Interview: Jocelyn deBoer and Dawn Luebbe on Cultivating “Greener Grass”

A few weeks ago at the Oldenburg Film Festival in Germany, Dawn Luebbe and Jocelyn deBoer were at a screening of their feature debut “Greener Grass” and a little over a year after wrapping production on the film, they were still finding new things in it.

“I was like, “Dawn, I just saw something,” and because we were on such a big screen, there was the newspaper in the bottom lefthand corner [of a scene] where there’s a headline I had never seen before, which was something like “Family Treats Their Golf Cart Like Child,” says deBoer, realizing one of the sly jokes that their production designer Leigh Poindexter had tucked into the mise-en-scene. “I’m so embarrassed about how much we still laugh at the movie. It’s really obnoxious.”

It’s actually rather endearing when most filmmakers can’t even stand to watch their films once after locking picture, having seen it so many times during the editing process where debates over every scene can drain a film of all meaning of its original intent, particularly for a comedy where the jokes where knowing the punchline inevitably dulls the jokes. However, Luebbe and deBoer have attended every screening they’ve been able to since “Greener Grass” started its celebrated festival run starting at Sundance earlier this year, often in matching overalls or jump suits in complementing primary colors, laughing as hard as anyone else in the audience because their wicked satire about two women intent on defying their suburban trappings by one-upping each other remains just as fresh for them.

Though you might’ve initially guessed otherwise, this is a testament to how small an ego that the co-directors have, empowering their various production departments to run wild to add intricate details to the strange and wondrous universe they created, with a distinctive, mordant sense of humor evident in an entire town where golf carts are a preferred mode of transportation, everyone wears braces and there’s an entire catalog of television shows such as “Kids with Knives” and “Bald Men and Bouquets” that plays in the background, lording its subconscious influence over families that aspire to the lily-white sitcom clans found on the tube in the 1980s.

To honor the generous spirit of collaboration that Luebbe and deBoer fostered on “Greener Grass” and the number of layers that audiences will undoubtedly want to peel back with repeat viewings of the film, we’re publishing a series of interviews this week with many of the key creatives involved in bringing the film to life, beginning with the co-stars/writers/directors who have a rare gift in not only boasting a unique comic voice, honed by their time performing sketches together at the Upright Citizens Brigade, but equally sharp cinematic sensibilities to match, juxtaposing the madness of their characters with cleanly composed tableaus that accentuate anxieties should a single hair be out of place. Luebbe and deBoer spoke about how they initially joined forces, how the film evolved from its original development as a TV series after finding fans as a short, and being able to see how their comedy has played across international borders.

Before getting to “Greener Grass,” how did you gravitate towards each other as collaborators?

Dawn Luebbe: Jocelyn and I were put on a sketch team together at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York back in 2011 and Jocelyn had been on the team a couple months before me. I was such a fan of the team and when I was asked to be on it, it was such a dream come true. I didn’t know Jocelyn at that point, but I remember from our first pitch meeting, [which was] at the beginning of each month [where] everyone would sit around and pitch ideas for sketches, the weirdest, most interesting ideas came out of her mouth. I found them so, so funny – and this happened every month. I’m like, “I like Jocelyn’s ideas.”

Jocelyn deBoer: And I felt the same to Dawn. I feel like a lot of Dawn’s humor came from really exploring the drama in the mundane, which is something I love too and I think both of us gravitate towards wanting to milk the audience for that uncomfortable laughter. We’re huge John Waters’ fans – that kind of comedy where you’re like, “Should I be laughing at this or not?” That was a tone in both of our pitches. And after four years, our sketch team got retired. We were all very close and I moved out to L.A. and Dawn moved out about a year later and we were the only two people from our team living out here, so we were like, “We should make something together.” We hadn’t written together because we were just actors, but that’s when we made “Greener Grass,” the short and we loved that process so much that on the set of “Greener Grass,” we were basically writing our next short film “Buzz” and we were off and running.

Everyone I’ve spoken to on the crew of “Greener Grass” has said there was an unusual amount of trust placed in every department and the best idea would win, no matter where it came from. Does that confidence in others and open attitude come from improv?

Jocelyn deBoer: Oh, absolutely. Comedy is best when you’re collaborating with other people because you get to riff and build things farther than anyone can ever take it just by themselves. Of course, both of us have an improv background and I’m still performing at the UCB every Tuesday, doing improv, and that team aspect is everything. We know that from being on a team for years. You create something together, and it’s so cool as a director to get to handpick your team. We found the secret is just to surround yourself with total geniuses and you get a great end product.

