INTERVIEW: Directors Jocelyn DeBoer & Dawn Luebbe Talk ‘Greener Grass,’ Their Absurdist Suburban Satire
Trendy underwear scarves and drinking pool water may be the least bonkers things about Greener Grass, the directorial feature debut from Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe. It’s a suburbia in a kindness crisis as this American life satire finds its way into theaters after running a hefty and stylish festival circuit in the States and internationally. The film had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival in Utah back in January. “Suburban soccer moms find themselves constantly competing against each other in their personal lives as their kids settle their differences on the field.” It goes much further than the duo’s 2015 short of the same name.
DeBoer and Luebbe’s absurd, dark vision of a too-polite, materialist universe is a delight. While promoting their new film, DeBoer and Luebbe spoke with JumpCut Online about their growing craft, going from short-to-feature length, and their aesthetic vision for the surreal. And find out whether they think pineapple belongs on pizza!
I had the great pleasure of seeing Greener Grass back at Sundance. I was freezing my boogers off, but it was completely worth it to make it to the screening! Your film is this insanely off-kilter fixation on suburban life and I found myself laughing obnoxiously at every turn!
Jocelyn DeBoer: Oh, that’s so nice!
So it seems in this universe, everyone is just chasing perfection, from the braces on perfectly straight teeth to the couples coordinating outfits. It’s just one polite jab closer to insanity. Your film has been making the rounds in the festival circuit. I was wondering how ya’ll have been gauging the audience reactions so far, with Greener Grass premiering at so many festivals across the country and abroad now.
JD: Oh, thanks. Your description of the movie- we’re just so flattered. Thanks. It’s been so cool to be able to be on the ground with audiences, just getting reactions from all over the world now. This question makes us uncomfortable because we feel uncomfortable saying it’s going awesome, but it’s really funny. No matter where we seem to be or what demographic the people are, it seems like the movie gets the reaction we’re like, blown away by. So, knock on wood, we’re expecting the hammer to drop. But it’s been going great. We just got back from Korea and it’s been really fun. We met one kid there, for example, who watched it three times at the festival in Korea. He went to all of the screenings.
Dawn Luebbe: Like what Jocelyn mentioned, it’s so interesting that 10 year old children will be so excited and then an 80 year old couple will come up to us and say they liked it.
JD: The funnier thing is that, people will think that we wrote it about where they’re from. Like, of course not internationally, but in the states. When we premiered in Utah, we were at the Salt Lake City screening and they were like, “This is about Salt Lake City, right?” It’s like, “No, no.” When we’re in Cleveland, we get the same question. In the south, etc. It’s very funny because we premiered internationally at Locarno (Switzerland). It was a screening for 8,000 people. It was a huge screening. It went so well. We were feeling like, Oh great, this works internationally. That is so cool. We had our next screening in Bosnia in Sarajevo and these two women came up to us afterwards. They said, “We just love the movie.” And we’re like, “This is so exciting! Do you relate to this? Do you feel like this is what some of the women are like in Sarajevo?” And they were like, “Nooo, no. Not at all. This is our idea of what Americans are like.”
That’s so interesting, on how people abroad who see your film, there’s just something so silly and relatable about it, or at least something they can pick apart and latch onto. Coming from your short film, Greener Grass, I was wondering if you could talk about the journey going from short to feature and how your ideas first came together for the short and how ya’ll came to the conclusion that there was more to explore on this satire of suburban America.
DL: Yeahh, so the short we made back in 2015. It went on the festival circuit in 2016. It was the first project Jocelyn and I worked on together. Before then, we had been on a sketch group as performers of the Upright Citizens Brigade. Then we both moved out to L.A. and weren’t getting a lot of work acting. I think the original idea for the short- when we were first writing it, it started out as a web series. We were sort of delighted by taking these ideas. We had put together seven vignettes in which one unusual thing happened in each vignette. A lot of it came from scenes of politeness taken to the extreme, or a competition between friends and expanding upon those. At the time we made the short, there was no intention at all of expanding it. Much to our surprise, it performed well in the festival circuit and we thought a lot of people identified with it. So with the feature we were really excited to just develop the world beyond the soccer field and really dive into developing the characters and the relationships- just expanding on these themes that we started exploring in the short.
And the two of you had such an amazing cast that helped animate the absurdity of your story. Everyone brought something to the table. How was it working with your cast and, all coming from a background in comedy, were there any moments of improv that made it into the film, or any tweaks here and there?
