“When we dress a cow, it’s not like dressing an ordinary person,” says Becky Coppersmith, who could easily talk about the literal process of stuffing cattle into pants, as she had to do for years in ” Dress A Cow,” but it’s also an allusion to the wardrobe demanded at the Canfield County Fair in Ohio where every year since 1983 has brought increasingly ostentatious outfits to the bovine beauty pageant. real elected officials from the area who work for the appeals court or the police court, the competition is serious business because the cows are made to look like Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” or Tweety Bird from Looney Tunes, but it’s all in good fun as an attraction at the fair where corn cobs and funnel cakes are piled high for food and cows, pampered with baby oil applied to their udders and bathed in eucalyptus, lavender and green mint e to smell good, can feel like a queen for a day.
Given that one of the craziest details of Dawn Luebbe’s narrative feature debut “Greener Grass” (co-directed with Jocelyn deBoer) was based on real life – featuring surreal suburban satire in Peachtree City, in Georgia, where golf carts really are just as popular a form of transportation as cars – it’s no wonder she was drawn to the Midwest’s 38-year tradition as the first non-road project. fiction, and it’s also no surprise how naturally she goes about it while keeping her distinctive directorial touch. Both hilarious and poignant, the 10-minute short is a particularly sweet slice of life as the director pulls together memories of various pop cultural trends that have made their way into the competition – there was a year when a cow was made to look like Regis Philbin during ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Fever’ – as the film speaks to the enduring nature of bringing joy to a community they can all rally around.
Not only do you get that collective feeling in front of the camera, but also behind it when “Dress A Cow” is the latest film from Vanishing Angle and producer Natalie Metzger, who brought together much of the “Greener Grass” crew and could applying what she knew from her own days in the documentary to help create such an irresistibly entertaining work of non-fiction. With Luebbe and Metzger both in Austin to celebrate the world premiere of “Dress A Cow” at SXSW, they generously took the time to talk about how a most unusual competition led to such a unique film and all the unexpected places she has taken them.
How did it happen?
Dawn Luebbe: I can attribute a lot of that to Natalie because this is my first time doing a documentary of any kind. I come more from the narrative space, but over the years my favorite thing at festivals has always been the Docs short film program and I’ve always been really interested in what that process of creating documentaries is. Natalie has done documentaries and she inspired me. I had this time frame where my directing partner Jocelyn [deBoer] was on maternity leave and [I thought] “Might be a good time to dip my toe in it.” I grew up in Nebraska and spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ dairy farm and all of my extended family comes from there and shows cows at the county fair so I’ve always spent summers to go to the fair.
This world is something that I’ve always loved and been very dear to me, and I think it hasn’t been showcased much, so I’ve been browsing the county fair websites and I’m came across this “Dress A Cow” thing. I was immediately intrigued and contacted Lori Coler, the woman running the event through the fair’s website and we talked on the phone for two hours. I really liked him. Then I [thought] well, it might be crazy to do, but I emailed Natalie and said, “Are you available to produce? And she [wasn’t at the time] and I was really hesitant to do it or not. But once Natalie was able to do that, the ball just rolled.
Natalie, it’s your triumphant return to documentaries. Were you excited to do something like that after your narrative features?
Nathalie Metzger: I was so excited to see Dawn step into this world and it was so wonderful to see her flourish in this environment. Obviously his skills transferred so easily from narrative to documentary and in the midst of COVID and all that, a confined documentary [where] let’s just explore that [with] a small intimate team, it was just a very good comeback in cinema. And it was just cool to explore the county fair outside of filming. The amount of footage that ended up on the cutting room floor was nothing short of epic, because we loved it all.
Dawn Luebbe: Yeah. I feel like 1% of the footage made it into the film and our editor really had his work cut out for him.
I know how long and meticulous the process was to arrive at “Greener Grass”. Was it an adjustment to film so much in a short time and leave so much to chance?
Dawn Luebbe: It was really terrifying, I’m used to doing so much in preparation and I’m a bit of a control freak and a perfectionist. I just want to know what each shot will be, what lens? I know exactly how I want the actors to say the lines. It also happens very differently when you’re on set, when [the actors] are in it, so it was scary that you didn’t know exactly what subjects you were going to get. Even one of the subjects, [from] our pre-interview i thought would be the funniest and unique ended up getting really shy when it came to being on camera so it’s a lot of thinking on your feet and being, “eh Well, how can I make that person more comfortable? How can I get them to say things that sound more natural?”
