John Waters Girls: Jocelyn DeBoer & Dawn Luebbe On Greener Grass
Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe wrote, directed, and star in their directorial debut, Greener Grass, a delightful absurdist-surrealist satire about suburban living that we think has all the makings of an instant cult classic. The film is based off the duo’s short film of the same name and was a surprise hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
In a day-glo-colored, bizarro version of suburbia where adults wear braces on their already-straight teeth, everyone drives golf carts, and children magically turn into golden retrievers, soccer moms and best friends Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) and Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) are locked in a passive aggressive battle-of-the-wills that takes a turn into the sinister when Lisa begins systematically taking over every aspect of Jill’s life—starting with her newborn daughter. Meanwhile, a psycho yoga teacher killer is on the loose, Jill’s husband (Beck Bennett) has developed a curious taste for pool water, and Lisa is pregnant with a soccer ball. That’s just the tip of the gloriously weird iceberg that is the feature debut from writers-directors Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe.
Both DeBoer and Luebbe have a background in improv, are alums of the Uptight Citizen Brigade, and are very involved in the LA comedy scene. We were fortunate enough to be speak with the triple-threat duo about the film, Midwestern casseroles, tips about casting children, French teens, and much much more.
I thought we’d kick things off in a fun way with a bit of improv. Let’s imagine that you’re having a dinner party together, and you’ve invited your family and friends over to enjoy a meal while you watch Greener Grass. What are you cooking?
Dawn Luebbe: I love this!
Jocelyn DeBoer: Oh my god!
Dawn Luebbe: There’s gotta be casseroles involved.
Jocelyn DeBoer: Lots of casseroles. Maybe a taco dip… seven layer! [laughs] Dawn, I feel like your family in Nebraska makes jello…art?
Dawn Luebbe: Yeah, strawberry pretzel salad. There’s a lot of things where I grew up in Nebraska that are called salad that have no produce of any kind in them.
Jocelyn DeBoer: One of the things our production designer, Leigh Poindexter, wooed us with beyond belief on our first meeting with her was a stack of pictures of this type of food, and how she wanted to fill the movie with it. We’re like this is perfect, so yes we’d have to serve that. And everything in lots of plastic wrap.
Excellent! The strawberry salad, I’m totally familiar with that. I’m from Indiana, so I understand the concept of the salads with no produce whatsoever.
Jocelyn DeBoer: Well, you’re invited to the dinner party.
Dawn Luebbe: Yes, you must come!
I’m totally there! So Greener Grass started off as a short film, but was later bought by IFC for a series, and now it’s taken the shape of a feature film. What was that transformation from short to feature like, and what were you most excited about expanding upon?
Jocelyn DeBoer: Yeah, it started as a short, and then it was a TV series for IFC. We sold the pilot and then we just sat for 5 or 6 months, and it kinda got to the point where I think what we wrote was so ambitious, and whatever was going on at IFC at the time there just wasn’t the money then to produce it. Dawn and I, we still so wanted to tell this story, and we were really excited to kind of jump into a more micro version of what the TV show was and tell a simpler story in the form of a feature, particularly because it was so important to us to have creative control on the project. We got to direct the feature of course, something we weren’t sure we were gonna get to do in TV. But it was so cool to take these characters that we started in the short film and really delve more into their emotional life or lack thereof [chuckle] in the future script.
I think we really did several versions of the script, we started writing in January of 2018, and I think we did over over 20, I wanna say 22 page one rewrites before we delivered it to our producer in May last year. When the feature really started to click for us was this one morning when we went back and watched the short film. We just kinda were reminded of the simplicity of it and started outlining a version of the story that had all the beats of the short film in it, and that version was really close to what we ended up shooting.
One of the many things I love about about the film is the world that it creates, which feels both foreign and familiar with a really beautiful timelessness about it. You’d both already built a lot of the world on paper, but your production designer, Leigh Poindexter, and costume designer, Lauren Oppelt, really brought a lot that gave the feature an added dimension. What was your collaboration process like with them like?
Dawn Luebbe: Well, Leigh and Lauren are truly two genius women that we’re so grateful hopped on this project. W have one story we like to tell about the first time we met Leigh. She came in to chat with us, and she had this beautiful lookbook of images she had created — stuff I’ve mentioned like jello casseroles — and we’re like, “She gets it.” But then what truly sealed the deal is five minutes into meeting us, she tells us that she has these 2 giant poodles, and for a long time she was collecting their hair with plans to knit sweaters for them out of their own hair. [laughs] We just knew from that second she was the person. Her mind works in a way unlike anyone I’ve ever met.
Jocelyn DeBoer: She just added so many things, like one thing that comes to mind is that when we first meet Mary Holland’s character, Kim Ann, her ex-husband Buck [Mike Scollins] is moving out and packing up his golf cart. The scene starts on a shot on the mailbox with a letter of Kim Ann telling the postman that Buck and her are divorced and for the postman not to tell his friends. That was something that was not scripted, and we just arrived on the day and saw that note on the mailbox that Leigh had handwritten herself and we changed the shots. We were like “Well, we gotta capture this. We’ll start here.” That kinda thing was happening constantly. To our DP Lowell Meyer’s credit too, he was often finding things in the art and the world, being like, “Well, why don’t we do it like this then?” We’d all be like, “Aw, that’s an amazing little token!” So, it was very collaborative. They’re just great.
