There’s a scene in Janicza Bravo’s feature debut “Lemon” in which Isaac (Brett Gelman) goes to meet the family of Cleopatra (Nia Long), a woman he’s just started to date, and while he’s outside talking to the boisterous men in her bloodline – the camera cutting between him and the cigarette-smokers he’s oblivious to offending – she’s in the kitchen listening to her cousins gossip about a woman whose husband absconded with the millions she won playing the numbers back home in Jamaica, standing as equals in the frame as one chops vegetables at the counter, another peels carrots and one fixes the hair of another relative. There’s a syncopation to the way they debate just how much money was taken and whether the man took her daughter as well, creating a liveliness at odds with the stillness of the frame that is paralleled by the fact that for all the messiness that exists within Bravo’s vision in terms of the characters she trains her lens on, they exist in a world that’s intricately staged where you’d be hard-pressed to find a hair out of place.
Those dichotomies are what makes Bravo such a rare filmmaker – a comic director who needs not rely on jokes to find something deeply funny, though seemingly every time she makes a film, there’s are punchlines that leave you dazed. While “Lemon” is her first feature, she has made roughly a short per year since her first “Eat” in 2011, each as arresting as they are uncomfortable. Most have featured her husband Gelman, whose confrontational style of comedy has made him a favorite of daring showrunners on TV series such as “Fleabag” and “Married,” and in “Lemon,” Bravo has bestowed them both with a showcase for their distinctive talents as well as a unique way to share something personal as the film wends its way into a potential romance mirroring their own.
Named after the infamous strain of cars that fail to live up to the promise of their well-honed machinery, “Lemon” tells of Isaac, an acting teacher whose life is falling apart, upstaged by one of his students (Michael Cera) who is booking better gigs and unwittingly doing everything in his power to push away his girlfriend (Judy Greer), whose blindness hardly prevents her from seeing how he diminishes her. Yet Isaac is the one who grows smaller over the course of the film, whether it’s observing him in the shadow of his gregarious family for Passover seder or auditioning for a Hepatitis C commercial where he meets Cleopatra, who takes pity on him. Bravo has a way of lending her subjects dignity with the immaculate skill with which she films them while they struggle, often unsuccessfully, to feel as if they have any, and although Isaac looks particularly hopeless, he isn’t irredeemable in her eyes, though anyone who suspects easy resolutions will find the rigor of the director’s intent extends well beyond her visual sense.
In other filmmaker’s hands, Isaac’s plight could be seen as depressing, but for Bravo, it is the basis for an invigorating work of art, as audiences at Sundance discovered earlier this year. Now at SXSW, where Bravo’s chance encounter with two employees of the Sundance Lab on the dance floor of one of the Austin festival’s parties led to an initial outline of the film six years ago, the writer/director and Gelman, her partner in life and “Lemon,” snuck out of a screening to call us to talk about collaborating together creatively, the creation of the film’s striking visual and sonic language and their goal of making the singer/songwriter Dean Friedman a household name.
Janicza Bravo: It was. Brett and I wrote the first draft of it in five days. I don’t recommend that. [laughs] It’s nice to spit it all out, but I don’t recommend that in you should make that movie after you’ve written it in five days. So it’s good that it took us five years to arrive at it.
Did it evolve much over that time, especially given you’ve both had success since then and this is the story of someone combating failure?
Janicza Bravo: I don’t think either of us feel successful, so thank you, I appreciate the outside look.
Brett Gelman: We keep plenty of people around and one of those people being our own brains to make sure the self-esteem meter stays pretty low. [laughs]
Janicza Bravo: It did change, but the shape of it is pretty much as it was. We wanted to make this dark comedy that was about failure, an examination of privilege and mediocrity and [for the film] to be divided into these three acts where the first was mostly career, the second was mostly family and the third was love and watching our protagonist fail at each of these departments in his life.
You both have such distinctive individual sensibilities. What was collaboration like? Do you naturally mesh creatively?
Brett Gelman: I would say yes, very much so. We both like to be darkly funny and see the world in a very similar way. We also really value intense self-honesty and being very deliberate in what we do. There’s nothing casual about any aspect to our personalities and the way we work, so we mesh very much there. But in many ways, it was essential that this matched the voice of Janicza’s past work and then within that voice, I was the muse… [laughs] [only] in the sense that I imbue it with myself.
Janicza Bravo: That’s a pretty good answer. Brett made like a frowny face right after he said that – just so you know. That’s what I’m looking at. [laughs]
Brett Gelman: But what I mean to say is I’m very much the inspiration for this film, but it’s very much in Janicza’s voice so that it could really match the images that she saw in her head.
Knowing Brett would star in it, did that change the dynamic of how you shaped this?
Janicza Bravo: I think so. When you’re writing for a specific actor or a specific performer, you end up writing in what you think their voice is, or at least you write in the place that you want their voice to go to. Brett’s part was written very much for him, Michael [Cera]’s part was written for Michael. Judy [Greer]’s part was written for Judy and we also wrote Fred Melamed’s part for him as well, so when we were crafting those, we saw them and wrote in how we embodied them or their gestures – just how they would live in this world. This piece is absurd and really theatrical and there’s a lot of hyperbole. They’re not playing versions of themselves. They’re very much playing these characters, so we were writing for them with this in mind.
