Interview: Editor Taylor Gianotas on the Deeper Cuts 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.

Over Thanksgiving weekend last year, Taylor Gianotas found himself working deep into the night on “Greener Grass” when things are bound to get a little loopy after looking at footage all day. The editor had been looking at a scene in which the film’s big bad finally reveals themselves to confront one of its main characters Jill (Jocelyn deBoer) after stalking her for much of the comedy, and rather than cut between individual shots of the two, Gionatas located a version of the fight where they were both in the same frame that wasn’t necessarily intended to be ever used and he challenged himself to make the scene more intense without actually using any other footage.

“We sat down with it and really tried to work on it because it felt thematically relevant in that moment, like if you’re ever going to break the 180° line, I guess this would be the moment to do it,” says Gianotas, who had been inspired by the paranoia inherent in the moment to flip the frame back and forth as if recalling an event where the mind reels. “It took a lot of work to try to make that thematically work and rhythm-wise because it’s obviously very hard to cut for coverage across the 180° line, [which is] the one thing in film school where they tell you don’t do, so it felt like rebellious in a certain way to be like, ‘Screw it, I’m just going to do it here.’ Then we were trying to make the sound design reflect that, so we had two opposite oscillation waves of sound going at the same time and we had them come into sync and go out of sync, so it was a lot of elements that we really wanted to layer in that moment to really sell it and to really get into what’s going on for the character of Jill psychologically. I felt energized to try and make this work on a technical level, but on a thematic level too and just make sure it was purposeful.”

Apparently, this kind of late night epiphany isn’t unusual for Gianotas.

“He was up one night until two a.m. editing this one moment of the film where towards the end, the moon changes pink and then turns into [Jill’s son’s] Julian’s face and then [segues] into the golf cart headlights,” recalls co-director Dawn Luebbe of one of the film’s most memorable and surreal scene transitions. “The next day we come in and I don’t know what he was on when he did that, but we were like, ‘Ahhh, that rocks.’ His mind is just so unique.”

Which was exactly what was needed on “Greener Grass,” a film where at one point Julian transitions as a character from being a young boy to a dog in a town where everyone is struggling to be human. Such absurdity only makes sense with the shrewd choices Gianotas made in the edit room with Luebbe and Jocelyn deBoer, who not only had the difficult task of seeing through their truly original vision as co-writers and directors without compromise, but to cut their own performances as the lead actresses of the film, starring as Lisa and Jill, respectively, two women stifled by a suburban life that doesn’t offer much excitement beyond the soccer games their kids play in and constantly look for ways to improve their lives, lest anyone appears to have it better than they do.

This makes anxieties run high well before a potential killer is let loose with their sights set on Jill, but Gianotas balances tones and all the bizarro elements Luebbe and deBoer throws at him, not to mention a murderer’s row of comic actors including Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, D’arcy Carden, Mary Holland and Dot Marie Jones, convincing audiences who could be skeptical of the rejuvenating power of drinking pool water or that Lisa could pass off a soccer ball as her newly born child that even if they don’t believe it, the people on screen do. With “Greener Grass” arriving in theaters this week, Gianotas kindly took the time to talk about putting together such a cohesive experience and finding the footing to make the satire where the emotions resonate as much as the laughs.

You’ve worked with Dawn and Jocelyn over the course of a few years now. How did you approach a feature with them?

I’ve known Dawn and Jocelyn for several years now, and we had been put in touch by a mutual friend of ours who’s also an editor, for their short film “Buzz,” which is the one they did right after “Greener Grass.” Immediately when I got the script for “Buzz,” it was totally my sensibilities, but it was one of those things without ever having met them that I was like, “This could be amazing or this could just be off the rails.” It’s just so tonally specific and within the first session of meeting with them and going over the footage, our sensibilities clicked, so I helped them out on “Buzz” and then their next short “The Arrival.”

The feature “Greener Grass” is so similar in a lot of ways to their previous work, but in this one, the surreal elements are so much more heightened and there’s so many more of them, so the way that I navigated putting the elements together versus being very self-conscious about the comedy in there or treating it for a weird for weird’s sake sort of thing was to read between the lines of what’s happening. From a woman giving her baby away in the opening scene to Lisa getting pregnant with a soccer ball or Nick [drinking] the pool water, there are all of these things that on the surface just seem like gags or surreal elements, but I challenged myself to find what do these elements really mean in certain ways and try to take them seriously, which sounds ridiculous, but in doing that a lot of the things that came out of that were more genuine elements of drama or more genuine elements of horror. I wasn’t on set, but I was with them in Georgia, cutting while they were shooting because of the expedited timeframe we were on, and as the footage was coming in, it really became [about] listening to the performances and the way things were coming out and just taking the film seriously.

At the Seattle Film Festival, you mentioned you grew to empathize with the characters, which became important.

Yeah, a couple years ago I worked on this short called “Sunspring,” which Thomas Middleditch was in and it was the first film written by artificial intelligence, so I remember signing up for that because I knew people who were involved and when we got the footage back, I think everybody was expecting it to be very funny because a computer had written the script. We were all expecting it to be nonsensical. But it became clear to me when I started going through the footage that even though people were speaking gibberish, the way the performances were being acted, this was actually very serious, like a drama and it actually taught me that separate from what [the characters are] literally saying, [you have to ask] what is the underlying emotion that’s driving the dynamics between the characters?

