When directors make the jump from stage to screen, a handful of recurring issues tend to present themselves, whether it’s over-permissiveness with actors or a visual inertness mimicking the static sets of the proscenium. But in the new Causeway, the cinematic feature debut of the Tony-nominated Lila Neugebauer, her background in the theater proves a far greater asset than liability. The patient sensitivity she honed on Broadway and off- was essential to the stripped-down character piece about an Afghanistan vet (Jennifer Lawrence, as good as she’s ever been) recuperating in New Orleans and the soft-spoken local (Brian Tyree Henry, with whom Neugebauer goes way, way back) carrying around some PTSD of his own. As they drive around the city — photographed with greater attention to detail than the vast majority of the countless productions shot in Nola — and take the occasional swim in the pools she’s supposed to be cleaning, they reveal a mutual vulnerability that could only be built on set in real time.
Neugebauer’s belief in the importance of rehearsal represents just one plank in a wider commitment to hands-on, person-to-person work giving her collaborators the space they need to flourish. She approached her first film primarily as an opportunity to learn, immersing herself in the city hosting her as she did the presence of her leading actress, in both cases gaining a deeper knowledge only through investing the time to build a relationship. The results of this extra-mile mentality are visible in a modest drama that, for all its writerly flourishes, has a genuine, credible soul. And in Neugebauer, the American independent cinema presents the next name we should mentally catalog for career-long future reference.
On the phone the day before Causeway premiered in theaters and on Apple TV+ earlier this month, “sick as a dog” by her own admission, Neugebauer nonetheless took the time to chat with Decider about finding her place in the Crescent City, bonding with the elusive J-Law, killing her darlings in the editing process, and passing on fried gator (for now).
DECIDER: It’s my understanding that this script went through a lot of evolutionary phases between its earliest writing and what’s now onscreen. Can you take us through the various stages of development for this story?
LILA NEUGEBAUER: The original screenplay that I read — this is in the spring of 2019 — was a beautifully crafted, lyrical, deeply felt, careful, patient, very nontraditionally structured script by a writer named Elizabeth Sanders. It was an adaptation of a novella she’d written, called Red, White, and Water. The DNA of the film you see now is rooted in that story’s contours, its setting, and its premise. The first round of development was informed by the fact that I could not make this film without meaningfully consulting with people who’d live through this experience. So I began an extensive process of talking with medical experts in the field of traumatic brain injury, primarily for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in New York, which is called Harbor Healthcare. While I was shooting, those conversations continued at the VA in New Orleans. I was also talking with active armed forces servicepeople and veterans, many of whom had TBIs, though we also discussed their reasons for enlisting in the first place, their time deployed, the challenges they faced returning home. So I’d say those conversations transformed what had been a beautiful and poetic script into something slightly more grounded in clinical realities.
Along the way, we also benefitted from the contributions of writers Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh, on story and dialogue. And then from the outset, we’d involved Brian [Tyree Henry] and Jen[nifer Lawrence] in the formulation of their characters. They were very connected to these characters, they’re really dramaturgically astute people for whom this got very personal, and continues to be personal. Those talks were instrumental in deepening my understanding of the characters and the relationship between them.
The end of this monologue is that editing is also its own form of writing, you restructure and elide and compress and reorder. It’s already a matter of public record that I shot flashbacks for this movie, scripted scenes set in Afghanistan and Landstuhl, a German hospital operated by the US Army. I loved this footage. We shot it all on 16mm, it looked great. Our production designer, living legend Jack Fisk, turned a landfill in New Orleans into an Army base. There was a more emotional dynamic between camera and subjected, which we designed as a counterpoint to the present-tense stuff. And so it was a painful process of realizing that the strongest version of this film did not have a place for those scenes.
I wonder if this is all unfamiliar for you as a theater director, where the text is the text, pretty much received as it is.
Actually, because I’ve spent the bulk of my theater career working on brand new plays, the script-shaping aspect of the process is quite familiar. I’ve often signed onto projects still at the idea phase, or been in the room with a script through years of workshops. I work with a company called The Mad Ones in the theater, we’re getting into TV now, and we’ve all written together for twelve years. There’s five of us, we co-write plays together, the company members act and I direct. Flexing that muscle, of getting into the weeds with the words, that felt very natural to my practices.
I would’ve guessed your background in the theater comes in most handy when working with actors. These scenes are led by the performances, and you can see the rehearsals in how organically these characters are inhabited. Is it hard to foster the trust and intimacy endemic to the stage on a film set, where everything is dictated by deadlines and budgets?
