Interview: Cinematographer Lowell A. Meyer on Looking Beneath the Surface 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.

Lowell A. Meyer has always had quite the eye, both as a cinematographer and in identifying potential projects to pursue, so it was something of a disappointment when he learned that Jocelyn deBoer and Dawn Luebbe had already attached another director of photography for their first feature “Greener Grass” after the trio had bonded after first meeting at SXSW in 2016 where they both had shorts in competition. However, three weeks before shooting, there was a sudden opening and Meyer got a call from the duo asking him to take a look at the script.

“I read it in two hours, said yes and within 24 hours, I was on a flight to Atlanta,” recalls Meyer. “I only had like 15 days of prep, [which is] a very, very small window for that work, so it was a little nerve-wracking, but I was so thrilled to be a part. I was like, ‘Damn the circumstances. I will shoot the heck out of this because it’s such a golden opportunity.’”

Meyer makes the most of it, quite literally applying a golden glow to the comedy in which a seemingly idyllic community is turned upside down after Jill (deBoer), a new mother offers up her baby to her friend Lisa (Luebbe) after seeing how envious she is, yet the act of generosity backfires spectacularly when it is hardly the only source of envy between neighbors in town, which sprouts like weeds in the otherwise perfectly manicured lawns. The cinematographer, who proved so gifted at locating the emotional truth in a scene with gentle camera moves within the frame in Jim Cummings’ “Thunder Road” as required by the film’s unusually long takes, is able to get underneath the surface of things of things here, mindful of the absurdity that unfolds as Jill and Lisa furiously try to top one another by making the images impossibly (and truly unattainably) beautiful, but using the expanse of the film’s ultra-wide framing to drift into the darker corners where the characters’ fear and insecurities reside.

Not only does Meyer know exactly where to guide a viewer’s eye, but also give them a sense of place in the otherworldly universe of deBoer and Luebbe’s invention, navigating the thoroughfares where golf carts are the primary form of travel and the steady stream of BBQs and soccer games that are a way of life that the characters can’t escape. He also shows his versatility in lensing the variety of TV shows and ads that wield untold influence over the community with a TV in every home, inspiring the violent behavior of Lisa and Jill’s firstborn children with “Kids with Knives” and encouraging inane lifestyle goals with “Bald Men with Bouquets.” It’s a cohesive world in no small part due to Meyer’s handiwork and with “Greener Grass” hitting theaters following its premiere at Sundance this year, he spoke about finding his way into a shooting style that had already been established by a short shot by someone else, drawing focus when so many visually exciting things are happening onscreen simultaneously and working around all those golf carts.

From the “Greener Grass” short (that was directed by Paul Briganti), you can tell Dawn and Jocelyn had a very strong aesthetic already, but I can feel your fingerprints on this – was it interesting how those sensibilities meshed?

In some ways, that was the starting point for me [because] luckily there are already a few guiding forces, and I couldn’t really ignore that and I didn’t shoot the short for “Thunder Road” [either], so this was my second time being brought into a feature version of a project that I didn’t lens [originally]. With “Thunder Road,” I think I was a little intimidated by that, especially because it was based on this technical feat of a 13-minute long oner that we now needed to translate to a feature. But with “Greener Grass,” I felt a bit more comfortable [since] I’d done it once and Dawn and Jocelyn used the short a lot in terms of crafting the script, understanding “Okay, we’ve done a lot of film festivals with this short and we know these jokes really hit and we want to keep these aspects.” So they already had a good idea of what to keep and what to leave and I wanted to take the same approach with the cinematography.

I wanted to embrace this look that’s been created, but I also want to tweak it and I want to craft it so it can be something that the three of us can now take ownership of, so I tried to bring in a few more outside influences and visual variety they might not have thought of, like I kept constantly going back to “Barry Lyndon” because it already incorporates a lot of things that were inherent to this script, which were big, broad, green expanses of lots of people in a field. In “Barry Lyndon,” it’s a war and there’s a battle field, and in “Greener Grass,” it’s a soccer field, but there’s a war that’s bubbling under the surface between the two protagonists. So that was very informative in finding a more classic way to frame shots of a field and shots of opposing characters. I also kept coming back to this idea of what will make the comedy ring the loudest and a lot of what Dawn and Jocelyn’s instincts were to make it cinematic because I do think it’s funny to have someone giving birth to a soccer ball in a scene, but it’s even funnier if you glorify that and make the most beautiful cinematic epic version of that as opposed to trying to lean into the comedy. We wanted this to not be shot like a comedy, so the comedy on screen stands out even brighter and bolder.

When the film is so bright and bold already, is it difficult to guide the viewer’s eye where you want it to go when there’s so much to look at on screen?

