Lila Neugebauer, director of Causeway – Exclusive interview

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Robert Kojder chats with Causeway director Lila Neugebauer about authenticity, vulnerability, Brian Tyree Henry, New Orleans, soundscape, implications of deaf characters, and more…

With theatrical training, Lila Neugebauer directed her first feature film, Pavement, which was picked up by Apple TV+ and performed at North American festivals. Immersively authentic, the film follows Afghan veteran Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) at home in New Orleans, managing her family’s luggage and coping with PTSD. Along the way, she meets a mechanic named James (a phenomenal performance by Byron Tyree Henry), who also has his share of trauma, forming a sweet friendship born of loneliness and mutual understanding. It’s a film stripped of essential character beats and a realistic, moving work that heralds Neugebauer as a filmmaker to watch. She also flew to the Chicago International Film Festival, where I interviewed her about the film in person. Please enjoy our conversation below:

First of all, I want to say that I love this movie. As far as I can tell, it’s not based on a true story, which is surprising since it feels so personal and the characters feel so real. So I’m curious what was the inspiration for you and the writers behind creating Causeway.

Thank you very much for your stopwatches on the film! I love what you just described. The original screenplay for this movie was written by a woman named Elizabeth Sanders. It was an adaptation of a short story she had written and titled Red, white and water. It takes place in New Orleans, where she is from, and this story was very personal to her. We then benefited from the remarkable contributions of screenwriters Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel, who contributed magnificently to the development of the screenplay. No one involved in writing this screenplay happens to be a veteran or a service member, and neither do I. But about what you said, I had the opportunity during the development of the script, then in preparation during filming and in post-production to consult very widely with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, medical experts in the field of traumatic brain injury, veterans and military. These conversations were eye-opening and extremely instructive for the development of this script. The film would not exist without them. It is therefore possible that some of what you identify can also testify to their contributions, which have been fundamental and essential.

Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic in this area, but Brian Tyree Henry is also extraordinary. His playing is so natural. How did each of them get involved in this movie and what made you think they fit the characters perfectly?

So, about six weeks after I first read the original script for this film and became attached to it, I heard that Jennifer Lawrence had read it and, like me, responded to it with great passion. And they asked me if I wanted to have dinner with her. I said yes. We had dinner and the connection between us was, I would say, instant and easy. We immediately connected our relationships to what we had read and aligned ourselves creatively and aesthetically. She signed that night. Brian Tyree Henry, whom I’ve known since I was 19.

It’s awesome.

So he’s an old friend. And after reading the script for the first time, I felt no one else should play the role of James Oakland. So I was extremely pleased that Brian wanted to be part of my first film. As for the second part of your question, what they bring to it, I continue to be a little amazed at Jen’s ability to convey such raw depth of emotion in such an understated and restrained register. This requires great discipline. And Brian, like I told you, I’ve known him for a long time. I have therefore been aware for some time that he is an actor, I think, of singular scope, of deep magnetism, of humanity, of an empathetic imagination. And I think all of that is alive on screen in this film.

As a physically disabled person, I also like the scene where James hesitates to join Lynsey in the pool, partly because of his insecurity about the missing leg. Every little subtle choice of actor playing the scene he does there is delicate and beautiful. So can you talk about shooting this scene?

Yes, and I’m so glad to hear that scene resonated with you, more than I can say. I think of James Oakland as someone who, to his neighbors or the regulars at the bar he goes to or his co-workers, as someone they probably know survived a very significant trauma. But I imagine him as someone who really seems to have gotten over it, is easy to talk to, and knows how to make easy conversation with people from all walks of life, but in his soul. and I know that’s a very roundabout way to get your question answered, I’ll come back to that. I’m just excited to talk about James Oakland and Brian. Vulnerability is where I’m coming from. He is in mourning for his life and the death of his nephew.

He is therefore a very vulnerable person. And knowing that Brian is a person of extraordinary sensitivity and, as I think I said, an empathetic imagination, it was very important for both of us to treat James with the utmost care possible in this scene in terms of honor each different aspect of vulnerability. who was involved, physical and emotional every step of the way. I would say the whole scene, especially when things get heated between the two of them, was one of the hardest scenes to shoot in the movie because the stakes to get it right were so high. The stakes of doing everything right seem very high when you’re on set. It’s exploratory, and hopefully there’s no sense that there’s a right or wrong choice. But the stakes of creating this scene, we all knew how high the stakes were, in every aspect. I am so grateful to have had in Brian and Jen such dedicated, tenacious, and detail-oriented collaborators who wanted to handle their characters with complete lack of sentimentality but with care and sensitivity.

And I love her reaction when she says she pities him.

Well, I’m happy!

Alex Somers’ score is truly moving. It’s always at the right emotional tempo. So, what was this collaborative process like?

I’m so glad you’re enjoying the score. I am deeply in love with Alex Somers and was a fan of his work for a while before working on this film with him. I had known his work above all through his collaborations with Jonsi and Sigur Ros. He is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, musician and music producer who has produced some truly amazing artists. So I knew his work, then I came across this compilation of two albums he made called Brothers and sisters. And I lost my mind listening to this music. The depth of feelings in the soundscape of this project was extremely moving for me. And I also felt that I was listening to the soul of the film.

I contacted him. He was the first to see a rough, incomplete cut. We talked, and it was like Lynsey’s skin was translucent. He could see inside her and was so connected to her inner life. So I hired him. New Orleans is a sonically rich place with an incredible musical tradition, and we talked about it, but ultimately felt our protagonist felt out of place. So we wanted the film’s music to express its soul, which we tried to do.

Lynsey’s brother is deaf and communicates with ASL. So what prompted you to make this choice for the character?

This scene was not in the original script that I read. This character existed. His absence was very powerful, but we never met him. And during the development of the script, it became apparent to all of us that this encounter could be very helpful in Lynsey’s trajectory for her. When this scene was first written, it was not written for a deaf actor. I wanted to cast Russell Harvard, whose work I knew from his stage work in New York. I knew all of the supporting cast members of this film from my New York theater community from Broadway and Off-Broadway plays. I was glad he wanted to do it. I recognize that, of course, I wanted to think carefully about the implications of integrating a deaf character into this family’s story from all three angles. Thinking about it and talking to Russell about it, he and I both felt that this story, we could imagine with great rigor and robustness, the implications of this for this family in a way that made sense to we.

Thank you very much for your time!

Thank you, it was a pleasure!

Many thanks to Lila Neugebauer for taking the time for this interview.

SEE ALSO: Read our ★★★★ review of Causeway here

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the editor of Flickering Myth Reviews. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter Where Letter boxor email me at [email protected]


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