Janicza Bravo doesn’t like it when people say that “Lemon,” her feature film debut, is weird. The lauded short filmmaker and playwright co-wrote “Lemon” with her husband Brett Gelman, who also stars in the dark absurdist comedy that follows a perpetual loser whose life is only gets worse as he attempts to get over a bad breakup and an embarrassing career as a commercial actor. Packed with strange jokes, bizarre humor and unfathomable twists of fate, Bravo struggled to bring “Lemon” to the big screen.
She’s earned the opportunity. A theater director and actress by training, Bravo also has nine short films under her belt (including the 2013 Sundance Film Festival selection “Gregory Go Boom”), a host of festival awards, and a bent towards the possibilities of VR in the entertainment space.
IndieWire sat down with Bravo after the film’s Sundance debut to talk about the feature’s long road to the big screen and why you should never underestimate what she can do.
A lot of people at the festival have been describing “Lemon” as “weird,” do you bristle at the kind of reaction?
Weird is one of those words that, when someone describes my work in that way, I suddenly feel like I’m in high school and I’m not a cool person. It’s confusing to me because I had a very successful high school career. I was voted most popular, I was the prom queen, and so weird is reserved for people that were actually my friends. All of my friends were people who were weird and I think that there is something kind of negative about that and it feels dismissive and diminutive.
I think there are better words to describe our movie. Absurd, exciting, hyperbolic, different.
The film took over five years to get made, what did you learn from that process?
We’re really good at rejection. Or at least I’ve become better at rejection. It took five years to make a movie. But I wanna say that — and I’m really feeling this, and I wanted to say it at the premiere — but there was a thaw, and it was just so insane. I couldn’t believe it was happening.
But while it was incredibly painful that it took that long, I think it’s exactly the amount of time it needed to take for the film to be what it is. For it to be the manifestation that it is. I’m a different person now. I mean, I’m the same, but there are more scars. There are a few more burns.
What sort of feedback did you get from people while trying to make the film?
One of the reasons, I feel, it took so long to get “Lemon” made is that, tonally, it is a little bit different. To me, on paper, I’m like, “Duh, that’s exactly what it is. How could you not tell that’s what the movie was gonna be?” A lot of people would say to us when we would meet them, “I loved reading this movie. I had so much fun reading this movie. I laughed out loud, by myself, in a room.” And then I would say, “Well, why don’t you wanna make it?”
And I think that there were two things going on. I was a first-time director, I am a woman, I am of color, and unfortunately, all of those things together mean, “Are you actually capable?” So there was that.
And then there’s also the tone. It’s funny, and it’s really, really, dark. And it’s awkward and it’s stressful. I mean, it takes a certain skillset to be able to man that kind of roller coaster.
And again, because of all those things I have against me, it’s like, “How am I, with that, going to be able to do that?” And there wasn’t enough of a proof of concept. I had a short film when we first started pitching the movie, and then by the time we got to make it last summer, I had done nine short films. There was still wariness, but it finally came to be.
But you have such a rich background in both theater and short films, did that not appeal to producers?
As far as theater, it’s curious to me that it’s like, “You’ve never directed a feature,” and I’m like, “I directed ‘Dangerous Liaisons.’ It’s three and a half hours long, by the way.” But people in film are like, “Eh, I dunno.”
There’s not as much respect for theater as I would like. I just don’t know that there’s as much respect for theater as there maybe used to be. I think that people in film wouldn’t say this, but I found that people processed it as a lesser art form. And when I would talk about theater or my background in theater, which I thought was really sexy, people kind of thought, “Well, it’s a film, though.”
I think our movie is very theatrical. To me, it’s obviously made by a theater person. Its presentation feels a little bit like a play. I was like, “Let’s direct a play and like shoot it and then they’ll let us do it.”
You’ve also experimented with VR filmmaking, how has that informed your work?
I think VR’s actually very theatrical. The technology of it is the opposite of theater, in that it’s kind of cold and very far, but the work itself, how it’s presented and the space you’re in. It’s kind of like theater in the round, a little bit.
You’re inside of it. And then you have a 360-degree view. So it’s theater in the round, but you’re the performer, but you’re not the performer.
What do you think the future of VR looks like?
I’m kind of excited for VR in a few years. I’m excited for when it’s going to be photographically more beautiful, when it’s going to feel a little bit more like this world.
And to sound a little bit gross, I’ve not seen any pornography in this space. I actually have been talking about making another VR piece, and I wanna make something that is a little bit sexual. Not pornographic, but sexual, because I think that is a space in which, quality-wise, it wouldn’t matter what the quality is. Because it’s sexy and sexual, and so many other synapses are firing off, that you can let go of quality.
But I also think it’s curious to experience being inside of something when you know other people are watching you. That is titillating, and tingling at your nethers.
You recently directed an episode of “Atlanta.” What was the appeal of expanding into that medium?
I feel so lucky that Donald [Glover] and Hiro [Murai] gave me that shot. I think that, because they had also not done TV, that was a part of why they were attracted to me. They liked my short films. I feel so fortunate that they thought I could do it, because so much of this is about opportunity and unfortunately, women are not given that many opportunities.
They looked at me and thought that I was very capable, regardless of the things that are sometimes not in my favor. And I think I more than proved that I can handle it. I can handle the scale and budget and actors and extras with ease.
What’s the next step for the film?
We’re getting to premiere our movie in Rotterdam, and I’m so excited for that. I’m curious, internationally. I’ve never had the experience of my work playing abroad. I am equal parts nervous and thrilled for what that’s going to be, and what the conversation will be like there.
Also, because there’s a lot of race embedded into our movie, and I’m very curious how that kind of audience processes race, because I think that they think that there isn’t a race problem there. You know? Or the race problem there is specific to a group of people that’s not in our movie and I’m just thinking [loudly sighs].
“Lemon” premiered in the NEXT section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.