‘Causeway’ director on crafting a human story beyond grief

Lila Neugebauer and Jennifer Lawrence in “Causeway.”
Apple TV+

Described as an “an intimate look at two lost souls finding connection,” director Lila Neugebauer’s first feature film is vastly different from her previous work—which before ‘Causeway,’ was on the stage. But, taking on this story was something that came out of a connection for the material.

“Part of the joyful revelation of first-time filmmaking for me was recognizing how connected the impulses are. The processes in which you make theater and film are radically different. They’re almost diametrically opposed in terms of how they’re structured, how time is managed, and I think what they’re up to philosophically,” Neugebauer explains. “But the core impulses for the director, the centrality of the conversation with the actor, building that shared language, crafting performance, the role of visual composition, the underlying storytelling project— they’re so aligned.”

In ‘Causeway,’ the story follows Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) who comes back from deployment with a significant brain injury, and we see her try to regain her strength while also acclimating to coming home. In the beginning, we see Lawrence’s Lynsey struggling, but making progress while in a recovery facility. And to make sure the process was represented accurately, both Neugebauer and Lawrence spoke with the U.S. Department of Affairs, and experts in TBIs.

Jennifer Lawrence in “Causeway.”Apple TV+

“Working on that script was hugely informed by the consultation I was able to have with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs medical professionals—so people with expertise in traumatic brain injury: occupational therapists, physiotherapists, neurologists,” Neugebauer explains. That spanned into having professionals on set to help with authenticity, and some were featured in a few scenes. The director also delves into the conversations she had with veterans who suffered similarly to Lynsey.

“That recovery, [and] healing of any kind is often measured in small steps or steps that might look small, but in fact are hard fought and take a great deal of resilience,” Neugebauer continues.

However, ‘Causeway,’ isn’t a deep dive into Lynsey’s traumas and past. Rather, it’s a close-up look at a platonic friendship that first bonds over grief, and then evolves through life experiences and real conversations.

As the story goes home and Lynsey returns home to Louisiana, she ends up meeting James (Brian Tyree Henry), and the two strike up a connection. “I think they are guarded people who really want to be seen and known, and are also really frightened of being fully seen and known,” Neugebauer says of both Lynsey and James.

We find out throughout the film more of the trauma James has had in his life—and it happened on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway—which also inspired the new title of the film that was firstly named ‘Red, White and Water.’

“It’s one of the world’s longest bridges over water. It’s 24 miles and it is terrifying to drive across when you are on it. You cannot see where you are going and you can’t see where you came from and you can’t pull over,” Neugebauer explains. “That journey across that particular stretch struck me as an apt metaphor for a number of the journeys in the film, his and hers.”

For Lynsey specifically, her hardships also come from being home. She has a brother who is absent for his own issues, a mother who doesn’t seem to quite get where her daughter is coming from, and a house that holds a lot of bad memories.

“I think of her as a fairly private person and a person with a lot of boundaries, which I suspect are an extension of early childhood experience,” states Neugebauer. “I think she’s a person who has fought to be self reliant and the initial setback that begins the film thrusts her into a position of total dependence, which I think for this particular person is really unpleasant. I also think she’s a willful person…which in some contexts I think manifests as a great strength in terms of determination and tenacity, and in other contexts might manifest as stubbornness and kind of an Achilles for this character.”

‘Causeway’ is meant to push past the traumatic aspects of the story. Through the friendship between James and Lynsey—which has its endearing moments and more emotional moments—the two evolve in their own ways and are forced to be honest while also being forced to push past the pain.

Brian Tyree Henry in “Causeway.”Apple TV+

That also comes through facing deeper wounds for Lawrence’s character, but for the entire film, it’s done in a real way. With some lighter moments with depth, and some transformative moments with discussions and connections, whether its over a snowball on a bench with James, or in an inflatable pool out back with her mother, or perhaps through a glass window with her brother.

“It’s a homecoming story. And it felt to me that a great deal of this story has to do with a woman beginning to recognize that the obstacles she’s navigating in terms of making what we might call progress are not exclusively external, but are also internal,” explains Neugebauer.

‘Causeway’ from beginning to end is a journey. But it’s not just a showcase of the tenacity of the human spirit for Lynsey, James, or anyone in a similar situation. It’s for people who go through the raw, sometimes brutal and sometimes beautiful moments in life. And everything in between.

“Certainly for any veterans or service members to see this one, it’s my great hope that people who have lived that experience and come home might see any kind of proof of themselves and that the recognition might have some value,” Neugebauer finishes. “More broadly, I hope that the way this film is paced leaves space for the viewer to have their own experience, to draw their own connections to the material, and that the patience is a welcome invitation to find patience with ourselves and with others.”

‘Causeway’ will premiere in select theaters and globally on Apple TV+ on Nov. 4.

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