One thing that was really helpful was that Natalie was there for all the interviews, and she would be really good at asking a few questions at the end, which ended up being a lot of the ones I used to get some more textured and broader responses. or ended up being good at transitions. But it was really such a different experience, having her come together so much more in the edit.
Nathalie Metzger: And we were very lucky to have Jared Levy, our cinematographer, who comes from the doc world, so watch him and Dawn run around the fair and make everything beautiful. They merged the spirit, making these perfect paintings of those moments at the fair. And Margaret Miller, who co-wrote the document with Dawn, also helped a lot, [doing] so much research and it was deep, deep to dig into it all [so] you ask the right questions.
Dawn Luebbe: Yeah. It was fun. Beforehand, Jared and I talked a lot about our photographic inspirations, so we were so on the same page with how we wanted to frame the photos. We really wanted to play with symmetry, and we were happy to do 4:3 aspect ratios to get it. [be] more nostalgic.
You also talked about the lens choices and the colors really explode on the screen.
Dawn Luebbe: Yes, I can really attribute that to Jared, as well as our colorist Andrea Chlebak. She really, really knocked it out of the park. And you know, back in the 90s, when you were having images developed at Walgreens, and they had this feeling of super saturation and high contrast? It’s what we wanted the color to be and Andrea took that inspiration, but elevated it to give it an even more refined look.
The narrative framing is equally distinctive – you don’t approach it as a typical competition documentary where the climax revolves around the winners since you find out here that there can be multiple first prize winners. How do you find the structure for it?
Dawn Luebbe: We went [thinking], it’s such a fun contest doc, so in the beginning so many questions were really around, have you lost in the past? Who did you lose to? Who always wins? What is your biggest competition? Then we had to shift because no one cares or remembers. There are five first places. Everyone gets some kind of prize, and it’s not at all about who wins.
Nathalie Metzger: It’s more of a creative outlet for them, and it was really fun to see that, and how it’s woven into the fabric of the family, so it was surprisingly heartwarming when we went there. We were [like]”Oh, that’s a whole different documentary.”
And Dawn was able to pivot so quickly and really dig into what was out there [which] I actually think it comes from your background in improvisation because you were so good at improvising in an instant. [She’s] such a good narrative filmmaker who perfects whatever lies ahead, but also such a good documentary filmmaker because of it.
Were there any moments that really changed your ideas of what it could be?
Dawn Luebbe: It’s funny. There were a few. One shot like that, we were running around at the end of the day to get a B-roll and I lost Jared for a second. I [thought] “Oh no, where’s my DP?” And then I see him excitedly putting together a plan and it was the bored teenager on his phone in front of all these balloons and that’s my favorite plan in the movie. It feels timeless in a way, but there’s also this bored kid on the phone and there’s something about the world that encompasses him. But there’s another specific line that one of the judges said, “In every life, some shit has to fall,” and he said it in such a poetic and stoic way. I [thought], “It’s the whole movie, it’s the best thing anyone ever said.” And it didn’t make the cut. [laughs] I sat with the editor for days trying it out in different places.
I can’t imagine you imagining you would end up in a courthouse for this.
Nathalie Metzger: This is my favorite part of this whole competition! Because I [thought]”Okay, the judges are going to be from the cow world or they’re going to be from the local theater, [with] fashion or wardrobe, or costume. And then dawn [said], “No, it’s the judges of the courthouse.” And they were some of the most interesting interviews, honestly. They are just fascinating people.
How does it feel to be here with them and cross the finish line with this and bring it to South By?
Dawn Luebbe: I have goosebumps all the time. South By is such a special festival for both of us. It was the first big festival I came back to in 2016 with a short film, “Greener Grass” and I felt like it was my home festival ever since. Natalie, of course, won the grand jury prize here [for “Thunder Road”] and this festival is one of the few that privileges comedy as much as more serious work and I appreciate that very much. I’m so excited to see this with an audience.
Nathalie Metzger: And Sundance canceled [its in-person event] this year, and I feel like we’ve been gone for so long. The last two years, without these physical film festivals and seeing them with the public, it’s really fun to have a movie back at one of the first film festivals that’s back in person. It’s so special.
“Dress A Cow” will screen at SXSW as part of the Shorts 2 program on March 17 at 3:30 p.m. at the Alamo Lamar D. It is also available virtually for SXSW Online badge holders through March 21.