When working with Margaret Qualley as an adrift young woman named Cathleen in search of a connection, Maggie Betts instructed her lead actress, during an early scene in “Novitiate” in which she was seemingly alone with her thoughts inside a church, to imagine herself at a cocktail party.
“I remember us discussing this idea of it like, you turn your head and you look across the room, and there’s a man or a woman standing there and you’re like, ‘I think that’s my soulmate,’ Betts recalled recently. “You feel like so drawn and just the passageway across the room [clears] to meet this person that you’re just struck with this lightning bolt, like ‘That’s my soulmate.’”
However, Betts wasn’t referring to another person who could catch Cathleen’s eye, but instead the presence of God, for whom Cathleen had given up everything at 17 to become a nun in the Catholic Church. She is just one of a number of young women who have been drawn to the flock in “Novitiate,” some out of familial obligation, others out of fervent religious belief and a few genuinely searching for a sense of purpose. Shrewdly set during the 1960s amidst a cultural sea change both outside and inside the Church, where the potential for reorganization loomed large out of a rare meeting of the Vatican Council to reconsider the religion’s strictures known as Vatican II, the film joins Cathleen as she leaves high school as an outsider and feels even more alone at home as her mother (Julianne Nicholson), inspired by rising tide of feminism, rediscovers who she is apart from the domestic role she had been cast into. Inspired by a kindly nun (Ashley Bell) at the school who suggests that there’s a path to enlightenment to be had as a “bride of Christ,” Cathleen joins the convent, but comes to realize she’s more lost and lonely than ever as she follows the lead of a Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), who engages her novices in punishing practices long abandoned by more progressive parishes such as the vicious chapter of faults, in which members are required to confess their sins in a group setting, and brandish themselves with a strap if they run afoul of her rules.
Qualley is simply extraordinary as Cathleen, exuding such soulfulness that allows her frustration to be ours as she looks for something worthy of her devotion, while the film gives room to the compelling stories of other young women (played expertly by a rich ensemble that includes Dianna Agron, Liana Libereto and Morgan Saylor) feeling the ground shift beneath their feet, each trying to find where they fit into a brave new world. As intricately detailed as Betts recreates such a specific time and place, the writer/director shows a rare gift for unlocking the story from its period setting, occasionally flashing a wicked sense of humor and vividly bringing to light the longing anyone could experience in finding their passion — and have that passion returned unto them. Following “Novitiate”’s premiere at Sundance earlier this year where Betts was awarded with a Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Director, the filmmaker and her lead actress Qualley spoke about infusing the film with their own passion, finding a real convent to shoot in and perhaps being a little too dedicated at times to replicating the life of a nun.
Maggie, you’ve said you actually first started down this path after reading a collection of letters written by Mother Teresa. How did Vatican II come into the picture?
Maggie Betts: It made me fascinated by the idea that nuns had romantic relationships and literal marriages to God. That made me very curious, and I went looking for books about nuns and there’s this really small, but really rich canon of ex-nun memoirs. They all were basically concerned with two main themes, which were their time in the novitiate and the impact of Vatican II, so it was literally all I had to do was go on Amazon and I was like in this whole world of nuns in the ‘60s who left because of Vatican II when] they were very young girls. It took six years researching it, but I had to read all those books.
Margaret, what attracted you to this?
Margaret Qualley: First, I just read the script and found it very touching. When I had the opportunity to talk with Maggie, I felt instantly connected to her. and I really wanted to be in the movie and to play Cathleen, but I also had this strange feeling that I had to. I grew up dancing and I was really serious about ballet and I think that the ballet world in certain ways isn’t entirely dissimilar from that of novice and cloistered convent in terms of a lot of discipline and a desire to be perfect. In both of those worlds, there are certain steps you can take to try to better yourself and if you follow a certain path, you’ll be more and more perfect, which obviously is not necessarily true. There’s no such thing as perfection, [which] I think that’s something that’s revealed in the film eventually, but I think I could understand the mindset because of ballet. I’m not religious. I am, however, spiritual, and [this also] gave me an opportunity to learn about Catholicism and read the Bible for the first time.
