The new film Lemon from director Janicza Bravo and co-writer and star Brett Gelman is an unsettling work of comedy, one that doesn’t prioritize big punchlines but opts for an increasing sense of unease from its despondent main character Isaac (played by Gelman). Bravo and Gelman recently sat down with me to talk about the unique style of Lemon, and how their film plays against expectations.
“I didn’t see him as against type. I saw him as like sort of an extension, like the ultimate of the characters I’ve played leading up to him and he’s like the ultimate really flawed guy,” Gelman said of playing a character who is much more subtle than the persona he’s presented in Brett Gelman’s Dinner in America or last year’s Joshy.
“A couple months before we shot, Janicza, the director and co-writer who conceived the film, ‘I don’t want to see your physicality in this character at all.’ So we did a lot of private rehersals with each other where we rehearsed how he walks and his gestures and how he speaks. She was like, ‘Don’t raise your eyebrows. Don’t breathe with your mouth open. Keep the mouth closed.’ All of that, how he was dressed, his uniform, it all informed this really stark simplicity to him,” Gelman continued. “There’s all of this anxiety that he’s holding in that at time is exploding throughout the movie. He’s holding in all this hell and certain triggers make him lose control and then you realize the whole time he’s been out of control.“
“I think a little bit of fear and a little bit of loneliness are a great recipe for making, and are also just a great recipe for being in this thing, being in this thing that is creative as a writer, as a performer, as a director,” Janicza Bravo said of the origins for Lemon. “I think some aspect of ‘Do I deserve this? Am I going to make it? And am I totally alone in this?’ are, for me, a major part of how I move forward. That’s not to say I don’t want those things. It’d be nice to exist in a space where that’s not a part of how I process, but for whatever reason it has always been there for me, this little bit, or big actually, amount of anxiety that it might not be okay and I may not know how to navigate my way out of it into something that makes sense or is better.”
“I think for both Brett and I when we were writing Lemon and coming up with Lemon, this feeling that everyone was passing us by – getting married, having children, buying homes – and here we were. I didn’t have a job at the moment. I was waiting for a job. Freelance is the worst, really the worst,” the director continued. “When you’re freelancing or you’re an artist and you’re getting money in these kind of disparate ways that don’t really make any sense. Your worth and your value are very confusing. The validation tells me, ‘Oh, I’m doing it right.’ Then there are these big lulls like, ‘What’s happening? Am I doing it wrong because I don’t know how else to do it. I’m not good at anything else. What am I supposed to do here, guys?’”
For Bravo and Gelman, the conception of Lemon was a cathartic experience. ”So for both of us when we were coming up with Lemon we were having this peak fear, peak anxiety, peak ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna wake up in five to ten years drenched in my own piss and I’m not going to know why that happened and from there it’s going to be downhill and I’m just going to be in this plateau, or have I been in a plateau, are we in a plateau now?’ We were spiraling,” Janicza Bravo elaborated. “So when we wrote the film it was this amalgamation of this absurd version. I mean, Lemon is not reality. It exists does not exist in reality. It exists on a planet near ours in a realm near ours with items we’ve all seen before but it is a story. So the feelings that are inside of it, we were feeling it like an exorcism. If it’s all in here now and then we actually get to make this then that means that’s not my end. A purge, if you will.”
Playing a different kind of character than expected didn’t phase Brett Gelman in the slightest. “I think the whole nature of acting and making sure it’s truthful is always challenging. You should never be resting on your laurels,” Gelman told me. “I think the most challenging thing for me was putting myself through that, that anxiety and that pain that the character is going through that motivates him to do some pretty shitty stuff to people. That wasn’t like cold calculation. That’s coming from a deep rage, a deep jealousy, a deep sadness, a deep self-hatred. To go through that it wears on you, but it’s exhilarating at the same time.”