JD: Oh, yeah. Well, we truly are so lucky, as you mentioned, to have the cast. We just feel beyond grateful that they were all on board to do this movie. Several of the cast members came up with us at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Neil Casey and D’Arcy Carden are both old New York friends, along with a lot of smaller parts in the movie. And then Mary Holland is of course one of the beacons of the comedy scene in L.A. who we discovered once we moved out here.
The script, I guess, was tightly scripted in terms of tone, but the actors did such an amazing job of being able to drop right into that tone and the improv that they did add, I would say, was often in the form of very tight little jokes that are such gems in the movie. One of my favorites is Mary Holland, who plays Kim Ann. We had the joke in there about how my character brings a taco dip and she’s like, “Is it seven layers?” and Jill’s like, “No, five.” Then Mary added, “Put it on the floor.” We just love that moment in the movie. I would add, too, that so much of the improv that the actors brought were also in these incredible silences and awkward pauses that we feel like add so much to the characters’ performances. Since our characters don’t speak directly to what they want or what they’re thinking, we think of them kind of like balloons that have been overinflated and just have so much tension. These little blips squeeze out in terms of weird noises they make or their awkward faces. Our actors brought so much to that aspect.
Another aspect that stuck out was just its dreamlike element to it all. It’s so connected in how everyone is striving for that cookie-cutter image, or that perfect life where everything is so dreamy. It feels so specific and intentional. I was wondering if ya’ll could expand on that initial aesthetic vision and what that means to the story.
DL: Aw, thank you for pointing that out. We were blessed to work with some incredible collaborators on this — our DP, Lowell Meyer, our production designer, Leigh Poindexter, our costume designer, Lauren Oppelt. Truly, we are in debt to them for bringing our world into such a cohesive, beautiful oversaturated reality. And we knew we wanted- immediately when the movie came on, to feel like, “Oh, this world is something else.” We wanted it to have this very surreal, dreamlike quality with the colors and the soft focus. It was just blown out in colors and it was important for us to have a very specific color palette that was cohesive across the whole movie. One thing our DP, Lowell, did is at the beginning of the movie, you’re kind of seeing things from Jill’s point-of-view and you’re with her in her head. It starts off very soft focused, bright and oversaturated. As the movie progresses and things start to fall apart for Jill, this veneer starts to come off and things are more sharp and clear.
Dawn, your character’s son is at one point watching these very cheesy, ironic and violent kids shows on the television. You see a lot of very weird programs or commercials playing in the background of your characters. Ya’ll have to talk about those fictionalized shows.
JD: Those were some of the most fun parts for us to put together. We loved making all those T.V. shows. We joke that that’s all we want to do next, is just a future that’s all T.V. shows. Our characters in the movie are so informed by advertising. They’re so susceptible to believe exactly what they’re told. And we talked a lot about how social media would play a part in the story and we made the decision to have it set in this timeless world where people are subjected to the downsides of social media and that kind of culture. Yet, we’re not seeing it manifest itself in the actual technology. But we thought one fun way to still have this presence of advertising were in these T.V. shows. We loved seeing their effect on our characters.
And what’s next for the two of you? Are you working on a new project while Greener Grass makes its way out to more audiences?
DL: We are actually writing our next feature! So we’re super excited about it and it’s very different from Greener Grass, but I will say, like Greener Grass, it is very distinctive and unique in its own world.
JD: Our next one is somewhat a formalist style we’re gravitating toward. I hope we can take some of our crew!
That sounds great. We’ll keep on eye out for it! Alright and the last question to rule them all… Does pineapple belong on pizza, yes or no?
DL: Ahh, I’ve never been asked that.
JD: I’m gonna say HARD yes if the sauce is barbeque.
DL: I’m gonna have to disagree with Jocelyn, for once in my life. I’m gonna say HARD no.
JD: Oh my gosh, this has never happened. You broke us!
DL: This is the end of us, I guess.
[Laughs] Well thank you both for your time!
JD: Thank you for your thoughtful questions and I’m glad you’re not freezing your boogers off anymore!
Until next time ya’ll go to Sundance!
Greener Grass is now playing in theaters in N.Y.C. and L.A. It is distrubuted by IFC Films. You can find our Sundance review of Greener Grass here. Watch the trailer below!