When it came time to go through the footage to “Greener Grass,” I noticed a lot of similarities in that. They’re not speaking gibberish per se, but there is an element of ludicrousness or surreality, so it became less about taking it at face value and more about what are the emotional underpinnings here, keeping in mind that it is a comedy and that the humor is the number one thing, but the emotions are still true, even though there are so many of these surreal elements that don’t make sense in a logical way, so it was following that through.

What was it like finding the rhythm of this? I know the pauses can be critical, both to make a joke even funnier when the laugh is allowed to linger, but also some of those uncomfortable silences.

Yeah, there’s such a musicality to the way that Dawn and Jocelyn write, especially in “Greener Grass,” the feature, so I was really thinking of the way jokes would bounce off [each other] as a piece of music and the lines of dialogue being like a back and forth of different instruments, really trying to find a rhythm that worked. At a certain point, it became self-evident the more we worked on it what felt like it was in the rhythm of the film and it’s also replicated in the dialogue and the music and the costumes, all that stuff, so it feels heightened in the same way. [For example] the sound design was in no way supposed to reflect the real world, it was supposed to reflect the heightened exaggerated world of “Greener Grass,” so early on in editing, even if I was dropping in temp sound effects, we were cutting with sound design in mind and thinking about how the sound design would be living in the background as a separate element in addition to the dialogue and how that was going to play off of each other. That was very conscious the whole way through, especially when we got into the mix. We had this incredible mixer Garrard Whatley and the incredible folks at 740 Sound did such a great job of working off what we had done ourselves in the edit and really maximized it to an extreme extent.

Structurally, was there a roadblock anywhere where something ultimately clicked into place?

It definitely morphed in some ways from how it was written. There’s hypothetically a version of this movie that’s a series of vignettes strung together, and I know none of us wanted it to be like that from the jump, but I think there was a moment early on where we’re like, “Do we choose to take this stuff and treat it like a comedy and that’s all it is or do we own up to the more emotional stuff that’s going on here?” [Once] we all decided [the latter] was the right way to go, it informed a lot of the way we were moving forward. It is really funny, but at the end of the day, if you take away the humor, there is more going on with the family dynamic and ideas of identity and the self and this heavier stuff, so we just wanted to make good with these characters and follow them to the end.

There were certain themes, especially towards the end of the movie, that became a lot darker than what it was in an earlier cut, and by that point we found what the story meant to us, so we decided to push that more [because] it became more real and honest because of how the emotions were informing what the characters were doing. I don’t know if any one of us could’ve told you that’s the way it emotionally would’ve fallen into place at the beginning, but certainly by the end, we all were responding to what the footage was and we all decided to go there and to not be afraid to lean into what the emotional and psychological path of the performances was leading us to.

This is silly to ask, but Julian, as a character, is a boy who becomes a dog and somehow it’s a relatively seamless transition in the film – there actually is a through line in that performance. Is that difficult to cut together?

I don’t think that Dawn and Jocelyn ever wanted the dog to behave like a human, stylistically, and I don’t want to speak for them, but Icee [the dog who played Julian], was not a trained dog — they found that dog on Instagram and it had never done anything before and it was just so perfect for the film — so she came to play literally on the set. And there were these days where Icee would be great and there were other days where Icee was just not willing to stay put, so her owner would just be a couple feet off camera, praying to God that the dog didn’t move, but I can’t say that it was too difficult because it played perfectly with what we wanted and Icee was a great collaborator.

In certain cases what I’d have to do is actually mask out the dog and figure out with movie magic how to make the dog work, but [for me it was about] keeping true to what Julian represents in the movie and making sure even if what the dog represents is not behaving like a human, he’s still representing the same thing to the human characters, so we were just really trying to make the dog’s performance unpredictable and that the human actors are bouncing off of him in a way that we’re still getting the emotion and the humor across from scene to scene.

What was it like seeing this with an audience for the first time?

We had never really screened it for anybody before Sundance and when I first started working on the project, they were shooting and I was getting the footage back every day, so everybody would be on set and I’m sure they would watch it at video village, but I remember getting the dailies and just feeling at the edit bay like I can’t believe I’m the only person in the world that’s seen this. [laughs] It felt like this weird little secret that I had where I was like, “I can’t believe I’m the only one right now.” So when we first watched it with people, it was so incredible to see the way that people would respond to different things. To hear people laughing at things that we didn’t think would be that big of a laugh or full out explode in laughter on other things that we had a good idea would be pretty big laughs, it was just fantastic. And there are people who are like “This is a fun movie and I loved it,” but there are other people who are like, “This movie really does mean something to me” and I felt a lot of those same things myself going through it. There are just so many levels to it and that’s the beautiful thing about it. Depending on who you are, hopefully you’ll have a different meaning for what the movie’s about to you because I certainly do think that there’s a lot going on. If you’re willing to dig in to it, there’s a lot of stuff there to find.

“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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