When we ask newlyweds to think back on what they wanted most for their big day — and we’ve interviewed hundreds of them over the years — the most common response is: “For it not to feel like a wedding!” But in a monsoon of flower crowns and macaron towers, how do you see beyond the usual tropes and actually pull off a non-cookie-cutter affair? For the answer, we decided to interrogate the cool couples whose weddings we would actually want to steal — right down to the tiger-shaped cake toppers.
Here, we spoke with Suzanne Hillinger and Alexis Johnson, two filmmakers who were engaged for three years while they struggled through their trepidation about marriage and frustration with the wedding industrial complex. Finally, they found a throwback Montauk venue that “felt like us,” and exchanged vows there this past October under Suzanne’s grandfather’s tallit. A klezmer marching band led them to the reception, which led into an after-party by the firepit, where a big screen played surf movies and a lesser-known Albert Brooks-Meryl Streep comedy.
Alex: It was 2013 and Suzanne asked me to go to a wedding with her. Friends of mine were like, “What? You’re going as a date?” And I was like, “No, it’s not a date, it’s just two friends. It’s just a wedding; it’s free booze, dancing. And I’m not gay, so whatever.”
Suzanne: She was my office crush. She had never dated women before, so I think it was not on her radar. I don’t think the wedding would constitute our first date, but it was certainly the first night we spent hours together.
Alex: We had an absolute blast. We’d had enough to drink that it wasn’t awkward when she told me that she liked me. At first, I was like, “Okay, that’s nice,” and then as time went on I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Then it was like: Do I like girls now? I mean, it was a lot. I was 24. My friends and my parents were very supportive. They were like, “If it feels good and you feel good and you like spending time with this person…”
Suzanne: In 2016, we went on a weekend trip to Montauk. Being that we’re both documentary filmmakers, we wanted to stop by the Grey Gardens house on the way back.
Alex: We decided to take one last stroll on the beach. She’d found a ring in my suitcase that I was going to use to propose to her, and put it in her pocket.
Suzanne: I took it out and proposed to her. And then we were engaged for three years.
Alex: Suzanne was having some fears about marriage; we went to couple’s therapy.
Suzanne: It took me a while to wrap my head around the concept of marriage and figure out what we wanted it to look like. Every time we looked at photos and magazines and blogs about weddings, nothing felt like us. Given that we’re both filmmakers, we applied that sort of perspective to every detail, questioning every decision like, “Is this us, or is this the wedding industrial complex seeping into our brains?” When we finally settled on Montauk, it just felt right. It felt like us.
Alex: Ruschmeyers is a property they say was a summer camp in the 1950s, with buildings in a U with a yard in the middle for the kids to run and play.
Suzanne: There was something I loved about coming up a driveway and you see all your family and friends playing in a yard. There was a firepit, picnic tables, pictures of Farrah Fawcett and surfers on the walls. It feels really unpretentious, rustic, not polished at all.
Alex: I got ready on the property in my bridesmaid’s room — I had two bridesmaids, my best friend from college and my best friend from high school. Suzanne’s the youngest of four, so her sister and brother were her maid of honor and best man. Then her older brother, Alex, was our officiant.
Suzanne: It was really hard for me to find an outfit that I felt I would want to wear at a wedding. I was searching on Instagram for wedding suits, and 90 percent of them I hated. Then I found a picture where someone had tagged the designer Elizabeth Fillmore, and it was a hammered silk suit, sort of Bianca Jagger–style silk, and it looked so comfortable, super classy, fun, a bit of rock and roll. I met with the designer and we came up with a slightly altered version of what she’d made for that other bride. I could wear the coat if I was chilly on the beach, since it was October, but I knew I could take that off and have this really cool strapless bustier that was fun to dance in.
Alex: Wedding attire, especially for non-heteronormative couples, definitely brings up issues because people are like, “One of you will wear a suit and the other will wear a dress! Or you’ll both wear giant white dresses.” None of those ideas fit with me. I wanted something that was feminine, but that was strong and made me feel like a badass and like myself, and you can’t put that into Google, sadly. And then I typed “tuxedo” into Net-a-Porter one day and this Dries Van Noten sleeveless tuxedo with amazing shoulder pads came up. I was like, oh, that’s interesting.
Suzanne: I was in my friend’s room and Alex came to the door and our photographer Ro told her to wait, but she poked her head in the door. It was this funny little moment. I had been concerned that the first look was going to feel really staged, and I love that this clumsy mistake was captured.
Alex: We had a chuppah on the beach, made of these birch poles Suzanne’s sister got married with, and it was a windy day and a pole broke in half. Our wedding planner, Melissa McNeeley, was supposed to be coordinating with Ro but she was dealing with that emergency. No one said the pole broke — they said, “Everything’s great, you look great, everything’s fine, I’ll be right back!” I don’t know, I was excited, and I thought it was go time before it was go time. Ro said, “Wait until I say go,” but I’m not great at instructions. I went and peeked.
