Producer Natalie Metzger stops by on Close-up Culture for a fun chat about her work on festival favourite Greener Grass.
The film sees Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe write, direct, and star in this hilariously deadpan hellscape of competitive suburbia.
Q: You worked with Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe a few years ago on a short film called ‘The Arrival’. What are your memories of first meeting them?
A: Jim Cummings was the person that gave Jocelyn and Dawn my name. They had done the festival tour of the short version of Greener Grass at the same as Jim was doing the festival tour of the short version of Thunder Road. When they asked him for a producer recommendation, he gave them my name.
When I first met Jocelyn and Dawn, we instantly clicked. I loved everything about them. They were super smart, funny, ambitious, kind, hard-working, and beautiful. They are truly superwomen. They are some of the most talented people I’ve ever met.
Q: Why do you feel Jocelyn and Dawn work so well as a team? And what are they like to collaborate with on a project?
A: They are like aesthetic twins. They have the exact same inclinations when it comes to style, comedy, themes that interest them, etc. It often times feel like they share a brain.
They are so lovely to collaborate with. They have a strong vision which creates a solid foundation for collaborators to build from, but they are also very open to different and bold ideas which helps foster a super creative environment. As you can see from the finished product, all of the different department heads felt inspired to bring their A-game.
Q: What resonated with you about the story of ‘Greener Grass’? Do you have any experience with American suburbia?
A: I grew up in the suburbs of southern Florida in a city called Boca Raton. There was so much that I could relate to within the script, and the characters felt strangely familiar to me.
I also really love stories that touch on larger themes, and the Greener Grass script is so richly textured with social commentary about the traditional American dream, facades of politeness, elements of femininity, and American egocentrism. It manages to be smart, funny, and insane all at the same time.
Q: I’ve heard the title Creative Producer used a lot recently. Did you have any creative input on ‘Greener Grass’?
A: Jocelyn and Dawn are such thoughtful and detailed writers that the script was already ready to go by the time that I read it.
There were obviously some things that came up during production that needed creative problem-solving, mostly developing out-of-the-box solutions to make sure that Jocelyn and Dawn’s clear and stunning vision was accomplished, even though we had a limited budget. We had to jump through some crazy hoops to make it work, but we pulled it off.
During the post-production process, we would do feedback screenings where creative input was also encouraged.
Q: I picture this being a whacky and fun project set to be on. What was the vibe and atmosphere like for ‘Greener Grass’?
A: There was a lot of laughing. We had such talented comedians on set every day, so it was a lot of fun. Everyone absorbed into the world of Greener Grass.
Crew would sometimes show up with underwear scarves around their neck or would create fake braces for themselves out of paper clips. I showed up to set one day, wearing the prairie dress from the school classroom set. We had a very fast-paced schedule that could be relentless at times, but we found ways to keep laughing. And it was impossible to watch monitor without cackling.
Q: I imagine a producer gets thrown all kinds of strange challenges on a film like ‘Greener Grass’. Did any arise on this film?
A: Absolutely. One of the strangest things that came up with Greener Grass was the braces. We had to have 33 different pairs of fake braces custom-made since each adult actor in the film wears braces. We were filming in Peachtree City, Georgia, and a lot of our talent was coming from Los Angeles, so we had to fly the actors out two days early so that they could do a full dental cast for their custom braces to be made.
They also tell you not to work with children or animals on an indie film, but with this script, we had all of that and more: tons of kids, a baby, a featured dog that had to do human things, as well as cows… It was a lot. Haha. But it was also super fun. Each day was unique and crazy, but also filled with so much laughter.
Q: Even though the film is out there, the work of a producer is never done! You still have to interact with press people like me and attend festivals. How much do you enjoy this part of a project?
A: It’s actually my favourite part of the process. It’s so magical to sit in a theater and experience a film that you have made with an audience, especially a comedy. The laughter and audible guffaws that happen throughout screenings are so satisfying.
And it is also wonderful talking to audience and press after the film. I love hearing different theories and interpretations of the film, and it’s always rewarding to hear people’s enthusiasm for the film.
Q: I should note that as well as producing, you’ve directed a number of impressive features (‘Alone In The Game’ and ‘Special Blood’). You’ve also worked as an actor and editor on films. When do you feel most comfortable and in your element?
A: Producing is one of my favourite roles in film. I love making everything come together. It’s essentially like building a company from scratch: creating the budget, hiring the team, working with vendors, courting talent, supervising the progress of everything. It’s really satisfying to me.
I also have the kind of brain that craves organisation, and I genuinely enjoy creating spreadsheets, budgets, and colour-coding. That being said, I started as a director for live theater and dance, so it is nice to exercise that part of my brain every once in awhile.
My ideal would be to produce 75% of the time, and then direct 25% of the time.
Q: What first drew you to film and what was your entry point to the industry?
A: I kind of fell into the film industry.
I have a Masters in Choreography and Integrated Media from California Institute of the Arts. I was writing, directing, choreographing, and producing live dance theater pieces, but I started to get frustrated with the audience limitations of the stage.
With live theater, you are limited by geography and time. I would put in months of work to create this whole event and put it together, but then only people within a 20 miles radius of the theater would be able to come see it, and it would only be up for a few weekends, so if someone couldn’t make it out for that limited period of time, they wouldn’t be able to see it.
So in order to broaden the people that were able to see my work, I started filming my choreography. I would bring my dancers to visually interesting locations and film them there. I had taken an editing class, so I knew how to edit footage, so I would produce, direct, choreograph, and edit these experimental short films. I started submitting those to festivals, and they started getting attention and awards, so I made more.
My friends started asking me to help them make their films, so I started producing projects for friends. It wasn’t a big jump for me, since I was used to producing theater projects, so I knew how to build a budget, negotiate with vendors, hire crew, cast talent, etc. It’s obviously slightly different for film, but I learned quickly the more that I did it.
I also got involved with Women In Film around this time and started getting more on-set experience through their PSA program. I eventually was producing and directing PSAs for them and then became part of the Business Affairs committee there.
Then it became a word of mouth thing, where my friends would recommend me to their friends who would then pay me to produce for them. I was working on shorts, then commercials and music videos, then pilots, the features, and then series.
Q: I think you are a fantastic role model for any person looking to break into and learn different aspects of the industry. What would your advice be to someone who wants to follow down your path?
A: Oh, thank you. That is so nice of you to say.
I usually say: Find your tribe. I think one of the most important things for filmmakers that are just starting out is to find a group of filmmakers that they trust and respect as fellow creatives and craftsmen and then to just start creating together. Don’t wait for anyone to give you permission to make your stuff. Find people that have similar values and aesthetics as you and just start doing it.
Q: I saw on Instagram that you are a self-confessed bookworm. Do you have any books to recommend as we head into the winter months?
A: I am really big into non-fiction. Below are a couple books that I have read in the last few years that have stuck with me:
To Be A Machine by Mark O’Connell
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
Modern Loss by Rebecca Soffer
Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick
Q: And lastly, what are your hopes for ‘Green Grass’ when it screens at the Raindance Film Festival?
A: I hope that it resonates with UK audiences. As we’ve started having international screenings of the film at different festivals, we’ve discovered that there are places like the suburbia portrayed in the film all across the world. People will come up to us afterwards and say, “Oh, it reminded me so much of this town”.
So I hope that Greener Grass resonates with audiences on a global level and that audiences can laugh at the absurdity, admire that crazy kaleidoscope of the film, and also resonate on a deeper level with some of the themes that the film is exploring.