Sundance 2017 Interview: Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman on Waking Up LEMON
Isaac wakes up feeling old… and unaccomplished. He’s a brilliant dramaturge in his own eyes and in the eyes of whichever of his acting students he can convince. He has a serious girlfriend, he thinks. She’s blind and they don’t touch, but he’s quite certain he possesses her. Soon she’ll be gone. Any day now, he’s going to get discovered for the genius soul that he is, but it’s far more realistic that his star student will be the one receiving confidence boosts of this type. He does get a few gigs, like the time he becomes the poster child for disease. Life is starting to feel like a sick joke.
These are just some of the jumping off points for Isaac’s freefall into existential oblivion. He will grasp at straws along the way. He will try to take comfort in his family. He will try to find love again. But as much as you’d like things to work out as Isaac feels they should (not that he necessarily deserves it), one has the sinking feeling that he’s in the wrong film for that; that writer/director, Janicza Bravo, and co-writer/star, Brett Gelman, have constructed a nightmare - a nightmare of ambition.
Full of beautifully framed wides that, after some time, pan to reveal other beautiful wides, it is a nasty pleasure watching Isaac mentally navigate his punctured world of cruelly surreal imperfections in an attempt to stand the increasingly nefarious pomp of a hundred broken shoelaces.
Lemon is a scarily bleak, yet wickedly funny journey through mundane hell and I cannot stress enough what a great pleasure it was getting to connect with its creators at Sundance shortly after its world premiere.
So it’s taken five years to get this film made. What has that process been like and what was the evolution of LEMON?
Janicza Bravo: Yes, it's taken five years to make Lemon. We got really close to making it about five years ago. We had funding, we had some cast in place, and then through a series of issues - scheduling, casting - we lost half of our funding and it was impossible to do at that budget... and it was super heartbreaking and really intense.
Brett has been really good at keeping it, sort of, going. Keeping the boner, if you will. Whereas for me, It took a little bit more time. It took me a while to kind of get over the movie going away and I thought it was, in some way, like, a sign that I should never do this, or something. I think he was probably better at rejection at that moment than I was. I've gotten really good at rejection.
I also think that the key to maintaining is having multiple things going, and that was the only thing I had going at that moment. Then, in the last few years, I made a few other things, so it has been an easier journey. But I do feel - something I wanted to say at the beginning of our screening, when we were presenting at the premier - was that while it took five years, and it felt incredibly hard, and it felt really long, and it felt really sad, I actually feel like it was the exact amount of time that it took to get here. And that, I think if I'd made the movie a year ago, it would have not been what it is now. It's sort of like, a pitch-point amalgamation of all of this rejection, and so I wouldn't change it.
To what extent was that rejection apropos? Just living with the defeat that this film is so much about.
Brett Gelman: Yeah, I mean, It's funny, because sometimes the film feels like a flame that you're flying very close too; that is very much bleeding into your life. Even at the after party, there was this dude, who like, we're talking about the movie, we're trying to recap, trying to get a hold on what we had just experienced, and also celebrate it. This dude in a captain's hat comes into the smoking circle and just is like, "Hey. How you doing? How are you?" Just like, of course you're here. I can't even have this. I can't even enjoy talking about my film with my wife and my director and some of the people who made it. I have to deal with this insane person right now.
Janicza: He was like, "Why can't you get me into the party?" And we were like, "It's just, it's not that kind of thing." And then he started like, harassing us and I was like, it's just so perfect. Lemons everywhere! Always. Always lemon.
Brett: We feel we really attract that energy. We are magnets to things not running smooth.
Janicza: Magnets to mania.
Brett: I think that we use that on our work, and I think, in my opinion, it serves our work very well. But, I think too, that sometimes for viewers of our work.. it's so intense that they might think that this magnetism of oddity and anxiety is maybe going to infect them. So, the more normal, delusional people run for the hills. I don't know.
(Janicza) is somebody who is always thinking about the work and about what she is doing. She cannot let it go - even after it's done. So I think what carried through a lot of the five years is her meticulousness that she has as a director and as a writer. I'm more of a worker in a lot of ways. I start working when it's like, "Okay, we're going to work now." She's always working.
You mentioned, at the premier, that it's mainly Janicza's baby-
Brett: Well, that's also a thing that I wanted to say, too.
Brett: You know, so many people come up to me and assume, because I am a man, that I wrote the movie. And that it was, like, my voice-
...Even though you're not the director.
