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Stage to Screen: Theater Director Lila Neugebauer on Her Feature Film Debut Causeway

Brian Tyree Henry and Jennifer Lawrence in Causeway.

On the rare occasion a theater director receives an opportunity to direct for the cinema, it’s typically due to the project in question being a play adaptation (some, like John Patrick Shanley, toggle between adapting their own plays and directing original material). It was, then, noteworthy to me when Causeway (originally titled Red, White, and Water) was announced as the first feature for New York-based director Lila Neugebauer, whose Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Wavery Gallery, with Elaine May starring in a Tony Award-winning performance, had recently concluded in early 2019. Not based on pre-existing material, Causeway was to be the inaugural project from Jennifer Lawrence and Justine Ciarrocchi’s recently formed production company, Excellent Cadaver, and would co-star countless theater-bred thespians in supporting roles (Linda Emond, Russell Harvard, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jayne Houdyshell and Frederick Weller chief among them). Filming was to take place in Louisiana over the summer of 2019 for a theatrical release shortly thereafter. Three unexpected years later, the delayed film finally made its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and is now available to stream on AppleTV+. 

Starring Lawrence as Lynsey, an active member of the U.S. military sent home to New Orleans after being severely injured in Afghanistan, Causeway is primarily a two-hander between her and Brian Tyree Henry’s James, a car mechanic who, like Lynsey, is struggling to let go and forgive himself. While Neugebauer’s film is filled with serious subject matter, Causeway is commendable in how—through a series of lived-in locations, unshowy human interactions and surprising plot reveals—each scene avoids turning the film into an overly weepy dirge.

A few weeks after the film’s release, I spoke with Neugebauer about taking the leap into filmmaking, the differences between directing for the stage and the screen, working with legendary production designer Jack Fisk and much more.  

Filmmaker: Given your extensive experience directing for the stage, how does reading a play differ from reading a screenplay when you have your “director’s hat” on and are considering potential projects? 

Neugebauer: That’s a fascinating question, as screenplays and plays actually read very differently to me. That’s not to suggest that all screenplays read one way and plays read another—I wouldn’t dare say that—but different plays by different people read in different ways. Since you’ve asked, it’s now occurring to me that I view a screenplay as a blueprint. I don’t mean to diminish a screenplay by calling it a blueprint, and this might sound a little esoteric, but I feel that when I read a screenplay, there’s a kind of multidimensional chess that begins developing in my head. Whereas the reading of a play has me already accept the planet of the play as it’s been imagined, fully and on its own terms. I’m trying to see its wholeness as it already exists on the page. Maybe that’s a bit abstract, but it’s my best way of describing the relationship between my brain and those written documents.

Filmmaker: When you signed on to direct Causeway, how did you assemble an appropriate team that was going to be taking this journey with you? 

Neugebauer: I still don’t know how I got so lucky as to get a meeting with [production designer] Jack Fisk. I will never forget my first conversation with him over Zoom. As Jack had already read the original version of the script [the final shooting script is credited to Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel and Elizabeth Sanders], he brought a yellow legal pad with about 14 pages of notes to our meeting. The boundless, invigorated curiosity that characterized our conversation would characterize every conversation we had thereafter. In a way, I feel like my film school was Jack Fisk, as he taught me so much about the filmmaker—and, frankly, human being—I wanted to be.

When looking for a cinematographer, I had admired Diego García’s work tremendously from afar, particularly his work on Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor and Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull. And he had, not long prior to my speaking with him, shot my friend Paul Dano’s first movie, Wildlife, which was beautiful. Paul is a friend who I trust, and he had loved working with Diego, so I ended up having a Zoom call with him as well. I was incredibly moved, frankly, in both my conversations with Jack and Diego by the degree to which there was a desire to handle these characters with sensitivity. It was something at the forefront of both of their minds. We spent a lot of time talking about the characters, New Orleans and the lyricism that we all perceived in the script—its potential for a quiet visual poetry—but at the forefront of those conversations, both Jack and Diego talked about wanting to take care of the characters, which I loved. 

Filmmaker: What are some of the notes or suggestions Jack Fisk had? As the film has a very naturalistic presentation of New Orleans, I’m curious about the discussions related to production design.

Neugebauer: So much of it had to do with rooting ourselves in the characters and the place, finding ways to allow the character’s environment to tell their story in a calibration that vibrate with the right nuance. Jack’s production design was key to my understanding of each character, and their homes were characters in the film. Also key were our conversations about how we wanted to render the city of New Orleans, an iconic American city most popularly known by way of its landmarks and tourist vistas. We wanted to get to know the real place according to its true residents, to feel its private spaces, vividness and multi-layered-ness. The city is rife with contradictions, with multi-textures, and we wanted to include all of that in a way that felt intimate and like you were returning to your hometown, as Lynsey does in the film. I also think Jack is a master of proportionality. He knows exactly how much to put in the frame. He, Diego and I all share a tremendous love for how deceptively simple, but hugely intentional, compositional choices can contain subjective information.

Filmmaker: When you mentioned Cemetery of Splendor earlier, I thought of the main character lying on a bed as the outside sunlight pours in on him, something that also occurs in the same way when Jennifer Lawrence retreats to her childhood bedroom in Causeway. Does production design and cinematography work hand-in-hand here?

Neugebauer: 1000% yes. If I think of Jack as an anthropologist, archeologist and architect, and Diego as a poet and a painter. Dear God, what I just said sounds so cheesy…but I do mean it. Diego’s instincts for lighting are, to my personal taste, exquisite. He’s a painter who knows when not to be painterly. I think he’s at his best when looking at how light plays with the human face and he’s thinking very meticulously on a compositional level. He’s thinking about emotional temperature very closely, about how shape and the shaping of light contains emotional information within it. 