Though Lemon defies convention, Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman were able to assemble one fantastic cast to populate this offbeat world. “I’m always surprised by anyone who says yes. It’s amazing that anybody says yes, especially this type of work that’s taking a big risk. It’s not a pretty package wrapped up. You’re not provided any concrete answers in this film,” Gelman said with a wide smile on his bearded visage. “Certain people were not as unexpected because they were friends and a few of them had worked with Janicza many times, like Michael [Cera] and Meghan [Mullally] and then Gillian [Jacobs], Martin [Starr], and Fred [Melamed] – Fred I had worked with before and Gillian I had worked with on Love. These were all friends. Jon Daly is one of my best friends, so those weren’t major surprises because I knew they would like this type of material. Janicza knew they would like this type of material and we knew they would do us the favor of being in the film. I can’t believe we got Nia Long, Rhea Perlman, and David Paymer was huge shock to me. He’s such a character actor of my adolescences. At a certain point when we were a certain age he was in everything. He was one of the best parts of every film that he was in.”
With a minimal budget and tight shooting schedule, Janicza Bravo had a number of challenges in bringing her vision to the screen, but with Lemon she was more than up to the task as the film features a number of incredibly framed shots that give the film a sharp visual style.
“We shot the movie in 18 days. Even if we had forever to shoot, she comes like massively prepared,” Gelman said of Lemon’s director. “She knows how she wants every shot lit. She knows how she wants the frame. She knows how she wants the set to look. She knows how she wants the costumes to be. She knows how she wants her performances to be. At the same time, she does a great job of letting everybody in those positions also feel a sense of freedom, because when you’re working with someone who has such sense of specificity there is a freedom to that. All of our jobs is to realize her vision. She’s the boss. It is her vision. In order to have a really successful piece, it’s the director who really needs to have the eye for what that piece will be. It’s all very orchestrated but at the same time there’s this fucking fury that she is pulsing through it.”
“Look, we shot this in 18 days. We prepped it in 17 days. I don’t recommend this to anyone. If there is more room, ask for it. If there is more money, ask for it,” Bravo told me about the tight schedule in making the film. “I felt more prepared for short films that I had done that were shot in a tenth of the time. I had done as much preparation as I could without seeing spaces and then we were seeing spaces and it was like, ‘Fuck, this room isn’t like that.’”
“The theater classes we had the benefit of being able to do a couple of rehersals before we shot,” Bravo continued. “Gillian and Michael, I mean we were doing Chekov, so they were like, ‘Can we work on Chekov, please?’ It’s not naturalistic at all. We met up and blocked, and I’d say that felt very much like traditional theater blocking in that we came in, I was like, ‘This is the space, I’d love for you guys to move in this way,’ and then them bringing their thoughts to it. We were also making fun of that kind of thing, so it was great to do that kind of staging and the theatricality. There’s this moment when Brett’s face is really close to the camera and Gillian is just far enough away and Michael enters, like the black box stuff is probably my favorite. I’d say the black box and the white void are my favorite things in the film because there’s nothing to rely on. So all of the humor is based on writing and shapes.”
The unusual tone of Lemon was something that Janicza Bravo worked hard to develop, employing a much more subtle sense of humor than a typical comedy. “There was no note in any of the performance to make things softer or louder or bigger or smaller. There was no note like that. There was also no, ‘Let’s lean into this humor’ or like, ‘This joke, we’ve gotta hit this.’ There was nothing like that,” the director told me of the film’s humor. “If you were to read the script on paper, I think it’s very funny but a lot of people when we were trying to make the movie were like, ‘This is sad.’ ‘Really? I thought there were so many jokes. I don’t understand.’ I found that right towards the end when we were about to get financing for it, I reread it thinking, ‘Let me read this thinking it’s not us,’ and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this reads like a fucking tragedy.’ It was just making little notes like, ‘He’s smiling here,’ or ‘This person enters the room and feels this,’ just making little changes like that suddenly makes the world feel a lot warmer because I could see it in my head.”
Before I could I wrap up the interview with Brett Gelman, I felt compelled to ask him about his recent appearance on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. “It was a dream come true,” Gelman said. “I auditioned. It’s pretty, I mean I can’t really talk about [David Lynch’s] process in detail. He doesn’t like people to do that. It was amazing. Talk about a guy who knows what he wants. Talk about a guy with vision. He’s such a kind person who is really specific about what he wants, but within that specificity there is like a freedom that you feel. And Kyle [MacLachlan] is one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked and is an acting hero to me. It was incredible.”
When asked for further details as to what’s coming up in the last few episodes and if possibly he might return, Gelman refused to comment further. “I can’t say. I can’t say. I’m sworn to secrecy,” he wryly said. “I’m really honored to be a part of it.”