Theater director finds ‘Kismet’ starring Jennifer Lawrence for feature debut ‘Causeway’ – SF Chronicle Datebook | Episode Movies

Director Lila Neugebauer (left) and Jennifer Lawrence in Causeway. Photo: Wilson Webb / Apple TV+

When Lila Neugebauer first met with Jennifer Lawrence in New York to discuss the possibility of collaborating on her first feature film, Causeway, the award-winning theater director immediately recalled the two, who shared conflicting impulses in the two main characters of the script joined Lynsey (played by Lawrence) and James (played by Brian Tyree Henry from “Atlanta”).

“They’re both cautious people who really want to be seen and known, and who are also afraid of being fully seen and known,” Neugebauer said during a recent visit to the Bay Area, where she lived and played theaters a decade ago directed Berkeley Repertory Theater and San Francisco Playhouse.

Neugebauer, whose 2018 Broadway revival was nominated for a Tony by Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, was in Marin to screen Causeway at the Mill Valley Film Festival. The film opens in select theaters and on Apple TV+ on Friday, November 4th.

As Lynsey, an American military engineer returning to New Orleans from Afghanistan with a severe brain injury, Lawrence remains silent in the film’s opening scenes. It’s clear that the hard work of relearning how to walk, write, bathe, and sleep without night terrors will mean a slow recovery, and that it will benefit from reserves of perseverance – and friendship.

When her truck breaks down, Lynsey meets James, a car mechanic and also a broken soul, bearing his own physical and psychological wounds. The deepening bond they develop over car rides, beer and the comfort of one another in the company of a kindred spirit is at the heart of the film’s drama.

Neugebauer spoke to The Chronicle at her San Rafael hotel about what Causeway means to her and how directing Lawrence in this spare, delicate film will likely remind viewers of the Oscar-winner’s standout performance in Winter’s Bone .

Brian Tyree Henry (left) and Jennifer Lawrence in Causeway. Photo: Wilson Webb / Apple TV+

Q: While “Causeway” is, on the surface, about a woman recovering from a traumatic brain injury, it also explores the need for human connection and genuine friendship. Was that particularly interesting for you?

A: I am endlessly fascinated by the way our attempts to connect and get to know people, to be close to others, are so often shaped by conflicting impulses – to reach out and withdraw, to connect and then to protect ourselves. There is so much truth in this dance these characters perform.

Q: You have an extensive résumé as a theater director, including here in the Bay Area. How did you transition into film and how does it feel to have Jennifer Lawrence star in your directorial debut?

A: I think somewhere in my heart I had always hoped to work in other media, but I was mostly a theater director for 15 years, living my life one project at a time. Then, quite coincidentally, in the spring of 2019, after I opened “The Waverly Gallery” on Broadway, one of the producers gave me the original draft of this (“Causeway”) script. I responded immediately. About six weeks later I heard that Jen had read it and responded to it as well. So we met in New York, where we both live, and it was an instant feeling of kismet.

Q: Do you remember what each of you was so strongly connected to?

A: Well, Jen and I have very different life experiences. That’s an understatement. (Laughs.)

Neither of us are veterans or soldiers in the US Armed Forces, but there was something about this character’s grief, distancing and separation from himself that spoke to both of us. It encouraged incredibly natural, easy conversation. It’s worth noting that given her (fame), Jen is a wildly grounded person who’s inherently authentic and present. She is a straight shooter. She signed that night, and we both left this encounter with a sense of creative urgency. A few months later we were in production.

Brian Tyree Henry (left) and Jennifer Lawrence in Causeway. Photo: Wilson Webb / Apple TV+

Q: Do you think Jennifer was eager to return to a similarly raw, stripped-down role as the one that made her famous at age 19, Winter’s Bone?

A: Absolutely. She talked about it on the record. I think the opportunity to kind of go back to where she started, making something that felt intimate, both in terms of cinematic statement and for her personally, was hugely important.

Q: As far as I know you have known Brian Tyree Henry for a long time. Why did you have him in mind, and was his on-screen chemistry with Jennifer immediately apparent?

A: I’ve known Brian for a very long time and have been obsessed with him as an actor ever since I first saw him in a Lanford Wilson play when he was a student at Yale Drama School and I was a student. He did the first production of Tarell McCraney’s play The Brothers Size that sticks in my mind.

I think Brian can do everything; He is a leading man, a character actor and a romantic leading role. And he’s hilarious. So he was the first person I thought of. There was a spark of chemistry right from the start and a close bond (between Brian and Jennifer) that only deepened as the filming progressed. There were many difficult and painful conversations while engaging with this material, and yet we laughed the whole time. Hopefully some of that translates into their shared spirit on screen.

Q: What did you learn that was helpful in your research on the recovery and rehabilitation of injured veterans?

A: The conversations I’ve had with many medical professionals in the traumatic brain injury field—including occupational therapists, physical therapists, and neurologists, as well as veterans and military members—have been paradigm-shifting. At the most basic level, they have vastly increased my awareness of how we fail to care for our returning service members. Upon returning, they face incredible challenges and struggle to re-integrate and re-enter their lives.

Jennifer Lawrence in Causeway. Photo: Wilson Webb / Apple TV+

Q: How do you think your theater background helped you direct actors for the screen?

A: Well, I’ve done plays of great stylistic range – hypernaturalistic, more expressionistic, surrealistic, language-based or more physical-oriented – and I think, by and large, a life in the theater confirms your belief in the value of presence alone. It got me interested in what it means to just really be present with people. It gets easier when you have actors who are so compelling, who are so alive with each other and so connected to their inner lives.

Q: Do you think you could persuade Jennifer to do a play?

A: No (laughs). She’s not interested. none. She’s explicitly said she’s not interested – and in my experience, she’s true to her word.

“Dam” (R) opens in select theaters and on Apple TV+ on Friday, November 4th.

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