If you’re making a movie with Jennifer Lawrence that involves filming in swimming pools, be prepared to have her volunteer you as tribute to the water.
Causeway (in theaters and on AppleTV+ now) stars Lawrence as Lynsey, an Army soldier struggling to piece her life back together after a traumatic brain injury sends her home to New Orleans. When she meets James (Brian Tyree Henry), a mechanic, the two strike up an unlikely friendship that finds them probing the cracks of the various tragedies that have defined their lives.
The drama also marks Lila Neugebauer’s feature film directorial debut, having made a name for herself in theater, most particularly with the 2018 Tony-winning revival of The Waverly Gallery. For Neugebauer, the project’s secret weapon was its cast: Lawrence and the director’s longtime friend, Henry.
“It feels very cheesy to use the word kismet, but that’s how I felt,” Neugebauer says of her first meeting with Lawrence — even if her star did eventually try to throw her in a pool (in good fun).
In Causeway, Lynsey takes a job cleaning pools as she tries to get back on her feet. But she often gets in them, finding a sense of calm and healing in the water. Lawrence, however, was a bit more playful. “In the course of shooting this movie, I wound up in pools,” says Neugebauer. “There’s a video of Jen trying to throw me in the pool. And we both fall. It’s something like: She picks me up, she tries to throw me in the pool, we laugh and we don’t make it in the pool.”
We called up Neugebauer to get all the details behind her experience moving from the stage to the screen, why Lawrence was the ideal choice, and how her time working with the legendary Elaine May on Broadway inspired her.
Causeway, Lila Neuberger
Credit: Wilson Webb/Apple TV+; Inset: Tracey Biel/Getty Images
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it about this project that made you want to tackle it for your feature debut?
LILA NEUGEBAUER: I have really been a theater director for the last 15 years. In my heart, I had always hoped to make movies. But like a lot of freelancers, I was preoccupied with what I was doing and living my life one project at a time and keeping my head down. But about a year before I read this script, I had started saying it out loud. So around the time I had started reading screenplays, people were sending me things. I was sitting around, and I read this script and was really startled. It was very non-traditionally structured, lyrical, patient, sensitive. There was a slow, slow burn to it.
And more than anything, though I’m not a veteran, I felt mentally connected to this character and her inner life. I felt that connection reading it, so I was really interested. I attached myself to it, and then, this movie came into being in an accelerated way. I sent it to Jennifer [Lawrence] and she had a similar reaction to it. I was like, “Can I have dinner with her?” She said yes, and we had dinner. And it was a really, strong immediate connection between us. She signed on that night, and we were in the initial production for the film only a few months later. We would pay for that serendipity later — we had plenty of setbacks, the pandemic, et cetera, but that was that was how it came about, initially.
Was moving from stage to film harder or easier than you anticipated?
This is going to be so contrarian, but I don’t know if any of my expectations were framed vis-à-vis questions of difficulty. In some ways, I almost didn’t have a calibration for how difficult I anticipated it to be. I predicted that it would be full of new challenges, new mountains to scale. That’s why I wanted to do it — an eagerness to learn from new creative challenges, new problem-solving. What constitutes the difficulty of filmmaking is the endurance required. Our story is an extreme instance of that. [Ed.: Causeway took almost two years to make its way to the screen], but there’s certainly films that take longer. In the theater, when the play opens, my contract ends. I do like to come back to check in on the show, but at that point, it belongs to the actors. They carry the story with them. But as a filmmaker, you carry it every day. It lives with you across the landscape of collaborators, creative processes, day in and day out, and the stamina involved in that, the resilience involved in that, the tenacity, the responsibility, weighs a lot. But it’s also thrilling.
A lot of theater directors when they make their feature debuts are stuck in the proscenium. That’s not the case here. Causeway is a story of a specific space and setting, and it takes you around that space in very cinematic ways. What were some of the techniques you used to make sure you avoided falling into that trap?
I don’t think I knew that was a trap. One of the great discoveries was all the through-lines in directing theater. But at the same time, there are all these tools that you don’t have — the camera can move! Admittedly, this is not a hugely dynamic camera film. [My cinematographer] Diego [Garcia] and I both had a lot of caution about unmotivated camera movement in this film. We always wanted the sensitivity with which we handled the characters to be at the foreground of our choices. Our choices were motivated by our desire to handle the characters with great care. Diego and I do share a love for a meticulously composed wide [shot], that’s probably a surprising love from a theater director. We share a deep affinity for the ways in which a deceptively simple frame, when very intentionally composed, can, in fact, hold an enormous amount of psychological and emotional information. It was important to me and Diego that style never overburden substance. There is an attempt at what I would call a minimalism or simplicity, but a highly intentional simplicity, which we both hoped would have a quiet poetry.
You mentioned that Jen was key early in the process, but why were she and Brian the right fit for you?
She and I both felt something at a subterranean level in this original script that spoke to us very personally. That created an opening of space between us. It was very organic, very natural. And it was clear from our very first day, our first encounter, that there could be a very strong creative partnership between us. I walked away feeling hugely galvanized with a feeling of creative urgency. I remember that very well. And that bore out in terms of her performance. Across a range of cinematic registers, Jen’s ability to convey such raw depth of inner life in stillness has always floored me. She energetically holds stillness with such potency. In this film, she’s able to convey that raw depth of inner life in such an understated and restrained register, which reflects her discipline and her rigor as an actor.
I’ve know Brian since I was 19, a very long time. We are old friends. When I read the script, he was the first and only person that I wanted to play this role. I’ve known all this time that Brian is an actor of singular humanity, range, spirit, and integrity. He is also an actor of such sensitivity and empathetic curiosity, that I knew he would approach this character with such care and love — and with a lot of courage.
She herself talked about it a little bit this week. But for Jen, this really feels like a return to how she first caught people’s eye with indies like Winter’s Bone. Was that something that the two of you discussed?
I love Winter’s Bone. Jen and I never talked about it. The one time we talked about it was when she told me a story about Debra Granik and sweatpants that she wore in a scene. I’m a huge Debra Granik fan, but we didn’t we didn’t talk about her. We never talked about her performances in any other films. I do think that it was apparent that Jen wanted to do something personal and intimate, something that mattered to her. That was apparent to me from our first conversation. And it’s been apparent to me the kind of collaborator that she is every step of the process. What I would say is that I feel so honored to have had this collaboration with a producer and an actor of such mettle, who is such an advocate for the filmmaker and was my co-pilot in every way.
You worked with Elaine May on her Broadway debut, The Waverly Gallery, and she’s an incredible director. Did you seek any advice from her?
Thank you for bringing up Elaine. All I want to do is talk about Elaine. She’s my idol. I learned so much just from being in a room with Elaine May. That was one of the great privileges of my life. Elaine told some really good stories while we were doing that production, about many of her creative endeavors. And I will say I was listening closely.
I love the metaphor of pools and the healing power of water, particularly in that climactic argument scene. What was it like filming in pools so much?
We definitely had camera operators in the pool. That was a difficult scene to shoot — in significant part because these characters go to a very reactive and raw place. This is a movie which is very patiently paced in general. People are thinking between the lines a great deal. In that scene, we are in a very reactive register. The stakes of calibrating those performances was very high for me, and for Jen and Brian. That was a difficult scene — it was a personal scene, a scary scene. And everyone had to dig deep to deliver it.
Causeway is in theaters and on AppleTV+ now.