What was tremendously fortunate was that I’ve known Brian since I was nineteen years old. We met when I was an undergrad in college and he was in drama school, so we’re old friends, and this was our first time working together. So there was an existing foundation of trust between us. That was enormously useful in building a shorthand during our time on set, and as you said, time is not your friend. Likewise, this project came together in an accelerated, serendipitous way once I met Jen. I attached myself to the script, and six weeks later, I learned that Jen had read it and, like me, had a strong reaction. I was asked if I’d have dinner with her, we did, there was an instant connection, and she signed on that night. We were in production a few months later.
Not long after that dinner, I went over to her house every morning for a couple of weeks. We walked through the script one page at a time, reading it very slowly. At that point, we weren’t even thinking about performance or results. We were just talking, free-associating, riffing on what this material brought up for us personally. We talked about our own lives, and where we saw ourselves in the characters of Lynsey and James. We forged a shared language in this time, getting to know each other in a foundational way. You said ‘intimacy’ before, and I think that’s dead on. And that goes for every member of the supporting cast, which is mostly made up of people I knew from the New York theater community. I hadn’t worked with them all, but everyone I didn’t know directly, I’d admired from afar for a long time. It was joyful, frankly, to be surrounded by familiar faces like that.
But yeah, time constraints are a challenge. If you’re invested in activating other people’s curiosity, though, it’s still possible to communicate attentively and respectfully. You listen, and learn how an actor talks to you and the kind of questions they ask. I don’t believe any two actors speak precisely the same language, or for that matter, any two collaborators. The pleasure of the job is building the particular language with someone to unlock their creativity.
I lived in New Orleans for a while, and over the past decade, I’ve seen a lot of different portrayals of the city in all the movies shot there. This one seems to get closer to real life as I knew it than most. How did you find your place in the city and its culture?
I have so many questions about restaurants to ask you. We’re gonna circle back to that.
Did you eat gator while you were in town?
I’m so sorry! I was too scared. Next time, though. But yes, right: this film was my introduction to New Orleans. Production setting up there was due to a constellation of variables spread across three years, so I’d had the incredible good fortune to spend a whole lot of time there prior to shooting. And forgive me if this sounds kind of Pollyanna, but I really do think the city does something to you. A lot of American cities are like other American cities, and nothing in New Orleans is like anything anywhere else. The people of New Orleans opened their homes and streets to us with unbelievable generosity. As you know very well, the city has seen more than its fair share of collective trauma, and the resilience was so apparent to me in ways large and small. The buoyancy in the pride of place tangibly and intangibly enriched the film, and our lives, I’d say. I feel indebted to the city and its people for giving me some of that infectious pride, for a place that I really came to love so quickly. I felt the stakes of rendering a hopefully credible, truthful, and loving portrait of a singular American city, even as our protagonist feels ill at ease in her home.
New Orleans has been historically identified with its tourist landmarks, you know, Bourbon Street and the Quarter. It was important for this film — and to me being in the city in general — to show something belonging to the true residents, accessing the private spaces that make this city feel like a hometown. Every frame of the film is shot in New Orleans. There’s something in the air, I don’t know. It’s thick.
This film in particular is well-suited to New Orleans in that it’s pretty much about hanging out; these characters work their jobs in a functional city full of people with responsibilities to attend to, but at the same time, their lives are oriented around leisure. We see them get sno-balls, chill in a park, smoke a blunt, have a swim. That combination of metropolitan life with an attitude that prioritizes taking it easy, that was my time in the city.
There are a lot of reasons that the film is paced the way it’s paced, most of them to do with the emotional metabolism of these guarded characters. I invite viewers to be patient, just as we want these characters to extend patience to themselves. And I realize now that that must be informed by my time in New Orleans, where things move at the pace they move. If that’s slower, then it’s slower. And the hope is a sense of the city also comes through in the sound design; we talked a lot about how, in a city of such diverse musical traditions, we might best refer to that sonically. We thought about a conventional soundtrack, but ultimately decided that that wouldn’t be the place to find New Orleans. So instead, I worked meticulously with the sound team so that diegetically, we can fill all the cracks of the movie with local music coming by from cars, porches, and storefronts. It’s bounce, soul, jazz, hip-hop, everything, and it blends with the streetcar, chatter, wires buzzing. That was as important to me as the visual component.
Zooming back out, there’s something about the movie — maybe in how it wears its symbolism — that reminds me of a play, for all its cinematic qualities. With your background, even when you’re in a different medium, is there an inherently theatrical quality to the way you think of storytelling?
I want to make all kinds of movies, in a range of registers and styles. I imagine that my life in the theater, which will continue, will live in conversation with the movies I’d like to make. But the short answer to your question is, I have no idea. I’m about to do a play, I’ve got some other film and TV stuff in very preliminary phases of development, so I think that’s only something that’ll become clear over time, as patterns and habits emerge. I look forward to it.