One of the most devastating experiences for many people is realizing that most of the dreams they had previously imagined they would achieve by a certain age have yet to materialize. The new comedy-drama, ‘Lemon,’ which was co-written by lead actor Brett Gelman and director Janicza Bravo, showcases many people’s greatest fear: that they aren’t equipped to achieve their goals.
Gelman’s struggling protagonist perfectly represents the idea that everyone deserves to find happiness, especially after they relentlessly put tireless effort into their pursuits, and still haven’t obtained their desired result. The movie, which the performer-co-scribe also executive produced with Bravo, highlights the determination people continuously possess as they strive to overcome their bad fortune, and achieve the life they crave.
‘Lemon’ follows a struggling and unfulfilled actor, Isaac Lachmann (Gelman), who’s clinging to his career in the arts by managing a tiny theater company in Los Angeles, where he’s directing a production of ‘The Seagull.’ He has become dissatisfied with his life since he returned to California after living in New York, where he repeatedly claims he found much bigger success in the arts. The helmer repeatedly alienates the lead actress in the production, Tracy (Gillian Jacobs), while also hopelessly clinging to the play’s lead actor, Alex (Michael Cera).
Isaac is also contending with problems at home, as his girlfriend of ten years, Ramona (Judy Greer), who happens to be blind, keeps going on business trips. She feels as though he has become needy and neurotic over the course of their relationship, and will do whatever it takes to gain approval and acceptance from everyone in his life. Ramona decides to finally end their decade-long relationship around the same time that Isaac attends a difficult Passover dinner with his family, which makes him reevaluate his life choices.
As he tries to find true meaning and purpose in his life, Isaac begins a new romantic relationship with with Cleo (Nia Long), who he mistreats at first. Despite the initial tension, he soon spends an afternoon with her family and friends, which doesn’t turn out any better than his experience with his own relatives. The encounter finally makes him realize that he has to improve his views and insights if he wants to achieve the better life he truly desires.
Magnolia Pictures released ‘Lemon’ into select California theaters, as well as on iTunes, On Demand and Amazon Video, this past weekend. The distributor will also release the film in cinemas in New York and several other select cities this Friday, August 25, before it expands to more theaters nationwide throughout September.
Gelman generously took the time recently to talk about co-writing, starring in and producing ‘Lemon.’ Among other things, the actor-filmmaker discussed how the movie’s overall story was a result of Bravo and his fears that they don’t possess the traits that will help them transform into the people they want to become. He also revealed that having the opportunity to work with not only Bravo, who he’s married to in real life, but also the other performers they knew before principal photography began, allowed him to become comfortable enough to fully transform Isaac through the filming process.
The conversation began with Gelman explaining what inspired Bravo and him to pen the film, and what the writing process with her was like. “The idea for the story was originally Janicza’s,” the co-scribe revealed. The overall story that appears in the completed movie “came from our own fears of not becoming what we wanted to become. We also had the fear of not even having the tools we needed to achieve what we wanted to in our lives.”
The overall filmmaking process, including the writing, “was very much led by Janicza, as the director. Someone has to be the boss, so the boss should be the director. She also approached making the movie with a specific vision, so I had full trust in that vision. I also benefited from being the lead” actor, Gelman added with a laugh. “So I was fine with doing whatever she wanted. Even though we were partners, I’m a fan of her as a writer and director. I know she very much saw the story unfold in her head as we were putting it to the page.”
The scribe then delved into the process of also playing Isaac in the drama, in addition to co-penning the screenplay. Starring in a movie for which he also contributed to the script “was something that I had done before. But with this film, it was pretty interesting, because in my writing process with Janicza, I didn’t picture myself playing the character in the way that it ended up being played. We started rehearsing together a couple of months before we started shooting, and we worked on (Isaac’s) physicality and gestures.”
Gelman also admitted that Bravo told him that she didn’t want to see his off-screen presence to be infused into his portrayal of the protagonist. The director told the actor that she wanted him to transform. “So there was a lot of work done on that aspect” of the character, “and it had nothing to do with the writing. So her wanting me to do that made me separate” the actor and writer within in him.
“I really wanted to show a guy who’s stuck on this plateau of mediocrity and inner struggle. But he’s also privileged in that struggle…He’s the type of guy who’s allowed to be on that plateau, while a lot of other people aren’t allowed to be on it,” the performer explained. He added that he hopes people can relate to the darker aspects of the character. “But I know a lot of people who have already seen the film judge him pretty harshly,” Gelman revealed with a laugh.
“That happens with a lot of my characters, and that’s always surprising to me. To me, I’m exhibiting some qualities of being a human being that are in all of us. Yes, they are dark, but it’s never my intention to disturb people; that quality is actually meant to make people feel less lonely. That quality will allow them to see that there are other people who have the same negative thoughts and emotions that they’re also experiencing, even in the darkest recesses in their brains,” the performer divulged.
The conversation then turned to Gelman further discussing his experience of bringing Isaac in to life in ‘Lemon’ once principal photography began. “Once we arrived to the set, I really became the actor-producer, and I really left the writer behind. There really wasn’t any rewriting done once we started filming. By that time, we had rewritten the script” many times, the scribe disclosed. “We were happy with what we were shooting. So I pretty much focused on the project as an actor…The movie has specific blocking, so it was a great challenge, but also very fun,” to figure out the choreography for the main character as he interacts with the rest of the characters.
The filmmaker then disclosed what the experience of producing a movie he also wrote and starred in, especially on an independent budget. Gelman explained that Bravo and he decided to also serve as executive producers because they wanted to “make sure that we were in each other’s corner. Even if I wasn’t credited as a producer on paper, I would still be acting as one, and so would Janicza.” He added that one of his duties as a producer was to serve the director’s vision. “I made sure that what she wanted was happening. One of those things that I had to make sure was happening properly was my performance.”
Since the film was made independently, it was shot in 18 days, which the producer admitted “was really stressful. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on anything that didn’t have major stress attached to it. Regardless of what you do, it should be challenging…That anxiety actually helped,” Gelman revealed with a laugh. “My character is in such a strong state of anxiety that the anxiety that I was having as a producer only helped my portrayal. I didn’t have to look for it once I stepped in front of the camera.”
In addition to that anxiety, Los Angeles also plays a crucial role in the drama’s story, as Isaac feels as though the city is limiting his creative success. The filmmaker then discussed the experience of filming at real locations across the city. “We feel that Los Angeles plays an important part in the movie, so we used all real locations. We also didn’t have a gigantic budget…so there are a lot of challenges in that, especially when you work as specifically as Janicza works. She knows exactly how she wants it shot, and how the production design should look. So that required her having to be really prepared” in how the story is presented, including with the visual aspects.
Gelman also noted that Bravo “wanted the performances to be specific, too, especially mine, since I’m driving the film. So we had to make sure that once we stepped on set, everything was figured out. At times, we only had a couple of takes for the scenes. In order to make sure we got the takes, we had to know what they would be as we were going in” to shoot them.
The producer then delved into the process of casting his co-stars in ‘Lemon,’ and how involved he was in helping find the rest of the actors for the drama. “That process is always challenging,” Gelman admitted. “Some of the actors in the film are our friends, or are people that either Janicza or I had worked with before, so we had more of a direct line to them. We had a direct line to people like Michael Cera, Gillian Jacobs, Megan Mullally, Fred Melamed and Judy Greer. With some of the other actors, we had to go through their agents, or we would get their email (addresses) from a friend, so that we could contact them personally.”
The actor added that he feels that “We couldn’t have lucked out more with this cast. They’re not only all talented, but are also the only people that I can now see playing these parts. They’re also all phenomenal people, as well, and were really fun to work with” on the comedy-drama.
Once the other performers were cast, Gelman was able to have some rehearsal time with them, in order to build their characters’ emotional arcs and relationships. “Michael and I were given the most specific notes from Janicza on how the characters should be played…There was a little rehearsal that Michael, Gillian and I did, specifically for the acting class scenes. But other than that, everything else was pretty much done on the day of” the shoots for each scene. “So that’s why we were lucky to have such brilliant actors who nailed their scenes as we filmed them.”
‘Lemon’ had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and then also screened at SXSW and opened the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The filmmaker described the experience of bringing the comedy-drama on the film festival circuit as being “amazing, but also terrifying. Janicza and I were only able to watch it at Sundance. That experience was so nerve-racking…but the audience’s reaction was really exciting. The positive reaction we received at all of the festivals meant a lot to us.”
With Magnolia Pictures releasing ‘Lemon’ in select theaters and On Demand, Gelman revealed that he feels that the dual distribution is beneficial for independent movies like this one. “I think that films should play in theaters. As a filmmaker, you always want a theatrical release for your projects, and we’re really grateful that we’re having one for this movie,” the actor-producer shared. “But that’s not to say that I look down on streaming, as I think it’s also a really valuable platform. So it’s really exciting that this movie is available to people who may not be able to catch it in the theaters.”