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With 'Lemon,' Brett Gelman & Janicza Bravo make art out of anxiety

(L-R) Janicza Bravo (writer-director), Brett Gelman (writer-star) and Megan Mullally on the set of
(L-R) Janicza Bravo (writer-director), Brett Gelman (writer-star) and Megan Mullally on the set of "Lemon."
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

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This interview originally aired in January 2017 leading up to the Sundance Film Festival. "Lemon" has its theatrical release August 18, 2017.

This one goes out to all the starving artists out there.

One of the many movies premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend is a dark comedy titled “Lemon.” It’s co-written by husband-and-wife duo Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman, and it stars Gelman as a timid, middle-aged actor whose life in L.A.’s theater world begins to fall apart.

Scene from
Scene from "Lemon," a Magnolia Pictures release.
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The film is Bravo’s feature-length directorial debut, and it draws heavily on the couple’s past — as artists struggling to find success in the worlds of sketch comedy and independent theater.

When Bravo and Gelman joined us at The Frame studios before heading off to Sundance, they spoke with John Horn about the bumpy road towards the production of "Lemon," how their personal relationship has fostered their collaborative working relationship, and the years of real-life experience that found their way into "Lemon."

Brett Gelman and Michael Cera in
Brett Gelman and Michael Cera in "Lemon," a film co-written by Gelman and Janicza Bravo. Directed by Bravo.
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Interview Highlights:

Tell me a little bit about the origin of "Lemon."

Bravo: We wrote it a little over five years ago. We were actually at [South by Southwest] when we wrote it — I had premiered my first short film, which is called "Eat" and which Brett is in, and while we were at the festival I met these women who were working at the Sundance Labs. They'd seen the short and really liked it and they asked if I had a feature.

And before going to the festival, my best friend who's also a filmmaker told me, "Always say yes to everything." So they asked if I had a feature and I said yes. I was lying. I didn't even know that they actually worked for Sundance, and [after] hanging out at this party, they gave me a card and said that they'd love to read the script and were considering some people for the [Sundance] Lab. And I nearly s**t myself, because I had no script. [laughs]

So we wrote it in five days and it was terrible. I mean, it was like the worst, but it was great that we had this kind of imposing deadline where they were wanting to read the script. So we spent the entirety of the festival working on this script, waking up at 8 a.m., writing until 7 p.m., then going to a party, then doing the same thing the next day. And we felt so good when we finished it.

We sent it off to them, we felt really strong, and then 45 minutes later we were like, That's the most embarrassing thing we've ever written. But it exists, and there's enough of a skeleton for a script.

Did they want to put it through the workshop? What happened after that?

Bravo: No, no, they didn't, because it was really like trash. [laughs]

Gelman: [laughs] Yeah, it was her idea and it basically came from ...

Bravo: Fear of failure.

Gelman: Yeah, from us both being at a point in our lives where we were scared that we weren't going to grow from where we were at. Also we were really afraid that we didn't possess the tools with which to grow, so that's really what the film is about.

Bravo: Crippling anxiety.

(Janicza Bravo, seated, makes her feature-length directorial debut with "Lemon." Courtesy of Lemon A Motion Picture)

But also about creating an opportunity for yourself that you thought might not exist elsewhere.

Gelman: Definitely. I have Janicza solely to thank for my growth as an actor, because she saw in me something that other people just weren't seeing, and she knew that I could go beyond the normal funny "make-em-ups" that I was doing on an improv stage.

Brett Gelman stars as a struggling actor named Isaac in 'Lemon,' a Sundance premiere he and his wife, Janicza Bravo, co-wrote after years of experience trying to make it in the arts.
Brett Gelman stars as a struggling actor named Isaac in 'Lemon,' a Sundance premiere he and his wife, Janicza Bravo, co-wrote after years of experience trying to make it in the arts.
Jason McCormick/Lemon A Motion Picture

Are you talking about your professional relationship or your personal relationship? Because quite honestly, it sounds like they're overlapping in terms of what you get from each other.

Gelman: I am talking about both. She's really pushed me, not only with our own work together, but in other work that I've done. And I really think I've pushed her, too. There's a lot of support in our house — a lot of honesty, but a lot of support.

Where did you two meet?

Bravo: We met eight years ago in New York on a commercial. I used to be a stylist and Brett was the face of the New York Lotto, the Take 5. He played this, um ... dwarfed man? I don't know what the right term is, because he was like shrunken, but his head was quite large? Right?

Gelman: Yeah, the character was all over New York City. I was a character called Little Bit of Luck. It was basically a Jewish minstrel character, I mean, it was like a Jewish demon tricking poor people into gambling. [laughs]

I have to say, in many ways that meeting reminds me of "Lemon." It's the same sort of stuff that your character's going through, with the odd connections that you make that seem forced and strange but ultimately turn out to be meaningful.

Bravo: One-hundred percent. [laughs]

Gelman: Yeah, I mean, it really does reflect our everyday existence, and how we think and who we are. There's no judgment coming at any character in this film, and I do think that every single character is an extension of how we live our lives. [laughs]

It's often a little bit difficult to watch Brett's character in this film. He's awkward in his own skin, he's awkward in social situations, and he's awkward around his own family. Is that something that we're supposed to share as an audience, that his awkwardness becomes our awkwardness?

Bravo: Yeah, I think the idea is, like Brett was saying, that the film is an amalgamation of both of our anxieties and our discomfort. Most of the protagonists that I'm interested in centering stories around kind of exist in this socially-debilitated state — they're just really sexy to me.

I think that, on the surface, I feel like I appear as rather comfortable and okay and with it, but internally I'm not always doing so well. As I think many of us are! I feel many of us are born with certain tools, and they're tools that make us really good about being socialized. The characters that I'm attracted to lack those tools, and I feel [Brett's character], while it's sort of fun to watch him and he feels really far away from most of us, I do think that there are these small seeds and aspects of his personality that are pretty easy to see yourself in.

It feels very human — his flaws, his brokenness to me feel very raw and emotional. And all of the beats in the film are coming from a very emotional place. For both of us, in the writing of the piece, it was a true exorcism of all of the things that we were feeling professionally, romantically, socially — this idea of feeling invisible and alone and friendless.

Really, the experience of the film for us is: you wake up one day and you don't know how you got there, so what do you do? What do you do if you don't have those tools? I think more people than not may not have all the tools that you need to be the hero of your own life.

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