Exclusive: Maggie Betts Talks About Her Feature Length Directorial Debut ‘Novitiate’

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Exclusive: Maggie Betts Talks About Her Feature Length Directorial Debut ‘Novitiate’
Posted by Wilson Morales

October 30, 2017

Currently in theaters from Sony Pictures Classics is the drama Novitiate, written & directed by Maggie Betts.

The fim stars Margaret Qualley, Dianna Agron, Julianne Nicholson, Liana Liberato, Eline Powell, Melissa Leo, Morgan Saylor, Chris Zylka, Denis O’Hare, Maddie Hasson, and Ashley Bell.

Spanning over a decade from the early 1950s through to the mid-60s, NOVITIATE is about a young girl’s first initiation with love, in this case with God. Raised by a non-religious, single mother in rural Tennessee, a scholarship to Catholic school soon finds Cathleen drawn into the mystery and romanticism of a life devoted to the worship and servitude of God.

With the dawn of the Vatican II era, radical changes in the Church are threatening the course of nuns’ lives. As she progresses from the postulant to the novitiate stage of training, she finds her faith repeatedly confronted and challenged by the harsh, often inhumane realities of being a servant of God. Cathleen finds herself struggling with issues of faith, sexuality, and recent changes in life of the Church.

Betts, winner of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival “Breakthrough Director” Award, previously helmed the doc The Carrier about the AIDS epidemic. She also directed a short-film collaboration with designer Prabal Gurung called Engram. Focus Features recently bought an untitled original pitch for a contemporary political drama from Betts, who’ll direct it and co-write the script with Andy Bellin.

Blackfilm.com recently spoke with Betts about her putting together her feature length debut.

When did you decided you wanted to do this story as your first feature length directorial debut?

Maggie Betts: Well, I’m usually juggling a lot of different ideas at once, but it was probably around 2010 or maybe a little later. I was so fascinated by nuns and their stories. Also, you can’t pinpoint these things. It’s like a gradual evolution every year.

What’s your history with church and nuns and God?

Maggie Betts: I had almost no knowledge about nuns and catholicism. It’s a level that I dove into and was researching it at that time. In terms of the subject and faith, my mother is a woman of great faith. She grew up Baptist. In my mother’s side of the family, church is the center of their world and church was a huge part of her life growing up. When she got married to my dad and had kids, my dad worked really hard and only had the weekends to spend with us. He didn’t want to go church because he wanted to spend as much time with the kids as possible.

I could tell that when my mom let it go, it was a sense of loss for her. So faith was something that I was always interested in and after I read the book about Mother Teresa, the subject of nuns in general compelled me. I probably spent two to four years, on and off, reading every ex-nun memoir I could find because I found their stories really fascinating and their whole world really fascinating. I was writing this long research paper, which was a dry academic paper, but it was a way to consolidate all the information that I learned from so many books into one paper that I could then referenced as I was writing the script.

As the writer as well, were you able to get as much as you wanted in the film or did you have to chop some things off after the script was looked at by the studio, producers and other folks?

Maggie Betts: Yeah. Definitely. As you get closer to creating a budget and then get closer to shooting, no one ever tells you that you can’t do this or you can’t do that or in my situation, but it was explained to me what the budget was and this movie has too many scenes, or too many extras, or too many characters. What I ended up doing was consolidating. There were two scenes where I put the information into one scene. If there were three different characters, I would try to put all three into one character. Basically, you’re re-working your script to fit into your budget. Thankfully, at least in the beginning parts of the movie, it’s all set in one location so I didn’t lose any scenes. Sometimes, in independent films, people lose scenes in different locations because you can’t logistically fit the amount of locations that the person wanted the story to take place into a budget. In this case, it was a matter of days and a matter of scenes and you just end up doing a lot of consolidating all the time.

Was this an easy pitch to get producers on board?

