Interview: Costume Designer Lauren Oppelt on Being Bold with All the Colors of “Greener Grass”

Because of the unique nature of how “Greener Grass” was made and what a special film it is, we’re devoting this week to celebrating many of the artists behind the scenes that made it possible with a series of interviews illuminating their work.

Just before Lauren Oppelt would start working in earnest on “Greener Grass,” extending her longtime collaboration with co-directors Jocelyn deBoer and Dawn Luebbe that began with their first short they helmed, “The Arrival,” she had planned a trip to Europe to blow off some steam, just having come off another big job. The vacation part of the travel was short-lived.

“I was in Prague and I went to a thrift store and bought a bunch of clothes that made it into the movie,” recalls Oppelt. “That was the first stuff I bought. It sounds very pretentious, but it was raining and I didn’t have anything else to do and I was like I bet they have weird shirts here, I’m going to go find it.”

“I don’t think she sleeps,” said deBoer, unsurprised that Oppelt took the initiative. “She goes so far above and beyond. Like already we have very high expectations, but she will set the bar even higher for herself and she’s so detail-oriented that you can look at any of her costumes and there’s these incredible specific touches that are connected to the story and she’s so, so thoughtful in her art.”

Working largely in the indie film space on productions such as “Other People” and “1915,” Oppelt has the gift of being able to make any production far larger than its budget would seem to allow for and even more crucially is able to quickly pull one into the lives of the characters she dresses with such strong style choices that they immediately make an impression. That proves to be a necessity in “Greener Grass” where, along with production designer Leigh Poindexter, there is instant credibility and an internal logic to the surreal world that DeBoer and Luebbe have created where the directing duo plays Jill and Lisa, respectively, two suburban housewives who take the notion of “keeping up with the Joneses” to the extreme, going to desperate measures to achieve a sense of normalcy in a place that’s anything but.

Although no one would dare to open up about their personal issues to one another and risk making anyone think they’re weak, the clothes do much of the talking – and in many cases, screaming – in “Greener Grass” as Jill, Lisa and the other wives in the neighborhood, Kim-Ann (Mary Holland) and Marriott (Janicza Bravo), all have a wardrobe comprised of a single color that grows more complicated as the film wears on, with the choice of dangling earrings or a polka dot dress indicative of an emotional state or societal station. Every piece of fabric that adorns the community in the film passed through her hands, even the shirt that’s fitted for the soccer ball that Lisa passes off as her baby after Jill gives birth, and while that’s impressive enough, Oppelt’s threads act as the bridge between the familiar and the foreign when the strange mutations of ‘50s fashion can at once suggest the lives the women want and the disillusionment with the lives they have.

Naturally, Oppelt was on set when we caught up with her on the eve of the release of “Greener Grass,” but she was gracious enough to take a moment to talk about her evolving collaboration with deBoer and Luebbe, the unusual costumes requests she would receive on the film where characters came in all shapes, sizes and species, and the delight she took in the small details.

What were the initial conversations about with Dawn and Jocelyn about this?

This was my fourth project with Jocelyn and Dawn and we worked together enough that we have a pretty clear understanding of our aesthetic and style, and I had done a really similar color palette for “The Arrival,” which was the first project I did with them. There were more pastels, and for “Greener Grass,” we added some magenta and red, but “The Arrival” was very color-coded as well and I knew they liked that heightened sense of design, so once we decided on the color coding and the color palette, we went from there. That [color palette] was a choice that I made with the production designer Leigh Poindexter, so that was our own fault. [laughs]

Really? That’s such a defining decision for the film.

I’m just like, “Are you sure? Are we doing this?” But Jocelyn and Dawn are excellent as collaborators. I love working with them because my artistic choices and opinions are heard in a way that’s not necessarily common. Of course, everyone tries to work with people who you’re actually collaborating with instead of just fulfilling logistics for, and I think that’s a really fine line when you’re working with a designer because you want to encourage people to flourish. But because “Greener Grass” is so big and it’s an entire universe, I think you had to have a person you just trust will show up and it will be done because they didn’t have time to make sure that it was happening.

