‘Causeway’s’ Lila Neugebauer on directing Jennifer Lawrence and the joy of Elaine May
In the early 1980s, when I was in my teens, I took a lot of American history courses in school. One of my tutors, a man named Bill Whelan, was the curator of the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington, DC. A bit of a lark, I sat in class reading from my notebooks of quotes from Thomas Paine and James Madison, on Jefferson and the Federalists.
Whelan, who had just made a documentary on the history of Washington, DC, was an astute, erudite and learned man. Afterward, he would sometimes show me the photographs he had taken of the people in power, their homes and workplaces. He would describe the families and their lives, and the lives of the people working for them. It was the first school I had visited in my life.
I loved the books he showed me. There they were in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC., which is now home to the Library of Congress, the place where there is a world’s worth of history about people and places. In DC, you could walk down any street and you would be greeted by the words “Thomas Paine, Free Spirit,” and then by the words “Brigadier General Philip H. Sheridan, First Cavalry Division, 1849–50,” all set in the kind of block letters you see in other cities. When you walked into the National Portrait Gallery on the National Mall, you could have been in Paris and have read the same words.
In 1984, I was working as a researcher for Stephen Spielberg, and he asked me to fly to Los Angeles to research a role that would be playing the lead female character in his movie, The Color Purple. I was excited by the prospect of working on a big, movie-star-director-produced movie, and one that would have an important film-industry tie-in. I was also curious about being able to spend my days in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. I was thrilled by the work. I knew I wanted to come back to Washington whenever I could, and when I heard about the Smithsonian, I knew that it was