Causeway: Director Lila Neugebauer on Making her Film, Directing Oscar Winner Jennifer Lawrence

Alongside star Jennifer Lawrence, the helmer assembled theater vets, including Brian Tyree Henry, for the Apple drama.

 

“Permanence was a new reckoning,” says Lila Neugebauer of directing Apple’s soulful film Causeway.
The director, 37, had made a name for herself in New York in the past decade for helming off-Broadway plays like Annie Baker’s The Antipodes, Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves and Tracy Letts’ Mary Page Marlowe.
She made her Broadway debut in 2018 with Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, which earned a Tony nomination for best revival of a play and won stage and screen vet Elaine May her only Tony, for best actress in a play.
In 2018, she directed an episode of the Duplass brothers’ Room 104 for HBO, and one of the producers, Scott Rudin, passed along a script.

Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry

Originally titled Red, White and Blue, the first draft of Causeway, was written by first-time screenwriter Elizabeth Sanders. Also joining early on were novelist Ottessa Moshfegh and  writing partner (and husband), Luke Goebel.

Jennifer Lawrence was mentioned as potential collaborator, and the pair got together for dinner. “I thought that would be very good casting,” says Neugebauer.

She and the actress formed a connection over the material. “Our rapport was instantaneous,” she says. “We were creatively aligned. On intuitive level, it felt like I could have strong creative partnership with her, and she signed on that night.”

Lawrence plays the lead role of Lynsey, a soldier who returns to her childhood home in New Orleans after suffering brain injury while stationed in Afghanistan.

She also produces with Excellent Cadaver producing partner Justine Ciarrocchi.

The drama also stars Brian Tyree Henry, as a fellow New Orleans native with whom Lynsey strikes up friendship. The two share melancholic regret about their troubled families and past traumas. She has known Brian since she was 19 from Yale (Neugebauer as an undergrad, Henry as an MFA candidate).

“This may sound Pollyannaish, but what I enjoy about my job has to do with building unique language with each collaborator,” says Neugebauer. “Whatever the rehearsal room or the set is, I’m genuinely interested in what’s going to unlock this particular person’s creativity, and what they need most to be supported to do it. I had a cultural shorthand with all of the supporting actors — literally every single one of whom I knew from the New York theater world, whether we’d done something together or I had just seen them in three or four plays. Having that shared reference point was helpful.”

Jennifer Lawrence in A24/Apple’s Causeway, which she also produced.
Jennifer Lawrence in A24/Apple’s Causeway, which she also produced. COURTESY OF APPLE TV+

Yet, working with movie star in Oscar winner Lawrence wasn’t intimidating. “Jen and I had been developing shared language from the first dinner we had, the moment of blastoff,” says Neugebauer. “Creating a culture on set broadly, regardless of who was there that day, actually felt pretty organic.” She adds that working in a new visual medium didn’t require “radical acts of translation” — her process of connecting with each of her onscreen collaborators was similar to the work she does before a stage production: “To me, it feels like a more habituated project of finding the language for the person in that moment.”

With a quarter of the film left to shoot, Causeway was set to restart in March 2020 — and then Neugebauer got the next bad news: COVID-19’s arrival would postpone the production indefinitely.

It wasn’t until summer 2021 — two years after filming began — that Neugebauer reassembled her cast and crew to complete the movie. So much had changed over those two years. For one, Rudin was no longer producing, having stepped away from projects after his abusive behavior toward employees was revealed publicly.

Neugebauer had begun cutting together an early edit of the film and ended up making tough choices about what to remove from the final version.

“We shot flashbacks, set in Afghanistan,” she explains. Those sequences were originally intercut with a scene in which Lynsey tells her doctor about the accident in which her vehicle drove over explosive device, killing her companion and leaving her with her brain injury. “Our incredible production designer Jack Fisk had turned a landfill in New Orleans into an Army base,” says Neugebauer, who struggled with the decision to cut those sequences.