Jocelyn DeBoer: Lauren Oppelt too, she added rickrack— you know, those little squigglies and pom-poms and everything — to every piece of clothing. We never saw that woman without her hands on a sewing machine! There’s so many little details in what she did, like we love Nick [Beck Bennett] after Jill and Nick get a divorce. You see him in beige for the first time, not in like his normal color-blocking, and where the logo goes on his polo, she embroidered a sad face. We just love that because in our story, our characters, they have such undeveloped interior lives that the way they project what their identity is and who they are is by their exterior. All the little details like that are such an important part of the storytelling.
Dawn Luebbe: One other little thing Lauren did with the rickrack that makes me laugh so much is with Bob [Asher Miles Fallica], the character who plays my son, in most of the movie he has lavender on and lavender rickrack. When he turns bad, his rickrack turns black. That’s just another little thing to symbolize these characters’ inner changes but on their clothes.
Jocelyn DeBoer: Leigh and Lauren rigorously controlled the color palette, and it was these off-pastel colors basically. We really tried to avoid red or black. So when it was used, they were very thoughtful about “Well, now this is when black will appear.”
This is your first feature, and it involves everything from animals to kids and babies. What were some of the challenges you encountered in the director’s chair, and which is easier to work with, dogs or children?
Jocelyn DeBoer: Oh my gosh, I love that! Well dogs, and also you know our dog was a 7 month-old puppy.
It was so cute.
Dawn Luebbe: We have to give some credit there to Beck Bennett who is a dog whisperer. He could just get that puppy to do anything in record amounts of time. We could not have shot the movie without his skilled dog abilities.
Jocelyn DeBoer: We found out some secrets about working with kids. One of them is hire kids whose parents are acting teachers. It just so happens that both Julien [Hilliard] and Asher [Miles Fallica], who play Julien and Bob in the movie, their mothers are incredible actresses themselves. Those kids showed up to set so polished. They were talking about their intentions and the backstory of their characters, and we were like, “Well, that makes this easier.” Dawn and I worked with babies a lot, and we have a little secret to that. The key to getting well behaved babies is to get the youngest children in big families. They’re used to chaos going on around them. They kinda roll with the punches and just hang out. My baby — Jill’s baby, who then becomes Lisa’s baby — was played by twin girls, who were both the chillest babies you have ever met. So we didn’t even break a sweat.
Dawn Luebbe: One other challenge that perhaps wasn’t our producer [Natalie Metzger’s] favorite aspect of the script that there were no cars in our movie. Only golf carts could be seen until Jill leaves the world of Greener Grass, and then you see a truck. Natalie and the production team were incredible. They’d see a car parked way out in the distance, and they’d figure out a way to get rid of it.
Jocelyn DeBoer: We love to give ourselves all kinds of constraints. No adult could show a naked tooth without braces. We put up ads in all the orthodontist offices in the greater Atlanta being like, “Are you an adult with braces? Would you like to be in a movie?” We found a lot of extras that way.
The film has such a refreshing bizzaro sense of humor. What are some of the comedies that maybe didn’t influence the film but shaped your twisted sense of humor and left a lasting impression on you?
Jocelyn DeBoer: We are huge John Waters girls. We just love that wild man. We also love how he satirizes Baltimore, which is basically where he grew up, but there’s so much passion for that community and for the characters that he’s satirizing. That’s something that Dawn and I so admire and hope to emulate. While we’re of course poking fun at the people we grew up and where we come from, we’re laughing with them and not just at them.
Dawn Luebbe: David Lynch was also an inspiration. We have to admit we were watching a lot of Twin Peaks when we wrote the short.
Jocelyn DeBoer: Yeah. Blue Velvet of course, and Mulholland Drive. We love Brazil, for an example, like the incredible visual comedy and the heightened surreal world. Louie Buñuel’s The Sweet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. We were so interested in having a sketch aspect to our film. We wanted scenes be able to stand alone and be funny if you just catch that one scene, yet they fit into a larger narrative that you’re actually emotionally grounded in.
Dawn Luebbe: The Square is another example of where there’s a lot of sketch elements.
Jocelyn DeBoer: Yeah, and more recently Jordan Peele has been rocking the horror/comedy meld. And Ari Aster, of course, with Midsommar. We could go on.
The film made a splash on the festival circuit and earned a lot of buzz. What’s been the most rewarding part about audience response, and has it increased your popularity amongst the French teens?
Jocelyn DeBoer: Oh my god, the French teens! That is too funny. I love that question. You know, we were in France recently, and we couldn’t have been more desperate because the whole time we were like, “French teenagers, we wrote this for you!” [laughs]
The most rewarding part — this is too broad of an answer, so Dawn think of something more specific — but being on the ground getting to see the audience reactions right after the film is just, I don’t know, it’s just mind blowing. No matter where we took the film, we kept finding that people would come to our movie for every screening at a festival. We kept seeing the same people coming back again and again, and that’s been wild. People just wanna keep watching it, and that’s cool.
Dawn Luebbe: Of course seeing it a Sundance was an experience of a lifetime, like a truly weird fever dream, but one my most absolute memorable things that happened there was after one of our screenings. A mom and her 16-year-old daughter came up to us, and she had braces, and the mom said, “Oh, this is my daughter. She’s a filmmaker.” And her daughter says, “This is my favorite movie I’ve ever seen. I want to be a filmmaker, and I want to make a movie like this.” And it truly made me cry.
Jocelyn DeBoer: Yeah, and that was so early on. It’s been really cool.
What do you think? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!