Brett Gelman and Janicza Bravo on Making ‘Lemon’ by Uinterview

Janicza Bravo‘s first full-length feature film, Lemon, was packed with faces familiar to the director. For starters, her partner of nine years, Brett Gelman, was the film’s star. Michael CeraJudy Greer, and John Daly, all of whom appear in the film, were all actors who Bravo had previously known or worked with. And with all of those friends around, it’s nearly impossible to fail, even when the film is just about that.

Lemon tells the story of Isaac (Gelman), a flailing actor whose girlfriend of ten years has up and left. In three acts, the film explores his many failures across the board.

“It’s really a portrait of failure,” Gelman told uInterview exclusively. “We hope that people, when they see the movie, will feel less lonely in their own fears of failure and mediocrity. It was very much an exorcism for us.”

Bravo directed and co-wrote the film alongside Gelman but the actor was quick to note the film’s leader is its director.

“She’s the director and it was her idea and her vision. So she’s coming to the table with a lot envisioned already,” said Gelman. “So it was an agreement that she would be the leader in the process, as the director should be.”

While the writing process was difficult at times, Bravo notes, both director and actor knew the role they had to play.

“There’s a respect for Brett as the actor and me as the director,” said Bravo. “So while there is the shared writing, ultimately, I am hearing him out as the performer of the piece and he’s hearing me out as the director of the piece.”

And the favorite part of Lemon for both the director and the actor? Working with each other.

“I think the drive to and from work was my favorite because it was a great time for complaining and a great time for making lists of who we hated,” Bravo joked. “No matter how hard [making a movie] is… to be able to look across the room and see my partner in life and also my partner in this project and know that, ultimately, there is a least one other person who is in my corner, whose corner I am also in, was the best.”

“You’re answer won’t be as good as mine,” Bravo remarked to Gelman.

But still, he tried.

“This person is my favorite director,” he began.

“I know I’m biased, but she’s somebody I really believe has a lot of very important things to say and I felt privileged and honored to be able to be in her world that she was creating.”

Lemon also stars Cera, Greer, Daly, Rhea PerlmanShiri ApplebyNia LongFred MelamedGillian JacobsMegan Mullally, and Jeff Garlin and is showing in theaters now.

Watch the trailer below.


Q: What was it like to make this project together? -

Janicza Bravo - "We've been together for almost nine years. We wrote the first draft of 'Lemon' about six years ago and the first sharable draft came together about five years ago. We just kind of started working together. There wasn't really a conversation about it. It just sort of happened. Our sensibilities, our sense of humor are pretty similar. It's off and a little aggressive and abrasive and stressful. And how we arrive at those is what is different. But in terms of what makes us laugh or what bums us out, it's the same. And when it came time to sort of arrive at this project together, it was pretty natural for us. And to that affect, we're both very comfortable with fighting and we're both pretty alpha so in that writing dynamic, we do those things. But there's a respect for Brett as the actor and me as the director. So while there is the shared writing, ultimately, I am hearing him out as the performer of the piece and he's hearing me out as the director of the piece."

Brett Gelman - "Yes, and she's the director and it was her idea and her vision. So she's coming to the table with a lot envisioned already. So it was an agreement that she would be the leader in the process, as the director should be. When a director comes up to you and says, 'I have an idea for a staring vehicle for you,' as an actor, you're usually not going to say no."

Q: How would you describe this film? -

Gelman - "Well, you basically watch me fail for ninety minutes...eighty-minutes. To call him a struggling actor would be disrespectful towards struggling actors. He really could be in any profession and not be doing well in it. It starts out that his girlfriend of ten years leaves him and he's teaching this really shitty acting class. He has a prodigy, an acting student. His girlfriend that leaves him is played by Judy Greer. His prodigy is Michael Cera. And his prodigy is the one person who I feel shows that I am not a complete loser. So I'm very attached to him and our relationship. I end up becoming the face of this print ad for hepatitis C. He decides to leave my class or he gets this really huge acting job and I go crazy. In the second act I'm with my really insane Jewish family for Passover seder and you kind of get a glimpse into the origin of why I'm so screwed up. In the third act, I start dating the make-up artist of the hepatitis C shoot, who's played by Nia Long. And that doesn't go well either. It's really a portrait of failure. We hope that people, when they see the movie, will feel less lonely in their own fears of failure and mediocrity. It was very much an exorcism for us.

Q: What was it like working with this cast? -

The cast is awesome. I'm so lucky that for my first feature, and for Brett's first staring role, that we were able to assemble such a strong group. We wrote Michael Cera's part, Judy Greer's part, John Daly, and Fred Melamed's parts for them, we'd had relationships with them and so we had sent those actors the script having known them. As for the rest of the cast, except for Nia Long and Rhea Perlman, everyone else we had, kind of, some access to, either having worked with them or having worked with a person who knows a person who knows a person who had worked with them. Our film is unusual and the world is a little bit left of center. I think that, why were able to lure so many great people, they hadn't really done that or played in that space. Even if their work was pretty straight forward, it was in the context of a world that was a little bit exotic and the commitment was super small. It was like, come and play anywhere for one day to four days. Like Megan Mullally and Jeff Garlin, that was one day of their time. So it's not really taking away from them if it was going to be a piece of trash. They could live with one day of trash and people would probably forget that they existed in trash. I think it didn't take away from them, there wasn't a lot to lose, and they either liked Brett or they like me, or they like short films that I had made before. If anything, maybe they were just curious, like, what is this?

Q: How did you shoot the big ensemble scenes? -

We have this fantastic seder scene in the second act of our film. It's Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, David Paymer, Shiri Appleby, Martin Starr, Brett Gelmen, Elizabeth De Razzo, Hannah Heller, and then these three children and all of these nutty and batty things happen. We shot that and the scene that happens after it, which is a sing-a-long on the same day. And I don't recommend so many pages in one day. You could spend days working on a scene of ten people sitting around a table and we shot that in like four and a half or six hours and I definitely feel like I wish we could have shot more of it. It all kind of feels dream-like now. It was a year ago, yeah, I think today or yesterday was one year since we finished shooting. It feels like a distant memory that experience.

Q: What was your favorite part about this process? -

Mine would be, sort of in the entirety of the piece, was getting to work with Brett, actually. This thing that we birthed together came to be finally and that we got to do that together every day. I think the drive to and from work was my favorite because it was a great time for complaining and a great time for making lists of who we hated. And it was just really fun. It was really fun, not to hate people, to have this sort of bonding, this great bonding for both of us, in that, no matter how hard it is – making movies is not easy, there are aspects of it that are romantic but on the whole, it's really, really painful and tough – and so to be able to look across the room and see my partner in life and also my partner in this project and know that ultimately there is a least one other person who is in my corner whose corner I am also in was the best. You're answer won't be as good as mine.

Gelman - "Likewise. I very much felt like I was her dancer and she was my choreographer. It was working in a way that I had not worked in ever, professionally. Not since college, which was just so composed and deliberate and specific yet really freeing, and exciting, and it felt dangerous. You struggle as an actor and you want to work with all the great directors and it felt amazing to know that, I really did feel like, I don't need to work with another director besides this person. This person is my favorite director. I know I'm biased, but she's somebody I really believe has a lot of very important things to say and I felt privileged and honored to be able to be in her world that she was creating.