Janicza Bravo’s directorial debut, Lemon, screened at International Film Festival Rotterdam in January after first premiering at Sundance. The film played overseas in three theaters to around 3,500 people. Not bad for your first feature film — and one that’s carving out an entirely new nook in the comedy landscape.
Over mint tea at the Ace Hotel in New York last week, Bravo said that at Rotterdam, “There was not an interview where the state of America did not come up.” It was refreshing to her. Lemon is abrasive, stressful and also prompts discussions around race, privilege and limitation. And yes, it’s still totally funny. Laugh through the tears — it wants you to.
Bravo’s got a number of shorts under her belt–Gregory Go Boom, starring Michael Cera, took home the Grand Jury Prize for Narrative Short from Sundance in 2011–and her other work has screened at Tribeca, SXSW and beyond. She has an undeniable unique voice that rings through her portraits of often isolated characters.
Real life partner Brett Gelman, who co-wrote Lemon, plays Isaac, an actor living in LA who can’t seem to catch a break. He’s an acting teacher, a pretty bad one, and his favorite student, Alex (Michael Cera), reminds him of his failures while also making him feel relevant. As Isaac navigates a separation with his wife Ramona (Judy Greer), he tries out the dating scene. He’s not very good at that, either. Even as Isaac proves consistently frustrating and teeters the fine line of unlikeable, we root for him — or at least Bravo gives us the option to. Just as we drift into the depressing corners of Isaac’s life, another human, hilarious moment pulls us back to reality: it isn’t easy, but at least we’re all trying.
It’s hard not to dissect the comments Lemon makes on race and privilege. Isaac is a white, Jewish man who dates total catch Cleo (Nia Long), a black woman, blows it with her family and doesn’t really know why.
Bravo also uses Isaac as a vehicle for her own interior life and feelings of being the “other” and isolated, which she opened up to us about. “While I give off being greater in those spaces, internally it’s stuff I definitely work through and I found that I wasn’t seeing people that felt like me.”
Just as Bravo bursts into the scene as a comedic, electric voice, she grounds her work in uber honest emotions — and ones that aren’t afraid to dip into the controversial and complex roots of humanity.
Below is our interview, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
People can project things onto films a lot of the time. Did you set out to make a political film?
At a Q&A last week, this audience member said, “In the wake of Charlottesville, did you mean to make this movie?” I started laughing because the movie already existed! I don’t even know how to answer that question. The thing he was asking was, “When something like Charlottesville is happening, why would you make a film like this and portray people in this way? Where we are in America, right now, it feels like we shouldn’t be talking about people this harshly. We should be celebrating life and people and intention.” He asked Brett the question and not me, which I thought was really interesting. I wrote it with Brett but I am the director and he is the actor in the film. [The audience member] was also actually afraid to ask a black woman why she is making a movie that is having a conversation about race. Brett was like, “You should ask her,” and he didn’t. His main thing was about how the Jews were portrayed — he felt that it was harsh on Jews. Why have there be more devision between blacks and Jews? I’m also Jewish and I don’t think he knows that! I’m curious if he would have seen it differently.
I would disagree that you do have empathy towards many of the characters in Lemon. Were you also having these conversations about race, class and privilege in your own life and then put them onscreen?
For me, telling this story, I completely empathize with [Isaac]. I don’t know what it’s like to be white or a man but I know what it’s like to feel unheard and voiceless and invisible, to have this agonizing fear that you might not get to arrive at your dreams. I’ve been incredibly angry in those spaces as well. I have not had the permission to express my anger at the volume that Isaac does, because I don’t have privilege, I don’t really have room to behave like a child. But I’m on his side and I see where he’s coming from. Someone asked why I built a world around a charac-ter that you didn’t want them to root for. I was confounded by that because I’m showing you someone that I feel is incredibly flawed that I’m still rooting for. I guess it’s up to the audience to decide if they want to root for him or not.