I really loved the blocking in the scenes between Judy and Brett’s characters throughout the film where you can tell where they are emotionally just by how they’re positioned in relation to one another. Does that come up in the writing or on the day of shooting?
Janicza Bravo: It’s mostly figured out on set, but there is a combination of things. I’ve been living with the movie for five years, so I’ve been staging the film for five years, so to speak, and had an idea of how it would physically unfold in space. My background is in theater and I feel blocking is a strength to me — I’ve always felt my two strengths as a director are blocking and performance, so with their relationship, it was really important that we’re physically telegraphing [it] or communicating to the audience, if they felt lost at all, an entire history should they be in total silence, based on her body, her gestures and where they sit. So I had done the homework beforehand. But once we got there and we were actually all playing together, it actually took shape. I tried as much as we could while shooting the movie to do 30, 45-minute or hour-long rehearsals on the day, if we could to find the movement and then allowing them to work within that.
You have many beautiful tableaux-like shots, particularly when you meet Isaac and Cleopatra’s families, where you really can look around the scene and everyone has their own story. Are those difficult to coordinate?
Janicza Bravo: It’s pretty much the same idea. For the pieces that are more tableaux or feel like moving photographs, I spent as much time as I could in those locations. I had done really terrible drawings on my own of what those scenes should look like, but it was also in the writing. [At Isaac’s house] there was writing [regarding] Shiri [Appleby] at the sink shaving carrots, Brett sitting on the stool, Rhea [Perlman] at the stove, Martin Starr standing in the doorway – and once we saw the location, I went back and rewrote the places where I knew things like that would be. And I felt if the actors already know the world, like if Martin shows up and says, “I’m going to stand here,” [I think] “Yeah, exactly [that’s where he should be].” So in places where I had the room to do that, I did. But again, it was arriving at the space, giving my suggestions of what I wanted something to look like photographically and if Rhea didn’t want to hold a knife in her hand, [it’s important] finding the thing that makes her feel safe in a scene, so that she can still live and be in this space.
Heather Christian’s score is equally evocative and since her work is so tied to the characters, how early does that come into the mix?
Janicza Bravo: I met Heather at NYU and we’ve been working together for 15 years now. We used to do theater together and she has worked on every film project that I’ve been the writer and director of, so this is our tenth collaboration on camera. With her, our style is to reduce our protagonist to an instrument or two — one or two sounds — and it’s a musical score, but it’s a little more purposeful. It’s also like a [character’s] internal monologue, where the audience again can telegraph where Isaac is. When we were in the second act of the movie where we’re hanging out with the family, we struggled with it. That act was the hardest for us because the first and third were so clear because Isaac was driving them and in the second act, he was very much blending into the background. He was very subdued and [slightly] oppressed, so communicating what was going to happen with that – was it going to be the diegetic sound of the house or the sound of the family? Was it going to be this big cacophony? There was this big conversation, knowing it was going to end with [the big set-piece of Isaac’s family singing] “A Million Matzoh Balls,” so how do we get there?
Where did you even find an incredible song like that?
Brett Gelman: That was a song that Janicza was a fan of, by this guy named Dean Friedman, which no Jew has heard besides Janicza. [laughs]
Janicza Bravo: I’m Jewish.
Brett Gelman: Janicza is Jewish. But it was a song from her childhood. It’s an amazing song. And every Jew that we know who sees the movie says, “What’s that song? Did you write that? Who wrote that? Whose song is that?” No, that exists. It’s Dean Friedman and you can buy it on iTunes.
Janicza Bravo: I feel like if anything, I hope that “Lemon” helps Dean Friedman to sell one million [downloads] of that song.
It’s interesting to hear you break down the film into separate sections since it works so well as a whole. Since your experience before “Lemon” is in shorts, did thinking of it in segments help you structure it?
Janicza Bravo: Well, I really leaned on Brett in terms of how we were building the script because I had never written anything that was longer than 16 or 17 pages. And I don’t feel like I’m inherently a writer. I don’t see myself in that way. I feel differently now, but in that moment, that’s not how I saw myself, so when putting things together, he would refer to things like a three-act structure and I would say, “I don’t know what that means.” [laughs] “I don’t know what you mean by exposition.” “I don’t know what you mean by…” because that’s not how I process storytelling.
Brett Gelman: She’s underselling herself here massively. It’s crazy. [Janicza laughs] I don’t know what she’s talking about. You don’t need to give her notes — ever. And I wouldn’t attempt to because [with her] there’s something that is so spontaneously exploding onto the page, so [when] she would just be like, “I’m not a writer,” I’d say, “Well, you’re my favorite writer, so what does that say about me?” [laughs] She really functions almost as a playwright in the classic sense in that there is a distinct language to her world that very much carries throughout the piece. She’s also somebody who, if she’s working on something, she’s immersed and does not come out of it, no matter what she’s doing. We’ll be at a party, we’ll be at dinner, we’ll be driving and she’s like, “What do you think about this for the film?”
The writing process was different for me [because] I usually write in a more linear way, and I’m not going to say this film is less linear than things I have written by myself or with other people, but in the way it comes together, it’s so exciting because something’s coming from all sides. It taught me a lot as a writer to work on something that way because that really enhances the emotional richness of the characters. That’s what comes first and leads the story — the emotional arcs of not just Isaac, but all the characters and the peaks and valleys of psychological disaster that they’re going through.