When a movie makes the choice to feature a single actor in two prominent roles that regularly interact, certain standard practices on set go out the window as special techniques have to be applied. Generally productions are split, each half dedicated to a different performance, and doing things this way demands an extra level of specificity when it comes to both cinematography and blocking. As complicated as the normal filmmaking process is, making a feature this way only increases the complexity, and as I recently learned talking with Seth Rogen, it makes what would otherwise be simple scenes into sincere challenges.
Rogen takes on dual roles for the first time in his career in the new comedy An American Pickle – playing an app developer named Ben as well as Ben’s pickle brine-preserved great-great grandfather, Herschel – and I had the pleasure of talking about the experience with the actor/producer earlier this week. I specifically asked about what he saw as the greatest on-set challenges and the most rewarding experiences, and in addressing the first half of the question first he acknowledged why it was the most basic stuff that proved to be testing in the making of the film:
Some of the more challenging scenes were the more simple ones, honestly. Me making seltzer with him, us arguing after the billboard was torn down in the apartment – the ones that really just feel completely naturalistic cause the timing is so specific and there's two shots, we're both in the same frame a lot of the time... Things like that, when you see both characters, and it is very loose and kind of riff-y feeling – but it's clearly not riffed because it's incredibly rigid the way we're shooting it.
In the making of An American Pickle, the production made use of doubles where possible in the filming of scenes featuring Ben and Herschel together (such as conversations featuring over-the-shoulder shots), but nothing sells the fun of a dual role performance like seeing the two characters occupy the same frame, and the movie didn’t exactly have a budget that would allow the creation of a totally CGI Seth Rogen.
As noted by the actor/producer, making these moments in the film coalesce in post-production required detailed planning and specificity – and as though that weren’t tricky enough already, there was also his preferred way of working that had to be factored in. Fans of Rogen know that improvisation has always been an important part of his process, and while he’s formed double acts with some of the funniest people in the industry, including Bill Hader, Paul Rudd, and Rose Byrne, riffing opposite himself was a whole new ballgame.
Comedy is all about timing, and in the making of An American Pickle Seth Rogen essentially had to study his own pacing to ensure that his performances would sync. He explained,
It was a real exercise in being familiar with my own comedic rhythms, and me knowing what I was going to do and then being able to improvise both sides of the conversation simultaneously and remember what I was going to say later and leave room for myself. I would say it was not a novice level of improvisation, but not the most challenging thing an actor has ever done.
Of course, nothing is more satisfying than when hard work pays off, and that’s how Seth Rogen transitioned to address the second part of my initial question. Having shot his entire performance as Herschel before tackling the Ben scenes/angles, Rogen had the opportunity during the latter half of production on An American Pickle to watch the material roughly cut together while on set, and it delighted him to see the way it was all coming together. Said Rogen of the not-so-simple simple sequences,
Those scenes were challenging, but what is rewarding is we kind of could splice it together in the moment because of how we shot it. So you could watch playback and just see if it worked basically. It was mostly, you know, there's some cutting out, but it was largely in camera. So you could see like, 'Oh, we're both looking in the right place, and I pick up the cup of the right time, and we cheers at the right time, and we both walk over there at the right time.' When you would watch it back and it worked, it was actually very, very gratifying.
Co-starring Sarah Snook, Jorma Taccone, and Sean Whalen, and directed by Brendan Trost based on a script by Simon Rich, An American Pickle is arriving exceptionally soon, as the film will be dropping on HBO Max this Friday, August 7th. It’s a hilarious movie that you should definitely check out, and be sure to stay tuned here on CinemaBlend, as we’ll have a lot more stories to share with you from my interview with Seth Rogen!