If you talk to theater director Lila Neugebauer, she’ll tell you how the movie turned out for her very first film, Pavement, looked like a comedy of errors. They began shooting the film in the summer of 2019 in New Orleans. “We’ve been through flash floods, lightning and heat waves,” she says – Neugebauer even had heatstroke. Then the weather struck again: “A hurricane stopped us in our tracks and we had to evacuate.
Then the pandemic stopped all film production. They haven’t finished filming Pavement until last year. Featuring Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence in her long-awaited return to the screen, Pavement was eventually streamed on Apple TV+. In the entertainment business, it’s normal for projects to simply be scrapped after so much misfortune, but Neugerbauer said the team, including Lawrence who also produced the film, was determined to see it through. “It was a group of people who had a lot of skin in the game, for whom the personal stakes were very high,” says Neugebauer. “Having given so much in the summer of 2019, the idea of not completing this project seemed unthinkable.”
Pavement stars Lawrence as a soldier, Lynsey, who suffers a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan. She returns home to New Orleans and struggles to reintegrate into society. She befriends a mechanic named James, played by Tony contestant Brian Tyree Henry, who also suffers from his own PTSD due to a debilitating car accident on the Causeway, a 24-mile bridge in southern Louisiana.
Since its release, Pavement received high praise, with many critics praising Henry’s performance (there’s even Oscar buzz for him).
“There’s this thing called a traumatic bond that develops, where people create these new friendships that are all infused with whatever trauma connects them. And that’s how we overcome trauma together,” says Henry, last seen on Broadway in Lobby Heroes. Henry’s character has an amputated leg while Lawrence’s character suffers from PTSD.
For Henry, a big reason many cast and creative teams stuck with the film, despite the 18-month gap, was that it spoke to their own trauma. “I know for a fact, in 2020 most of us have been through our own PTSD. And most of us have been through our own trauma,” he says. we stayed in touch with each other, and we left that movie longing for something.
But this enforced break was actually a blessing in disguise – it allowed the team to look at the footage they had shot and rework the film. The original version of Pavement followed Lynsey to New Orleans, with flashbacks of her in Afghanistan, and James as one of many supporting characters. But after 2019, Neugebauer realized that the strongest images weren’t Lawrence in combat, but the quieter scenes between her and Henry.
“What was captured on screen between Jen and Brian was remarkably special,” says Neugebauer. “We shot some flashbacks for this film set in Afghanistan, and this photography was beautiful, the performances were amazing. But it became apparent to me that the most focused and strongest version of this particular film was set exclusively in here.
Thus, the images of Afghanistan have been deleted. When the film resumed filming in 2021, Neugebauer focused the film on the relationship between Linsey and James, and how they help each other reconnect with the world after isolating themselves due to their trauma.
Henry welcomed the opportunity to give his character a backstory. He was aware of the optics of having a black man act as an assisting character for a white woman, especially in a city as racially segregated as New Orleans. “What I didn’t want to happen was that I didn’t want us to fall into a trope. What I didn’t want was for James to be a character that just popped up in Lynsey’s service,” he says.
So, through improvisation and creating scenes with Lawrence and Neugebauer, Henry was able to show James at home, in his neighborhood, and talk about his own troubled past. “What’s really amazing about New Orleans and Black New Orleans is that there’s resilience,” Henry says. “There is this tenacity and an understanding of what it is to rebuild. And that I wanted to embody that in James.
Henry also considers Pavement a rare portrait of people with disabilities who are not defined by them. When the characters are together doing everyday things like fetching a snow cone or swimming in a pool, he says, “they are no longer just identified as disabled, or injured or broken. They just exist in space and time with each other.
As a director who specialized mainly in new plays (Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins), Neugebauer used to create new words on the spot with other people. And to Henry, who also made his professional theatrical debut, working on Pavement (after working on more action-packed films such as Marvel’s Eternals and High-speed train opposite Brad Pitt) was a way for him to scratch his acting itch. A majority of Pavement is intimate scenes for two.
During the interview, Henry even slipped and called Pavement a play, saying, “Lila was very much about collaborating on how to come in with us as actors, building scenes and building dialogue and building tone, which is very rare. Lila really wanted us to play the play that way, to really develop the characters that way.
It also helps that Neugebauer casts the film with some of New York’s best-known dramatic actors, such as Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell and Tony nominees Stephen McKinley Henderson and Linda Emond. “It was really joyful to be able to cast this whole movie,” says Neugebauer. “The entire supporting cast – they’re all people I knew from the New York theater community.”
Did Neugebauer convince Lawrence to do a play? “Jen has no interest in doing a play,” the director says with a chuckle.
But for her part, working on Pavement with the New York Theater People reminded Henry that he was late for a return to the stage. ” I do not know when. But it has to be the right thing,” he insists. “You do eight shows a week, six days a week, with one day off. It’s hard, but it’s then fulfilling. And it’s really in the fiber of my being. So I can guarantee you that at some point, yes, I will be on stage.