The film Greener Grass starts with one suburban housewife giving her baby to another out of politeness, and it only gets weirder from there. The brainchild of Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, who met years ago in their New York Upright Citizen’s Brigade sketch group (they’ve both since relocated to Los Angeles), Greener Grass is a miracle of audacity. DeBoer and Luebbe wrote, directed, and star in this satire of white passive-aggression that takes place in a pastel neighborhood whose residents drive only golf carts, wear braces, and speak to each other on a narcotic delay. It is in no hurry to make sense, a self-assured vision of cinema and comedy that’s as arty as it is culty. In 2019, this is a rare thing indeed.
“Our movie has all the makings of possibly being something awful,” said DeBoer on Thursday in an interview with Jezebel. That is the risk she and Luebbe had to take for a movie that owes as much to John Waters and David Lynch as it does the societal pressure for women to apologize and keep apologizing. They based the movie on a short film they made in 2015 and shot it last year over 19 days in the Atlanta suburb Peachtree City, Georgia. They executed their vision with perfectionist hands; DeBoer said they went through 21 page-one rewrites while attempting to nail the tone. “Everything is so important to us. Like, if a napkin is wrong, it hurts inside,” she said, illustrating their strong aesthetic sensibility (while sounding like a character in her movie).
The power dynamic of their characters—Luebbe’s Lisa is alpha to DeBoer’s Jill’s beta—they say is not reflected in their own collaboration. “I like to think our relationship is slightly less dramatic,” says Luebbe. We discussed their movie and its ideas, Mating in Captivity, and their specific send-up of white women in the United States. An edited transcript of our discussion is below.
JEZEBEL: I’m astounded that you got something so off the wall made.
JOCELYN DEBOER: We’re astounded too. We’re so lucky. Our movie is a low-budget indie, but with the funding that we had, we had complete creative control. We feel like that’s the only reason a movie like this could exist.
How did you conceive this movie? Did you start out with ideas about suburbia and womanhood in America, or did you say, “Let’s make a fucked-up movie,” and then figure out how to do it?
DAWN LUEBBE: The original idea started out as a short film we made in 2015 that was on the festival circuit in 2016. The idea for the short came about very quickly. We were like, “What can we shoot quick and easy where we’re both in a backyard?” It ended up being a bit more complicated, but I think in general, the nugget of what we were always interested in exploring was the drama of the mundane.
DeBoer: Politeness taken to the extreme. We’re both from the Midwest and both of our families and our upbringing were full of people who were so, so nice and just always trying to make everyone around them comfortable. Tall poppy syndrome’s a very real thing. When we moved to New York, and especially L.A., you meet people who are just direct, so into self-promotion, and self-expression in ways that we just weren’t used to. I think that’s where the satire comes from, kind of, just recognizing those differences in culture and being interested in, “Is it right that it’s not right to talk about yourself ever?” Questioning all the things we grew up thinking.
It seems like something you are also sending up is the idea that women are expected or feel obligated to apologize all of the time.
DeBoer: I think 70 percent of my lines were, “I’m sorry.”
Luebbe: The characters are apologizing so much for minor transgressions or things they shouldn’t being apologizing for.
DeBoer: It’s so deeply rooted. When I first moved to New York, when people would knock into me on the subway and I was just standing there, I’d be like, “I’m so sorry.” It’s such a tic. As we’ve evolved and moved into leadership positions, we’re aware that’s not a helpful or healthy way to be, just apologizing for your existence.
When writing this, did you have rules in your head in terms of what could and couldn’t happening this universe, or did you feel it out as you went?
DeBoer: There are so many constraints. There are some rules, but so much of the writing was getting the tone just right, and that was a constant conversation with us. But I would say, we would kind of feel in our gut whether something is something that would happen in the world or not.
Luebbe: I think overall it was important that nothing is in the movie that was just weird for weird’s sake. Everything that happened taps into one of these greater themes we were exploring.
DeBoer: We don’t want our audience to be bored. We’re so interested in artistic things that are absurd or surreal, but when you can’t latch onto the story in any way and you don’t have any emotional connection to any of the characters, it feels lazy in a way. Anyone can make things where anything just happens, but if it’s not rooted in anything real, it’s just nonsense. It was very important to us that we weren’t wasting our audience’s time and we were making something that had many, many layers.
Besides politeness and apologizing, what were the other themes you wanted to explore?
DeBoer: I think one of the biggest ones was identity, and how your identity is established. For our characters, it’s so much about what’s outside of them. What kind of house they have, who their husband is, how their kids behave, down to how many pompoms are on their clothing. None of the attention is on, “What do I actually want? What is actually important to me?” That question of identity I think has worked its way into all of our work, and it’s something we’re interested in exploring. With that is values. What do you as a person value? For our characters in the movie, their values are so misplaced. They’re so confused.
Luebbe: You have children [characters] who do have their own identities to some extent, but you see with [Jill’s son] Julian, as he really is forming his very unique identity that is so different from what his parents want, he ultimately…turns into a version [of himself] that they approve of.
