What It Means to Shoot New Orleans: Location Scout Elston Howard on Causeway
The title of the new film Causeway refers to the 24-mile strip of road that cuts over Lake Pontchartrain to connect the New Orleans suburbs of Mandeville and Metairie, a thoroughfare holding the honor of the world’s longest bridge over water. It’s the site of a formative trauma for James (Brian Tyree Henry), one of two rudderless souls drifting through Lila Neugebauer’s low-key drama; convalescing Afghanistan vet Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) is the other. They tentatively come together for the sort of downbeat healing not uncommon in the American indie, the process’s credibility bolstered by a lucid, precise awareness of the city that begins from the geographically specific title card. Unobtrusive details—where they go to get the frozen delicacy known as the “sno-ball,” the routes they take on their aimless drives, their choice of bar for bonding over a beer—cohere into a rigorously observed sense of place perceptible to those who know the area, and registering as broadly genuine to those who don’t. In fine points, the sociocultural layout of New Orleans encodes hints to enrich the characters and themes of class; Lynsey and John size each other up by comparing high schools, their alma maters of De La Salle and Isidore Newman literally placing them on opposite sides of the St. Charles streetcar tracks.
The scrupulous fidelity to the regional terrain is noticeable in part for how many counterexamples have swamped the market in recent years. The state government of Louisiana instituted a robust program of tax credits to out-of-state film crews in 2002, making way for a deluge of movies and TV series that have varied wildly in the intent and plausibility of their depictions of location. A select few evince a lifer’s lay of the land (David Simon’s HBO show Treme is among the best in this respect); others aspire to this and fail, while some capitalize on the malleable anonymity of the urban-residential housing to transform a block into somewhere else or nowhere at all. More productions now shoot in Louisiana than California, and the film infrastructure of New Orleans is racing to keep up with demand; the industry sector dubbed “Hollywood South” in the wake of this tax-break boom would now more accurately be referred to as just “Hollywood,” with Los Angeles demoted to”‘Hollywood West.”
A NOLA-bred location manager with more than three decades of experience, Elston Howard has more hand in this radical overhaul of the city’s screen heritage than most. Since his first studio job on JFK, he’s played sherpa to the Big Easy on behalf of superhero tentpoles (Green Lantern, Fantastic Four), procedurals (Black and Blue, TV’s K-Ville), starry comedy vehicles (Girls Trip) and the occasional vampire picture (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). His work forms a more detailed map of a diverse metropolis some still conceive of as a large bayou that’s also simultaneously Bourbon Street. Howard, also the head of the New Orleans Film Society, says that it won’t be long before those stereotypes are dissolved entirely by an expanding canon of Crescent cinema.
A couple days before Causeway arrived in theaters and on Apple TV, Howard spoke to Filmmaker about situating the film in its neighborhood, ziplining over the French Quarter and the shifting identity of the 9th Ward.
Filmmaker: Relative to most movies shot in New Orleans, Causeway has a more particular sense of geography, mostly localized in the Uptown area. What brought you to that part of the city?
Howard: It’s right there in the script. When I originally got it, [it] was called Untitled Soldier Project at the time; they figured the right name would come up by the time they started making the film, and I’d say Causeway nailed it. It was the first time in six or seven projects that we actually shot for New Orleans. One of the things unique to the city is how architecturally diversified it is; I’ve cheated the city for Washington D.C., a general east coast, west coast. The one thing we don’t consistently have is mountains and snow. So, it’s exciting to me to read a script and be able to see the quintessential parts of New Orleans as I go, to feel the vibe. You could see that the writers had obviously logged some good time here, knew how to tie in elements of Uptown with the Central Business and Warehouse districts. We did a little bit of shooting in the surrounding suburbs, too.
Filmmaker: If you know the area, you take notice of the tracking shot that follows Lynsey and James out of the Maple Leaf, past Jacques-Imo’s, then by the Frenchy Gallery. Are you personally connected to this neighborhood?
