Making Causeway with Lila Neugebauer & Justine Ciarrocchi

This week, Dom Lenoir & Conor Boru, welcome Causeway director Lila Neugebauer & producer Justine Ciarrocchi to the show.

They discuss working with Jennifer Lawrence, exploring PTSD in film, the difference between directing theatre vs feature films, developing the script, the biggest challenges as a producer, collaborating with A24 and Apple; and more.

Getting Started

The story started for Lila three and a half years ago.

‘I’m a theatre director, for the past 15 or so years. I had just opened a play on Broadway and one of the producers on that show handed me the original screenplay for this film.

And I was disarmed by how connected I felt to these characters – her life, her grief, her disassociation from herself and from a home that should be the most familiar place. I’m not a veteran but I felt an immediate connection with this character and was also immensely intrigued by the film – its care, its patience, and its attention to detail; and a few weeks after that I heard that Jen had read it and had a similar reaction. 

The degree of alignment in terms of our respective connection to the material and what felt so immediately a natural discourse between us formed an undeniable basis for the beginning of a creative partnership. And we were in production a few months later.’

Making The Film

‘Despite the serendipitously accelerated nature of our ‘go moment’, the script was meaningfully developed in the interim. The original screenplay was written by a fantastic first-time screenwriter named Elizabeth Sanders. It was an adaptation of a novella she had written.’

The film is set in New Orleans, where Elizabeth is from, and the story ‘really came from her heart. The core DNA of the film is rooted in that original script. We then benefited from the contributions of the writers Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel, and to some degree, Jen and Brian Tyre Henry were so deeply connected to their character’s inner lives that our ongoing conversation while developing the script, while on set, was hugely instrumental to the realisation of the film.’

Getting Jennifer Lawrence on Board

Justine says that the film appealed to Jennifer for various reasons, ‘after such a long hiatus. This was the first movie she made after three years off, and it was also the first film she’s produced. The opportunity to be able to collaborate, in the way that you can when you’re producing, was especially exciting for her, and she found the perfect partner to do it with and to witness their collaboration from start to finish has been extraordinary.’

She went on to say that ‘one of the great blessings of being able to produce is that you can protect the process and the filmmaker. Jen felt fiercely protective of Lila’s voice and her agency.’

The Creative Process

Sometimes, according to Lila, the creative process ‘demand acts of compartmentalisation. My feeling about any creative endeavour is that you prepare as rigorously as humanly possible, you show up to rehearsal or to the set and you assume nothing. 

You leave it at the door so that you can be alive to what’s happening in front of you, which isn’t to suggest that you don’t proceed with the shots as you imagine them if they’re working right, but I was in such good company on this set as a first-time filmmaker. We had such a strong team that it freed me to really just do the work.’

Creating Intimacy Between Actors

Lila is endlessly ‘fascinated by the ways in which the attempt to forge intimacy with other people – often characterised by contradictory impulses to reach out and retreat, to connect and to protect.’

Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry’s characters are on ‘different trajectories in terms of their readiness to connect and their fears about connecting. For me, I feel inappropriate speaking on behalf of the characters but I feel what they need are connection and intimacy. They are both in desperate need to feel safe, to feel less alone, to feel they might be more understood and maybe seen.’

Justine says what is ‘so special about this particular friendship. And the movie and the way that the film subverts the tropes of the PTSD genre is we’re seeing an internal version of coping, which is rare. Their friendship is highly unique. It’s a relationship that I’m not sure we’ve seen before between two people.’

‘Jen and Brian were so deeply connected to their characters. They have such a natural connection, easy chemistry and rapport. And so those forces of connection were completely instrumental to discovering what that relationship wanted to be.’

Producing Films

For Justine, it’s imperative to ‘stay calm under pressure. You have to listen to people. You have to be really aware of what you don’t know and have to have the humility to ask and defer to the people who know better than you. Having really close relationships with the filmmakers and, I hope, making them feel protected. 

It’s easy to feel your voice is going to be infiltrated, so the most important thing for us (producers) is to stay as close as possible to the filmmaker, to protect the process and make sure we’re always honouring what they want.’

For more from Lila Neugebauer & Justine Ciarrocchi, listen here.

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