There were definitely a couple things working simultaneously [in regards to] how to navigate people’s eyes throughout all the wide shots, everything being in crisp focus a lot of the time and all of the colors. Most directly, I tried to craft the light and shadows in the image, but also add zooms, taking you from a really big shot and then easing you off to one part so that the shot evolves as you keep watching and then focus gets shallower and your lighting gets tighter. Working with the other collaborators on the film, I could set up a wide shot and then it gets decluttered or naturally organized when Leigh Poindexter, the production designer, and Lauren Oppelt, the costume designer, comes in and does her work, and [between] me, Lauren, Leigh and of course, Dawn and Jocelyn, we became a five-headed monster in a very quick time working to make each frame beautiful. I definitely cannot take full credit for any of that, by any means, and that was the most fun part of the whole movie. Everybody just seemed to be on the same page.

The last person who’s involved in that collaboration later is our colorist Derek Hansen. He did such a great job of taking the images and colors we’d already gotten onscreen and making that much brighter, making sure the wardrobe stayed consistent under different lighting conditions, and shaping the shadows of the image so our focus is always guided towards the brightest spot. So it was all six of us making sure that was always the case. Of course, there’s also our lighting team and our gaffer John Cico, who had a really great knack for sticking lights in pretty much any corner of a house you can imagine because it was always about having our character in the foreground pop against the background. I really liked how this one scene came out where [Jocelyn’s character] Jill is at home after the first soccer game with her husband Nick, preparing dinner and they’re in this cool blue, end of day dusk look and she’s in this warm light and her rosy paint tones stand out very boldly against these cold blue tones in the background. You get this beautiful color mixture that just naturally makes her pop onscreen.

It looked like some of those interiors might’ve been tight to shoot in. Were of some of the gentle pivots or camera moves inspired by spaces?

I don’t think you’re wrong, and the expression “Necessity is the mother of invention” is very true. In the case of Jill’s house, the main house, we spent the first week of principal photography there and that was a really good decision on the part of Natalie Metzger, the producer, and Gene [Michael Smith], the first AD because we were starting with smaller set-pieces with fewer elements, so when some of the soccer field scenes came up on the schedule, we were much more united and we could handle 40 extras and kids and dogs.

In terms of creatively framing the house, one thing I really get excited about as a DP is location scouting because there is only so much you can do as a cinematographer that is in a location that is not naturally cinematographic, doesn’t have space for things, doesn’t have depth, so when we found Jill’s house, it was really exciting because I felt like we all saw that this place really had potential, even though it sometimes had a modern look that we had to dress down. We were all really excited because it had these big windows, a back balcony, and obviously that big pool. We also spent a lot of time in the living room and that actually was a pretty sizable space, which is good because in filmmaking you can always make a big space small. It’s harder to make a small space feel big or to even just fit all of your gear within a small space sometimes. Having a big space between the living room and the kitchen allowed us to get angles where we can see Julian in the foreground watching TV while his two parents are discussing his future behind him in the kitchen, and [the house] just had some good portal holes and windows and ways to frame people within frames so they felt isolated. So it had a lot going for it and the depth allows us to get creative. I’m always looking out for that when location scouting and that house just seemed to give us more and more options.

In terms of Lisa’s house, that was naturally supposed to be a bit smaller and quainter and more like a home maybe your grandma lived in, and I think [the location] was maybe an older couple’s house. It had slightly more limited photographic options, but there were some cool things we were able to do, like [in] the first scene when you see Lisa and Dennis [played by Neil Casey] at home, you see a counter where we were able to do this fun shot, zooming out and we’re on a slider, doing this multiaccess camera move from Dennis cooking corn [in the kitchen] to sliding over in that wide frame and see Lisa in a different room and we zoom into her, so we got to show right from the beginning [how] Jill and Nick are connected in their space, their home is inviting – it’s big and large and they can share space together – whereas Jill and Dennis are squeezed up in the kitchen, trying to get around each other. Photographically, we were able to separate the two houses by character and show the characters off through the way we designed and blocked the scenes within spaces.

Because you were brought onto the film close to production, did you actually have much time to scout locations?