Howard: I grew up as a kid in the Lower 9th Ward, which doesn’t really fit visually with the image people had of the neighborhood post-Katrina. I now live in the Lakeview area, [which is] kind of suburban, north of the city. When you’ve got kids, it’s a good area—schools, you can ride around [on] your bikes, you get it. For the scene you’re talking about, they wanted “classic bar,” and when you walk out of the Maple Leaf, the block says New Orleans. There’s a mix of shotgun houses in vibrant colors and, as the camera moves to the right, some more commercial smalltown-looking housing. New Orleans has some great historical associations taking care to preserve those exteriors, and keeping that mix balanced. The choice was to either go in that direction or shoot the scene on Frenchmen, which is east of the Quarter, [on the] other side of Esplanade Avenue, with a similar look.
Filmmaker: They’re both the kind of place that makes sense, economically and socially, for someone in their early thirties figuring out their next move.
Howard: It’s got an energy, coming from artists and performers and hospitality workers, recent graduates, with jobs in the Quarter. Similar vibes, even with Maple Leaf all the way Uptown on Oak. For the people living in that region of the city, Oak Street is a close-by way to feel the same way you feel when they’re hanging out in the Bywater.
Filmmaker: The arrangement of houses becomes an important part of Causeway, a kind of demographic marker. Around that main drag up and down St. Charles, you see these huge Southern palaces with the pools Lynsey cleans, and they’re right around the corner from shotguns like the one she lives in.
Howard: That’s key, yeah. In the process of scouting with [director] Lila [Neugebauer], she wanted to show that close proximity. You’ve got some small family houses with low rents in the Garden District, then a block away, the iconic mansions with a lot of elaborate luxuries. We must have looked at, minimum, 30 swimming pools, trying to find the one. Lila wanted a kidney-shaped one, slightly modernized style, to communicate the era, [with] lots of greenery around. Looking for that was the fun part.
Filmmaker: The movie suggests some ideas about New Orleans identity, which can be risky, seeing how many attempts to do that go somewhere broad, to the point of caricature. In terms of your side of production, do you find that some areas scan as more “authentic” than others to the naked eye, even though they’re all there in the city limits?
Howard: You can’t get around that, especially in the French Quarter. If you’re a tourist, you’re probably going to spend at least one night on Bourbon, and even most of them know that locals don’t really go there unless they have to. I’m only there for work, scouting or shooting. But it doesn’t take long for a tourist to start asking the people they always end up meeting, “Where would you go to listen to music?” That’s how they start exploring the city: going past the Quarter, maybe making their way Uptown. There’s a huge pitch in the Treme area now, music-wise. I’ve noticed over the last seven or eight years, the interest is less concentrated on Bourbon, and spreading out. I think that perception is breaking down with it.
Filmmaker: You shot on Bourbon for Girls Trip, the part with Jada Pinkett-Smith peeing while stuck on the zipline. That’s got to be the most heavily trafficked part of the city, which makes me think about how crews in New York avoid shooting in Times Square. How do you pull off a shoot in such a densely crowded area?
Howard: At the Tropical Isle, the bar on the corner of Bourbon and Orleans where you can get the Hand Grenade, the owners Pam and Earl say that not a day goes by without some tourists coming to the corner in Girls Trip t-shirts to find the zipline, which doesn’t exist. It’s one of the funniest parts of the movie! But it’s not real.
From a commercial standpoint, what we think of as Bourbon Street runs from Canal, which is the 100 block, until it turns residential seven blocks down, at the intersection with St. Ann. We usually film between the 600 and 700 blocks, where you’ve got the combination of neon lights and touristy bars like the Cat’s Meow or Bourbon Heat. Then you can turn onto Orleans Avenue between Bourbon and Dauphine, which is all multicolor shotguns with the three-step porches. Then you hit the Bourbon Orleans Hotel—very famous hotel. As you look down Orleans, you see the back of the historic St. Louis Cathedral with Touchdown Jesus. In a 360-degree movement, you can get slamming bars, French Quarter residential, an Old South church and a beautiful hotel. That’s a sweet spot, and you can do a really thorough job contracting it all to get everything lined up for a night or two.
