Interviews

Jennifer Lawrence Captures Our Emotions in Lila Neugebauer’s highly dramatic film ‘Causeway’

Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence portrays a disabled veteran returning from Afghanistan in Causeway. Pic credit: Apple TV+

Lynsey, (Jennifer Lawrence), is a military engineer who has returned to the U.S. from deployment with a traumatic brain injury after an IED explosion.

She undergoes a painful and slow recovery as she struggles to adjust to life back home. In fact, she was so disabled at the start that she was unable to bathe or dress as she re-learns to walk and retrain her memory. But soon she was back on her feet and able to drive herself to medical appointments. In the first few minutes of the film Lawrence is nearly silent, yet her expressive eyes give us a window into her heart-wrenching past.

She returns home to New Orleans where after her truck breaks down she meets James (Brian Tyree Henry), a local mechanic with his own emotional scars and suppressed emotional past: a car accident that killed his beloved young nephew. These two damaged, lost souls try to help one another through their respective difficulties, while Lynsey yearns to be redeployed despite her neurologist’s best advice.

Causeway is a beautifully made, nuanced movie, in which the expressions in Lawrence and Henry’s eyes can convey a great deal even when they are not speaking.

The screenplay was written by Elizabeth Sanders, Luke Goebel, and Ottessa Moshfegh. The movie is from A24 and Apple TV+. The film has its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and its European premiere in the fall at the FBI London Film Festival.

The commitment to this movie from Lawrence, Henry, and first-time film director Lila Neugebauer, an award-winning theater director, resulted in a stellar movie that persevered despite two years of pandemic interruptions.

The quiet, yet devastating story about coming to terms with pain and loss and ultimately moving forward provides a memorable journey for our own complicated lives.

Read on for more of director Lila Neugebauer’s insights into Causeway and why we are so moved by the performances from Lawrence and Henry, as well as their palatable chemistry.

Monsters & Critics: Why did you want Jennifer Lawrence to play the leading role of Lynsey in Causeway, your first feature film?

Lila Neugebauer: This project started with me and Jennifer, and I don’t think I could have imagined better casting. I first read the original draft of this screenplay in the spring of 2019 and I attached myself to it. Then six weeks after reading it, I heard that Jen had read it and also had a very strong reaction to it, and we met. So, it was a really incredible first conversation.

I would say that both of us felt very connected to this character, and were hugely aligned creatively and aesthetically. From that first encounter, I felt the potential for an incredibly strong creative partnership.

That’s really when the project ignited as it were. Though in terms of why I wanted her for the role, I guess what I would say is that I think in terms of what she’s up to in this movie, I think Jen has a unique capacity to convey such a raw depth of feeling, and in a strikingly understated and restrained register, in stillness. And that discipline struck me as hugely appealing for the nature of this project.

Brian and Jennifer in Causeway
Brian Tyree Henry and Jennifer Lawrence in Causeway. Pic credit: Apple TV+

M&C: What about Brian Tyree Henry as James?

Brian is an old friend of mine; I’ve known him since I was 19. I was an undergrad when he was in grad school in the drama department. So, I have known for a long time that Brian is an actor of astonishing range, and I would also say he has a depth of spirit. He’s also a person and an actor of remarkable sensitivity and empathetic imagination, which struck me as really key for this role.

I read the script and he was the first person I thought of. He’s the only person I wanted to play this part. I was wildly thrilled, and that would be an understatement, that he wanted to do it and be a part of my first movie.

M&C: Please talk about the chemistry that I clearly saw between Jennifer and Brian.

I’m so glad that you felt that. I think everything in the movie is the space between those actors. I think that it’s the heart of the film. Both Jen and Brian were meaningfully involved in the development of this script. They both felt really keyed into their characters’ inner lives, and I think the stakes of this project were personalized very quickly for both of them.

Their rapport as people, as collaborators, that I would say was instantly apparent, and their on-screen chemistry was likewise apparent instantaneously. Yes, I think it’s critical to what transpires in the film.

M&C: How did making this movie change you?

Oh wow. There are a few ways. The first thing I would say is that throughout the development of the script for this film while prepping, while shooting, and even into the post, I had the opportunity to consult at great lengths. With experts in the field of traumatic brain injury, but primarily from the U.S Department of Veteran Affairs, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, and neurologists. I also had the opportunity to talk at great length with veterans and service members in the US Armed Forces.

So, the first thing that I would say is that those conversations were transformative and have heightened my awareness about so many things, including the challenges that our returning service members have always faced and continue to face. I have been very meaningfully changed by those conversations.

In terms of the filmmaking process, I would say first I’m changed because it was my first time doing it and I know that I cannot wait to do it again. So part of the change has been the joyful recognition and discovery that I hope this medium will be a part of the rest of my life.

It’s also been, you can read a lot about making movies and talk to filmmakers, I don’t have training in my profession. I’m primarily a theater director but I don’t have formal training in either directing or film. But I think you have to live it to contend with the endurance required in feature filmmaking. You are the constant. It is with you every single day; you carry it with you. I think the responsibility involved in that and the thrill of that has been likewise transformative.

Lila and Jennifer in Causeway
Director Lila Neugebauer and Jennifer Lawrence in Causeway. Pic credit: Apple TV+

M&C: I see you do not like pretty little bows at the end of your movies.

You are correct. I do not. In fact, I don’t really like pretty little bows at the end of any stories. I mean, there are lots of ways to end things well. But you are right, that in the case of this particular story, it felt to me that’s what’s happening to these characters, it’s too complicated to find an easy resolution. For me, the end of the film in being in some respects open-ended I would say, we don’t know his answer, I suppose I think of the end of this film as whatever happens in terms of the outcome of that particular conversation, I see it as another beginning. Hopefully.

