Greener Grass writers-directors-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe spoke with FF2 Media to discuss the film. Read our full review HERE.
Greener Grass was one of the wildest experiences that I’ve had in a theater this year. What was the process like in adapting the short film into a feature?
Jocelyn DeBoer: Aww…Danielle, perhaps you’ve had that experience three times. Is that right?
One could say that. At least two and a half times!
Jocelyn DeBoer: Two and half—so nice!
Our experience in adapting the short to the feature—first of all, we never intended it to be a feature when we made the short. In fact, we thought we were making a web series and then basically like the night before we started production, we saw that Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp’s web series, Catherine, got put together as something called Catherine: A Story In 12 Parts and played at Sundance. We were like, wait, we can maybe make this a short. So that alone—we weren’t planning on doing anything like a feature. What’s interesting is that before we made it a feature, we sold it as a television show to IFC, actually. That was back in 2017. So we’ve pitched them six seasons of the TV show and they bought a pilot from us. I feel like when we were making the TV show it, it became such a large world. There were so many layers to it, so many different storylines. It was extremely ambitious, like we were making our own little-like Game of Thrones, Greener Grass world. Rightfully so, it turned out that IFC didn’t exactly have the money to make what we had written and it ended up not going. So Dawn, what did you say when we decided to make it a feature? It was almost a relief in terms of—it was a process of really simplifying the story and getting to the root of our favorite elements, and kind of isolating those into a more simple project.
Dawn Luebbe: Yeah, it really was. In fact, it’s funny—I think in the six months or so we were working on the TV show and really, really expanding the world when we decided to kind of shift and go make it a feature, it just at first I think seems very overwhelming because we had co-created this huge world. We went back and re-watched the short film, which we hadn’t seen in a while. We realized actually how simple this short was and then we kind of pivoted and used the kind of the Southern vignette of the short film and the seven unusual things that happened in that as kind of the tent-pole for the outline of the feature. And in that, yeah, it was a relief in a way. It’s because it all of a sudden seemed just a lot simpler of a story to tell. We also started having so much more fun when we did that.
With a TV series, you never know if it’s going to go as long as you wanted to go. I’ve been writing a script and originally, I had it in mind for a TV series and I decided to switch to a feature because I figured it’s better to find an audience that way.
Jocelyn DeBoer: That’s interesting. I think you’re exactly right especially for something that is—for us, it was our very first feature. We wanted to have as much creative control as we could, so that we could start honing our voices in a way that it will make people when we, if we do end up having a TV show, for example, trust us to actually run it, as opposed to just being creators, and then having to bring in more senior people to direct it and to be show runners etc. We’re like, oh, if we do a feature, we can control the world. We can direct it, but that was a really good thing for us. I’m guessing it’ll be a really good thing for your project, too.
Yeah. There’s so much comedy in this film that it’s honestly hard to discuss without spoiling. Going into the premiere at Sundance, was there a gag that you weren’t sure if it would work or not?
Dawn Luebbe: I think everything. Either way, Sundance, we did no test screenings and we were under such a tight time crunch to finish the movie because I think we finished it—Jocelyn, what was it on the Tuesday?
Jocelyn DeBoer: Tuesday.
Dawn Luebbe: Yeah and we knew we had to be at Sundance on Friday. And so even our producer had not seen the cut of the movie. I don’t know if we hadn’t even watched it non-stop let alone play it for any of our friends or strangers. I think there was kind of the big question mark of how will this do, how will people respond?
Jocelyn DeBoer: I’m laughing that you said—we definitely did watch it, girl. We did.
Dawn Luebbe: Oh, yeah.
Jocelyn DeBoer: Remember—several times but never with other people.
Dawn Luebbe: I think once or twice non-stop. We’d be like, oh, wait, let’s fix it—the sound is a little off here. Let’s tweak that. So yeah, we just watch it once. Yeah, but of course, we watched hundreds of times.
Jocelyn DeBoer: It’s funny, Danielle, in your question that you said a gag that we were worried about. Because what turned out is that when we were sitting in the audience watching the premiere, both of us were struck with how much literal gagging throw up was in the movie. I think we knew that, of course, as we have seen it so many times. But I think it was when we were with an audience, your brain kind of goes to a different place where you’re like seeing it through their eyes. We both were feeling mortified about how much throw up is in the movie. After Sundance, we ended up cutting one of the premiere throw up scenes, which is when the kids are having a swimming lesson and Lisa baby birds the baby food, which you probably saw at Sundance but is now gone.
Dawn Luebbe: It will be on the DVD for all those that really want to see Lisa one more time.
What was the most challenging part of the film?
Jocelyn DeBoer: It’s our ambition met with the budget. It really was. It was a 19 day shoot in 17 different locations. We just were asking the world of everyone working on it and to our production designer, Leigh Poindexter, and our costume designer, Lauren Oppelt, to everyone, Lowell Mayer, DP. Their blood, sweat, and tears are all over this movie and they like took our vision that was already so ambitious in the budget and time constraints that we had and truly elevated it even more than we could have dreamed up. I think one of the most challenging things was just dealing with—I don’t know—the emotional guilt. It was just such a grind and we’re just so grateful for our team who couldn’t have been better.