Your film has been compared to the work of David Lynch. The sendup of the bourgeoisie reminded me of Buñuel…
DeBoer: I love that you brought that up; we love Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
The scene where you eat off the floor also reminded me of Phantom of Liberty.
DeBoer: Yes, and Belle de Jour even. This idea of the way you’re expected to be versus who you want to be. But David Lynch, we were watching Twin Peaks together when we made the short. Absolutely. And Angelo Badalamenti’s work, of course, too, was an inspiration for the type of score that we wanted.
Luebbe: John Waters, of course. What we like about John Waters is that even though he has comedies satirizing suburbia or Baltimore, he has such love of where he’s from and wants to celebrate it. Same with Alexander Payne and Nebraska. To some extent, he’s poking fun at those characters, but there’s also such a love and respect.
DeBoer: Both Dawn and I watched a lot of old movies growing up, and even on our sketch comedy team would pitch things that had this melodramatic tone, almost like a woman’s film from the ’50s. I grew up loving Douglas Sirk. I think that is in all of our work, we’re playing with people’s emotions. We want people to feel something, despite the comedy we’re doing.
Do you have any thoughts as to why so much absurdism in pop culture has been disproportionately male-driven, at least that which commands enough attention to be a cultural reference?
DeBoer: We’re really interested in that. We’re so conscious that when we get asked about our influences, we list a lot of men. I feel like there have got to be amazing female filmmakers that have made amazing, surreal films, but they just aren’t the ones that are as well known or ones that we grew up watching. I don’t want to make a vast generalization, but some of the things we’re talking about, things that really got me going, sometimes lacked that emotional connection that I wanted and that I got from movies that are told by women or geared toward women. Our dream that we talked about was, “Let’s make something that looks as cool as certain films and is so risky, so different, but it’s also something that you feel actually emotionally connected to the story.” To us, that idea was more unique. As a viewer, I want story, I want to feel something and have a visual masterpiece in front of me.
At what point did you feel secure in your creative vision?
DeBoer: It’s an emotional rollercoaster. Dawn and I have a delusional amount of confidence. No one thinks Greener Grass is funnier than we do. It’s sick, it’s really stupid.
Luebbe: This is the pro and con of having a partner. We’re just like, “Oh, what you said is the funniest thing.”
DeBoer: So daily, pre-pro through today, we have times where we’re like, “This is comedy gold!” And then times like…
Luebbe: “Will anyone see this movie?”
The references to Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity cracked me up. I frequently have recommended that book, but your characters being so into it made me wonder if I was being cheesy in doing so.
Luebbe: I love Mating in Captivity. I think it’s a great work of art and advice.
DeBoer: I discovered it years ago and was so into Esther Perel, TED talks everything. And then I was that person telling all my friends, “You have to read Mating in Captivity,” and [they] all did. We’ve all read it now. We all talk about it. I don’t think it’s common enough because she’s so helpful.
Was it also your intention to comment on whiteness and white women? Janicza Bravo plays a role in your characters’ circle, but this is mostly a movie about white people.
DeBoer: It’s something that was definitely in our conversation when we were writing and much more when we were casting.
Luebbe: The community we were satirizing is predominantly white, but it’s hard.
DeBoer: Our comedy community is so diverse, and it’s important to us to give opportunities to everyone. We didn’t want to be like, “Oh, we’re an all-white movie.” We were briefly into the idea of Lisa’s family being mixed and we thought, “Oh, we can do colorblind casting of the kids.” We both came from upper middle class, predominantly white communities. If you are in that kind of world, which is the world you’re writing about, and you’re a mixed family, that’s a very different experience in our world that in our script we haven’t commented on at all or talked about that experience in a specific way. And we were like, “Then we’re doing a big injustice.” It’s hard, though. We’re still like, “Did we make the right decisions in our casting call?”
Did you actually have everyone in your movie get braces?
DeBoer: We worked with a special effects artist, Adam Bailey, and he built everyone an Invisalign. He put real braces on the Invisalign so you could take it in and out like a retainer.
Luebbe: But we had a lot of extras with real braces because our extras coordinator went to every orthodontist in the greater Atlanta area with a flyer: “Are you an adult with braces? Do you want to be in a movie?” On the other side, some in the background didn’t have braces so when they’d be smiling, we’d have to be like, “Oh no, we can see your teeth. Make sure you don’t show them!”
DeBoer: They would laugh like, “Ha. Ha.” Braces were our most expensive line item.
Luebbe: Our producer was like, “Does everyone really need them?” “Yes, they do.”
Were you high at any point during this making of this movie?
DeBoer: We could have been...
Luebbe: It might have been more beneficial to the project.
DeBoer: …But we weren’t at all. Dawn and I work basically 8:30 in the morning till 6:30 at night. We clock in, we have an hour lunch break. We were doing that every single day while writing the script. It’s not like we were sitting around, smoking. We were at a desk.
Luebbe: We are coming out with Greener Grass weed, though. We’re partnering with Higgs.
DeBoer: There’s nothing we’re more excited about.
Luebbe: It’s called Soccer Mom Sativa.
Greener Grass opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. It is also available On Demand.