Suzanne: All of our guests showed up at Ruschmeyers, had a glass of Champagne, and then there were school buses for the five-minute drive to the beach, Kirk Park Beach. We walked on a path through the dunes to the beach, where we had a few benches for people who needed to sit but we wanted everyone standing in a semi-circle, close to us. On top of the birch-pole chuppah was my grandfather’s tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl.
Alex: We thought the tallit would be too small, but it created a house just big enough for the two of us, which was perfect. It was amazing to see it blowing in the wind. I’m an agnostic baptized Catholic — I don’t care about religion at all — but there are certain Jewish traditions that I’ve always loved in a wedding. And it felt very safe for Suzanne’s brother to be there as our officiant, guiding us through this next phase of life. We’d had lots of conversations with him about love and being married, and Suzanne confided in him when we were having our own issues.
Suzanne: We hired Raya Brass Band, a klezmer marching band, and they played our procession. When we stomped on the glasses, that was their cue to start marching to Ruschmeyers, one mile — me, Alex, and the band parading through this sleepy Montauk neighborhood with friends and family. (The people who didn’t march got back on the school bus.) I liked this idea of the first moment of your marriage being a dance.
Alex: People came out of their houses and were taking pictures and stuff. I didn’t expect the town of Montauk to give a crap, but everybody loves a wedding.
Suzanne: Then we had a cocktail hour underneath these big old trees in the Ruschmeyers yard, with a raw bar and appetizers. As a producer who works with natural light, I am obsessed with checking the time of sunset, and the ceremony was right before golden hour, the march back was golden hour, and then there was still enough light to have the cocktail party outside.
Alex: We had a specialty cocktail that we stole from an old Wylie Dufresne restaurant, Alder. It’s like a fall old fashioned, with rye, smoked maple syrup, yuzu. Ruschmeyers did their own specialty watermelon cocktail for those mourning the end of summer. And then we had Champagne, because why not have Champagne on hand? Passed apps were lamb meatballs, fried Jerusalem artichokes.
Suzanne: We liked how the inside of Ruschmeyers looked on its own, so we hired this florist, Alexandra Abuza, and we just wanted small arrangements. We’re not delicate people, but every time we looked at stuff that was sort of big and wild and loud, it didn’t feel like us either. Because it was autumn, we kept coming back to the idea of dead flowers and dead plants, like dried things. When we talked to Alexandra, she immediately got what we were going for: “It sounds like you want a walk in the dunes — some dried leaves, dried grasses, faded flowers.” We did arrangements in small ceramic bowls, then she paired them with votives. We served food family style, and we didn’t want people struggling to pass a plate around a vase.
Alex: For the menu, Ruschmeyers was like, “Just send us things.” We could have chosen from their menu, but we wanted it to be oriented toward sharing. We looked through our own cookbooks–like Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem and Zahav–Mediterranean–Middle Eastern–Israeli food. We decided on Montauk striped bass, roasted butternut squash with tahini, skirt steak, asparagus, rice pilaf.
Suzanne: Our first dance was to Nina Simone’s “To Love Somebody.” We wanted something that felt romantic, but also fun. We didn’t want a slow dance — we wanted something that felt like a celebration. Raya Brass Band stayed on for the cocktail hour, and then they actually did a surprise reentry for the horah. Then our photographer Ro’s husband, Kenan, was our DJ. We knew his vibe and we really trusted him, so it was a mix of ’60s and ’70s, funk and Motown mixed with more contemporary music.
Alex: We had Kenan play Dean Martin’s “Volare” when we cut the cake, to sort of send us off on our Sicilian honeymoon. The wedding was on my birthday, actually — it was the date that was available — but I certainly didn’t want 100 people singing “Happy Birthday” to me. I found the idea more amusing than anything, and now I only have to really remember one date.
Suzanne: “Why wouldn’t I want to get married on my birthday?” she said. She was all for it. The cake was really small, pistachio and lemon, from a place in Williamsburg called Luckybird Bakery.
Alex: The after-party was in the yard, at the fire pit. We had a couple of movies playing on the screen throughout, like surf movies and Grey Gardens and Defending Your Life, which is our favorite, this Albert Brooks-Meryl Streep comedy no one’s heard of.
Suzanne: One of my brothers ended up DJing, which led him to doing the worm on the floor at like, two in the morning. There was a bonfire outside.
Alex: We kept dancing and served grilled cheese and chicken fingers to help people refuel. It’s the most expensive birthday party I will ever throw myself.