A tale of white male mediocrity and privilege from the lens of a Black female writer and director? That’s what we get in the new film Lemon co-written and directed by Janicza Bravo who was such a fan favorite over at Sundance her debut film was purchased by Magnolia Pictures. This past week here at South By Southwest Lemon premiered and Janicza sat down with BGN to chat with us about her new film and how she feels audience should receive the movie when viewing it.
Jamie: Janicza. I’m here with Janicza Bravo, director of Lemon, and this is your directorial debut.
Janicza Bravo: It is, that is correct.
Jamie: Incredibly impressive.
Janicza: Thank you, thank you.
Jamie: And it was a fan favorite over at Sundance.
Janicza: I guess so, so they say. That’s what I hear.
Jamie: Well, enough for Magnolia Pictures to buy it, and you’re presenting it here at South By. So before we get started on talking about this, I want to let the listeners know, can you give them a little bit of background on what Lemon is about.
Janicza: Lemon is a dark comedy about failure. It is an examination of white mediocrity and white privilege.
Janicza: That’s the short, sexy answer for what it is.
Jamie: That’s fantastic. And how has it been for you, presenting this at South By Southwest with the fans, and watching it with the audience again?
Janicza: I actually have not watched the movie with an audience since Sundance. And I only saw it at one screening. It’s a little too stressful. It’s hard to enjoy it. While the film is playing, I hear somebody cough, I hear somebody unzip a jacket, I hear a woman move her hair off her shoulder and I’m like, fully not having an okay time, like panicking, spiraling out, like gotta get out of here. It’s just hard to enjoy. I think if the movie was a broad comedy, I would be like, “This is great!” But there are beats, there are small beats, and it’s awkward and uncomfortable and stressful and really sad at points …
Jamie: But that’s perfect for the South By, though.
Janicza: I think it’s great. It’s super great for an audience, but it’s just hard to enjoy work with people without being so concentrated on what it is they’re doing or not doing. I just watched the first two minutes of it, actually, just to make sure the sound levels were okay, and there is a moment in the movie at the very beginning that almost always gets laughs, and nobody laughed. And I was like, “Gotta go. Bye. See you later. Can’t be here right now.” And I think, obviously, audience to audience, what people laugh at and don’t laugh at will change, but there’s too much pressure because, for me, it’s almost like the movie has a score of what I think people should and shouldn’t laugh at. And it’s not so much they shouldn’t because I like it when people laugh at new things. It’s more like, this is a beat you should laugh at, and if you’re not laughing, then to me, I’ve lost them and they’re not on my side.
Jamie: Absolutely. Back on white mediocrity, white privilege, and this being a story told through the lens of a black woman. What I find really fascinating about this project is that the story is this offbeat comedy that’s told through the lens of the white guy. Often times, white guys telling their stories about black characters seems to be the status quo, right? We just talked about that. So in this case, the tables have turned. What are your feelings about storytelling in that way? Should it matter, or does it matter?
Janicza: That’s a really long and hard question, and I say that because I want for there to be a body of work that is incredibly inclusive. Inclusive behind the camera and in front of the camera. Should white guys tell black stories? Yes, they should because I don’t want to only see white stories, and if white men have more access to getting work made, then I also want to see them making those stories. I think it’s about the approach. Is it anthropological? If it feels anthropological, that’s when it feels a little bit like, “Oh, this is not like a zoo piece,” you know what I mean? But I think we should have stories … I mean, I want to see people of color on the screen. I just do. So yes, and I want to see women in stories as well.
Jamie: Right, right. I know that some of the films here at South By haven’t been completely finished yet, so are you still in the rough cut process of the film or it’s done at this point?
Janicza: We’re pretty much done. I would say we’re 98% done. We were bought by Magnolia on Friday, and we have tiny tweaks to make before our final film. There’s adding their logo at the beginning of the movie, there’s a couple scenes I would like to re-color correct, there’s some sound cues I want to bring down a little, there’s smoothing out music here and there, but there’s no big, massive edit shifts. It’s just fine tuning of stuff that, when I did watch it, I was a little distracted by certain elements.
Jamie: Got it. Now I understand you co-wrote this film with your husband Brett Gelman, who’s also in the movie, playing Isaac. So having that kind of working relationship with your hubby, do you find that to be easier, or more challenging at times?
Janicza: It’s both. I wouldn’t ever describe it as easy. I think the word I use, the positive word that I would use is that it’s comfortable and it’s safe. It’s been actually really great for our relationship, but it’s also incredibly difficult. It’s really hard to share a bed with somebody and then also critique their creative world. And that’s back and forth. He is a much better receiver of criticism than I am. I am terrible at receiving criticism, within our dynamic. But it’s the best kind of challenge for setting ourselves up for what working outside of our relationship is like, working with other people. I would say the thing that I loved most about, not the writing process but the making of the film was walking away every night together or going to work together every morning. There was always this feeling that no matter how dark the experience might feel or how painful or unrelenting or impossible, that I always knew that there was somebody in the room that was my partner, that was in my corner and that no matter what, had my back. That was the best. There’s no one I’ve ever worked with that was there for me in that way.
Jamie: Yeah. Did it make it more fulfilling, working together with him, like just on the pre-production side when you’re writing together and then obviously in production where you’re working with him directly as an actor? Do you find that that moment is just more fulfilling in that work-partner relationship?