We did. Even though prep before principal was two weeks, anybody who works in features will tell you the prep doesn’t really stop once you start filming because you might spend those two weeks of prep concentrated on the first two weeks and push some of the rest of the prep down the road a little bit, so we would scout on weekends for weeks three and four after we finished filming week one and two, and and by that point, [Dawn and Jocelyn] had been doing prep before I arrived, so they already had a few locations well figured out. We filmed Jill’s home week one, the soccer field and Lisa’s home in week two and then we had the [scenes with the golf] cart and the four-way intersection [which] was a really hard intersection to find. A lot of intersections like that on the mini-golf cart paths and bike paths were in areas with trees, so we couldn’t really get a “Wizard of Oz” high angle of the four-way intersection like we wanted. We just thought that would be really funny and a really explicit way to see all these four carts pull up at the same time [from] almost like a God’s eye view so you can see how futile this is. You know instantly no one’s going to get through at the same time. You can’t fit two golf carts [side by side] on any one four of these roads, so that to us was just funny, but Peachtree City has over a hundred miles of golf cart paths and it took a whole weekend or more to find.

It was the same thing with the high school that had all those golf carts that are parked outside the outside of the karate studio — that’s a high school [in real life] and that high school parking lot happens to have a bunch of high schoolers that get to school every day in golf carts, so there were legitimately, no exaggeration, 300 or more golf carts in that parking lot every day, so we said this is an undeniable production value that we have to capture on screen. We worked around two hours, filmed in midday, even though that’s not necessarily the best time to film. We tried to piggy back all these locations, so there aren’t big company moves and that high school was only a block away from Jill’s house, so that was a really nice find. I remember specifically one day trying to wrap out as fast as we could because it was 2:40 and we heard this school bell ring. Our five-ton G&E truck is right in the middle of the parking lot and it was like a mad dash to beat all the high schoolers out of the parking lot before we got stuck in an hour of traffic with all these golf carts creating big traffic jams when they’re leaving, like what happens in the movie, so all the grips and I were running to get everything on the truck. [laughs]

What was it like coming with all the different visual styles for the different TV shows in this world?

Those were some of the most fun moments on set, and that could seem like a production slow-down because it’s something was just going on a TV screen and there’s so much to film. We only had 19 days to [make the film], so we might end up spending a third of our day getting “Bald Men and Bouquets,” but even though it felt some times B-roll because the A-roll that has the TV in the frame is the priority, those little side scenes cracked us up so hard and they’re all a little bit of a different style. They’re all in the same world, this ‘70s/‘80s public broadcast kind of filming, and we had the tools to kind of mimic that pretty well. We could film in 4:3 aspect ratio and we’d film them in 30 frames per second, just so they’d feel more like they could all be on TV and not on a cinema screen, but we used the same camera package.

We also used different filtration to get those looks and then we’d just lean into [the concept of the show] like, “Okay, ‘Kids with Knives,’ we’re just going to smash zoom into every shot. It’s going to feel like the Power Rangers opening, but instead of the Power Rangers fighting bad guys, it’s kids with knives looking cool and badass, almost like some weird MTV-style alternate universe promo.” “Bald Men and Bouquets” felt like a “Golden Girls”-type vibe with slow, dreamy zooms with flares and then locked off shots [that are] boring, but entertaining for an older audience. And then with [the ad for the baby food] “Baby Bird,” we tried to shoot it like a legit baby food commercial that took place in this ‘80s glow universe wherethe filming style takes it seriously, but the content is anything but and that juxtaposition lends itself to bust out loud laughter.

What was it like working with Dawn and Jocelyn?

Honestly, they make me want to join UCB. I truly loved nothing more than working with them both and they are so funny both in front of the camera and behind it. I feel like most of the time my job was just to be their support and making sure that everything they wanted to come across as funny would work from a visual and cinematographic standpoint, and because they were meant to spend so much time in the makeup chair at the beginning of the day, doing wardrobe changes and being proper actors, memorizing lines, there was a lot of time where they were off set and they were putting a lot of trust in me and the other key positions, which was really refreshing.

They were really open to collaboration and the best idea, no matter who it comes from. They would even take my little notes on certain things like the news broadcast that’s in the universe — the news had its own filming style and was shot basically like a news show would, except for that little bit of humor, like there’s that weird little bit of a reflection of the back of the newscaster’s head, which we thought was so funny on the glass behind him that we just embraced it. And I remember we were talking about the newscast and I asked, “Have you come up with a name for the news show?” And [Dawn and Jocelyn] were like, “No, not yet” and I [mentioned] we’d have to watch this dumb news program in high school called Channel One that’d play on a TV screen and I thought it’d be fun to make one that was even better, so I started a news channel called Channel 1 1/2. [laughs] And they thought that was so funny because in the “Greener Grass” universe, it’s always one-upping something – you know, you’re not Channel One, you’re Channel 1 1/2 – so that’s the name of the news network. They ran with it and that’s the epitome of working with them. They just encourage everyone to rise to the occasion and make the funniest, best work they can. They’re proper directors. They inspire their crew, they lead their crew, and they get them to do their best work and make it the best movie possible. They were such a joy. I want to work with them again tomorrow.

“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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