Rachel Walden’s 17-minute Lemon Tree, which premiered at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in May, centers on a young boy (Gordon Rocks) whose innocence crumbles during what should be an idyllic autumnal road trip with his father (Charlie Chaspooley Robinson). After stealing a magician’s white rabbit at a county fair (a scene scored to 311’s rap-rock tune “Down”) and winning a hefty sum from a scratch-off ticket, dad celebrates a rare winning streak by plunging into a drug- and booze-induced bender (preceded by Cake’s ’90s alt-anthem “The Distance”), forcing the son to face his father’s unobscured parental follies.
Walden’s sole previous directorial credits are her Boston University MFA thesis and a music video for the now-defunct Brooklyn indie rock outfit Yucky Duster, but the kernel for Lemon Tree was nurtured diligently by the filmmaker for eight years. In fact, the film has a familial origin: “My mom told me, ‘You should ask your grandfather to tell you about a road trip he had with his dad. It would make a great short.’” Essentially, her “papa” was given a gas station–purchased orange tree during a formative father-son summer excursion. As his dad got increasingly “fucked up” during their trip, so did the sapling.
“I grew up with a parent who was an addict as well, though a very charming and loving one,” says Walden, sitting in a small Queens park, representing her hometown by sporting an Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics t-shirt. “I felt like the image of this baby tree crushed by your dad, your idol, was a very honest image of what it feels like to grow up in a home where alcoholism or addiction is present.”
Yet, there is no tree—orange or lemon—in Walden’s tender yet punchy film. (“A lemon tree worked poetically on paper, but when we were thinking about it, we felt it didn’t have a lot of energy.”) Her team instead procured a rabbit for the four-day shoot in upstate New York at the last minute. “The rabbit is alive and well, I should mention,” she chuckles.
“Filmmaking is such a career of rejection,” Walden says, noting that the validation of getting into Cannes allowed her to refocus on directing, her self-professed “first love.”
Walden’s initial filmic obsession was Harmony Korine, but even before she fell for the hazy hedonism of Kids, she knew she wanted to make movies. After taking a course in the fifth grade where she studied film and TV (“I went to this hippy, liberal arts K–12 school”), she received a camcorder for Christmas. Walden and a friend ended up making a horror movie and sharing it with the entire school during an end-of-year showcase. “We actually got in trouble,” she recalls. “It was very violent and not family friendly.”
Lemon Tree’s success has been “energizing” for Walden’s directing career, but she’s been making moves in the film producing landscape for several years now as part of Gummy Films, which she, Pauline Chalamet and (former Yucky Duster rocker) Luca Balser co-created in 2019. Gummy came to fruition while Walden and Chalamet were producing Balser’s feature debut What Doesn’t Float, which opens at New York’s Roxy Cinema on September 22. “We didn’t know what the fuck we were doing, so we ignorantly just made a production company, even though you’re supposed to make a different LLC for every feature.” The trio decided to roll with this “happy accident” and use Gummy to make their friends’—and each other’s—films, which has effectively become their full-time jobs. (“Big ups to the New York indie film scene.”)
Though Balser’s film is Gummy’s first feature release to date, Walden’s currently concocting a feature of her own—a “Southern gothic” project based on her coming of age in Atlanta—which she hopes to finish in the next year or so. “It’s really hard to write a script,” she says, noting that Lemon Tree didn’t have one. “I’m struggling every day to get it from the messy outline I have into a script format. I don’t like to work from a script, but I have come to the realization that if I want somebody to give me money for a feature, I can’t just say, ‘Trust me, it’s a good idea!’”—Natalia Keogan/Image: Neil Sauvage