This was originally developed as a TV series first, but it works so well as a feature. Did having to close what may have been open-ended clarify some of the themes you wanted to hit?

Dawn Luebbe: It’s true when we were developing it as a TV series, you don’t know the end point, so you have to create this world and these story arcs that can go on indefinitely, which was really fun and a great challenge, but with the feature, we went back to the short and watching it, we realized how simple so many of the things that happened were, so we really went back to the short as a framework for the feature. Then it was just so fun to build out the world beyond the soccer field and be like, “What is Lisa’s house like versus Jill’s and what are their family dynamics?”

Jocelyn deBoer: And it’s a good point about making it smaller because when we were also thinking it was going to be a TV show, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to direct it, especially because we hadn’t directed much. Then of course, they were talking about bringing in a showrunner and we didn’t know how much control we’d have over the budget and the designers, so that when it was a feature, we were able to have complete creative control, which is unique and really lucky to work so closely with our designers. We were all working in such close quarters that we could create the cohesive vision that we wanted to, so the feature was a really great medium for it.

I’ve been referring to it as a suburban satire, but I’ve heard Dawn say that the fact that all the characters wear braces was inspired by moving to Los Angeles and seeing people constantly work on themselves. Did you actually intend for something broader in scope?

Dawn Luebbe: Yeah, I’m not sure that’s where the original idea came from, but one thing that made me laugh so much when moving here is that everyone is wearing gym clothes everywhere, but hair and makeup done, so it’s this idea of “I’m striving towards perfection.” Braces are, of course, the most extreme example, and kind of a mess and painful, but it was this idea of representing striving towards perfection and working on yourself.

Jocelyn deBoer: And both of us love work that’s absurd and surreal, but we lose interest a little bit when we can’t be emotionally grounded in the story or you don’t feel connected to any of the characters, so that was a big thing for us when we were doing the feature. We don’t want our audience to be bored with this or to not care, so we wanted every single thing that happened that was heightened and unusual to be grounded in something deeper that was meaningful. We hope that when people watch it, they are able to recognize something familiar in something that is so ridiculous.

Thinking of ridiculous, what was it like creating that wonderfully weird universe of television programs that everyone watches?

Dawn Luebbe: Those were some of the most fun things we shot.

Jocelyn deBoer: We joke that our next project could just be making all those TV shows forever, and we had a creative freedom in those because they are one-offs, so we could have just little sketches in the world [of “Greener Grass”]. It was also something we were really interested in exploring with our characters, how much they’re influenced by advertising and the larger world outside of them. Of course, for the type of socioeconomic class that we’re satirizing, social media is such a big part of our [current] identity crisis and the misplacement of values that we’re exploring — you watch “Kids with Knives” and this is what happens, and [the suggestion that] “Baby Bird” is the only kind of food that’s okay, so we chose to place it in this timeless suburbia where we’re not seeing technology, but we wanted [to find a way] to feel that influence.

Has it been interesting traveling the world and seeing different reactions to it?

Jocelyn deBoer: It’s so cool. We didn’t know that we just get to travel around the globe and see audiences react to our movie, but it’s…

Dawn Luebbe: It’s been wild. We just screened it in Korea last week and it was a packed house full of a lot of teenagers and there’s this one moment where Bob, who plays my son…

Jocelyn deBoer: He flips the bird.

Dawn Luebbe: And that usually gets a reaction, but the Koreans, it was this loud like “Ohhhh no!” They were so, so shocked, like way more than [that moment] ever has [resonated].

Jocelyn deBoer: We found out as we were screening it all over America, people would claim it. We premiered at Sundance, and people in Utah were like, “This is about Salt Lake City, right? This is about Mormons.” And then in Boston, they said, “You’re from the northeast, right?” But when we premiered internationally at Locarno, the town square was filled with 8000 people and it was this wild house, and then our next screening was in Bosnia and these women from Sarajevo came up to us afterwards and said, “We love this movie. We think it’s great.” And Dawn and I are feeling amazing and we [asked], “Is this what it’s like in Sarajevo? Is this what the women are like?” And they’re like, “No. No, not at all. This is what our idea of what Americans are like.” [laughs] Okay. That’s fair. That’s fair.

Dawn Luebbe: We find that people in all parts of the world like to make fun of Americans. [laughs]

“Greener Grass” opens on October 18th in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater, New York at the IFC Center and in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. It is also available on demand.

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