M&C: This is a complex script. It’s about pain, loss, starting over, relationships, PTSD, depression, and painful memories. So, how do you convey all of that in an hour and a half?

I guess they’re all in there somewhere in it, right? I think my hope is that the register of this film, hopefully involving a degree of patience and allowing space, leaves room for you, the viewer, to be having an experience that hopefully is porous to the full range of experiences that these characters are traversing. My hope is that in part the way the film is paced, and with what I hope is the kind of sensitivity with which the scenes are navigated, there is a kind of room for the viewer to be living through all of what you just described.

M&C: I also felt watching the movie that will resonate with people because don’t we each kind of blow up our own lives at some point or more and try to fix it?

I mean, I have. It sounds like we’ve got a lot to talk about at some other point. What I would say is that I love what you just said. Whether you are a person who has let’s say blown up your own life or not and would say that, what you’ve identified about personal agency, resonates with me, particularly with regard to something that interests me in life, which I think this film traffics in, is that so often to make any version of what we might call progress involves beginning to recognize the obstacles.

Not just external obstacles but also internal forces, blockages, and complexities, that may be interfering with our ability to either get what we think we want or to change. So, I do think for what you said about the role we all play in our own development, I hope that there is a thread in this film about at least beginning to reckon with the internal obstacles that might interfere with what might look like progress.

M&C: Was there one or more scenes that were the most challenging and/or invigorating?

Many, many that were invigorating. I think one of the more challenging scenes to shoot was the fight they had at the pool. I think unlike so much of the rest of the film, it’s a reactive scene. The walls have come down and I think both of these characters feel very exposed in that scene and the need to self-protect begins to operate in a more reactive register. I think for me, Jen, and Brian, the stakes of navigating that truthfully were very high.

I think the stakes of navigating the whole movie truthfully were very high for all of us, but I think finding our way through that in a more heightened, heated, reactive register was particularly thrilling and also challenging.

M&C: What are the many reasons that you want to work with Jennifer and Brian again, and do you think that will happen?

Oh, wow, how much time do we have? I could talk about them forever. I cannot wait to work with both of them again. It’s certainly my great, great, hope that I might have the opportunity sooner or later. As I mentioned Brian is an old friend. I think they are both actors of singular ability, and likewise, they were both were such steadfast, dedicated collaborators.

Brian and Jennifer in Causeway
Brian Tyree Henry and Jennifer Lawrence in Causeway. Pic Credit: Apple TV+

M&C: Do you know what your next project is? And is it on the stage, in movies, or both?

Yes, it is looking like the next thing I will actually be in production for will be a play. But I also have a feature in very early development and also a couple of TV projects in development. In terms of which of those goes next, it will be a question of what’s ready when and what puzzle pieces fall into place where. 

But that’s a long-winded way of saying there are projects that are in the works for me in all of those mediums, and it’s certainly my hope that I will be able to have a diverse ecology of mediums active in my creative life.

M&C: How else do you see the movie?

I also found it to be very hopeful. I think when you’re in a situation that each of them is in, there’s a tendency to give up and to just focus on the struggle. I had a lot of traumatic things happen to me and people said, “How did you get out of bed?” I said, “I don’t know, I gave myself a little time to regroup.” But that’s who I am, and to some people it takes weeks and for some people it takes years.

M&C: I did see them being able to move on in whatever way they could as a triumph. Even making a connection with each other.

I’m so moved to hear that, and I so appreciate you sharing that with me. I’m also from a place of obviously total ignorance, I’m so sorry for whatever you were navigating. It also sounds like you’ve summoned a lot of resilience. And what you’re saying, also leads me to reflect that I think the film I hope contains an awareness that healing often transpires in what can look like very small, slow steps. But those steps, however small they might appear, are nonetheless often hard-fought, and take a lot of work, a lot of resilience, and a lot of tenacity.

M&C: How did the pandemic affect the production of Causeway?

There was a two-year pause in the middle of shooting this film due to the pandemic. We started in the summer of 2019, we had a hurricane, and we had to evacuate. That’s the tip of the iceberg. And we always knew we’d be coming back. And by the time we came back, it was March 2020. And like 15 hours before I was going to get on a plane, I got a call that the state of now-surging, at that point global pandemic, meant there was a work stoppage in all film production.

Then across many attempts to get everyone back together during the pandemic, we were not able to complete photography for this film until the summer of 2021, two years later. So, the fact that this entire crew, creative team, and Brian and Jen, had the tenacity to come back two years later and re-enter these characters tells you a lot of what you need to know about the partners I had in this endeavor.

M&C: I know there are a lot of reasons, and it’s clear that you put your heart into this, but if you could sum up why you want my readers of this story to see this movie.

Why do I want them to see this movie? Well, I hope that the film has something to do with the kind of space I was talking about before. I think there are certainly particular hopes that I have for any veteran or service member who might see this film. That’s probably clear to you. Certainly, my great hope is that anyone who belongs to that population might see this film and see any kind of truth in it and that that recognition might have some value.

But more broadly, I hope that the film functions as a kind of invitation to patience and to empathetic curiosity about what other people are going through. Yeah, to maybe give ourselves permission to move at the rate that we need to move in order to try to change and make progress with a sense of patience.

Causeway, from A24 and Apple TV+, will begin streaming on November 4 on Apple TV+

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