Margaret Qualley: Being a novice, there are a lot of rules set in place, like, for example, custody of the eyes, which essentially just means looking down when you walk. [Then there’s] refraining from speaking – only communicating if you have to and solely communicating through sign language and during grand silence, not speaking at all — and refraining from any human touch, all of these things that refrain from any extraneous simulation to distract you from God. So that was fascinating. We were taught sign language from a former nun, just rudimentary communication, and I personally tried not to touch anyone for a while [laughs], which sounds like that might be easy, but I’m definitely a touchy/feely person. Not being able to have any human contact just has a strange effect on you that I anticipated, but I didn’t realize how severe that would be.
Having this amazing convent as a setting must’ve helped. What was it like to find as a location?
Maggie Betts: It was difficult to find the place because we really scoured the country looking for a former convent. The Catholic Church is one of the biggest land owners [in the U.S.] — that’s how they accumulate wealth, [and they have] billions and billions and billions of dollars of land, so they never let go of land and they don’t care if there’s a 100,000-square-foot complex with one 90-year-old nun living up in the attic. They’re like, “No, we don’t need the money. We don’t need to rent it out.” That’s just money in the bank to them. So it was hard to convince Catholic dioceses [for] us to be able to rent out the facilities. We were having a hard time and then a producer’s assistant working on the film had been doing a lot of Googling and saw pictures of this place that was a former women’s Methodist College on the Vanderbilt campus in Nashville, Tennessee. I did some research together with a production designer and we found out the architect who had built it had built a ton of convents in the ‘20s, which is when there was a lot of construction done by the Catholic Church for nuns, so that worked out perfectly.
There are a lot of group scenes in the film, which were creatively lit so you could gather reaction shots at will, without having to worry about resetting a shot. What was it like to cover those scenes?
Maggie Betts: Yeah, it’s a 360° rig. In every scene in the movie, we had two cameras on it and usually, it was on the main characters [first]. With the scene where Melissa announces the fate of the nuns, we really wanted a lot of reaction shots for that, so we’d lock off a little group of women and for the chapter of faults, it’d be on Margaret or on Melissa and then move through a small tight group in the reaction shots. But a lot of their reactions were really real. For the chapter of faults, [the actresses] had been in there a really long time, so they were starting to become a bit like out of it, and they have to keep custody of the eyes while they’re doing that, so Morgan Saylor’s first scene — the first cut of that scene — was 13 minutes long. and the girls who were just listening, were staring at the ground on their knees, which starts to burn after a while for 13 straight minutes, so their reactions were just oooh…
Was that the craziest day of shooting?
Maggie Betts: Little Miss Whip-It over here can tell you quite the tale. [Margaret Qualley laughs]
I was hoping that was movie magic. It didn’t really hurt, did it?
Maggie Betts: Oh yes it did.
Margaret Qualley: [laughs] Yeah, well, I was kind of lazy in that I just used the real whip because…
Maggie Betts: [laughs] I like that it’s out of laziness.
Margaret Qualley: I don’t know…I never had experience whipping myself and I figured it would just be more authentic to do it, so I did. Then my back was like covered in welts and black and blue…
Maggie Betts: Totally red.
Margaret Qualley: Which seemed like a good idea to do on the day, but the next day, makeup was kind of pissed off because they had to spend two hours just covering the welts on my back, which was slightly painful as well.
Maggie Betts: What’s hard about that as a director is that I’m not going to call “cut” because I’m not going to determine how long she should do that, because it’s like self-cutting [where she could stop the scene herself] and she was just like “woosh, woosh”…
Maggie Betts: …it was still going on, and I’m like, oh my God, I’m calling “Cut.” [Margaret Qualley laughs] And each [take] is like [breathing heavily]. It was so painstaking because she had to grit through the pain after each whack, so that was really hard for me as a director.
It seems like the dedication paid off. What’s it been like to take in all the positive reaction to this?
Margaret Qualley: For me, it’s been really exciting. Working with Maggie was such a creatively fulfilling experience and I wish I could make every movie like that. She operates out of pure instinct and communicates in almost a non-verbal way that it’s really hard to even explain what I mean, so to be able to share that and be a part of this, I just feel really lucky. Also, she’s someone who’s going to be in my life forever, so I just feel blessed. It’s been a great honor to go around and be with her and share this and be a part of her first feature.
Maggie Betts: [As if to prove Margaret’s point, she gives her a warm look of unspoken understanding] Same. Except it’s not her first feature. [laughs] Everything except that.