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‘Novitiate’ Director Maggie Betts: “It was like a big sorority, our movie set.”

Betts on working with Melissa Leo, discovering Mother Theresa and advantages of a mostly-female film environment.
By  · Published on October 25th, 2017

Betts on working with Melissa Leo, discovering Mother Theresa and advantages of a mostly-female film environment.

The setting is a small town in 1960s Tennessee and young Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) is in love. Yet, it’s not the ordinary, fleeting kind of love she feels. Hers is eternal and for God, to whom she decides she wants to dedicate the rest of her life, despite being raised by her outspokenly non-religious mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson). So Cathleen disregards her single mother’s protests and signs up for the nun-training program of a strict Catholic Convent.

The serene, stunning and intense Novitiate, writer-director Maggie Betts’ confident feature debut that she decided to write upon reading an unexpectedly moving biography of Mother Theresa, is about love as much as it’s about faith. It’s deeply romantic about and genuinely empathetic towards both, while also daring to be critical of the backward practices of organized religion. Novitiate is a film that understands the eternal hardship of walking the earth in the shoes of a woman, may she be a holy nun or a mistreated single mother.

I recently sat down with Betts, a recent Gotham Award nominee in the “Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director” category, to discuss the themes of Novitiate and her collaborative, first-rate ensemble that includes a commanding Melissa Leo in the role of Reverend Mother.

I connected deeply with this movie from the viewpoint of love. When her fellow postulants question Cathleen’s motivations for joining the nun training program, she simply says, “Dedicating your entire life to love sounded like the most beautiful idea.”

The whole thing is meant to be about love and how women love. What happened with me was, six or seven years ago, I was at the airport and I picked up a biography of Mother Theresa, which I thought was going to be this generic overview. It ended up being a compilation of all these letters that she’d written during the course of her life. And they were to family, friends and intimate people in her life. And they were so obsessively consumed with her relationship with God and her love. It was so up and down, with all of the same euphoria, the same self-punishment and torture we put ourselves through in relationships. I was mesmerized that her life was filled with the same sort of relationship dramas like mine and other women’s.

So I went and researched more about nuns, and I realized that they fell into a very specific psychoanalytic profile: they’re extremists about love and romance. I watched documentaries with nuns, “no greater love” is one of the phrases they use all the time. Another phrase is “radical love”—it’s the most beautiful phrase, right?

Early in the movie when Cathleen’s dad comes home, the parents have a fight and the mom says, “you can’t even sacrifice for us.” That’s the [only] example Cathleen has [of love], and of people making zero effort for their love.

With that, you really captured the psyche of a young person growing up in a broken home. Cathleen obviously didn’t want to end up like her mother or in a relationship like her mother’s.

Yeah. This is about a girl caught between two mother figures in the most archetypical level: the Madonna and the whore, and she’s trying to figure out which woman she should be.

I’m super proud of the way the [mother-daughter] scenes are written and turned out; makes me cry every time. And Julianne Nicholson came and did something I never wrote. Her character was written in a more white trash way; she loves her daughter but she’s sort of an embarrassment, rough around the edges, etc. And Cathleen is running as far away as possible from this slutty, foul talking, trashy mom figure.

And then before Julianne showed up (we’ve now become great friends), I only talked to her on the phone briefly. She doesn’t ask a lot of questions. She asked, “Is there anything you want me to know specifically?” And she said, “I have some ideas. I really like this woman. If it’s okay by you let me just show up.” The first scene they were doing was of the mother and the daughter between the grate. What she did is something so profound that you have to have the biggest, most sensitive heart as a human being to be able to do it. She gave all the power into the scene. At this point, Margaret is like a 20-year-old actress who’s never been the lead in a movie. And Julianne is the most seasoned actress; so even on that level she gives all the power in the scene to the kid. She elevated it to a level of emotional tenderness that was not in the script.

How did you bring all the rest of these amazing actors like Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Morgan Saylor on board? It’s just a stunning ensemble.

It was a long, fascinating and fulfilling process. For the characters Reverend Mother (Leo) and Nora (Nicholson), I had to go out to bigger actresses. I was turned down here and there. Melissa was the first person I went to, she turned me down before she read it. I went to a few [other] people and then came back around to her, because in my mind I had to have her. Julianne was someone I came back around to, too. She was supposed to be in Europe filming. I’m a huge fan of hers. I had this weird intuition. I said to my producer, “Will you please just call her manager?” And her manager was like, “oh yeah, that movie fell apart, she’s totally free.” There were so many serendipitous things that happened.

With the younger girls, the age group between 17-24, thank GOD they are not yet paired with, like Clive Owen, as a girlfriend, considering how sexist this Hollywood industry is. So thankfully [actresses like] Morgan Saylor are still a little too young to play some 45-year-old man’s girlfriend. So they don’t get any of that, but they get high school teen stuff.

