized that he was the exact same age as this man in the photo. He realized, “Wow despite the fact that I’m considered successful by some, I’ve got a job,” he’s a writer now, “Could you imagine what this old world trailblazer would think of me? Like a millennial screenwriter?” You would probably think that he was soft and didn’t really have all his ideals set in the right place. Simply thinking that a great-grandparent probably wouldn’t like you. I think it’s just a fun premise to imagine. There are a bunch of elements that I loved about it, which really cooked up into me loving the script and really wanting to tell the story.
You’ve worked with Seth Rogen many times as a cinematographer on various films. What was it like working with him as a director this time around?
BT: I would say working with him as a director… there was really something about it that just felt right. It felt natural. It felt easy. It’s something we’ve done a million times before when I’m shooting. Even with the films where he’s directing, he’s also acting in them often, so I feel like we had a similar dialogue and relationship that way. Because we had such a deep background working together at this point, it just felt right. I don’t want to say that it was easy because it wasn’t easy, but it felt comfortable, good, and we were all working toward the same goal in a real positive way.
Seth is also obviously a very talented filmmaker. So oftentimes it felt like the two of us were sort of sharing this. It was like a partnership in terms of making the movie and telling it correctly – finding these two characters. Just trying to technically pull it off was also maddening at times, because it’s a difficult effect to do well (the doubling), especially with how much we do it in the movie. So having that familiarity between the two of us really assisted us in going through the steps and motions to make sure it would work well.
An American Pickle takes place in two different time periods. What was it like to direct both time periods to ensure they were distinct from each other?
BT: Ultimately for me, it was very fun. I was very excited about the opportunity to shoot the old world and then settle in New York. I really wanted it to be stylized and fantastic, but also have a sense of grit and realness to it at the same time. I almost wanted the look of the opening to feel like a memory of how we would think it would feel like. There’s definitely reality there, in terms of what we’re showing, but everything’s a little bit hyper-real in terms of how we show it. I think that’s part of the fairy tale quality of this movie. This movie to me is very much like an allegorical fairy tale and that’s how I wanted to approach it from the get-go.
There were a couple of technical tricks I used, I shot the opening in the old Academy aspect ratio. You’ll notice it’s got more of a square frame and that’s how films were traditionally shot at the dawn of cinema. I also used a specific lens for all of this stuff at the beginning of the movie that’s called a Petzval lens, it’s basically a portrait lens that was designed like 150 years ago. I mean, the first lenses of photography, as we know it, were versions of what we used to shoot the opening of the movie to give it that real sort of antique patina – that sort of older feeling.
And that was the swirling effect, that lens?
BT: Yeah, it has that sort of circular de-focused swirl on the outside and as a frame, it’s a look I’ve really liked. It was something I had explored for a different project. It didn’t really come through for that, but I knew I wanted to explore it later. Once this came along, this seemed like a perfect way to use it.
The beginning reminded me a bit of Wes Anderson’s style of directing. It felt like a storybook, or as you said like a fairy tale, in that it felt like a memory where it was him recounting his history, and in how it was visually blocked. It felt more romanticized while also being realistic.
BT: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think that storybook is the right word. “Storybook” is actually how I was describing this film a lot when we were putting it together. I wanted that square, taller frame specifically for the storybook aspect. Even when we go into modern times, when the aspects changes, it changes into 1:85, which is like the more taller widescreen format of today. I didn’t go super wide because I wanted to maintain that sort of fairy tale sensibility about it.
I definitely probably took some notes from Wes Anderson without even realizing it just because I’m a fan, but I also just like center framing. I would almost say that I was as inspired by Wes Anderson as I was by Stanley Kubrick in terms of how we frame. If that makes sense (laughs)? But I think there’s something about that central framing that also feels very storybook to me. It just feels right and it felt right for me, for this movie, which is ultimately why I said f*ck it. I applied that to most of the movie, not just the intro. The intro is obviously very stylized and looks the way it does, but we maintain some of that aesthetic throughout the whole film.
I just wanted it to feel simple and accessible, but also just elegant without being too gimmicky. I think it’s easy to – especially with the twin aspect of Seth playing both characters – it’s easy to flex your technical muscles and say, “Hey, look how cool this shot can be! We’ve got the two of them together in a frame,” but I didn’t want any of that. I never wanted you to think, “Wow, how did they do that with the same actor in the same frame?” I almost wanted it to be easier and just effortless. So I made it simple. I just wanted it to feel like it was two characters in an apartment talking to each other with that kind of attitude and nothing more, nothing less.
Definitely. With pulling off the doubling effect, what was it like facing that challenge throughout production?
