“When we dress a cow, it’s not like dressing a regular person,” says Becky Coppersmith, who could easily be speaking to the literal process of wrangling cattle into a pair of pants as she’s had to do for years in “Dress A Cow, ” but it’s also an allusion to the wardrobe required at the Canfield County Fair in Ohio where each year since 1983 has brought more and more ostentatious outfits to the bovine beauty contest. Judged by real elected officials in the region who work for the Court of Appeals or Police Court, the competition is serious business as 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 sustenance and the cows, pampered with baby oil applied to their udders and bathed in eucalyptus, lavender and spearmint to smell nice, can feel like a queen for a day.
Since one of the craziest details of Dawn Luebbe’s first narrative feature “Greener Grass” (co-directed with Jocelyn deBoer) was based in real life — setting the surreal suburban satire in Peachtree City, Georgia where golf carts really are an equally popular form of transportation as cars—it’s no wonder she was attracted to the 38-year Midwestern tradition as her first nonfiction project, nor is it a surprise how naturally she takes to 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 gathers recollections of various pop cultural trends that made their way into the competition – there was one year where 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 that they can all rally around together.
Not only do you get that collective feeling in front of the camera, but behind it as well when “Dress A Cow” is the latest film from Vanishing Angle and producer Natalie Metzger, who reassembled much of the team from “Greener Grass” and could apply what she knew from her own days in documentary to help create such an irresistibly entertaining work of nonfiction. With Luebbe and Metzger both in Austin to celebrate the world premiere of “Dress A Cow” at SXSW, they generously took time out to talk about how a most unusual competition led to such a unique film and all the unexpected places it led them.
How did this come about?
Dawn Luebbe: A lot of it I can attribute to Natalie because this is my first time making a documentary of any kind. I come from more of the narrative space, but over the years my favorite thing to go to at festivals has always been the Docs Shorts Program and I’ve always been really interested in what that process of making docs is. Natalie’s made some documentaries and I’ve been inspired by her. I had this chunk of time where my directing partner Jocelyn [deBoer] was on maternity leave, and [I thought] “This might be a nice time to dip my toe into it.” I grew up in Nebraska and spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ dairy farm and my whole extended family comes from that and showing cows at the county fair, so I’d always spent summers going to the fair.
That world is something I’ve always loved and has been very dear to me, and I think hasn’t been featured all that much, so I was looking through County Fair websites and came across this “Dress A Cow” thing. I was immediately intrigued and I got in touch with Lori Coler, the woman who runs the event through the Fair website and we talked on the phone for two hours. I really loved her. Then I [thought] well, this might be crazy to do, but I e-mailed Natalie and I said, “Are you available to produce? And she [wasn’t at the time] and I was really on the fence just about whether or not to do it. But once Natalie could do it, then the ball was just rolling.
Natalie, this is your triumphant return to documentaries. Are you excited to do something like this after your narrative features?
Natalie Metzger: I was just so excited to see Dawn enter this world and it was so wonderful just to see her thrive in this environment. Obviously, her skills de ella just transferred so easily from narrative to documentary and in the middle of COVID and all this stuff, a contained documentary [where] we’re going to go and just explore this [with] a small, intimate crew, it just felt a really nice step back into filmmaking. And it was just cool to explore the county fair outside of filming. The amount of footage that ended up on the editing room floor was just epic, because we just loved everything.
Dawn Luebbe: yeah. I feel 1% of the footage made it into the film and our editor really had his work cut out.
I know what a long, meticulous process it was to get to “Greener Grass.” Was it an adjustment to film so much in a short period and leave so much up to chance?
Dawn Luebbe: It was really terrifying, I’m used to doing so much in prep and I’m a bit of a control freak and perfectionist. I just want to know what every shot will be, what lens? I know exactly how I want the actors to say the lines. That also goes very differently when you’re on set, when [the actors] are in it, so it was scary that you didn’t exactly know what you were going to get from the subjects. 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 be in front of the camera, so then it’s a lot of thinking on your feet and being, “well, how can I make this person more comfortable? How can I get them to say some things that feel more natural?”
