INTERVIEW: JANICZA BRAVO FOR OAK
Photography by Isabella Behravan
As filmmaker Janicza Bravo gears up to release her first feature-length film Lemon – which will have its world premiere at Sundance this January – she talks with the OAK crew about her creative process, why it’s important to be careful about what you say “yes” to, and how she wears outerwear in LA.
Art Direction by Jess Cuevas
Styling by Jess Cuevas and Katie Collins
Photography by Isabella Behravan
Interview by Conor Riley
OAK: You told Filmmaker Magazine that earlier on in your career you were saying “Yes” to everything and that it lead you to becoming somewhat unhappy. Can you elaborate on the drawbacks of this process for someone aspiring to break into the industry?
JANICZA BRAVO: Yes I can elaborate. I think the answer is taken slightly out of context. Before I transitioned into filmmaking as a director/writer, I used to do costume design and styling, so when I was a stylist and doing freelance it was hard not to say “yes” to everything because with that work there’s either a ton of it or none of it. So you say yes to everything that’s right in front of you because suddenly there are these big dry spells. The sort of inherent problem with not getting to be totally curated about every move of your life when you’re a person that doesn’t have a ton of money is that you can exhaust yourself on work that is meaningless or work that is heartless, or work that takes you out of it. You kind of forget why you’re in the thing in the first place. And having moved into directing, I haven’t had many opportunities presented to me that I’m saying “no” in droves, but I am definitely in a place right now where I can be more careful about what my next moves are.
OAK: Your 2014 short film Pauline Alone follows a woman seeking connections with strangers in Los Angeles. One line that stands out is when Pauline tells a stranger on the phone “I wanted you to know I’m here.” Do you think LA is an inherently lonely city? As a transplant from New York, was there anything autobiographical about Pauline’s motivations to connect with people, and make her presence known?
JB: Most of the protagonists I’m interested in telling stories about are very similar to Pauline. They’re people who feel alone. They feel like outcasts, they feel like society has kind of pushed them to the end. And some of them work really hard at trying to be socialized and others don’t, but what they all have in common is that they don’t have the tools. They don’t have the sort of basic tools that perhaps you and I were born with, that lead us to being relatively okay citizens that are charming and fun… things we take for granted. My answer is many answers. I think Los Angeles is an inherently lonely place. It’s spread out. People don’t come together in the same way they do in New York. But that aspect of LA was very attractive to me, having come from a very social life. I felt really guilty not wanting to spend time with people in New York. New York doesn’t really give you permission to not hang out with people. That’s an aggressive move. In LA, you write somebody that you want to hang out, they’ll e-mail or text you a couple days later and say, “let’s make a plan” and it’s for two weeks from now. If someone’s already parked, they don’t want to move their car, so you better get to them. I’ve learned to like that. When I first moved here I was pretty sad about it because as much as I wanted to get away from how social New York was, I was really accustomed to having so many people being around me. The idea of having to eat dinner by yourself, or having to go to the movies by yourself is sad, unless you’re choosing it. I don’t know if I answered the question, but I think I danced around it enough… Danced slowly with it a little.
OAK: Congratulations on your first feature Lemon, which you co-wrote with your husband Brett Gelman, which is out in 2017. Can you tell us a bit about the project, and the process of it coming to be? Were features always on your radar? How did you know the timing was right for this project?
JB: Lemon I’ve been working on for five years. Brett and I wrote it – we had the seed for the idea a little more than five years ago. We wrote the first draft of the script and have been working our asses off to get people to pay for it, or to believe in it, and now that it’s done it feels like it went by so quickly. But [those 5 years] were very intense and it was an emotional experience, and really hard. It’s hard to have to prove yourself in that way. It’s hard to have to have to convince people that your ideas and your work is worth their while. Yes [features] were always on my radar. I’ve only – I’ve been directing for about five years. I come from theater. My background is directing and design for theater and about five years ago, actually, I made the proper foray into filmmaking. And I’ve wanted to do features for a longtime, since say, I was a teenager, but I assumed that it was going to take me like 20 plus years to get there. I wasn’t born a rich kid, so I didn’t know how to get to that work because I’m also not inherently a writer – I’ve only been writing for also only about five or six years. When I’m doing theater, I do classics, and that work is already written, so my assumption was “I’m a good enough theater director, someone’s going to give me their script to film.” That’s not how it worked for me, I had to self generate. So getting myself to write so I could direct and have this “proof of concept” – I was able to bring that to fruition. I’ve directed seven or eight short films and so features were on the radar but I didn’t have a sense of when I would arrive at that.
OAK: How did you know the timing was right for Lemon?
JB: I didn’t! I wish I had a sexier, more serendipitous answer, but I really had no idea. About four years ago, we got our initial bite for the film. We found these financiers, they really liked it, they wanted to give us all this money, and we started working on it. Day one of production we lost half of our funding because an actor had dropped out and when that happened it was like the floor beneath me had been removed. It was a huge blow, and I didn’t understand, and I felt that I had made these terrible mistakes. I didn’t know how I got there. It was really tough. So, that we got to make the movie now, in some ways I’m not surprised because I feel I deserve it… And in other ways I’m totally surprised because I can’t believe I deserve it. I feel both of those things. But I’m excited for people to see it.
