Filming in the Golf Cart Capital of the World: Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe on Greener Grass
The cinematic equivalent of the popular improv exercise “Yes, and…,” Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe’s feature directorial debut, Greener Grass, opens on an extreme instance of absurdity and gobsmackingly builds from there. In picturesque suburbia, competition runs thick amongst cutthroat nuclear families, neighborhood pool parties are all the rage and mom and dad travel to and from soccer practice via the tacky family golf cart. Co-starring the film’s directors as housewives who develop a grating rivalry, the film opens with Jill (DeBoer) giving up custody of her baby daughter to Lisa (Luebbe). Why does Jill do this? Because Lisa expresses interest in the child, and who is Jill to get in the way? After all, Jill has another kid, a son named Julian, who’s perfectly normal before he falls in a pool and comes out a fully-formed golden retriever. Jill’s husband (SNL cast member Beck Bennett) is obsessed with drinking pool water, there’s a local serial killer on the loose and, midway through the film, Lisa gives birth to a baby soccer ball: Greener Grass continuously strips away logic, but due to the filmmakers’ skill behind, and in front of, the camera, you simultaneously nod your head in agreement while shaking it in bewilderment.
As Greener Grass is currently in theaters and On Demand via IFC Midnight, I recently spoke with DeBoer and Luebbe about the project’s multi-platform origins, finding the right location for an exacting slice of Americana and how they jumped into production with a specific deadline in mind.
Filmmaker: As two actresses from the world of comedy, were you looking to further showcase your skills with the Greener Grass short that played the festival circuit a few years ago? Did you get the “filmmaking bug” by being in that?
DeBoer: We came to directing in a unique way. When we were living in New York, Dawn and I were actors primarily, doing a ton of improv shows and working with various sketch teams. However, when we moved to Los Angeles, we weren’t getting as much work as actors. That’s when we started to get interested in making something of our own, to show that we could also be storytellers. We weren’t saying “Oh, we definitely want to be screenwriters” or anything like that, but we wondered, “why don’t we just make something and make it funny.” As you can tell from watching the Greener Grass short, it wasn’t really an actor showcase. We were most interested in creating the specific world of the story and building the characters from there. We wanted to make something, for sure, but it wasn’t a result of us sitting around with a career endgame in mind.
Luebbe: The short was directed by our good friend Paul Briganti, a comedy performer who was on a sketch team with us at the UCB in New York. One night at a party, Jocelyn and I floated the idea of Greener Grass to Paul and asked if he would direct it.
DeBoer: We had just come up with the idea for the short earlier that day—
Luebbe: And he agreed to do it on the spot. That’s how that got off the ground. In working with Paul on the short, however, a startling thing happened: Jocelyn and I realized how interested we were in directing. Paul is like a mentor to the both of us and kept us involved in the whole process [of the short]. Right after production wrapped, however, Paul got a digital directing gig at Saturday Night Live, and as a result, had to head out to New York before post-production work on Greener Grass was completed. He delivered us a director’s cut of the film, but we had to take the reigns from there. Subsequently, we gained invaluable experience working with the editor on several scenes and working with the sound mixer and the colorist and the composer. Typically, a director is spearheading those elements, but we got really excited about the opportunity to try and do them ourselves.
DeBoer: We were actually planning our next short, Buzz, while we were on set for Greener Grass, which is funny to reminisce about now, because had Greener Grass proved unsuccessful, logic says it should have affected what we were going to pursue next.
Filmmaker: After the short was released, there were plans to expand it into a series rather than a feature?
Luebbe: Yeah, between the short film and the feature, we had sold Greener Grass as a TV show to IFC. We worked on it for several months, building out the world of the story and coming up with the larger ideas and themes [that would ultimately make it into the feature]. While it was incredible to work with IFC, it became apparent toward the end of the process that the budget just wasn’t there. We had created a very, very large world and couldn’t get it off the ground as a TV show.
Around that time in 2017, Jocelyn went off to Austin, Texas to act in Jim Cummings’s film, Thunder Road, playing his character’s wife, while I went to the Napa Valley Film Festival with one of our short films, The Arrival. Within this period of several weeks, Jocelyn and I were, in our own ways, immersed in the world of indie-feature-filmmaking, her working on an incredible, low-budget set and me surrounded by countless filmmakers who had just made their first feature. When we both got back to Los Angeles and regrouped, we both agreed to rework Greener Grass from a TV show into a feature.
I should also note that when Greener Grass was being prepped as a TV show, Jocelyn and I were nervous that we wouldn’t get the chance to direct it ourselves (at that point, we hadn’t directed too much) and so the feature was conceived with us in the directing chairs. It’s possible that we’ll revisit the material someday and structure it as an episodic TV show. You never know.
DeBoer: We still have the dental braces used in the film, just in case.
Filmmaker: Greener Grass could be viewed as a social commentary on strained niceness, the absurdity underneath small town societal roles, or a wholesome Americana that was anything but. What were some of the inspirations for creating that world?
DeBoer: We were interested in satirizing a certain social class and the kind of communities Dawn and I grew up in. It started with exploring politeness taken to the extreme and exploring a society with misplaced values. Misplaced values and the question of identity (and how one’s identity is established) is what drove the film. While we chose not to include social media in the film, we were hoping to comment on it in a different way. Our characters are who they are thanks to who and what they surround themselves with, what their house looks like, what their kids are like, etc. as opposed to them paying attention to their inner character and inner thought process of what they actually want and what makes a good decision. Should dogs be treated like children? Should children be treated like dogs? Everything in our movie is heightened and blown up to the extreme, to the point of absurdity and ridiculousness, right? That being said, it was important that everything stay somewhat grounded and somewhat real. That would in turn enable us to further explore and satirize.
