Brownson began her film career working with Producer David Hamburger and Director Sean Penn on The Crossing Guard, after which she continued working for Penn's company Clyde Is Hungry Films. She then spent several years as an in-house production executive for Michael Douglas and Steve Reuther's Paramount based Douglas/Reuther Productions where she helped oversee films by acclaimed directors Sydney Pollack, John Woo and Francis Ford Coppola. Venturing on her own, she produced the award-winning short film Wonderland for first time director Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound). And in 1998, she reunited with Penn and director Anthony Drazan to help develop and adapt the theatrical play Hurlyburly to the screen. After several years partnering in Drazan's Milandro Pictures, she re-located to New York where her focus turned to television. She produced two films for CBS and developed countless others for HBO, Showtime, Lifetime and others. She is currently developing BROTHER OF THE PILOT with academy award winning screenwriter Richard Friedenberg and producer Anthony Mastromauro.
Levison is an independent producer/director based in New York City with nearly two decades of documentary and television experience. She has worked on projects for such outlets as ABC News, MTV, and National Geographic Television, and has enjoyed long-term relationships with both HBO and PBS. Levison was one of the creators and the Story Editor of EGG the arts show, a weekly national PBS series on contemporary visual and performing arts that received a 2002 Peabody and four 2002 national Emmy Award nominations. She was a producer on HBO's Classical Baby, which won the 2005 national Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program and a 2005 Peabody. She was a producer on HBO's A Child's Garden of Poetry that won the 2010 Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program. Levison spent a year at Sundance Channel overseeing various original programming, was the senior producer and a director of the PBS series e2 design, and is currently working as the supervising producer of documentary shorts for Etsy.com.
Q&A with Laura Brownson & Beth Levison, LEMON
How did you come to make LEMON? I (Laura) was the first to actually see Lemon perform. He was doing a reading of a poem called Attica as part of a fundraiser for the American Place Theatre. It was one of those goose bump moments – I was totally blown away by the power of his presence on stage. But beyond commanding an audience, Lemon had this unique ability to communicate his past in a way that was funny, sad, poignant and relatable even though no one in the audience that night had lived a life even close to Lemon's. After seeing that reading, I had a strong feeling that the story of this guy's past, combined with his raw talent, would make for interesting filmmaking, but the question remained whether or not there was anything compelling happening in his current life. Beth and I were friends, both of us had lots of experience in various kinds of filmmaking, and we decided to partner and meet with Lemon to find out more. We took Lemon to lunch and quickly learned that there was an equally gripping story unfolding in his present life – at that time he was living with his two small daughters and his wife Marilyn in the project with thirteen family members. He was in a very tough and hopeless situation, but he told us that he had a plan to turn his luck around once and for all by writing his life story and putting it on the New York stage. As crazy as the plan sounded, we believed that he just might do it. So 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 them. 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 are the reasons 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 has been 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 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.
You've got some great music in the film. How were you able to get artists like Kanye, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Aloe Blacc involved? We were lucky – our editor Tom Patterson has a great ear for music. So when we were cutting the film, he'd cut scenes with temp music and he'd put these amazing tracks in as placeholders (with the idea that we'd have to replace them at some point). When the time came to find replacements, Beth and I decided we couldn't live without a few of those tracks – specifically both 'Get By' written by Talib Kweli and Kanye West with a Nina Simone sample and Sex, Love and Money by Mos Def were just too good, and too appropriate, for us to let go. Coincidentally, Kanye, Mos and Talib all were part of Def Poetry Jam so they knew Lemon and of course were connected to our executive producers Russell Simmons and Stan Lathan. So, with the help of our music supervisor Robin Urdang, we were able to convince them that the project was worthwhile and they were willing to lower the normal license fees. We're so honored to have their music as part of the film.
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.