BT: I mean, it was monumentally difficult. It all starts with Seth’s beard, which he grew out to play Herschel, and that beard really was the sort of tail that wags the dog. We didn’t want to do a fake beard because we knew it would not look good and Seth just wouldn’t like it. It would be this thing that we would always be annoyed with and waste time taking a beard on and off to switch between characters as we set up a shot. So we made a decision early on in the production to shoot the Herschel character first, start to finish, before we shaved his face. Then we would return to everything we had shot previously with Herschel and reset them in the exact same spot, with the exact same lighting, and then insert Seth into those same shots.
So we effectively had to shoot the movie twice, once with Herschel and then with Ben, and it was just difficult. All of our shots are based on split-screen technology, a technique that’s been used since the dawn of cinema. You just set up a frame, shoot one half of it, and then traditionally ship off the actor once we got the shot to go change and comb their hair different, then they hop on the other side of the frame. We then film that, and then you split the two down the middle and put it together. That’s how we did most of this movie, based with that technology. But when you’re doing it sometimes more than a month apart, you have to take extreme notes just to return to the shot. It’s crazy. Where does the camera go? Where is it located? How do you get back to the same spot? How do you match the lighting exactly? How does the set dressing lineup correctly and how do we interact with the timing of that? Seth had to have an earpiece in his ear, so he could hear the tape we collected and interact with it – so that he could effectively talk to Herschel with the right timing. Sometimes there are beats on that track to tell him when to look somewhere, or tell him when to grab something, or tell him when to stand up in frame with all the timing is right with eyeline. And so it feels like they’re really interacting with each other. It’s really, really time consuming.
It’s crazy how much effort went into just a shot with the two of them sitting at a table talking to each other. It should be the easiest shot in the world to do, but it ended up just being multilayered with challenges for everything that we did. But that was also part of the fun. The technical challenge was also something that we were all up to and I know that Seth was always up and game for it. He strives to make every take better and to make it just really work. Fortunately, he had that enthusiasm – we all did. This movie was such a labor of love for all of us because we all loved the movie. We loved the characters. We just really wanted to stick it out and make it the best we could.
Well, it turned out pretty fantastic. The effect and the film as a whole.
BT: Thanks, I’m really happy with it. There’s stuff I noticed that I feel like I would do different if I did it again, but it’s also a learning curve when you’re jumping into any of this stuff. But I feel for the most part, it’s pretty seamless. Our VFX company did a great job too.
An American Pickle was originally at Sony before moving to HBO Max. What are your thoughts on itt being released on streaming domestically rather than theatrical?
BT: Oh, I’m really happy with it. I’m not happy that there’s a pandemic right now, but I am happy that we can release the movie during the pandemic because I think it’s going to reach a lot more people and in a very special way, you know what I mean? We wanted to make a sweet and endearing comedy and I feel like that’s something everyone can use right now first and foremost. I’m hoping that puts some good into the world right now. But I also think a lot more people are going to see it right off the bat too, which I’m very happy about. It’s a crazy time right now for mid-budget movies, just in general, to come out with any kind of packed weekend film slate. It almost feels like any weekend of the year you’re competing with some $150 million dollar tent pole.
But that’s not the reason why we didn’t release the film theatrically. We very much didn’t release it theatrically because this pandemic happened. We saw this writing on the wall and we knew there wasn’t going to be a theatrical release window for at least a year because everything else was pushed. It’s going to push right onto those weekends we would want to release the movie anyway. So this deal came about and we were all very happy with it. We all love HBO. I’ve always considered HBO to be a prestigious network in the way they have always been pushing high quality content with their original films and TV. I’m just really glad that they understand the film and they’re really promoting it right. They have been a big support and I’m really happy we went that way. It’s a shame that we’re in this crazy position globally, but I feel like we’re making the most of it in the best way possible.
I’m also happy that people will be watching this movie and judging it from its own merit, from its own worth. That they’re not going to be tracking box office numbers because, you know, who knows? I’ve worked on so many movies that don’t end up making a lot of money, but I think are great and end up becoming a good film. It’s nice to not be sort of thrown into that mid-budget slaughterhouse of releasing, as it tends to happen. Ultimately, I’m happy with the release.
That’s amazing to hear. To end off, are there any upcoming projects that you would like to make our audience aware of?
BT: I’m about to go and shoot, not directing, the cinematography for this musical called Dear Evan Hansen which is picking up in Atlanta right now. That’s going to be a unique process just in terms of shooting with the new safety protocols of staying safe and all that. I’m curious to see how that’s going to go down, but I think it’s another lovely project. I think it’s also just putting more positivity out in the world. So I’m happy to be a part of that.
You mean the film adaptation of that musical correct?
BT: It’s an adaptation. The Broadway play Dear Evan Hansen has been adapted into a screenplay and it’s being turned into a full-fledged feature movie with Ben Platt, the same actor who was on the stage show. So he’s going to be involved also. I’m looking forward to it, sounds fun.