Filmmaker: You wrote the feature screenplay in January of 2018 and went into production that August (and premiered the film at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival the following January). This is a very compact, structured timeline. Was it envisioned this way?
DeBoer: We worked quickly. Dawn and I had come from producing three shorts back-to-back-to-back, almost literally getting out of post on one and jumping right into prep on another. We then had a five or six-month period where we were prepping the Greener Grass TV show and things slowed down a bit. Throughout that stretch, we were itching to get back in production. That was the main fire underneath us, perfecting the script for the feature so that we could get going with production. We did about 22 drafts, like from page-one-to-the-last-page rewrite drafts from January 2018 to the end of May, reworking it each time.
By May we thought we had a draft good enough to show producer Natalie Metzger, who we were hoping would agree to produce it. We took Natalie out for dinner and she read the script. She really enjoyed it and said, “We have to start doing this, like, tomorrow.” We were taken aback: “Wait, what?” Her belief was that we needed to shoot in the next couple of months in order to be considered for the Sundance deadline. We were surprised but hey, she had the experience! There was a reason for Natalie’s proclamation, as she had produced both the Thunder Road feature and the Thunder Road short, and the short had won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, so they were aiming for the feature version to premiere at Sundance as well. As it turns out, they were about three weeks shy of making that deadline. Damned if that was going to happen to Natalie again! She really got us kicking into production, and while Dawn and I, of course, had dreams of screening at Sundance, we weren’t as confident as Natalie.
Filmmaker: Were you working on a closed set? The film feels like a slice of suburbia that looks equally authentic and superficial. I imagine it was a marriage of expert location scouting and production design?
Luebbe: The production company that Natalie works with, Vanishing Angle, was planning to shoot another feature at the same time in Georgia, so she floated the idea of our film shooting there as well (we could bundle the projects and qualify for the tax credit from the Georgia Film Office). It was important to us that our movie look like “Anywhere U.S.A” and we didn’t want to shoot in LA and have palm trees sticking out everywhere. But while looking at different cities and towns in Georgia (Savannah and Augusta specifically), none felt right. They felt so Southern! It got to the point where we didn’t think we would be able to shoot in Georgia, but before giving up, we asked Natalie where specifically her other feature was shooting. As it turns out, that project was shooting in an area called Peachtree City.
We went to the official Peachtree City website, where it describes the city as the “golf cart capital of the world” and features photos of people on golf carts driving past beautiful trees and around lush lakes and gardens, and knew then that it would be the perfect location for our film. [laughs]
DeBoer: That’s the authentic Peachtree City! You get the aligned pastel houses and everything. When we shot the scenes on the soccer field, for example, even our extras were wearing the perfect clothes. It wasn’t a closed set, no, but the city and its homes were perfect.
Luebbe: We also have to credit our production designer, Leigh Poindexter, who made a number of choices I’m unsure you’d notice on a first viewing. She placed artificial flowers throughout the bushes and trees, further emphasizing the artificial element of this perfectly structured outdoor world. We wanted that aura of artificiality placed atop the “perfect look” of Peachtree City.
Filmmaker: About those golf carts: the film is thus set in a town in which traditional automobiles cease to exist. It’s populated by bland golf carts of various models. That is a very specific, humorous choice central to the location, but I imagine obtaining them all would prove quite the challenge.
DeBoer: It did. Peachtree City has a hundred miles of paved golf cart paths leading to various local spots, such as the grocery store parking lot and school parking lot, and they’re always filled with golf carts. You could say that we were very much helped by the fact that we were shooting there. That’s also why we feature so many golf carts in the film:they were already in Peachtree City.
We had set certain rules for the fim: we couldn’t show cars, we couldn’t show adult teeth without braces, we couldn’t feature clothing that was the color black, we couldn’t show the color red, everything had to be a certain color palette, etc. Dawn and I gave ourselves a number of rules that were perhaps a little too ambitious but it all worked in the end, and that’s mostly due to Natalie Metzger and our designers.
Luebbe: When we were in Peachtree City for pre-pro, our whole team was exploring the area, and if they saw a pastel golf cart sitting in a parking lot, they’d leave a note on it.
DeBoer: “Do you want us to feature your golf cart in a movie?” That was a group effort. Our extras coordinator put up signs in local orthodontists’ offices in the greater Atlanta area that read, “Are you an adult with braces? We have a part in an upcoming movie for you.”
Filmmaker: The opening credits sequence features one such mouth with braces being held open for an uncomfortably extended period of time. Is that footage looping?
DeBoer: That’s my mouth and nope, it’s not looping. We shot that three minute sequence in real time and Dawn kept making me do several takes.
Luebbe: I wanted one of Jocelyn crying and drooling, you know? A lot of mouth movements. [laughs]
DeBoer: Our cinematographer, Lowell A. Meyer, positioned a bike helmet on a C-Stand to keep my head still. I could see a reflection of my mouth reflected in the lens and was able to manipulate the quivering from there.
Filmmaker: The film is brightly lit, almost to the extreme in its visual softness, as if a hue was radiating directly from the sun. What conversations did you have with Lowell about that effect?
Luebbe: There’s a certain kind of wonderful horror that exists in the all too bright and we were interested in exploring that. Lowell made sure that each technical choice was also being made to complement the story. Regarding the soft focus, he wanted the audiences’ viewing arc, if you will, to relate to my character, Jill. The film starts off with a very soft focus which mirrors the naivete of Jill. As Jill begins to obtain further clarity within her world and things begin to break apart, Lowell wanted much sharper images. Every camera choice had to mirror how Jill perceived this world.
Filmmaker: Hopefully you can retain him for the Greener Grass TV series if that’s still in the cards!
Luebbe: Definitely! We would love that.