Was this the biggest job you’ve had in terms of the number of costumes you had to create? Beyond all the central characters, there’s two soccer teams to outfit and then some.

Yeah, it’s definitely the biggest job I’ve ever done where I’ve personally made every single costume, so every piece of trim, every pom-pom, all the soccer jerseys — it was huge. And Leigh [Poindexter] and I lived together in a house in Peachtree City, with our art director Kristin Gibler and the three of us would make stuff. But I sewed every day until everyone was dressed.

Dawn joked you resented creating a tearsheet for Twillson, the soccer ball baby that Lisa has. What was it like fulfilling some of the stranger things you had to outfit?

It just was every day I would dress 50-100 people most days and then you get through that and you’re like, “And now the fucking soccer ball.” [laughs]

Despite assigning each character a specific color, you manage to convey so much of their personal evolution through the clothes, particularly the recent divorcee Kim-Ann, played by Mary Holland, where you can feel this sense of liberation.

Yeah, she gets sassier and sexier throughout the movie and Buck [her husband played by Mike Scollins] becomes a cowboy and Lisa starts wearing blue, as she starts taking more and more from Jill’s life, she becomes purple. At the end she wears pink, which was Jill’s color and actually Dawn wore the outfit that Jocelyn wore in the final scene, so it’s pretty full circle. I greeked a lot of the guys’ polo shirts [exchanging the] logos with emojis. [laughs] So there’s a scene where Neil Casey [who plays Lisa’s husband Dennis] is sleeping and the logo on the shirt is a sleeping face, and when Beck [Bennett, who plays Jill’s husband Nick] goes back to the pool to get pool water, his shirt is beige because he’s forsaken by his family, so he’s lost his color and his logo is a frowny face.

I’ve read you started out as an actor. Does that inform how you approach developing a character through your costumes?

Yeah, I think costuming is an undervalued art, especially in contemporary films. People don’t understand how much you can really bring to a character through costuming and personally, because I did start as an actor, I knew how much specific details like what you’re wearing and the silhouette and the color made you feel. When you’re dressed a certain way, you can transform into someone besides yourself, so it’s a really important part of acting. It definitely influences me, but also I went to UCLA for directing, so thinking about character arcs is something I also try and bring into my work.

Were there any designers that influenced you here?

The biggest for me were Colleen Atwood’s designs for Tim Burton movies, specifically “Edward Scissorhands,” and John Waters and [Alix Friedberg’s work on Jamie Babbit’s] “But I’m a Cheerleader” — like high camp/high color ephemera was really the inspiration for the world, because we wanted it to be suburbia, but elevated suburbia. Those are the artists really do that the best.

Was there a favorite piece you created for this?

That’s hard to say. I really loved the soccer uniforms that we made because they’re all vintage style ringer tees and they have weird names on the back. We actually named the teams and that was really cute. I also loved the way the bowling alley scene looked. Jill wears a very ridiculous, rose-sleeved outfit that has tons of bric-a-brac on it that I sewed with matching culottes. That was a fave. It depends on the character, right? One of the scenes that got cut had some of my favorite outfits in it, so that was kind of a bummer.

What was it like seeing the final film?

I was really happy. When you’re a designer and you’re watching your movie, it’s like when you have a kid and you see them do stuff and you’re like, “Aww, he was so good. You messed up your flute solo a little bit, but you know, other than that, aces!” [I was] like “God, that collar, Jesus Christ.” But I’m very proud of the movie. I knew when I agreed to do this movie that it was going to be a huge artistic undertaking and that it was going to be something that had the potential to be a cult classic or something iconic fashion-wise, so I didn’t let myself stop doing that. Our joke with “Greener Grass” is that you don’t run 25 miles of a marathon and that was what it was. It was really hard and it was a lot of work, but it looks gorgeous. It’s beautiful to watch.

“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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