Lemon is a film about anxiety, full of anxiety. It tells the story of Isaac (Brett Gelman), a distinctive but rudderless actor who spends his days teaching the art form he loves. The home front isn’t exactly what he wishes either. His girlfriend (Judy Greer) of 10 years recently left, and Isaac has finds himself in a spiral of despondency and desperation.
But plot details don’t make much of a difference here. What’s most interesting is the emergence of a new creative voice in writer/director Janicza Bravo. Making her debut feature, Bravo presents an assured, polished vision in Lemon. It makes sense that she had another life as a celebrated costumer designer. The film, set in Los Angeles, is as visually striking and distinct as any you’ll see this year.
For many, this will be the entry point into Bravo’s oeuvre. However, much of her existing work—a half-dozen short films, the “Juneteenth” episode of Atlanta—is available online. It’s worth diving into. From the start, Bravo focused on the explosiveness of emotions. And yet her work has already been haphazardly mischaracterized as “weird for the sake of being weird.” An affectation, cinema designed to alienate.
These are words on a page. Bravo offers images on a screen. Unpack its heart, and you’ll probably see something dynamic, unusual, and unfit for adjectives. She’s offering a different kind of cinema for people interested in something different. Newness has a tendency to confound, intimidate. But if you open yourself up, you may be surprised by what comes in.
I know I was after experiencing Lemon.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Fandor: Let’s start in Panama City.
Janicza Bravo: My mother and father were both in the military. Although, when I got here, to life, my father was not in the military then, but my mom was in the army for 12 years. And so, I remember when I was about 3 years old, she joined the army and I grew up on an army base, mostly in Panama.
Did you process that your mother was in the army as a kid?
JB: I understood it, because my stepfather who I grew up with was a chef, and so by 80’s standards, they were doing roles that were not exactly right for them. My memory is mostly my mother not being available for the other things mothers were available for, like baking. At birthday parties I always had my father with me, and it made me really popular because my dad was Latin, very handsome, like six-foot-three, and then all these mothers. I do remember having this feeling of, like, "where is my mother?" But also when she would come to, like, Parent-Teacher, I have a really fond memory of her showing up in full military gear a couple of times and people being like, “Whoa.”
Mother is mostly absent. Father is a hit with your friends’ mothers. How were you creating a sense of self at that age?
JB: I felt sad a lot, and very lonely, but I feel also growing up in the military, you're shifting—the relationships or the people in your life are always changing. I have this sort of sadness when I meet people who have friends they’ve known since they were children because I didn’t. Not until I moved to America at 13 when I went to a single school in Brooklyn. No one that I met before 13 is a part of my life because there was this constant movement of people coming in and out, which is incredibly difficult as you're finding your own voice. When I look back at that time, I feel like my personality was constantly changing based on the people I was spending my time with.
You moved to Brooklyn at 13.
JB: I loved it. I mean, I didn't like the part where children made me feel bad—I had an accent and I got rid of it. But the transition from growing up in essentially a jungle to moving to New York, I think as a kid, it's exciting. I only now appreciate that monkeys were a part of my daily breakfast routine of stealing my food. And then the idea of New York and how big and loud and sort of like violent it seemed in comparison was thrilling. Anyway, I always liked theater and performance and I think at one point I wanted to be a clown not really knowing what that was as a career.
What would that look like as a career?
JB: Me as a clown? Are there black clowns?
I'm not in a position to answer that.
JB: I don't know if I'm in the position to answer that either, but I feel like I don't remember that. I mean, there must be. There's someone out there. That will be my next film, actually: a black clown's journey.
That'll be a hit.
JB: There's discrimination in that space, but there's also face paint, so you can kind of be something else, but then people can see your hands. The giveaway is always hands. They're like, "Don't like that. Don't like those hands." Gloves. That's how he'll... He'll put on gloves.
I was worried you were going to sell out as a filmmaker.
JB: No, I'm always going to make sure to go to a place that few want to go to. That's always going to be my journey.
Was that true at NYU. You went there for theater, right?
JB: I studied theater at the studio there called Playwrights Horizons. The focus is theater design. So, set design, costume design, and then directing and also stage-managing. I guess the non-sexy parts of theater if you're going to theater school to be an actor. It's all the other stuff, although there was also an acting element to my studies as well.
What was your goal in that program?
JB: When I went to NYU I really wanted to be an actress and I was really sad to be in that program because I wanted to be more on an acting track. I just had this idea for myself that I was going to go to theater school and I was going to be someone on Special Victims Unit or something like that. Like on Law and Order, I thought I would've been like a prosecutor—I would've been great in that.
I can see that.
JB: You can see it, right? That's what I thought. And then I'm going to soar as one does in those kinds of things. When you audition to go to NYU, you pick the couple of studios you want to go to. I think I picked Stella Adler and maybe Strasberg? And then when you’re accepted you find out later where you're actually going. And the program I was accepted to wasn’t one of the two I wanted to go to. So I kind of arrived there arms crossed. But I'm so thankful. Whoever decided that for me—thank God. I think eventually I would've probably arrived at directing, maybe, but I think it would've taken a while to get there.
