Film Festival

SBIFF Movie Spotlight: Half Sour

One man, one plan, and...pickles!

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Moving to a new city is never easy especially when you've just graduated school and are looking for a job. Throw in the worst economic recession in modern times and what do you do then? Meet John Till whose prospects were so grim he had to think outside the box.

Half Sour documents John's transformation into a self-taught entrepreneur who started pickling everything he could get his hands on to sell at farmers' markets all over Long Island and New York City. One by one, John reached out to his struggling childhood friends in Providence, Rhode Island to involve them in the business, throwing "virtual lifelines".

With great visuals and an excellent story to tell, filmmaker Mary Anne Rothberg was kind enough to share her experience in making this short documentary.

Please talk about the production of the film and how this particular story came to be.

Everyday we walked past one of the pickle stands on our way to and from the office. My associate, Jonathan, bought a pint of the pickles just about every other day. Over time, we noticed an odd and very arresting changing cast of characters, all young kids with skateboards. That led to Jonathan asking a few questions and the discovery that the guys weren't employees of some large enterprise but all friends, mostly from Rhode Island, who built this business mainly to fund the house that they shared-- many never had "a home" -- and to skateboard in their free time. Each had a compelling background story, too, which we wanted to explore.

How long did it take you to film the documentary?

We began filming Half Sour while editing and finishing up our first short, Do Not Duplicate. The whole process, from start to finish, took about eight months.

How old are these guys?

The head of the group, John Till, was 24 years old; the youngest was 19. Most were in their early twenties.

Did you always know you wanted to make Half Sour a short documentary?

We knew this multifaceted story was engaging enough to be a feature length film so we originally set out to make a much longer documentary. Unfortunately, the story began to morph (as is often the case when dealing with young and charismatic figures) and we realized we had to work with the material we could quickly capture. Simultaneously, we realized the story could be encapsulated as a short and still be a powerful narrative.

What makes this documentary unique?

There are perhaps lots of films about entrepreneurship and skateboarding but the underlying message about the nature of brotherhood and family is what makes our film unique. We feature 24 year old John Till who had the wherewithal and compassion to reach out to his struggling friends and throw them virtual lifelines. Remember, this is a guy who had his own struggles and issues but he wanted to share his modest success with his friends who are like brothers to him. John Till's intrinsic humanity is amazing and uplifting.

Would you please recount some of the most memorable moments you lived through in the making of this documentary?

The guys had several adorable and endearing pets. Then there was Brutus, this particularly irritating pit bull mixed-breed. We frequently had trouble filming because we couldn't keep Brutus from jumping on top of us and slobbering everywhere.

I am sure there was plenty of more great moments you captured on camera…is there anything left in the cutting room floor that you would have loved to include in the final film?

One of the most compelling stories we didn't include was that of John Till's cousin, Doug, a diagnosed schizophrenic who had just returned to the house at John's insistence. Doug had been enrolled at Cornell before spiraling out of control. What little family John had was dear to him; he felt obligated to take care of Doug and help him get on a regimen of medication to pull him out of his morass. Ultimately, we didn't include Doug's story because it was too complex for our short format and including it in a cursory manner would have been a disservice to Doug.

How do you feel about the Santa Barbara International Film Festival selecting your documentary to screen in front of so many moviegoers?

This is the second year in a row SBIFF has selected one of our short films to screen at the festival. We are honored and excited to have our films receive exposure at such a prestigious event!

I just have to ask…did you try all of the different varieties of dill pickles these guys made, and which one was your favorite and why?

We each have our favorite. Jon (co-producer and my business partner) loves the crispy new pickles. Sean (co-director, cameraman, editor) likes the jalapenos because "they taste like jalapenos and not like pickles." I also like the jalapenos but prefer the equally spicy horseradish pickles. Chris, our sound guy, fights me for those.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

1. We've been making short documentaries for a relatively short time. As there are very few ways to monetize such works, we have come to appreciate our efforts as a labor of love and an incredibly satisfying and creative pursuit. We are grateful to festivals such as SBIFF that give short films an opportunity to screen and reach audiences that otherwise would be inaccessible.

2. We have found that sometimes it is more difficult to work in a short versus feature-length format. (With Do Not Duplicate, close to two thirds of our footage ended up on the cutting room floor.) Distilling a story down to its bare essence while not losing any of its verve is a challenge but really quite fun.

Half Sour will screen on February 6 and 7th at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art as part of the film festival's Documentary Shorts: Screen Cuisine. For times CLICK HERE.

Video: Half Sour Movie Trailer

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