Isaac Lachmann (Brett Gelman), protagonist of Janicza Bravo's feature film debut Lemon, out August 18, is a failure. He wants to be an actor. Instead, he’s become the face for a hepatitis awareness ad campaign. He wants to find human connection. Instead, his girlfriend of 10 years (Judy Greer) leaves him for a happier life with someone else; his new romantic prospect (Nia Long) is bewildered by him; his family certainly doesn’t understand him. Isaac blunders through life blinded by his own privilege, and becomes an exaggerated example of what many of us fear most: A life gone “wrong,” so to speak.
Lemon, which was co-written by Bravo and Gelman, is partly a study in failure, partly a dark spin on the tropes found in most comedies, and partly an exaggerated retelling of Bravo and Gelman’s courtship. Along with Gelman, the film stars Michael Cera, Gillian Jacobs, Judy Greer, Megan Mullaly, Nia Long, and Shiri Appleby.
Refinery29 spoke with Bravo about building sustainable creative partnerships, what exactly constitutes a stressful comedy, and wearing many hats (sometimes literally).
You’ve coined the term “stressful comedy” to describe Lemon. Can you characterize what a stressful comedy is, and why Lemon had to be a stressful comedy in order for you to make it?
"I had kept referring to Lemon as a dark comedy. At the Seattle Film Festival, for our first screening there, an older gentleman grabbed me by the shoulder and chastised me. He said, 'You shouldn’t call that movie a dark comedy. It’s not a dark comedy. I’m very upset. You had to figure out what the right words are to call that, so that the audience is prepared.'
I was pretty startled by it. It really stayed with me. He was really upset, and he felt not taken care of. I thought about it, and I tried a few other things: a surreal comedy, a sour comedy. Finally I arrived at a stressful comedy.
The common thread in all of the films I make is that there’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of stress. That seems to be the thing that I am playing with a lot, and that I am drawn to. It is funny, and it is uncomfortable, and it is unusual. All of those things together create a kind of anxiety and sense of doom throughout."
What compelled you to make Lemon, the story of a sad sack, white, middle-aged man?
"As a filmmaker, I wanted to be working in comedy. I wanted to be working in dark, strange, surreal comedy. There wasn’t really space for me in that arena. The work that was being made — and is still being made — was by white dudes. There weren’t even people of color making work in that kind of tone, or humor.
To aggressively carve out my space, I found myself drawn to what most of the work in that space was about: white guy, late 30s, early 40s, whose life is kind of falling apart. But there’s something about him that’s charming, and things work out for him. He has a great wife or girlfriend who barely says anything, whose whole purpose is to service him. He has a decent group of friends. He always lives in a very large apartment or house.
Brett and I both wanted to take a stab at that genre, because it felt like its own genre, but actually make the stakes bigger. Things weren’t going to work out.
For both of us, it's not just a commentary on the white guy comedy. [Lemon] is where we were emotionally. I found myself very nervous and concerned about what my future was going to be like. We both were. We were afraid of this plateau. So, in many ways, Lemon was an exorcism of this fear. If we put it all out there, then it won’t happen to us."
You described that very feeling in your director’s statement. You wrote that Lemon came from the feeling of waking up in your 30s and fearing that you had “arrived at a life or an end meant for someone else.” It took you five years to make Lemon. Do you feel that you’re living the life intended for someone else, or have things changed for you as a result of this movie?
"I do feel very much on a road that is closer to the thing that I saw for myself. Of course, that feels a little scary, saying it out loud.
The time that it took to make [Lemon] was incredibly hard and painful, but worth it. I don’t think it should have taken less time than that. It was the perfect amount of time to see whether or not I could last, to see what my brain could handle. I have to think that the wait it takes to get to the thing to get to what you really, really want, is part of the result."
I’d love to acquaint our readers with the singular character that is Isaac Lachmann. Can you describe him a little bit, and recommend how we should deal if we ever meet a real-life Isaac in the wild?
"I remember when I got my dog, a lot of people who have dogs gave me unsolicited advice about socializing your dog. You should take your dog to dog parks, take your dog on hikes, so your dog can get along with other dogs. My dog, Janet, is very sensitive and kind of emotional. She’s full of a lot of feelings. She’s not great at dog parks. I kept taking her to dog parks, and she would have a terrible time, and I would cry. I realized that some dogs are not good at being socialized.
Isaac is a failure. He is someone who is not socialized. He is not good at dog parks. He means well, but in the way children do. They really only sees the thing that they want, and they only work at getting the thing they want. They see what they want, and they work to get what they want. It doesn’t really matter how it affects others, because that’s tertiary.
At the core, I don’t think he’s inherently bad. I think he’s inherently good. He wasn’t socialized. There’s a good chunk of the film when we spent time with his family, and we see that he feels pretty invisible. He feels voiceless, unheard. It’s all context. There are tons of rotten people out there, and we ought to consider how they arrived at that.
The big thing the film asks, at least for me, and most of my work asks is, are you doing your best? Are you good? Are you treating people well? That’s the takeaway for all of my work — how people behave and treat others."
And if you meet Isaac in the wild?
"I think you tread lightly."
I’m always so curious about creative partnerships. Can you paint us a picture of your working relationship with Brett? How do you help each other create?
"We’ve been working together now for a little over six years, and been together for nine years. We just fell into it. I had tried to work with other partners that I had been with, and that had gone very poorly. I think for us, our sense of humor or our darkness or the things that we feel plagued by are pretty similar, and how we laugh and when we want to laugh is also very similar. We first had that connection. Our humor is so alike even though how we make out work is a little bit different. The things we’re laughing about are the same.
The reason we work so well together is that we really respect each other’s positions. He respects me as a director/writer, and I respect him as an actor/writer. So, when we are in the collaboration, I am hearing him out as an actor and he is hearing me out as a director. The writing is the place where we meet.
When we first started, it was pretty easy to separate our relationship from our working relationship. Now that we’ve been together for so long, all of that gets pretty muddy. It isn’t always a treat. It can be incredibly hard. I can be a huge asshole, and vice versa, so can he. We know that feeling isn’t going to be forever because there are so many great feelings that we have. I think we both can laugh in that.
It’s so great that when you’re in a partnership when you’re in a moment of rejection or validation, to be able to share in that is so special. One of the best things that I got from Lemon was our drive to and from work at the beginning at the day at the end of the day. For both of us, it was pretty rewarding and hard to replicate. Knowing that no matter how hard things got, which they got, there was always someone in the room that was definitely in my corner."
In terms of your career, you’re are a woman of many hats: writer, director, costume designer. I also know that you love hats. Could you tell us what your favorite hat is, and why?
"I’ve had a shaved head for about 15 years, so hats are a great hair for me. My favorite hat is actually this ‘40s Stratoliner. I bought this hat two or three years ago. It’s so beautiful.
My second hat that I really love I wore to my Sundance premiere earlier this year. It’s by a millinery guild. It’s kind of like a black cloud on top of my head. It’s so sexy."
Did you get Brett into hats?
"Definitely. All of Brett’s style is Janicza, let’s be real."
Lemon was released to theaters on Friday, August 18.
Read These Stories Next: