Former VICE contributors Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman luxuriate in the confrontational. The former has directed a string of beautiful but bleak shorts ( Gregory Go Boom, Eat!) — as well as the surreal and sensuous "Juneteenth" episode of Atlanta—and the latter's known for his abrasive comedic characters in Another Period and Love. They both push the limits of likability with their art, almost daring their audience to laugh...or leave. You'd be a fool if you choose the latter.
Their comedic tenor is pushed into even further antagonizing territory with Lemon, Bravo's feature debut co-written by and starring Gelman. The creative duo (and real-life husband and wife) have created an absurdist masterwork in Lemon, which follows part-time commercial actor and full-time schlimazel Isaac (Gelman) in his black cloud of a life. After his blind girlfriend (Judy Greer) leaves him, his personal and professional lives begin to spin out and ultimately collapse from a series of increasingly humiliating events. It's a twisted, inverted comedy of manners, one that tests the limits of audience empathy and their threshold for watching a protagonist suffer. In biblical terms, this Isaac is more of a Job type.
Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman hopped on the phone with me to discuss Lemon, representation in comedy, and why they're avoiding social media these days.
VICE: There's dark absurdist comedies, and then there's Lemon. It somehow managed to be both the most sublime and unsettling film I've watched this year.
Janicza Bravo: That's our favorite combination of things too. A perfect marriage of good feelings and bad feelings.
Brett Gelman: Exactly. We think some of the funniest themes in the last five years in cinema are certain themes from Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier movies. That should tell you something.
The look of Lemon has such a unique texture and tone. What are some of the films that inspired you?
Bravo: Hal Ashby's The Landlord and Cassavetes's Minnie and Moskowitz. Both are really raw, kind of funny, but also dark and laced with a sort of looming danger. They're volatile but they're very beautiful, which is a very 70s trademark. There's also something incredibly theatrical both in presentation and in performance, and what grounds them is feelings.
Gelman: Janicza and I thought a lot about executing a film that's really composed. There's very deliberate composition to each frame, but there's also a dangerous, edgy spontaneity pulsing through it. There's an inherent similarity between Ashby, Cassavetes, and Janicza, even though her style is completely unique. She's able to be composed and then dangerous at the same time.
Should Lemon be taken as an artistic mission statement?
Bravo: It feels like a mission statement, but sometimes when a company has a mission statement, they're bound to that being the only thing they do. Lemon felt like a mission statement for right now—a culmination of the things I was having conversations with: whiteness, limitation and privilege.
My sense of humor is a little unusual, strange, and different. When I wanted to work in comedy as a director, there wasn't an invitation for someone that looked like me, so I needed to carve out my own space. Lemon is me throwing my hat in the ring and aggressively saying that not only do I belong in this space, but I should be here, and this is my voice.
Gelman: It's a culmination for me as an actor too. I normally play characters who play around in the same space that Isaac is playing around in—who start with good intentions that are soon overshadowed by anger, resentment, and fear that fuels them to do not-so-great things. But their intentions aren't evil. Ultimately, I want people to relate to the performance and feel less lonely in their own flaws.
Why was this the story you wanted to tell right now?
Bravo: I've noticed from my contemporaries is that there's this genre of white-guy comedy: Late 30s, early 40s, the guy is a total failure, but things seem to work out for him. Those movies tend to go through love, career, and family, and Lemon is a conversation with those three pieces. When I looked at some of those movies, I was disturbed by the fact that things seemed to work out for them. If this were my story, I don't think they would work out for me.
Gelman: We wanted to show real-life consequences to a plateau of privilege and mediocrity while not making it feel more exciting than it's usually presented. We're here to present something that's theatricalized so that it can truly affect an audience. Hopefully Lemon will make them see a part of themselves they don't normally want to look at, allowing them the space to forgive themselves for having that part inside of them.
Bravo: It's an exploration of whiteness, privilege, and mediocrity. When Brett and I wrote this, we were having a major panic that everyone in our lives was passing us by. So, Lemon's about failure and stagnation. It was an exorcism for us.
How does the collaborative dynamic change when your creative partner is also your life partner?
Gelman: I don't feel like I compromised anything in the process of writing this. Our dynamic is that Janicza is the director --
Bravo: I'm an asshole [Laughs].
Gelman: She has a distinct vision and voice. She knows when she's writing it. She's seeing it in her head how it's going to look and how it's going to play out. She saw the physicality of my character before I did. To me, I fully trust her so there is no compromise. Also, I'm an actor. I'm a narcissist. I want a great role. I was given the lead role in a movie being directed by someone who, yes, I'm married to—but I'm also a massive fan of. She's giving me the opportunity to play a character in a universe that I don't normally get to play inside of, so hey, I'll do whatever she says.
Bravo: That's correct. I'm an asshole, but we managed to fall into our roles without a lot of conversation. I respected and heard Brett as a performer, and he gave me room as the director.
Both of you come from a theater background, and some of Lemon's most memorable scenes take place inside an uncomfortable theater acting class. How did theater inform your sensibilities?
My experience in theater school was amazing, but also at times really not okay. During my freshman year, in the middle of a scene with another actress, my acting teacher stood up, walked to the stage, and said "I feel like I've failed you" without making any eye contact with me. He started crying and then he left. We never saw that teacher again. Two days later, we had another teacher for the rest of the year, and there was no explanation for why that happened. We were taught by people who were incredibly volatile and emotionally paralyzed. I don't know how responsible that was.
Gelman: There's nothing more superior than great theater, but there's something inherently flawed about acting classes. There's always conflict when dealing with theater scenes in this very indulgent way. As an actor, you're the most desperate creature in the world for people to like you, so subjecting yourself to that can be humiliating. The acting class scenes are a great way to make the audience think that the whole film is going to be uncomfortable in a certain way. They'll find themselves pulled down into a further pit of discomfort than they were imagining. I like that trick.
Bravo: It's also a love letter to theater school. I loved talking about acting and performance, and talking about Chekhov in that way was so juicy and exciting. But it works in the film because these jokes were self-evident. It felt very safe and comfortable because we're also celebrating some of the best memories of our young lives.
You two are notably absent from social media, except for Instagram. Do you think social media does more harm than good for relationships?
Phones in general feel like a very dark thing in relationships—even friendships. I was just at dinner the other day and every person had phones at their table. Before going to bed, we're both staring at our phones, and the first thing that we look at when we wake up in the morning is our phones. But for both of us right now, it's hard not be tethered to what is going on in the news. We're having these super aggressive panics that a missile's flying midair towards our heads, and maybe we should get text updates on that. But I don't do Twitter…
Gelman: I constantly wonder if I should get back on Twitter. But I think it's a fucking cesspool. I really do.
Bravo: A few years ago when I was at Sundance with Gregory Go Boom, Brett had convinced me that I was failing my career by not being on Twitter. So I joined it for about 72 hours. The interface really bothered me and it was just too much information. Instagram just feels safe. Most of the people who follow me or send me direct message are 100% of the time in my corner. So I just feel safe in that space and I feel comfortable sharing and I feel like it's kind of a nice community of people. Brett actually gets a lot of hostile stuff that I really don't. Remember when you called Twitter a Klan rally?
Gelman: Yeah I tweeted that one time. Jack Dorsey should be fucking ashamed of himself. It's not a pulpit for free speech. It is a fucking business and you're allowing the President of the United States to publicly bully private citizens. Kick the fucking president off your website. And also, in the midst of all the Adult Swim shit, I got massively attacked. People were photoshopping my face in ovens and even making racist photos of Janicza.
Bravo: I feel like now more than ever I'm just taking care of myself and avoiding things that do emotional harm. Because it is not useful to be in this space on a daily basis. We're not totally anti-social media, but you gotta protect your spirit.