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the film’s opening shot [an over-the-shoulder of Jennifer Lawrence awaiting a ride to pick her up from a military base, concluding with the reveal that her character is in a wheelchair], which is something you could only reveal that way in a film. It’s all about specific framing and the close-up. I wanted to ask about that opening, as well as other ways in which you discovered nonverbal cues that were new to your experience of working in an abundantly visual medium. 

Neugebauer: Discovering how to frame the opening shot of the film was an ecstatic moment for me. We had shot flashbacks for the film, where [war] attacks were included that involved opening the film in Afghanistan—we shot the “past tense” on 16mm—and Jack Fisk turned a landfill in New Orleans into an army base in Afghanistan with astonishing credibility. The photography was more kinetic and fluid in those flashbacks. There was more of an emotional relationship between the camera and subject. It was more explicitly subjective and designed in counterpoint to what would be presented as a more seemingly objective, and initially colder, more static, alienated lens, which would then undergo a subtle evolution over the course of the movie. But I took those scenes out of the final cut. This is my long-winded way of saying that part of what allowed me to remove those scenes—along with much more significant, meaningful, larger structural and narrative decisions that had to be made—was made simpler by believing that the shot that now opens the movie now should have always been the first shot. This is not a movie with a hugely dynamic camera. Diego and I both wanted to trust a minimalism and economy, editorially, within the film. We wanted each of our framing choices and camera movements to be as deliberate and intentional as possible. We hoped that that intentionality would allow for a restrained poetry that had a quiet, cumulative beauty honoring the scale of its subject on unsentimental and unvarnished terms. We wanted it to feel humble, honest and poetic.

Filmmaker: When you’re directing a dialogue scene between Jennifer Lawrence and Stephen McKinley Henderson in the doctor’s office, that’s also a specifically filmic thing. In the theater, when you’re presenting a conversation between two actors on stage, you only have a de facto “master shot,” the stage, but the viewer can choose who to focus on— like sometimes, I’m looking at the scene partner who isn’t the one speaking. For your first film, how cognizant were you of shooting a lot of masters first, then choosing when to toggle between the character speaking versus the character listening via shot reverse-shot and ADR? 

Neugebauer: As you’ve identified, in the theater it’s always the master. That being said, asserting a degree of authority over the audience’s gaze, visually and narratively controlling focus, is still a part of the theatrical enterprise, it just involves different tools. I am a great lover of a spectacularly composed wide! But of course, the control you can exert over time, rhythm and emotional beats through different editorial rhythms, and the pleasure of having that control, was immensely joyful to me. To be clear, you’re obviously exerting a degree of control in the theater from a pacing perspective. There are all these equivalents that exist in theater, but the ability to exert that control and know that it’s finalized and will go unchanged in a film is a particular thrill.

Filmmaker: During rehearsals and final run-throughs when directing a theater production, are you sitting in different parts of the house to get different vantage points? Might you be sitting in the second row of the orchestra or the very last row of the mezzanine on different nights to see the production from different audience perspectives?  I say this as someone who was in the very last row of the Golden Theatre for your Broadway production of The Waverly Gallery in 2018…

Neugebauer: Oh man, the last row, I’m so sorry [laughs]. But yes, you’re right, I definitely do that. The other thing I get to do is watch the play with audience members during the previews. In the theater, you spend anywhere from one to five weeks rehearsing in the afternoon, then watching the show at night with a live audience. That’s how you build the show. Previews are a critical part of the rehearsal process—that’s part of the event that isn’t necessarily [replicated] in cinema. The whole premise of theater is to include the spontaneous encounter of all those people in that room on that night. Even though it’s certainly my hope that people are still going to the movies, I find that filmgoing is, in some ways, a different and more private experience.

Filmmaker: Given the various hurdles, pauses and stop-and-starts that the production experienced over the course of two years, did you return to the set in each interval with additional experience and a renewed sense of confidence or perspective? Did you feel yourself changing as a director for each segment of the shoot as you continued? 

Neugebauer: Oh man, how much time have you got? Yes, there was a lot of evolution for me over the course of production. It would be impossible for me to enumerate everything I learned, but I would say that between the summer of 2019, when we shot the first stretch of the film, and the summer of 2021, when we completed it, I definitely had become a different person and a different director. In a general sense, it’s hard for me to imagine someone on this planet not being radically changed by that period in time. Likewise, the setbacks I encountered were all an education in the types of challenges you contend with when you make a film. There’s a lot of risk, and all of the potential collateral involved, in working on a project of this size. The stamina required to summon and harness the resilience to navigate that served me well creatively, and the amount of will it required served me practically. Anyone involved in the movie could have cut bait at any point. There were a lot of opportunities to just let the project go and move on, but all the key players chose to commit and recommit over those series of thresholds. I’m inclined to think that doubling down also affirmed everyone’s conviction to the work and heightened the extent to which the material became personalized, which was already happening for everyone involved.

Filmmaker: It’s nice to see theater makers extending their creative output to the world of filmmaking. I know you directed the world premiere of Annie Baker’s play, The Antipodes, for New York’s Signature Theatre in 2017, and now, as Causeway is released into the world, Baker recently wrapped her own feature directorial debut [tentatively titled Janet Planet].

Neugebauer: I know! I cannot wait to see the movie Annie makes. I think she’s a born filmmaker and I cannot wait to see her film.

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