Although Causeway opens in an unassuming manner, from the get-go it tells us there’s much more than meets the eye. Initially, we see the back of Lynsey’s (Jennifer Lawrence) head as she waits for someone to pick her up. When her ride arrives, we learn something new about her, as we see an officer push her in a wheelchair. Soon she’s taken to a facility where people just want to help her feel better. Eventually, we learn, that Lynsey suffered a severe brain injury that forced her to come home from a tour in Afghanistan. The problem is, home no longer feels like that for her.
As Lynsey adjusts to this world she barely recognizes, in hopes she will soon be redeployed, she meets James (Brian Tyree Henry), a kind mechanic who recognizes a fellow spirit in need when she arrives in his workshop with a broken truck. Over the course of the film, the lonely strangers will try their best to put their demons aside and establish a friendship triggered by trauma, but materialized through the terrifying process of creating intimacy.
In her work, Lila Neugebauer, who is making her feature film directorial debut with Causeway, is no stranger to establishing profoundly moving connections between strangers. Over the last decade, she’s amassed an impressive stage resume having directed world premieres by playwrights Annie Baker, Zoe Kazan, Sarah DeLappe (The Wolves movie next, please?), and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, not to mention the genius pieces she’s created along with The Mad Ones, an inventive ensemble-driven troupe that creates magnificent pieces about the mundane.
In Causeway, Neugebauer, who is magnificent at helming larger-than-life ensembles, focuses on a handful of characters, most of whom never share scenes together. Instead, the director studies one on one interactions in order to reveal the many roles one person can inhabit in the span of a day. She extracts performances from her actors that are terribly moving at times, Henry and Lawrence share manos a manos, that pierce the soul in a quiet, nuanced way. While so much of the art centered on the lives of military officers recurs to jingoism, Neugebauer (and the screenplay by Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, and Elizabeth Sanders) are more interested in getting to the core of their characters’ humanity, and their achingly honest need to connect.
We spoke with Neugebauer about the worldview she explores in Causeway, working with one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and how whether on stage or screen, she never fails to be in utter awe of the world around her.
The Film Stage: I apologize in advance for unleashing a bunch of nerdy theatrical questions on you, but I’ve seen pretty much every play you directed in NYC since 2012 and am a huge admirer of your work. I was fascinated while watching Causeway because of the contrast it made with the plays you’ve directed—particularly your work with The Mad Ones, through which you highlight the humor and absurdity of the mundane. In plays like Miles for Mary, we see people being hilarious because they’re reacting and responding to things like bureaucracy, things we recognize in our world instantly. Meanwhile, Causeway made me feel like I was watching Jennifer Lawrence in The Man Who Fell to Earth, as we see Lynsey become almost like an alien figure trying to make sense of the world around her. In fact, you shoot the world around her in a way that some things we know initially seem unrecognizable. Was film the ideal medium for you to explore the world in this alien way?
Lila Neugebauer: I’m very moved by the connections that you just drew, which hadn’t occurred to me. I love the way you just described the movie as an alien story. I love that. What the connection you’re drawing reveals to me—and I think this is occurring to me for the first time—that I think across the board, regardless of medium, I am interested in trying to take a look at the more mundane realities of pedestrian, everyday life in a way that allows me to question assumptions I might be making about daily life, or invites me to reexamine something I might be in the process of taking for granted. And I think there’s something about the connection you’ve just drawn between the way with The Mad Ones through the accumulation of very particular detail. And also, sometimes a kind of subtly absurdist lens, but I hope a grounded comedy that has sometimes-absurdist dimensions—that’s one way of expressing that project. Again, the way you’ve described the film, it really never occurred to me, and yet it resonates with me. So I think there is a kind of through line there that, yeah, I don’t know that it even occurred to me in that way until now.
I don’t want to pretend to sound like I’m trying to be your shrink…
No, I like it. I like it. I need it. Tell me!
Because one of the things I wondered was if in Linsey’s journey and re-learning the world, we were also seeing some of Lila’s journey in learning how to make a movie?
I love that as a proposition. While there was, of course, so much learning in every phase of this process—mountainous learning—I also found the correlations between my life in the theatre and my work on set, my work in prep, and my time and post. All those correlations felt constant, intuitive, and joyful to recognize. So I would say the learning in that process, a lot of Lynsey’s learning I think is painful. The learning for me on this project, there were moments of pain, sure—setbacks—but I was joyful. And likewise, I felt that the application of my life in the theater was for the most part pretty intuitive and natural.
In a way, you kind of have an instant reaction to what you’re doing because you have your DP and crew as you shoot the film. Did that work as a replacement for the theater audience, so to speak?
Well, the audience isn’t always on your side, and I did feel like the team—my crew—was on my side. In a way, there are endless differences as well in the practice and the philosophy of filmmaking and theater-directing. One of the significant absences in the filmmaking process is the preview process. I mean, what you’ve just identified, right, the opportunity to learn that is a built-in part of what constitutes the rehearsal process. I saw the movie with a full house for the first time in Toronto, with 1,400 people. And at that moment it was almost as if the absence of that process hadn’t occurred to me until that moment. And I had done very intimate friends-and-family screenings, you know, for like six people who I would then grill about what they had seen. But you know, that’s nothing like the kind of collective energy of a room full of 300 people or 1,000 people, etc. Anyway, so that was a real startling first to have, what for me was such a late interval in the process, right? It’s over.
That’s so funny. When you were watching the movie with the full house for the first time in Toronto, did you want to jump at times and change scenes around? I mean, obviously, you can’t change the movie once it’s done in a way that that preview process in theater can help freeze a show. Did the “let’s change this for tomorrow’s performance” instinct kick in?