Janicza: It's a funny thing because, I think, Brett doesn't need to stress that, because I know this. We know this. But it's really important to him to stress that because it's happened. He's just seen it happen to me at other times, like, with my short, Gregory Go Boom, that Michael (Cera) is in, for instance, there were multiple articles around that time that were written about it, and it was that Michael had written and directed it, even though it said my name. People would still say that. Or sometimes, Brett was listed as a writer, and he's just like, an actor. It was just so weird that I was kind of being removed from the thing that I had done.
I can't even imagine the frustration.
Janicza: I think it's sort of funny. I kind of laugh at it, you know?
Janicza: It's just so absurd. I think, again, it's kind of just all is fuel for the thing that the work is about - being dismissed. But (Brett) keeps stressing it in a way that I'm like, "You don't need to say that."
Brett: I want to just be like, if you know things that I've written, and you look at the writing of this, it's very different from what I've written.
Brett: If you know things she's written, and you look at the writing of this, it's not very different. So, it's in her voice. I did contribute to the writing, and I'm very proud of our collaboration, but it's got to be known, you know? It's just absurd, at this point.
Well, that being said, in your opinion, what represents the most Janicza moments of the film and what represents Brett’s sensibilities, would you say?
Brett: Oh wow.
Janicza: Good question.
Brett: I think that the moments of the film ... The moment that is so representative of Janicza is the whole transition at the beginning of the third act. Of me sitting on the couch. Me sitting on the table across from Judy with the music playing, and that transition of scenes.
I feel, the whole movie is such an expression of how Janicza sees the world, and also how I see the world. It's hard for me to distinguish-
Janicza: We're pretty intertwined.
Brett: It's pretty intertwined.
You get along very well.
Brett: Yeah, it is her voice. And in many ways, I almost feel like I'm a dancer in this, you know?
Janicza: Am I Fosse?
Janicza: Oh, good.
Brett: She's Fosse
Janicza: I've just been dying to be Fosse
Brett: And I'm Liza.
Janicza: and all that jazz.
Brett: It did feel like because there's a lot of choreography in the film. She works, if you allow her to, which you should. She works with you as much physically as she does with you emotionally and psychologically.
I have a big presence, and I think that that is the biggest way in which, you know, beyond doing my work, what an actor should do, that is how I intertwine with her. But we also just see the world in a very similar way.
Janicza: As oppressive.
Brett: Yeah, as oppressive and anxiety inducing.
Naturally, the film is open to interpretation and it's very fun that way. But the title, I mean, I guess my initial gut reaction is a character who is incapable of making lemonade, who is just sulking, you know? What was the germ for the entire idea?
Janicza: Well, the germ for the whole thing was that I was 30 and Brett was 35 when we wrote our first draft of it, and it felt like everyone around us was, like, at lightning speed arriving at their best life. We were early in our relationship still. We don't own a house. We didn't have a child and there wasn't a child coming. We did jobs that sucked, or just weren't satisfying. We were really worried that we were going to five years from now wake up and be like, "How did I get here? And why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?"
The title ... I kept thinking of that '70s ad of the VW Bug that says, "Lemon." It's great. It's a really beautiful ad. The definition of it is sort of in reference to a car that doesn't work so well. Something that's faulty or unsatisfactory. Something that's kind of broken.
I think we both felt like maybe we were lemons, or we were going to be lemons, and so the process of writing, I think, was very much about exorcising that. That if we wrote it all down, then it would never happen to us, you know? Sort of like witchcraft. Like witchery. You write it down, and then you light it, and then it's gone.
I love that it's such a nightmare. And I also love how indignant your character is. As much as you see yourself in the character, you're poking fun at the indignance of not succeeding, I think.
Janicza: Fully. Definitely. Yeah, he's like, having a fight with it, right?
Brett: Yeah, it would probably serve him just to allow himself to sink into a deep, dark depression for a bit. But instead he spins out, you know? He's spinning. He's like a tornado. It's just like the world, spins, you know? The movie spins.
And I think that it reflects that in how it's shot, how it's edited, how it's scored. Everything about it. When you're spinning, that is, speaking as a spinning person myself, it's not a good place to be in because it's not a place you can really make decisions from.
Spiralling until your whole life's covered in shit, literally.
Janicza: Literally. Yeah, I mean, it's a little bit of a circle, right? There's something sort of cyclical and disgusting. To the point of his body not even having control. His body is rejecting him also.