One thing that was really helpful was Natalie was there for all the interviews, and she would be really good about throwing in some questions at the end, which ended up a lot of them being the ones I used to get some more textured, broader answers. or ended up being good for transitions. But it was really such a different experience, having it much more come together in the edit.
Natalie Metzger: And we were very lucky to have Jared Levy, our cinematographer, who comes from the doc world, so watching him and Dawn just run around the fair and just make everything look beautiful. They mind-melded, making these perfect tables of these moments in the fair. And Margaret Miller, who co-wrote the doc with Dawn also helped so much, [doing] so much research and it was deep, deep digging into all of this [so] you’re asking the right questions.
Dawn Luebbe: yeah. It was fun. In advance, Jared and I talked a lot about our photography inspirations, so we were on so much the same page with how we wanted to frame shots. We really wanted to play with symmetry, and we were excited to do 4:3 aspect ratios to have it [be] more nostalgic.
You spoke about lens choices too and the colors really explode off the screen.
Dawn Luebbe: Yeah, I can really attribute that to Jared, and also our colorist Andrea Chlebak. She really, really just knocked it out of the park. And you know in the ’90s when you’d get pictures developed at Walgreens, and they had that super saturated, high-contrast feel? That’s what we wanted the color to be and Andrea took that inspiration, but she elevated it to give it even more of a polished feel.
The narrative framing is equally distinctive – you don’t approach it like a typical doc about a competition where the climax revolves around the winners since you find out here, there can be multiple first prize winners. How’s you find the structure for this?
Dawn Luebbe: We went into it [thinking], this is such a fun competition doc, so at first, so many of the questions were really around, have you lost in the past? Who did you lose to? Who always wins? Who’s your biggest competition? Then we had to switch gears because no one actually cares or remembers. There’s five first places. Everyone gets prizes of some kind, and it’s not ultimately at all about who wins.
Natalie Metzger: It’s more a creative outlet for them, and it was really fun to see that, and how it was built into the fabric of family it is, so it was surprisingly heartwarming when we went there. We were [like]“Oh, this is a whole different documentary.”
And Dawn was able to pivot so quickly and just really dig into what existed there [which] I actually think comes from your improvisation background because you were able to improvise in a moment so well. [She’s] such a good narrative filmmaker with perfecting everything ahead, but also such a good documentary filmmaker because of that.
Were there any moments that really changed your ideas of what this 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 getting B-roll and I lost Jared for a second. I [thought] “Oh no, where’s my DP?” And then I see him excitedly setting up a shot and it was the bored teenager on his phone in front of all these balloons and that’s my favorite shot in the movie. It feels timeless in a way, but then there’s this bored kid on a phone and there’s something about the world that encompasses it. But there’s one other specific line that one of the judges said, “Into each life some shit must fall,” and he said it in such a poetic, stoic way. I [thought], “That’s the whole movie, that is the best thing anyone’s ever said.” And it didn’t make the cut. [laughs] I sat with the editor for days trying it in different places.
I can’t imagine that you imagined you’d end up at a courthouse for this.
Natalie Metzger: That’s 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 courthouse judges.” And they were some of the most interesting interviews, honestly. They just are fascinating people.
What’s it like being here with them and getting 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 to both of us. It was the first big festival I came to back in 2016 with a short film, “Greener Grass” and I’ve felt it’s my home festival ever since. Natalie, of course, has won the grand jury prize here [for “Thunder Road”] and this festival is one of the few that favors comedy as much as more serious work and I really appreciate that. I’m so excited to see this with an audience.
Natalie Metzger: And Sundance canceled [its in-person event] this year, and it feels we’ve been gone so long. The past two years not having those physical film festivals and seeing it with audiences, it’s really fun to actually have a film back at one of the first film festivals that’s back in person. It just feels so special.
“Dress A Cow” will screen at SXSW as part of Shorts Program 2 on March 17th at 3:30 pm at the Alamo Lamar D. It is also available virtually for SXSW Online badgeholders until March 21st.