Where did this character come from? Is Isaac a compilation of you and Brett’s pain?
The movie is through and through our pain! It’s also a celebration of the work we wanted to be doing and the space we wanted to be working in and it’s very much a celebration of us. We felt not included and not invited. Lemon is our stamp. It’s me aggressively carving out a space for myself. If you’re not going to invite me, if you’re not going to open the door, that’s okay, I’m cre-ating my own lane alongside what you guys are making.
I found that there seemed to be this unspoken genre of comedy that is about this flailing white guy that everything works out for. There are so many guys who have played these characters and filmmakers who are working in this space. I’m not begrudging the thing they know or what is closest to them. I get that. My work is what I’m working through [too], so it makes sense. But my problem with those pieces is that they don’t include me. Not even the person who asks for your check or is walking by. After a while, I just got sick of it. Not only not feeling heard or seen in that space, but also in those films, those guys could behave as they wanted.
And get away with it.
Yeah, and they just sort of floated. And those films tend to navigate these three spaces: family, work and relationships. Lemon is triptych in this way where it’s work, life, family and love. You watch [Isaac] plateau and fail at all three. When those guys navigate through all three of those things, they fail for 30 minutes of the movie, and somehow it gets all wrapped up. It’s just breezy. If there’s anything I can say about being a woman and a person of color is that it’s not fucking breezy. [Lemon] was a comment on that.
I think a lot of these types of filmmakers are preaching just go grab a camera and friends and make your movie! That doesn’t work all the time! Can you set the record straight — that it’s not that way for everyone?
I think there’s something incredibly romantic about this if you want to make a film, just go make it. If you want to write a book, just go write it. All of that stuff requires capital and if you don’t come from capital it’s a little hard to just go do it. When I’ve heard that, I sometimes feel frustrated be-cause I’ve wondered, well, what is stopping me? Is it really money that’s the only thing that’s stopping me? And it is — it’s a big part of it. It’s been a major block in my life. I’ve always needed a job. I decided to go to a really expensive college.
Luckily I had some help, scholarship money, but I still had to pay for a good deal of it and I worked all throughout college. When I graduated, I had to have a job. I had a handful of friends who were able to call themselves directors the day after they graduated and I haven’t been able to properly call myself a director till about a year now. It took 14 years.
After Eat [Bravo’s first short which premiered at SXSW in 2011], I decided there was no such thing as free time. Any window of time that I had was devoted to writing. For 5 years, I really didn’t socialize — by obligation I socialized. I feel like I ended a lot of friendships because I wouldn’t go out. I kept watching and writing. I didn’t go to film school. I also think the isolation was a part of how desperate am I for this? I really needed it. That was my 5 year investment in what-ever it is that’s happening now. It was worth it.
When is limitation in your career derived from fear and when is it reality? You’ve said before that Lemon is an exorcism of yours and Brett’s fear. I think we’re all really afraid right now. I want to unpack that further.
I was 30 and Brett was 35 when we wrote the first draft at SXSW. What was ringing the loudest for me was my contemporaries, my peers — they were making their features, starting to work in television, getting married, having children — and then they all seemed to be coming from these families that were incredibly supportive. I was like, I’m on an island. I don’t have any of these things and everyone is going to pass me by. I wondered if I was getting some sort of message from the universe: it’s not going to happen, but that’s okay because you’re good at other things and you can figure out how to get happy at those things. I just said: no, that can’t be it. Brett, even though we were together, I didn’t know he felt the same way. I was like, that’s what our movie should be about — the terror of not getting to arrive at your dreams. The movie became about throwing everything at it that that we didn’t want for ourselves. I don’t want to be in this sit-uation at all, but I see a version of myself that could end up here and I want to be as kind as I can be to it, but really I’m saying this is a full exorcism. I don’t want this. It’s a concoction. You put it all in the pot and then you light it on fire and then it doesn’t happen or some shit like that. I don’t know how witch work works, but it’s somewhere in that realm.