In the new movie An American Pickle, Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) wakes up in modern-day Brooklyn after spending 100 years perfectly preserved in a pickle vat. Though he knows nothing about the contemporary business world, he quickly becomes a successful entrepreneur thanks in part to his refreshingly simple recipe, which consists only of salt, rainwater, and cucumbers. (Never mind for the moment that he found those cucumbers in the garbage.) When asked whether his pickles contain benzoates or other preservatives, Herschel tells his hip customers he doesn’t even know the meaning of those words.
Incredibly, the real pickles used to film the movie were even less appetizing than those dug out of a garbage can by a man with century-old hygiene standards. We spoke to An American Pickle’s prop master, Matt Cavaliero, about how he created the grossest cucumbers imaginable. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Are all the pickles we see in the movie genuine produce?
The only pickles that are fake in the movie are the ones that were in the big vat that [Herschel] fell into. Those were foam, because we didn’t want to hurt anybody falling in. But aside from that, all the others were real pickles. We got super into it. We bought pickles and cucumbers, but we were also making pickles in the office for like a month. We had jars and jars of pickles all around. Sweet pickles, spicy pickles, we made all these different ones, to the point where they were like, “Guys, can you get all these pickles out of the fridge in the production office?”
What was the pickle budget?
To be honest, I don’t know. It wasn’t a huge-budget movie, so we were scraping it together. I just remember buying the cucumbers in bulk. We had to look for a couple of different vendors because sometimes they were too big and they wouldn’t fit in our jars. We probably spent way too much money on pickles. But that’s the movie, right? What can you do?
I remember I had a minivan rental car there in Pittsburgh, where we shot on location, with all the seats down and just filled with boxes and boxes of cucumbers. There’s a big restaurant supply place very close to our office—they’d just look at us and shake their heads and laugh. We got some from Costco too, because they have volume there. We joked that the local vendors must’ve been like, “These cucumbers are so popular, we can’t keep them on the shelves,” and then one day we left town and they were like, “What’s going on? Now no one’s buying our cucumbers.”
Was there a selection process? Did you have to weed out the ugly cucumbers?
No, it was the opposite. We wanted the ugliest ones. Then we would start to put them in different batches, like the really nasty ones that no one should touch or eat, the ones that looked bad but were still good to go, and then the ones that were OK if Seth [Rogen] or another actor had to take a bite. We might put those into a jar that had some nasty ones. After a couple of days, though, we’d have to toss them, because they get soggy, and when someone bites one, you want that pickle snap to it.
We spent the most time on all the different solutions to make the cucumbers look even nastier in the jar. But we also knew that at some point someone might have to pull a pickle out and eat it, so we didn’t want it to be really dirty. We experimented in the office, and the thing we had the most luck with was actually soy milk. Soy milk gave it that extra cloudy look that we were excited about, and then we put a little tomato sauce—just a capful—to give us that chunky element. It’s just so nasty even talking about it. We would just stay late at night making pickle solutions, and then people would see them in the fridge and, like, throw up.
Did you taste the pickles or was this purely an aesthetic process?
Oh, we tasted them. For sure. We made our own pickles and sometimes we used real pickles. There’s actually a farmers market in Pittsburgh, and we used some pickles from there. I’m partial to the sweeter ones. [Prop master assistant Johnny Youngblood] was partial to the spicier ones.
Did you ever try Herschel’s recipe from the movie, which is just rainwater and salt?
We did. It didn’t come out very good. But really, there’s not much to pickles. When you add the vinegar, dill, that’s where the different flavors come from.
When you were finished filming, did the crew feast on pickles?
By the time we were done with them, no one wanted to eat them. I’m not sure I’ll ever eat a pickle again, to be honest.
For more on An American Pickle, listen to Dana Stevens and Isaac Butler discuss the movie on Slate’s Spoiler Specials podcast.