That experience was, candidly, an out-of-body experience. To see it with that many people for the first time on that big a screen. But I wouldn’t change a thing. I also had a long, multi-phase editorial process on this film, due to some of the particular setbacks that we encountered. You know, we shot the bulk of this film in 2019. But were unable to complete it until the summer of 2021. So I had the first leg of an editorial process in the fall of 2019. And then I resumed that editorial process having shot the remaining, say, 30% of the film two years later, so I had time to sit with this and live with this. And this is the movie period.
Yeah, maybe 30 years from now we’re gonna get Causeway the director’s cut.
Well, there’s material for it!
You went on the COVID break and I wonder if during that time, your perception of Lynsey’s story and the movie changed in any way? This is a movie that’s really in so many ways about loneliness and about people desperate to make a connection. Again, we have the E.T. and Elliot story almost. Did lockdown make you reexamine anything in the film you thought you were sure about in 2019?
You know, in the fall of 2019, I was already in the process of making some painful but important discoveries for the film, editorially speaking. We shot flashbacks set in Afghanistan. That photography was incredibly successful on cinematic terms. My astonishing production designer Jack Fisk turned a landfill in New Orleans into an army base. We shot it on 16mm and the photography was incredibly emotional. It’s beautiful footage, the performances were very strong. But by the end of that fall, I had come to the conclusion that this movie wanted to be set exclusively in the present tense. So that discovery was already in play, in terms of opening up a clarification in the film’s focus, and a kind of redefinition of the film’s focus based on what I had learned from the first summer of shooting, and that first leg of the editorial process.
The relationship between Jen and Brian’s characters was always the most important relationship in the film, but that relationship was not as structurally central as it is now. And that period of time absolutely affirmed the centrality of that story in the film and gave all of us the opportunity to take the time to flesh it out more robustly. We were already planning to go back to complete work for their story. But that work grew in terms of its significance and scope.
I don’t like comparing an artist’s work to another artist.
Please, do it.
I felt watching Causeway that it kind of picks up where The Hurt Locker ends. That movie takes place almost entirely in the war zone, and then we see Jeremy Renner’s character at the end just dying to go back. And that’s something that his character and Linsey have in common: they are desperate to go back to war. Obviously, as a director, you don’t judge your characters. But do you understand why she wanted to go back so badly?
You know, Friday was Veterans Day, and I had the unbelievable privilege of screening this movie on the USS Iowa. It’s a decommissioned battleship, a hugely historic ship, where we screened the film for a couple hundred veterans who chose to spend Veterans Day with us.
They saw the movie and there was a panel discussion afterwards. I was listening to a couple of veterans talk, and let me preface what I’m about to say by acknowledging I would not want to suggest that I consider that population a monolith. I don’t assume that every person who served relates to that instinct that Lynsey has. But it was really compelling to listen to two of these veterans on this panel, who were both Marines, talk about how connected they felt to her desire to return. And I’m aware that the movie does not necessarily fully seek to substantiate that for the viewer. Right?
The movie doesn’t actually spend a lot of time explaining to the viewer. That’s deliberate, which is not to suggest that I mean the film to be evasive or oblique. It’s that I’m interested in allowing the viewer to draw their own inferences. Inferences about her willfulness on that particular subject. Because I think that her own intentionality is, in some ways, consciously known. And in some ways not consciously known. Does that make sense?
And I’m happy to elaborate about why I think she wants to go back, but in a way—I think in a number of different respects—there’s room for the viewer in this film. And that’s one of the areas in which I hope there’s room for the viewer, and in which I hope that leaving space for inference and extrapolation and connecting dots is additive in the experience of the film. That’s about leaving room for, in part, reflection.
It’s almost like why we go to movies, why we go to theater. Right?
I hope. I hope. But I think there’s an enormous pull for her in terms of sense of purpose, a sense of duty, and an environment with structure, understanding her value, her use, how she can contribute. I think the structure of that environment made her feel safe, in a way. It made her feel secure. And I also think it is a reflection of her stress: she goes to integrate herself into her home, which is not her home, and a city that she’s deeply ambivalent about having returned to.
Before my last question, I just want to thank you so much for having Linda Emond and Jayne Houdyshell, and Russell Harvard in the movie. They’re all these incredible stage creatures and watching Causeway made me miss NYC theater a little less.
That’s very kind. I’m glad.
Sometimes people forget Jennifer Lawrence is a fantastic actress because we think of Jennifer Lawrence the movie star, and how we know so much about how she moves, how she talks, how she laughs, etc. Something that caught me really off-guard was that you don’t really use the movie star things that we know about her. In fact, I don’t know how long it takes—I think it’s more than five minutes into the movie—until we actually hear her speak, and she has such a recognizable voice! By you not using what we think we know about Jennifer Lawrence, the movie star, what did you discover actually working with her? What did you see in the actor that you thought maybe we’d never seen before from her?
Jen and I were very aligned on our understanding of this character. This character’s inner life was, I think, personalized for both of us very quickly and deeply. So that’s to say: right after we first met and decided to do this together, I spent a couple of weeks in her apartment. Every morning we had breakfast, and we would read through the original draft of the film, just one page at a time really slowly. And honestly, we were not talking about results. We weren’t talking about what we wanted her performance to look like. We were just talking about the story of the character and building a shared language together, free-associating, getting to know each other, and getting to know the film that we both hoped to make.
Causeway is now streaming on Apple TV+.