Filmmaker: A lot of productions also come to New Orleans for the exact opposite reason—in that it can be made to look like anywhere, or nowhere in particular. With the Spanish architecture being so recognizable, which parts of the city are more readily disguised as somewhere else?
Howard: What’s really useful about the Spanish and French influence is the overall European-ness. If we’re looking for a quiet cafe with a 180 that can play for Paris, you’re not going to get the grand scale of things, but the heavy French aesthetic can work in a pinch. Interiors, that’s easy. You need a French restaurant, you go to Galatoire’s; they’ve got great wallpaper that would look right at home in Paris. You look around and find something. I mean, I’m in Lakeview: that can be suburbia anywhere. I could see a sequel to E.T. here, we’ve got the ranches. You build up a working knowledge over time that you can refer to offhand, so being born and raised here is a real advantage. For Washington D.C.—my first movie was JFK—we’re concentrated around Lafayette Square, with the courts of appeals and governmental buildings.
Filmmaker: Productions have flocked to New Orleans in no small part for budgetary reasons, that the tax breaks keep costs low. To what extent do you feel that in your work? Can you see the money coming in, even if it’s because people are trying to do things economically?
Howard: The money’s there. Over the past 15 years, the number of projects has exploded. There was a point this past summer when the city had 15 TV series, five features shooting, and six in development. It was crazy. 2021, we made it to a billion dollars in productions, and that was in the middle of the pandemic. And this year, we just touched $881 million. I’m actually president of the New Orleans Film Society, and on Thursday, we launch our film festival. We’re showing Causeway on Sunday night.
When you’re working with tax credits, it’s a learning process. You have to find the balance where the tax credits are available to a multitude of productions, meaning bigger studio films and smaller independent films. We had the hundred-million-dollar G.I. Joes and Geostorms coming in, where a lot of budget goes to the elite stars pulling in multi-million salaries. What we’ve done, over the years, is structure the credits strictly by money spent on production. I did Jack Reacher: Never Go Back with Tom Cruise, and you have to ask how much of the money is being spent on him and his fee versus spent in town. We’ve tried to create conditions under which all productions can benefit from these incentives, and that’s why we’ve got a variety of six-episode series, longer-order series and features.
What’s happened in Atlanta—and this is why Marvel has camped out there—is that they’ll eventually figure out that of the incentives paid for a big Marvel project, you’re probably only getting 40 to 45 percent of that spent in state. It’ll take them a little longer to adjust because there’s a lot of corporate money around Atlanta, but I think we’ve set a solid template for how to make this beneficial to everyone. There’s a learning curve; when we first started the tax program, you just submitted a budget, we looked at it, said, “OK, you’re starting with $180 million. Do the math and here’s the check.” That would threaten the factors that keep our local industry diversified.
Filmmaker: Even as production is growing in the city, exhibition has remained kind of stunted. There just aren’t that many places to see a movie in the city; the nearest proper multiplex is a drive away in Elmwood. In building a richer film culture, is this also something on the mind of people high up in local positions of authority?
Filmmaker: I was in the city when the Zeitgeist opened, which showed titles no one else did, but basically in a garage with some couches.
Howard: We still do a lot of screenings there. It’s awkward for us to have a New Orleans Film Festival screen stuff out at the AMC Elmwood in Harahan. So we utilize those places we’ve got in town as best we can, and sometimes bring in screens to do things on stages like the one at the Orpheum. Second Line Studios has just finished their new soundstages, so we’re building a screen for the premiere on one of those, having the event there. That’s right in the Lower Garden District, next to the Kingsley House, not far from Mardi Gras World. They’ve been there for 12 years, ever since we opened it for Green Lantern. It was owned locally by Susan Brennan, of the Brennan’s restaurant group family.
Filmmaker: I assume you must see the movies shot in New Orleans through different eyes than most people. Do you have any pet peeves in how the city is shot?