Janicza: Yeah, I would say the actor-director part of it was the most satisfying. The writing was the least satisfying, and writing is like, a bummer. You know that. No matter how much you love it ultimately or the end justifies the means like I don’t even know if that’s the saying I would use right now, but writing is arduous and painful. Alone, it’s painful. And then to invite somebody else into that and then to both be on that road of the crafting of language is really tough. And our work ethics are a little different, and our styles are a little bit different. The work ethic part, I say, is very much like, we start work at this time and then we end work at this time, and I am like, always in it, in a way that I think can be kind of distracting for a relationship. It’s like, we’re sitting down to dinner and I’m like, “Oh, we should do this in this scene,” and he’s like, “What?” And I’m like, “In the scene where he’s- This is the thing that we should do right here.” And then it’s like, “Oh, okay.” And I’m like, “Are you writing it down?” And he’s like, “I don’t know, am I supposed to write it down?” I have a hard time dropping it and just being in the relationship sometimes. But if one can figure out how to work with the person that they’re with, I find it to be incredibly rewarding in the end. I mean, this is our baby. This is for both of us. Every rejection, every validation that comes at the film is both of us. It’s both of us winning or losing. And to not have to explain that to my partner, to just be able to look at each other and know exactly where we are at is really intimate.
Jamie: I think I know the answer to this already: I wanted to know do you like writing or directing better? You mentioned the writing is arduous.
Janicza: Directing. Directing, much better. I’m a theater director by trade. I am inherently a theater director, and working with actors, blocking, that’s where I feel my mojo … like, my belly is warm, my crotch is like, yeah … It’s like I’m alive in that space, talking with actors, building and crafting in that space … that’s where I feel most at home.
Jamie: Excellent, excellent. Now, how long did it take for you to put this project together and what’s been the most rewarding experience as a filmmaker?
Janicza: It’s been five years. It took five years to get it made. We wrote the film six years ago at South By, at my first South By. We wrote the first draft of the movie in five days, and … it was Terri- I mean, we rewrote it for like, two years. But it took five years to make it, we got to make it last summer. And the most rewarding aspect of it is that it exists, is that it played at- There’s not one answer. It’s that we got to, it’s that it’s tangible. And now, it was purchased, so it means that it will really be tangible for other p- Like, it’s not something that just lives with me. It’s not just the thing that I go to sleep with at night. Now it kind of belongs to the world, and I hope they accept it, but regardless of how it goes, it’s no longer with me. It’s out, and it feels fully exorcized.
Jamie: That’s beautiful.
Janicza: Thank you. I’m just trying to give you beautiful, juicy one-liners.
Jamie: I love it. Especially the crotch part.
Janicza: Okay, good, when my crotch was warm from directing? Yes.
Jamie: So, what do you hope that audiences will take away from watching Lemon?
Janicza: That’s also not one answer because that is to say that the audience is one mind, one hive and I think that people of color will take something different away then I think white people will take away than men will take away that women will take away. This is one of those questions that sometimes, I don’t want to answer this question. And I say this because there is no right or wrong answer. Because for me to say, “I want them to take this” and then if somebody watches it and that’s not the thing that they get …
For instance, there was this writer, I won’t say from where, but a writer saw the film and on the closing night of Sundance, he came up to me and he was like, “I love your movie so much.” My movie had also opened Rotterdam, it was the opening night film for the International Film Festival in Rotterdam, and he asked how the festival went, and I was like, “It was incredible, it was so politically charged. The head of the festival came up to me and he said … ” Upon meeting him, I was still like, creases from my face from getting off a plane, and Brett and I are in a lobby wearing giant coats and he’s like, “What is it like to make a movie about white mediocrity and white privilege?” This is like, a Dutchman, and I look at him and I said, “You knew that the movie was about that?” And he goes, “Well, what else is it about?” I said, “Nobody in America has said that it’s about this, so I’m fascinated.”
So I’m telling this writer this and he says to me, “Is that what your movie is about?” And I said, “Well, it’s one of the things that it’s about, for me.” For me, it’s about that. It’s not about that for Brett. It’s about that for me. It is my exploration and examination of whiteness and what it is to live with access, and what it is to live with a lack of awareness of what access is. And I am putting a character like that in a space where there are consequences. And he’s gonna fail, and he’s gonna plateau. And there’s a world of movies that hang out in this space made by white men and everything works out for them and the women are voiceless and they have incredibly supportive families and they seem to have these really nice apartments and a lot of money and you’re not sure why because they don’t deserve any of it, and everything works out for them, and I was sort of disturbed by this space and I wanted to make something that had a conversation with it.
So, that’s not exactly answering what I want people to take away, but that is what I was exploring. But at the other end, when Brett and I were writing that, and we wanted to write this movie that was having a conversation with this thing, that’s not what he was doing as an actor. So I don’t want to answer that because I want to know what someone else is taking away. I don’t want to tell them what I want them to take away. Does that make sense? I am more excited by what you’re taking away than what I feel you should take away. Because that’s the whole point of why I’m making, is because I want to hear what you feel, what you saw, what you got, what you didn’t get. That’s why I go back and do it again. Making movies is not easy, and working in film is also not romantic. It’s romantic when you look back on it, but the actual experience is like war. It’s like suiting up and going to war and battle. And so I think for most artists, painters, photographers, musicians, I think you want what your audience is getting, not what you think they should get.
Magnolia Pictures plans to release Lemon later this year.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online community for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She's the primary film critic for BGN and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critic Association