So they’re kind of perceived in an in-between age.

Yeah, there’s a little bit of a no man’s land at that age. They’re super talented, sophisticated, really aware young women. So basically the agencies jumped. We could not have gotten more love and support.

On paper, a first-time female director, almost all-female cast, mostly female crew…these don’t look too marketable to the industry for whatever crazy reason and despite evidence to the contrary. So how did you get this project off the ground? There are a lot of women in your position trying to make their first movies happen too.

It took a long time. And I guilt tripped people with that. I think it’s appropriate to guilt trip people at this particular moment in time. But if somebody said, “All women! That’s not marketable,” I responded, “How dare you? There’s a huge market. 53% of the country is female.” If somebody came at me with, “You’re a first time director, this is going to be over your head, this makes me nervous, the world of nuns sounds really unappealing…” To those, I’d just have to come up with some reason to push further on that argument. But if somebody said, “it’s an all female cast”, then I would be personally offended and guilt trippy.

Religious institutions are generally quite patriarchal. And that aspect of it reflects itself upon society as well. In Novitiate, watching nuns grapple with the reforms of Vatican II was challenging in that regard. On one hand, reform is of course a good thing. On the other, here are these men erasing and disregarding the voices of women completely.

The idea that there’s a patriarchal institution or deeply entrenched power structure that is controlling the destiny of these women without them having a voice or personal agency is something you experience a lot: in the entertainment industry, politics, [and other places]. This took place in 1965, so long ago, but thematically I can definitely relate. And my dad used to always say that your beliefs or your principles only matter when they’re the most challenged. So when I was first starting to understand the Vatican II, I was starting to think about the Reverend Mother character. She’s running this unbelievably regressive, entrenched, sexist, 1950s finishing school for training these girls to be this perfect little wife for Jesus. What she was doing in this convent could not be more backwards in terms of the advancement of women. Vatican II is presenting something that actually is, in a way more advancing and progressive. But she still has a right to choose her own destiny for herself. She has a right to decide. And I like that weird conflict.

I love the visual confidence you display in Novitiate, especially during the “Chapter of Faults” sequences. The way the camera moves creates so much tension and conflict while summoning a strange sense of chemistry from the actors.

Well my DP [Kat Westergaard] is one of my best friends. We’ve done a documentary together and a short film together; both very visual projects. We started talking about the project—how it would look, how it would be framed, what the camera would be doing—before even 10 pages of the script were written. We have such a close relationship and our ambitions are so united in terms of the things we want to do creatively. I think we just had seen the movie so many times together in our head by the time we got to shoot. The confidence came from the fact that we literally had visualized and discussed everything for so long before we actually shot this movie.

If there’s one through line between all the women in my movie, they’re all women that love acting and really want a challenge. From Melissa to Julianne, to Margaret to Morgan Saylor…they really want that tough, challenging material. And so I knew that [everybody] in that room where we were shooting the “Chapter of Faults” wanted to make it as tense and real as possible. And we rehearsed everything. The younger women had a nun camp a week before the movie started; six or seven days of how to walk and pray and all that kind of stuff. An acting coach named Sheila Gray did all types of exercises and improvs and then met with each actress one on one. It was very focused and intensive. It taught them how to work as an ensemble.

And the performance Melissa Leo gave is just astonishing and so intimidating.

She is the most unbelievably committed actor. She works like 25 hours a day; she’s all or nothing about her work. I’m not saying any director could have been there, but she would have still given [that performance]. I wasn’t coaxing that performance out of her.

We [once] spent 12 hours together on a Sunday. She showed up at my house in Nashville at 9 AM and stayed until 9 PM. She didn’t even want lunch. She literally didn’t want to eat lunch and I was starving, and this is what Melissa Leo’s like. For every line in my script, and it was the most flattering thing I’ve ever experienced, [she put in] notes all over, scribbled.

We discussed something that we created together that wasn’t in the first draft of the script before Melissa got there. “Her family had abandoned her, the sisters took her in, and the church had been the only thing that ever, ever took care of her… She would have come in the late 20s, 30s… Maybe she’s kind of a dustbowl, post Great Depression, just sort of a wayward kid that nobody’s feeding, nobody’s looking after…” So we created a back-story around who she is. There were moments where she came up with something and was like, “try this.” And then there were moments when like the DP was like, “I want to try this.” It’s hard for me to watch the movie now and [remember] whose idea this or that was.

Sounds like an ideal collaboration.

One thing that I would have to say is, I’m so proud of an environment of all women. It’s just women doing it together. I have never been on a different kind of set but I imagine on other sets, someone might be intimidated say, “Hey, I have a better idea of where to put the camera,” or “Let’s light this differently.” It was like a big sorority, our movie set.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.