'Lemon' Concludes Voces Tonight on PBS - Q&A with Laura Brownson & Beth Levison

Tune in tonight to the conclusion of Voces on PBS with the award-wining film directed and produced by Laura Brownson & Beth Levison, Lemon.

Lemon Anderson held a Tony Award in his hands for his work in Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, it was close to a miracle. This poet/performer was a three-time felon who’d achieved more than anyone could have ever imagined. But when the show closed, he lost everything and moved his wife and two small daughters back to the projects. In desperation, he turned to the only thing he had left – his pen and his past. Lemon follows one man’s journey to bring his life story to the New York stage while battling his darkest demons. Lemon airs tonight on PBS (check local listings). For more information on the film, including local screenings, visit their website and follow them on Facebook.

How did you come to make LEMON?

I (Laura) was the first one to see Lemon perform and had never seen anyone with as much raw talent. His voice was so unique and relatable — even though Lemon was so different than me.  At that first performance, I learned a little about his past and had a hunch that there was a story there worth telling.  The question was whether or not his current life could make for compelling storytelling, as well.  Beth and I partnered up, met with Lemon, and quickly learned that there was equally as gripping an unfolding story in his present as his past.  At the time, he was living in the projects with thirteen family members and told us that he had a plan to get out of poverty by writing his life story for the New York stage.  As crazy as the plan sounded, we believed that he just might do it.  We followed his journey for the next three and a half tumultuous years.

What were some of the challenges you faced?

Financing a film is always the hardest part for any independent filmmaker.  We faced many financial hurdles along the way and had to dig very keep into our own pockets to make this film a reality.  But beyond finances, the biggest challenge was riding the emotional roller coaster of someone else’s life.  We became very attached to Lemon and his family and there were many times when we were unsure whether things would work out for them.  And when things got really tough, the last thing that Lemon and Marilyn wanted was a camera documenting it.  But somehow we were able to finesse those moments in a way that allowed us to tell a truthful and dramatic story.

The film is a very intimate portrait of Lemon and his family — how did you gain their trust?

Slowly.  Gradually.  The more time we spent with Lemon, the more he was able to see us as friends.   Additionally, Lemon values hard work and we definitely earned his respect/trust on that front.   It was clear that our dedication to the project was genuine and that we were willing to work as hard as he was to get his story out in to the world.

Did anything happen during the filming that was unexpected?

Everything that happened during the filming was unexpected.  That’s the beauty (and heartache) of verite filmmaking.  You simply do not know what will come next.  We didn’t know whether Lemon’s story would end in tragedy (with him demoralized and back in the projects) or whether it would end in triumph.  The struggle of an artist is epic and unpredictable.  Lemon is no different, but his struggle is compounded by the fact that his artistic voice is representative of a culture that is not necessarily mainstream in the world of “legitimate theater”, plus Lemon has demons from his past to overcome, so his struggle was that much more intense and unpredictable.

What has the audience response been so far?

Overwhelming.  This story seems to really touch people. Of course the film resonates very strongly with Latinos and people of color or on the margins, but it seems like it strikes a chord with just about anyone who has ever tried to change their lot in life.  We have been invited to screen LEMON all over the world and it seems to be universally well-received.  We’re always shocked when we get a standing ovation, but the film does seem to elicit strong responses.  And while we, as the filmmakers, would love to take all the credit, it really is a testament to the universality of Lemon’s struggle and his willingness to share it so intimately on screen that is the reason behind its deep resonance.

Have the subjects seen it, and if so, what did they think?

All of the subjects, except Lemon, have seen the film.  Their responses have been very gratifying.  In particular, to have Marilyn (Lemon’s wife) love the film and support the film has made us extremely proud.  We love that we were able to give Marilyn a little bit of the “glory” that she deserves.  She is very much the unsung hero in Lemon’s life.  With Marilyn’s stamp of approval, Lemon has also been incredibly supportive of the film and has attended most festivals with us.   But he swears that he will never see it!  He says, “I lived it.  Why should I watch it?”  Lemon wants to look forward and we respect his desire to do so.  Also, we appreciate that he wants to respect our artistic choices as filmmakers and feels like it could be hard for him to watch a film about his life without being creatively involved.  So…he trusted us to do it…and we think he is happy that we did.

Are there any updates on Lemon since the film was completed?

Lemon is working on his next play called Toast — based in folklore and fiction (not autobiographical).  He received his second Sundance grant and it is commissioned by the Public Theater.

Making independent films can be tough. What keeps you motivated?

This time around it was a good dose of naivety that kept us motivated! We have both had long careers in film, but this was our first foray as director/producers of an independent feature documentary.   We had no idea what we were getting in to or how hard it would be to pull off.  We are now 4.5 years out and FINALLY getting our broadcast premiere.  (And thrilled for it.)  Next time around, we know what we are getting into so it has to be a story that MUST be told and something that we can imagine living with and struggling with for the next 4-6 years of our lives…

What advice would you give young filmmakers just starting out?

Work hard.  Know your medium.  Be brave.  Never give up.  Be patient.  And find a good partner!  We would never have jumped off this cliff without each other.  It’s far easier to take risks creatively and otherwise when you have a great partner willing to stick their neck out there with you.

What’s your next project?

Laura is hard at work developing a couple narrative projects.  Beth is developing some projects and running a film division at Etsy that makes gorgeous on-line content.  And we are chasing down/developing a handful of independent doc ideas together to see which one will become our next baby.


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