By: William Engel
Kerith Lemon is a filmmaker who seeks to give women a voice. Lemon, director of the short films “Bare” and “A Social Life”, uses her art to tell the stories that all women have inside of them – from the extraordinary to the mundane. “Bare” tells the story of a breast cancer patient on the verge of losing her hair and breasts to chemotherapy, while “A Social Life” tells the story of a woman obsessed with maintaining her social media profile.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Kerith Lemon and interview her about her body of work:
WILLIAM ENGEL: How did you first break into the field of television production?
KERITH LEMON: I’ve been in the entertainment industry for the last fifteen years. I started more on the marketing side, doing branded content and promotions at Viacom, on stations like MTV and VH1 and Nickelodeon. I was working in New York for about ten years – like I said, on the marketing side – but I always found a way to weasel my way into some sort of production and being on set.
After a number of years there, kind of climbing the corporate ranks, I realized that I was happiest when I was producing things. So I took a leap of faith, and I left my job, and I left New York, and I moved out to LA to become a producer. After several years of working freelance as a producer, working on television commercials and music videos and a lot of digital content, I got asked to create a web series and help develop the digital platform for the Oprah Winfrey Network. And it was during my time there that I got so much hands-on experience directing, and that’s when I realized that that was actually my true passion.
Three years ago, I left that position, and I wrote and directed my first short film, “A Social Life”, which now has almost 2.5 million views. “Bare” was the second short film I wrote and directed.
ENGEL: Are there any examples of work you’ve produced for OWN that you’re particularly proud of?
LEMON: The series I’m probably most proud of creatively was one called “Who Am I?” It was really where I was able to take the voice of Oprah Winfrey – not Oprah the person, but the brand – and figure out how to execute content that would reach a younger audience online. So we looked at the celebrity interview, and thought about how we could do that differently, more in the style of OWN. We asked celebrities to describe themselves using “I am” statements, and they would name five different words that they believed that they were, and we would have a really intimate interview. I got to direct most of those videos and do the interviews, so those were really fun.
It was an incredible moment when I got to interview Judi Dench, and hear her tell me a story about how incredible it was to kiss Dustin Hoffman because he was the same height as her. We got some people to open up in incredible ways. Stylistically, the look and feel of the interview is very much my style; it’s very minimal and just allows for the stories to speak for themselves.
ENGEL: I noticed that when I watched “Bare” and “A Social Life”. They’re stories told in very simple, direct ways. No fancy camera tricks, dialogue is very to-the-point… you know what I’m saying?
LEMON: Yeah, totally. I approach stories… kind of emotion first, and I really strive to tell human stories and tell them in a way that is very relatable to the viewer. For me, if somebody’s watching something that I’ve made, and it allows them to get inside the story and feel some part of it themselves, then I’ve done my job.
It’s interesting, because [“Bare” and “A Social Life”] are two totally different stories; one is about technology, the other is about a health concern. But they’re both things that isolate us in very different ways, so that’s why I chose such a minimal look and feel.
ENGEL: You know, one thing I liked about “A Social Life” is how… what you’re seeing on-screen stays the same, but the “like” counter keeps going up, even though it doesn’t seem to affect anything. I thought that was a really nice touch.
LEMON: Thank you very much! Yeah, that’s one of my pet peeves about entertainment today. As we’ve advanced technology and it’s become so ubiquitous in our lives, a lot of series are still doing the “cut to the over-the-shoulder look at the phone”, which kind of takes you out of the moment. And because we have our phones and our technology omnipresent with us all the time, I wanted to find a way to convey that visually, and that’s why I chose to do those overlays.
ENGEL: I’d like to ask you a little about Rebecca Hall, the person that “Bare” was based on. How long had you known her before you decided to start the project?
LEMON: I grew up doing an equestrian sport called equestrian vaulting, so I knew Rebecca from when I was doing that sport. She’s about eight years younger than I am, so when we were both training at the same club, I used to give her lessons.
Over the years, as I moved away from that sport and we both pursued our adult lives, I sort of lost touch with her. We were still friends on social media, and it’s sort of ironic that that’s how our project came out, since my first project was about social media. But I had seen on Facebook that she had breast cancer almost ten years ago, and I was one of those people who didn’t reach out and say anything, because I didn’t know what to say.
About a year and a half ago, she started writing about her experiences. When she wrote this short story and posted it online, I think I was one of the first people to comment on her post and tell her, “Congratulations”. It was brave of her to tell her story, and I was really touched by the honesty in her writing. A few weeks later, I was on a walk with my husband, and we used that time to talk about creative projects, and I turned to him and said, “I think Rebecca is my next project.”