Howard: A lot of the worst clichés have faded away. Sometimes it’s continuity, like a foot chase that starts in the French Quarter and suddenly pops into Lafayette Cemetery. Even then, I’m mostly okay with those things, because I get it’s about creating visual beats to carry the audience along. We’ve gotten away from everyone in New Orleans having a Cajun accent because they’re from the bayou.
Filmmaker: I love The Big Easy, but they’re the main offender. Goofy stuff.
Howard: Oh, yeah. I did the series in ’96 and ’97. Tony Crane, who was the lead in that, is the Lion King on Broadway. Great guy. But yeah, it’s not like we have gators crossing Bourbon in the middle of the day. No one has “gumbo parties.” I was doing the series K-Ville, and one of the episodes had a scene about a “gumbo party.”
Filmmaker: Are you allowed to tell whoever’s in charge that what they’re thinking of is a crawfish boil?
Howard: Oh, I teased them about it. But today, we’re mostly beyond things like this. I love old movies, though, because I really get a kick out of that stuff. Haven’t seen anything too tacky or cheesy as of late.
Filmmaker: I don’t think it’s to the point of cliché yet, but I see a lot of people using the Lucky Dogs carts.
Howard: I’m currently doing the second season of Your Honor with Bryan Cranston, and we just put a hot dog cart in front of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, which wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. That guy gets so much free advertising from us.
Filmmaker: Are restaurants more amenable to being a shooting location for that reason, the easy promo?
Howard: When you’re at Cafe Du Monde, the owner will give you six tables for free but won’t rent the whole place out for any price. He understands that tourists come, lots right before the airport for a coffee and beignet on their last day, and he doesn’t want to be closed for them. He also understands that there’s an advantage to being thought of as the main beignet place. He gets the free-market aspect of it. Restaurateurs are friendly—you just gotta shoot New York-style, control the perimeter and keep your people in the background. Palace Cafe, Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, those are all gettable, because they get it. They like the hype.
Filmmaker: Hurricane Ida was just last year, and I think a lot of viewers from outside of New Orleans associate the storm-ravaged aesthetic with lower-income sectors of the city, some of which still show signs from Katrina. Is there a political valence to going into a neighborhood like the 9th Ward to show it off for a movie? Can you afford to have personal thoughts on the matter?
Howard: The Ward I grew up in had a different vibe than it has today. As I remember it, this was a community for working-class African-Americans to buy single-family homes in the late ’50s and ’60s. Most of them were one-story, terrazzo flooring. The houses are a little more elevated now, and it’s more culturally mixed than it was—Asians, Caucasians, Black locals who had flood insurance. That’s a good thing. The 9th Ward would never again be what it was after Katrina, with so many younger people fleeing to Houston or Atlanta and staying there. The elders stuck around, and that’s part of why there were so many casualties,—Southern African-Americans were not commonly taught to swim. I was born two weeks before Betsy in 1965, so our parents taught us to swim as soon as we were able. In the Lower Ninth, these days, you’ve got developers building shotgun-type houses that look more New Orleans than the prefab houses. The Brad Pitt project was a great idea, but some developers took advantage of them and had everyone building these little huts that look like they belong in Star Wars, and they’re falling apart now. Between bad craftsmanship and bad materials, you get houses full of mold after sixteen years.
New Orleans East, however, that’s a whole different ballgame. They’re about as depleted as if Katrina was five years ago. There’s still the abandoned Six Flags, and every time a developer looks into doing something with it, the city demands a degree of control and mandated local investment that no one’s willing to agree to. It’s all very political over there. It’s a bad area. Like the huge brick housing projects, it’s culturally designed to fail, and these buildings aren’t even as sturdy as brick. We have some new council members trying to make inroads there, but I don’t see it getting back to where it was any time soon. It used to be successful people, doctors and lawyers, a community of Black families with their own shopping mall and theaters.
Filmmaker: And it’s getting starved by city government?
Howard: Pretty much, yeah. Two weeks ago, there were over five thousand tires dumped in the street. Now, that takes a long time to do. How does that happen? And it’s the same area where there’s supposedly 24-hour policing. Seems like a tough thing to miss. So yeah, it might be a while before things turn around for them.