OAK: What do you like most about LA?
JB: The thing I most like about LA is space. Wait no, it’s two things: sunshine and space. Sunshine goes a long way. I lived in New York for 15 years and as much as that is obviously the coolest city that there ever was, and it’s an incredibly special place, winter is really hard. Maybe LA has turned me into a full wuss, but I can’t deal with grey or rain. People always talk about missing the seasons and I’m like “You should leave, because I don’t want that!” I want it to be sunny and 75 every day. I want it to be hot during the day, and a light sweater at night and like, that is what I’m interested in. And I really like space. I really don’t like people being near me? I don’t really want people in my circumference? And I don’t want to feel people’s breath, I don’t want to walk through people’s farts. I don’t want any of that stuff.
OAK: How would you describe your personal style?
JB: It’s so funny, I have for years been wanting to figure out some witty way to be like it’s “this meets that” – you know like “from yacht to high rise” – I want to say something like that, but I don’t. Do you like that? “From high rise to yacht” that’s what I want to say my style is, but it’s not at all. And for a while I had this sort of Annie Hall aesthetic and I have found that it feels – although I’m pretty settled in the kinds of things that I wear, my palette is all over the place. Navy is my favorite color, but I tend to wear really bright yellows. You’ll never see me in pastels, you’ll never see me in jewel tones, um… cuz those are disgusting (laughs). I don’t know. I want to have a sexy answer, but I really don’t. I think I’m pretty timeless, but that’s really the only word I can think of… A little timeless and maybe masculine?
OAK: And really chic.
JB: Just like the chicest.
OAK: The shoot we’re doing with you focuses on coats in LA. How does an Angeleno wear a winter coat?
JB: Well if you’re like me, you’re cold as soon as it gets to be under 70 degrees. It’s 69 and you’re like “Oh my god is it winter?” I kid you not – there’s actually maybe only one jacket in my car but – there’s probably about four sweaters, and four different weights of sweaters – there’s a wool, there’s a cashmere, there’s cotton, there’s some nylon shit blend. I am super chilly all the time. I mean, the heat’s been on in my place and it was like 75 degrees yesterday, ‘cuz that’s me. I definitely wear jackets. I wear a jacket to walk my dog. I hike a lot. Now at this time of year I’m hiking earlier in the day because the sun sets at 4:30, which is sad. So I wear something a little more athletic or sporty hiking, but when I walk my dog at night I wear something longer and wool.
OAK: You directed the episode “Juneteenth” of the FX show Atlanta. What lead you to this project?
JB: I got really lucky with that. Atlanta is amazing. It’s incredibly special. I think for like most jobs directors are trying to get, I auditioned for it. Maybe the more seasoned directors don’t have to audition for television if they have a larger body of work, but I had only directed short films and the way that I got there – I think there were a couple of factors that lead to it. The cinematographer of the show is this guy named Christian Sprenger who has shot a lot of my short content. And Donald Glover and Hiro Murai who are the creator/writer/producing power-team that made [Atlanta] were big fans of Christian, and in particular I think they were fans of this one short film I directed called Gregory Go Boom, so that’s how Christian got brought into their fold. When they were looking to invite a guest director (Murai directed 8 of the 10 episodes of the season) and I had heard about it, I really tried my damndest. I met with a bunch of execs at FX, which I’m not sure if that helped me or hurt me, [they didn’t feel] like necessarily my entry point [to the show]. And then I finally got hooked up with this meeting with [Glover and Murai], I got to read the episode I was up for, I pitched it, I was like a nerd and brought images – I don’t even know if I showed [the images] to them, because I like tried to be cooler than I was? So I auditioned and I talked about the shooting style and aesthetic. I think Hiro’s style is not so dissimilar from my own style, so I pulled from what he was already doing and then brought a little bit of myself to it.
OAK: What’s on your Fall 2016 playlist?
JB: Oh my god that’s a very good question. Right now I’m in [post-production] on my film, so I’m listening to the music my composer Heather Christian is making. There’s a section of our film that’s a little Caribbean so I’m listening to a lot of like 70s, 80s, and some 90s dancehall. But there isn’t really one thing in particular. When Donald Trump won the other week I went into a like an Odetta/Nina Simone/Bod Dylan hole because I was like “Take me back. Civil rights. The times they are a changin’.” Though they’re not. We’re still here.
OAK: What are you looking forward to most about 2017? Post-Lemon what will you be working on next?
JB: I am looking forward to the release [of Lemon]. I have been writing this television show with my husband Brett, so I’m hoping that we get further along with that. And I recently got a grant to write a new script so I’m hoping to actually sit down and write that (laughs), to meet my end of the bargain!