Director Lila Neugebauer talks ‘Causeway,’ changing course and working through pandemics and hurricanes
Lila Neugebauer has spent most of her career helming many stories set for stage. Recently, she gear-shifted from directing stage production and is now in the realm of film production. With her directorial debut feature Causeway, the road to completion was a biblical journey to say the least. In 2019, right when the film entered principal photography in New Orleans, Hurricane Barry stormed through. When the film restarted production in early 2020…. well, need I say more? Despite all of its setbacks, Lila Neugebauer, and her team persevered and crafted a poignant slice-of-life drama of an injured soldier’s unexpected return home and her reset on life.
Causeway tells the story of Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence), a US military soldier who is shipped back home after surviving an IED explosion that left her with brain damage and PTSD. In her return, Lynsey tries to restart her life from the ground up. She takes a gig as a pool cleaner, moves back in with her mom, and befriends a laid-back mechanic named James (Brian Tyree Henry).
Usually, dramas of injured soldiers such as this are usually glitzy and over the top. Fellow Apple TV+ film Cherry is a prime example. Causeway, on the other hand, defies those odds due to Neugebauer’s humanistic approach to how she tells Lynsey’s story.
In an interview with AwardsWatch, I got to chat with director Lila Neugebauer about making the shift to film, her approach to her direction, and the changes Causeway underwent during its tumultuous production.
Rendy Jones: When deciding to do your first feature film, as a director, why did you want to do something like Causeway as opposed to any other screenplay you possibly were offered?
Lila Neugebauer: The circumstances of my life do not resemble these characters. I am not a veteran. I’m not a service member of the US armed forces. I don’t live in New Orleans, Louisiana. I think the first thing that struck me when I read this script, honestly, was that I felt incredibly identified with Lynsey in terms of what was transpiring in her inner life, emotionally. And so it was personalized for me very quickly, I would say. And the register in which the story was told also appealed to me immediately. Even that original screenplay was characterized by what felt to me like a kind of quiet poetry. Real patience in the way it was paced, and the way emotion was metabolized. And the idea of making a movie in which the primary journey was unfolding inside of people. That appealed to me hugely.
RJ: What inspired you to take a naturalistic, personalized approach to tackle Lynsey’s story?
LN: I think my hopes for this movie from a sensibility perspective, were primarily rooted in wanting to take care of these characters. Frankly, all of these characters – at the forefront are Lynsey and James – wanting to handle these characters with sensitivity, with a lack of sentimentality, and with a respect for what they are grappling with, on terms that I that I think I have felt could benefit from a kind of restraint, and nuance and subtlety. And my hope was that the visual language would likewise privilege these characters and handle them with a kind of delicacy, with an appreciation for the beauty that can be found in ordinary lives on unvarnished terms. I was blessed with extraordinary collaborators. In my cinematographer Diego García. In my production designer, Jack Fisk. There was a real alignment between the three of us about that desire to handle these characters with care and a desire to craft a visual language which never called too much attention to itself, but still honored the quiet poetry that we perceived in these people’s souls.
RJ: What was your research to make sure that the characters, mostly particularly Lynsey’s experience, were real?
LN: It was apparent to me from the outset that we couldn’t make this movie without consulting meaningfully with people who had lived through this experience. So, while developing the script for this film, while prepping it, while shooting it, and into post-production, I was consulting widely with US Department of Veteran Affairs Medical experts. So, people with expertise in traumatic brain injury – occupational therapists, physiotherapists, neurologists, and that was at the VA in New York, which is called New York Harbor health, and also at the VA in New Orleans while we were shooting. Whenever we shot any of the rehabilitation photography, in the movie, we always had OTS or PTS on set with us at the monitor with me and jumping in with me to help continue to guide Jen’s physical performance. And likewise, the consultation I was doing in prep and while developing it while shooting also entailed some hugely transformative conversations with US Armed Forces service members, and veterans. Those conversations were instrumental to how the story evolved in the course of developing this project. And that input was just invaluable in every way to the bedrock foundational work, my bedrock foundational work, preparing to do this movie.
RJ: So you went through all these various trials and tribulations to make this production come to life?
LN: It sounds epic when you say that.
RJ: I was doing my research. It looked like it was!
LN: Yeah. It took a minute. We had some obstacles. That’s true. Yeah. Sorry. Go ahead. You are right.
RJ: Out of everything that you’ve experienced, especially with this being your first feature, what would you say be the biggest takeaway or lesson you learned throughout the experience?
LN: I think your ability to summon the kind of resilience involved in feature filmmaking is hugely served by the ability to be deeply invested in the subject matter of your film, and also deeply invested in the people that you’re making it with, you know, across all of those obstacles. I think the core cast in this film and the core creative team in this film, are all people for whom the stakes of completing this project were very personal. There was a lot of skin in the game for everyone involved. And I am left with enduring gratitude that I was able to make my first feature with people whom I could rely upon in that way to share that degree of investment with me.
RJ: What was your experience shifting from the medium of theater to film? Because they are vastly different?
LN: One of the biggest adjustments has been grappling with permanence, contending with the specter of permanence, I would say, that’s a big one.
And then I would say, you know, the structure of the process is radically different. When you do a play, you open the play, and then it lives with the actors. They keep telling the story every night. But to be the through line myself – the story lived with me every day for three years – that was an adjustment.
RJ: I read that you had cut the majority of the war scenes out of the film for the betterment of the story. What was brewing in your mind when you came to that decision? And without the certain production pushback with COVID, do you think you probably still would have done it?
LN: That was painful and challenging because that photography was so compelling. The performances were hugely compelling. It was visually really arresting. Visually, that was some of my favorite photography that we shot. What was brewing through my mind? Per your question, it was becoming apparent to me that the film’s true focus was how to process the past, how to endure it, and how to try to live with it. And that processing is the event of the film. It’s the focus. What happened before is not the focus, which isn’t to say that it’s irrelevant — it’s highly relevant. But this film’s true focus is the act of processing. And however visually compelling and cinematically compelling that photography was, it felt to me that the more disciplined version of the film honored that focus in its entirety.
RJ: When jumping back into production after the long hiatus, were there any scenes you and your team created to better structure the story?
LN: There were already scenes from the film that we had not yet completed due to our evacuation from a hurricane in the summer of 2019. And a number of the scenes that we still had left to shoot involved Brian’s character. But that material over the course of the pandemic grew. It grew because as we just discussed, I had eliminated a past tense from the film. And the relationship which had always been central to the film, the relationship between James and Lindsey, Lindsey had revealed itself in the edit to be the heartbeat of the film The true heartbeat. So that material grew. And we found a new ending – that also happened in that interim.
RJ: And what are the kinds of stories as a filmmaker that personally catch your eye? And would you like to explore in the future?
LN: Yeah. I want to do films of all kinds of stylistic ranges and scopes. But at the core, I’m interested in what happens inside people. I am interested in grounded stories of psychological complexity. About people trying to live their lives. I think I am generally drawn to stories that contain some kernel of insight that surprises me, challenges me, or invites me to question something I might be in the process of taking for granted.
Causeway is currently available to stream on AppleTV+.