Maggie Betts: Producers were really interested because of the unique angle of being able to create a film with an all-female cast. There’s a novelty to that and the roles were complexed and dynamic. Each woman going through an emotional complicated arc. Producers were attracted to it because they knew that it would attract an interesting cast in terms of trying to get financing. It’s about trying to convey your vision and at first, when you first read the script, I knew in my mind that it was going to be vibrant, vivid and warm. A world that was so beautiful looking that it would be inviting to an audience. I think the first thing people think of when you think about a movie with a monastery and nuns is something heavy and brave and a cold feeling world, which makes you feel like you’re limited to that small art house audience that like Merchant/ Ivory films. So you have to make people see the vision that you have and hopefully you have a way to make something that seems austere and obscure appeal to potentially a wider audience.

Can you talk about casting Margaret Qualley in the lead role?

Maggie Betts: She completely reshaped my understanding of the lead character, which happens in every actor because of who they are as people. She makes you see the character in a totally different way, but in terms of casting, Margaret specifically, I knew I would putting together an ensemble of young and upcoming actors and I went around to the agencies. There are so many actors with the age that I was looking for who are in that no man’s land and are tired of playing high school teens, but at the same time are too young to play romantic leads against an older man. The agencies were quite excited about the project because it was a rare opportunity for actresses in their late teens/ early 20s to be given roles that were complicated and dramatic. So, I had a chance to meet with 40 pound women or so and Margaret jumped out immediately at me. She had strength, inner quietness, and is a lovely person. It’s really important to me to work with people that are kind and collaborative. Her personality and kindness not only fit with the character Cathleen but how I wanted the moral of my set to be.

With Melissa Leo, it was said that she stayed in character throughout the production. Was this something that you approved of or wanted to see how it played out because you have a bunch of young actors who are looking at you and her for guidance?

Maggie Betts: Melissa’s amazing. I never met anyone so committed to their work. I don’t know if she’s full method, but she really lived and becomes the person. It’s intimidating a lot of times and I know a lot of the young girls were scared shitless of her when they weren’t filming. I think she did that on purpose. She’s a loving woman but I think she wanted to create a dynamic for the set environment. She wanted to create a dynamic where she’s a bit distant and intimidating to them. I’m a first time director, so working with the younger girls, it was a very involved process, but with people like Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, who are so masterful with what they are doing and they have been doing it for so long and are seasoned, I was more learning from them than directing them.

With you being a woman of color, and with this zeitgeist of women filmmakers being recognized left and right, do you think it’s a good time the movie is coming out?

Maggie Betts: For me, it’s interesting because I made a documentary about AIDS in Africa and as a black woman that subject matter and the struggle of a woman versus a patriarchal environment in Zambia. As a black woman, that story was really important to me. I come from an interracial background and I was obsessed with the Richard and Mildred Loving story and I did a deep dive of research into that after watching the documentary. I was too young and naive then to do stuff like research on who has the rights to what and what’s in production. I think I did at the cursory level. I didn’t think anything was happening after the documentary. Obviously, Jeff Nichols made such a beautiful movie. But because it was an interracial love story told right before the 70s when my parents got married and when it was legal and allowed for people like my parents to get married, so it was really personal. When it didn’t seem like I would be the person to make that movie, I suddenly became obsessed with the story about nuns.

It’s interesting that being an African American woman, I wonder that it’s an all-white world because in all of my research, there were one of two instances that I saw when a black woman ended up in a convent in a predominantly white environment, and that was a whole story in itself. It was a different story. You do have that moment where, “Is it weird for me to be an African American woman and seeking out a story that doesn’t reflect my issues and struggles in the world in that specific way?” Ultimately, I’m really interested in marginalized people who are left to the side by a society that is supposed to embrace and protect them and the situation with Vatican II and what happened to these women is connected to me through the minority experience. It felt right. I don’t think people should look at any film as in “This was done by an African American and therefore it needs to be interpreted through those lens; or this was done by a woman and it needs to be interpreted through that lens.” Let the movie stand on it own and then maybe you can revisit it and look at it through either of those lens.


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