That expedited it. Were you making stuff then that was, like now, fairly uncompromising?
JB: I think I have always been a little unrelenting in my spirit. I was always making things that were a little unusual. I mean, the theater I was drawn to was experimental, absurd, physical theater and that's just the world that spoke to me.
What did your classmates think of your work?
JB: I think I was in a group of people that were a little left of center also for the most part. There was some opposition from the “normos,” but the…
Is that what we're calling them?
JB: “Normos,” yeah. But my community, which were like four or five, we were all kind of on the same path of strange, what then felt strange or what people were sort of referring to as strange because we were all pretty used to a certain kind of theater—like the theater that had attracted us to wanted to be performers or designers or directors in that space was pretty tradition, but I think once you start reading the Brechts and the Artauds you're like "Oh, wow, it can also be that? No wonder I always felt a little strange or stifled in this space. I didn't know that there was this whole other language." And we ate that up. And we're about four or five freaks.
This conversation of “strangeness” also seems to be tied into likability, which is something people tend to talk about in your work, the “un-likability” of these characters.
JB: I'm writing and creating people that I sympathize with. They’re also the elements of my own personality that are maybe the least likable that I'm working through and processing. I also hate the word likable, too, but it's one of these words that people use—likability—regarding work and its unfortunate. I was just having this conversation a couple of days ago with someone that had seen Lemon, and they said "So you don't care if the audience doesn't like your characters." And that was their review of the three short films of mine that they had seen. And I was like "Oh, is that what that feels like?" And it was confusing. I just said yes because I was like, "I really don't want to deal with this question and its so long and I'm trying to get a job and like I don't want to talk about this…”
A journalist asked you this?
JB: No, no. This was a job interview. I wanted to direct this film that someone wrote and so we were talking about it, and the question was hard to answer in one sentence because that's not how I perceive any of the characters. I, Janicza, root for all of them and am charmed by them…
But that's a no-win situation. Because if you answer honestly you don't get the job, and if you lie then you destroy your principles.
JB: Yes, exactly. I do think about how the audience is going to perceive the work, but I'm also not working from a place of satisfying an audience. I'm working from a place of satisfying the protagonist and satisfying the world within the film. I hope for watchers and viewers of the work, I hope they feel what I feel, which is, you know, rooting for this person who doesn't necessarily have all the tools to root for themself.
You and Brett [Gelman], your partner, certainly root for each other creatively. How do you manage that relationship on set?
JB: Being in a relationship with the person you're directing? Lemon was our fourth time working together—me as the director, him as an actor. I like to keep set pretty chill. At least with the cast I like to keep things pretty chill and then behind the scenes there’s the darkness that you're trying to keep away from them where you're like "It's great" and inside it's just like crying and anxiety and you're like "this is a failure."
Is that a constant thought?
JB: We're failing and we should go and this is it. Where's the nearest car I'd walk into? But on set, and I think this is not unusual, most sets are about keeping the environment very cozy and cushy for actors so they know nothing. Everything feels lovely and easy and smooth to them and then behind the scenes there's the drama of making the thing.
It's sort of like parents with their children.
JB: What's the thing where you don't want the kid to put its finger in the socket? Like you're always protecting the environment for children. Baby-proofing. That's kind of like what an element of set is. Actor-proofing. "You can hang out in this room that has air-conditioning. Nowhere else has air-conditioning." But at the end of the day, we knew we were proving our ability on so many levels—our abilities as writers, his abilities as a performer, mine as a director. It felt very much like a test of will.
A lot of Lemon is about the idea of being wanted—by a partner, a friend, a colleague. Now that your film has received distribution—your debut—do you feel wanted? Valued?
JB: Yes and no. I mean that this whole journey of arriving at being a director: I made Eat and then it got into South By. Michael Cera saw Eat, loved it, wanted to work together, so we made Gregory Goes Boom, that went to Sundance, it won an award. All of those little pockets of validation were about the next “yes” or the next opportunity. But there are big gaps and holes of not-validation—of no’s. Magnolia buying the film and distributing feels fantastic and wonderful. I also know I'm going to walk out of here and someone's going to say some horrible nightmare to me and I'll be like “Thank you so much.” I just think that that's a part of being alive. That sort of push and pull—the rejection, the acceptance. So do I personally, Janicza, feel more liked and accepted? Today, sure, yesterday, maybe I didn't. Maybe tomorrow I won't. If I’m financially comfortable, emotionally comfortable, what is the work I'm going to make when I arrive at that? But I don't think I'll ever arrive at that because I read one element of news and I'm like, “This is darkness and here we are now.” I don't think in 30 years I'll be making Nancy Meyers-style movies with solid kitchen floor plans.
This live talk aired on Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso as part of SXSW. You can listen to the full interview here.