This film features a cast that’s full of talented improvisers. Can you talk about working with this cast?
Jocelyn DeBoer: Yeah, totally.
Dawn Luebbe: We just are so grateful to have the cast that we ended up with. We of course came up and Jocelyn and I met doing comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. We were put on a sketch team together there back in 2011.
Jocelyn DeBoer: In New York.
Dawn Luebbe: In New York. Yeah. I mean, like, for example, Neil Casey was, I just remember, in my early days at UCB, just idolizing him and thinking he is the most talented improvisers there is. He coached Jocelyn’s improv team for a number of years. I think we both learned so much from him and to have him in our movie was just this dream come true. The same with Mary Holland and D’Arcy Carden. They’re these people at UCB who we’re such fans of and Darcy’s on Jocelyn’s improv team.
Jocelyn DeBoer: We still perform every Tuesday night together in LA and Danielle, you’ll have to let me know when you’re back in town.
I’m hoping to be back in January.
Dawn Luebbe: That would be fun.
Jocelyn DeBoer: We feel like we can’t say enough good things about how wonderful Beck Bennett is to work with it and what an extremely talented actor he is. Beck is someone who was kind of in our larger comedy community but we didn’t know him well when we went into shooting. We have just really honestly admired him on Saturday. Night Live because he’s always so often doing these very big characters in these absurd or broad situations. We find that Beck is always so grounded within them and he’s able to really have an emotional connection and floor to his performance, no matter what ridiculous thing is going on around him. We’re really hoping he would trust us to and make the movie with him and we’re so glad that he did.
Dawn Luebbe: I think one of the wonderful things about working with all these talented improvisers was that even though our movie was very tightly scripted, and there wasn’t a ton of improv. I think every actor has at least one if not a number of moments of improv that they brought to it that we ended up using and just love. Some of those are our favorite things. Mary Holland has this moment where when Jill visits her and offers her a taco dip that’s five layers and it doesn’t quite meet her expectations of a seven-layer taco dip and she says, “Just put it on the floor.” That was Mary, who just so understood the character and so understood the tone of the movie, improved that line and it just fits perfect in that moment and the way these characters very awkwardly communicate and relate to each other that we had to keep it, we just loved it.
Going back to improv, what is the most meaningful piece of advice that you’ve received?
Jocelyn DeBoer: Okay, so this is the first thing that comes to mind but it’s the idea of following the fun. I think like when you’re first learning improv, you can become and I did become just overwhelmed by the amount of rules there are that you’re learning and how heavily technique is stressed. It is so important when you’re first coming up in improv. I think what’s one of the tenants that is something that leads to such positive things is follow the fun and because I think you can feel lost in what is the game of the scene? If this is true, what else is true? Who’s the high status? Who’s the lower status, etc.? But if you just remember follow the fun, what did the audience just laugh at? What are what are they laughing at? What is keeping the room rocking in terms of laughter? That is the thing that is important. You can follow that and you’re always going to be okay.
Dawn Luebbe: Oh, yeah, I love that. I think that’s so true within our writing process. We would decide to go in one direction versus another. It always came back to that.
This film had several stops on the festival circuit. What type of feedback have you gotten along the way?
Dawn Luebbe: It’s just been—it’s kind of cheesy but it feels like the most magical year we’ve had going around with this movie on the festival circuit. I think one thing that has just been so exciting is seeing how different people from a different ages and different places respond to the movie. I think one thing that’s been interesting in almost everywhere we’ve been in the States, people will relate to the movie and think that it was written about the place they’re from. That’s the dream for us, like, yeah, that’s the case. When we were in Utah, a few people approached us and said, “You guys must have grown up in Utah. This is about the Mormons, right?” When we were in Dallas, people thought it was about the south and were convinced that we grew up in the south. That experience just happened over and over. The fact that for whatever reason people were seeing aspects of this movie as a reflection of their own upbringing and community was fantastic that it had that kind of universal appeal or revolution.
Jocelyn DeBoer: That’s what has been surprising, too, is—I think, of course, we always hoped our movie would appeal across generations and things but we weren’t sure. We were really thinking the comedy people I hope will love this. We didn’t expect that sweet little old ladies in Cleveland would see it the two or three times while we are at the Cleveland International Film Festival or there’s a group of sixth graders that have this Greener Grass kind of obsession going on, which is just flooring us. I feel like our producer just sent us a headline out of Portland that was comparing Greener Grass—saying it’s the new Napoleon Dynamite, which we would just have not expected to be called something that appealed to such a broad audience. I think that’s what really taken us by surprise and it’s so exciting. I mean, of course, we’ll see what happens, but it’s been really unreal.
And what’s next?
Dawn Luebbe: We are working on our next feature. We are in the writing process, and sort of really, really developing the whole world of our next feature and diving into that.