So I asked her if she’d be open to me adapting her short story into a film, and I was really touched by her response. She said she’d been looking for a way to give back to the cancer community, and she really felt like turning her short story into a film was the best way to do that.
ENGEL: Did she participate in the filmmaking and writing process of “Bare”?
LEMON: Yeah. She said she was interested in learning more about the entertainment process. She’s a professional writer by trade – she writes for science journals and such – so this was a whole new style of writing for her.
She and I spent a lot of time co-writing the script together. She lives in Santa Cruz, which is where I grew up, so when I went up to visit my parents, we would meet up for coffee and go through the script line-by-line and make little tweaks here and there. So we worked on the script for almost a year, I would say… I did most of the production work with my team in LA, but she was able to come down and be there for the filming, which was really special for her, but also an incredible tool for our cast and crew, because it gave the project such meaning.
We took some liberties, and fictionalized the characters in the script so it could be approachable to everyone. We didn’t want to just make it Rebecca’s story; that was something that she was very clear with me about. She said, “My story is not unique. There are many women going through this, so I want to make sure that we’re telling the story for all women.”
ENGEL: On the subject of “Bare”, what do you think was the difficult aspect of doing this project?
LEMON: Seeing as the story existed already, the writing was kind of a fluid process. To me, the actual production was the hardest, because of the way that I had chosen visually to convey some things. There was a lot of time that I spent trying to put my crew together, and that was pretty dependent on what I wanted to do. The whole opening scene is just one long shot; I had a lot of cinematographers tell me that in order to pull that off, we’d have to build the set and have tearaway walls and a lot of things that my budget wouldn’t really allow for.
Also, I really wanted it to be in a practical bathroom. There’s something very isolating about being in a bathroom. It’s a contained room; it’s also, for women, a really special place. I know it’s a cliché, about women going to the bathroom together, and having girl talk and girl time, but it’s true. It’s a place that we can kind of retreat, and look at ourselves in the mirror, there’s a lot of thinking that happens there. So to have her in that space, reflecting on those moments leading up to shaving her head, was very important to me.
I didn’t want to transport her to another space, because when you’re reflecting, you don’t physically leave wherever you are. So I wanted to bring those spaces that she was reflecting on into her physical space. And we did that through very intricate lighting design and cinematography; the cinematographer was just a dancer, dancing together with her actress, to try to manage all of those angles I wanted to get in one seamless take. So that day spent on that one shot was probably my hardest day.
Of course, the second day where we shot the head shaving was very emotional, but the first day was technically the most challenging.
ENGEL: What do you want the audience to walk away with after seeing “Bare”? What do you think the biggest takeaway is?
LEMON: It’s always hard for me to answer this question, because I really like to make films that open conversations. There are a few conversations we wanted to have happen after this, and it sort of depends on each viewer’s personal experience.
From a very mass perspective, I wanted people to consider how a woman’s identity is tied to her hair and breasts. I think when we hear “breast cancer”, we immediately jump to pink ribbons and fundraising, but we sort of forget about the person that it’s happening to. There’s a lot of society that demands that women have hair and breasts, and when you’re suddenly faced with the idea of losing that, you’re really challenged to think about who you are. When it comes down to it, you’ll still be the same person afterwards, but that’s a big hurdle for a lot of people to get over.
People think that those elements as very superficial, but it’s a big part of the journey. I have many friends who, unfortunately, have breast cancer, and it’s been a big part of their healing process to kind of come to terms with that. I just think that there’s a lot of pressure on women to look and feel a certain way, and I think that we should be allowed to look and feel however we’d like to.
ENGEL: One thing I found unique about “Bare” is that… it’s a story about breast cancer, but the main conflict doesn’t come from the woman’s mortality, or how her life is going to end. Instead, it focuses on how her life is going to change, and the sacrifices that she’s going to have to make.
LEMON: Yeah. I know for sure that we wanted this film to be very empowering. Not everybody’s story ends with a happy ending; when you get this diagnosis, mortality is a big part of it. Rebecca felt like she had to tackle the idea of what her new life would be like – the change that you mentioned – before she could even start to think about the fact that she might die. So she said that it wasn’t until she released herself from the idea of losing her hair and losing her breasts that she started to think about the fact that she could die, and what she needed to do in order to face that head-on.
ENGEL: In general, what, as an artist, are you trying to accomplish?
LEMON: Well, for me, first and foremost, I’m trying to elevate women’s stories. And a lot of women’s stories are sort of everyday – and just because they’re everyday doesn’t mean they’re not important. So I kind of want to chronicle what life is like for all of us. We’re over half of the planet, and a lot of our day-to-day challenges look the same. There’s something beautiful about the simple elements of life that we face every day, and that makes me feel very proud to include that in my films. [TAOM]