How This Duo Twisted Suburbia Into Uncomfortable Laughs
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because “Greener Grass” is the offbeat comedy to watch this fall.
Every comedian loves — and craves — the sound of laughter. But Dawn Luebbe has a more specific joy, born from her work on a sketch team at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theatre in New York: uncomfortable, stifled laughter. That moment when people are laughing, but, for whatever reason, they think maybe they shouldn’t be.
When Luebbe met sketch teammate Jocelyn DeBoer in 2011, she knew she had found a comedic ally, someone who loved John Waters as much as she did, was hooked on David Lynch and was obsessed with improv.
When both comics moved to Los Angeles, they teamed up, shooting the short film Greener Grass, a South by Southwest award winner in 2016. The duo wrote, directed and starred in the subsequent feature-length version of Greener Grass, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and is being released nationwide on Oct. 18. The movie, which explores suburbia gone wrong, is equal parts Edward Scissorhands and Polyester, with a Wes Anderson quirkiness.
We were excited to explore that theme [of politeness] and really heighten and take it to an extreme.
It was inspired by the two women’s upbringings as middle children who earned their place at the dinner table with comedy. DeBoer came from a “very upper-middle-class neighborhood” in the Chicago suburbs. Golf and tennis were huge, and soccer moms were plentiful. DeBoer observed those families with moms who wore supercool tennis outfits. She was interested in what people valued and how they chose to establish their identities. Luebbe grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, which was infused with “this idea of politeness being the most important thing,” she says. “We were excited to explore that theme and really heighten and take it to an extreme in Greener Grass.”
The two women — who declined to reveal their ages, other than to say they were “children of the ’90s” — had dreams of making a film, but they were first and foremost actors. They persuaded Paul Briganti, a UCB alum who works on Saturday Night Live, to direct the 15-minute Greener Grass short. His mentorship helped them acquire the skills to direct themselves. “Their [UCB] sketches were always really imaginative,” Briganti says. “They were sort of like cinematic comedians even back then.”
The pair used their UCB experience to develop the element of surprise and other staples of sketch comedy into the narrative writing they do today. “Those years of being totally weird and putting on a show for a packed live audience is where my sense of humor and technique comes from,” DeBoer says. “When I’m sitting at the computer writing I can just feel in my bones the way things would hit with an audience.”
DeBoer says they didn’t intend to develop the Greener Grass short into something larger, but the film festival buzz got them excited about expanding the world they’d created. Around the same time, DeBoer went to Texas to shoot a role in Thunder Road, an indie film that showed at Cannes and won the Grand Jury Award at South by Southwest in 2018.
“I got to witness the team on the ground making this feature film for less money than I would have expected you could,” DeBoer says. “I got inspired there.” Luebbe and DeBoer decided it was time to make a feature themselves. While writing, they visualized how it would look, then took the next step, directing.
The turnaround was swift: They started writing the feature in January 2018; it debuted at Sundance in January 2019. Early reviews have been positive, with a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Variety calling it “the best Saturday Night Live movie that Saturday Night Live never made.”
Natalie Metzger, the film’s producer, says Luebbe and DeBoer weathered tough conditions — particularly for their first feature. “The biggest challenges were filming in Georgia in the heat of the summer,” Metzger says. “And also having tons of kids, babies, dogs and cows. All the things that they tell you not to do in your first film.”
DeBoer remembers there being a lot to juggle, writing and directing a movie that she was also acting in, not to mention executive producing. But she prized the creative freedom and learned that being in charge, she says, “can make things easier because things are so streamlined.”
Metzger says it’s hard to describe the women individually because they operate as a pair. “They are connected at the hip when they’re on set,” she says. “They speak from the same voice. They seem to think with the same mind. Their brain meld is so crazy.”
Even though they pulled off a rare feat for first-time filmmakers by scoring a distribution deal from a Sundance showing, Greener Grass is a long shot to rack up big numbers at the box office. “Usually it isn’t about making some big deal or anything. It’s all about exposure,” says Corey Asraf, the writer-director of Let Me Make You a Martyr. “What you do with that opportunity and that exposure is really going to dictate your career.”
For one, Luebbe and DeBoer hope to use the moment to “start shepherding other female directors” into feature filmmaking, DeBoer says, via their production house, Gulp Splash.
In the meantime, having already turned one short into a feature, the duo may go back to the well. DeBoer says she and Luebbe joke about how the sketch-size scenes in Greener Grass could make for a great next project. So get ready to laugh at Bald Men and Bouquets or Kids With Knives, even if you’re not sure you should.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Let Me Make You a Martyr was shown at Sundance.