Margaret Betts on “Novitiate”

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Margaret Qualley in Margaret Betts’ “Novitiate.” Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

I’ve never tired of my parents’ stories detailing their Catholic education. Their vivid memories of the nuns who taught them run the gamut from endearing and hilarious to flat-out terrifying. It’s clear that some of the nuns had a way with kids, while others resorted to abusive methods—physical, verbal, psychological and emotional—in order to keep their students in line. My parents became teenagers during the three years of the Second Vatican Council that unleashed sweeping reforms on the church, blindsiding countless nuns whose very existence was defined by archaic tradition. Margaret Betts’ marvelous film, “Novitiate,” takes place during the early ’60s at a church where the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) attempts to delay the implementation of Vatican II reforms as long as possible.

Betts, who earned a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is remarkably perceptive and even-handed in her exploration of the young novitiates training for a life in the convent, particularly Sister Cathleen (a mesmerizing Margaret Qualley in her first lead role). The ensemble is filled with extraordinary actors—such as Julianne Nicholson (“Boardwalk Empire”), Liana Liberato (“Trust”), Morgan Saylor (“White Girl”), Eline Powell (“Game of Thrones”), Rebecca Dayan (“The Neon Demon”), Maddie Hasson (“A Light Beneath Their Feet”) and Ashley Bell (“The Last Exorcism”)—and they are all well-matched by Leo, whose Oscar-worthy portrayal suggests a hybrid of Rosalind Russell in “The Trouble with Angels” and Nurse Ratched. She may be monstrous at times, but she is not a villain. No one in the film is, and that’s immensely refreshing.

“Novitiate” is one of the best films I’ve seen this year and serves as a worthy companion piece to Fred Zinnemann’s 1959 masterwork, “The Nun’s Story.” Betts recently took time to chat with me about her meticulous research process, her love of Audrey Hepburn and the relevance of her film amidst the current social climate.

How have you gone about exploring spirituality on film without attempting to evangelize or demonize your subject matter?

I come from a documentary background. The first film I made was “The Carrier,” a documentary about AIDS in Africa and a woman struggling against a patriarchal society. I had a lot of personal feelings and opinions about what my subject was going through, so it was even more difficult in that case to avoid making an opinionated film. My belief has always been that a film’s point of view should be as far back as possible, if it should have one at all. While making “Novitiate,” I may have benefited from the fact that I didn’t grow up Catholic or strongly religious. I’m Christian, but I didn’t go to church a lot. When you are Catholic, there may be things about the religion that you’re scared to deal with because there’s a subconscious guilt about presenting them in a way that could be damaging. If you have been disillusioned by the church, that could color your perspective with anger or frustration. A few people have come at me about not being Catholic, which I think is totally fair to inquire about. They have questioned what right I have to make this film since I’m not Catholic, but my feeling is that I don’t have any biases. I didn’t grow up with the religion, so I don’t have any sort of preconceived notions about it. I was just very interested in the story from an emotional and historical perspective and the much bigger coming-of-age themes that grew out of that context. I don’t have any religious perspective on the subject.

I find claims that filmmakers must be a certain race/gender/orientation/church member in order to tell a certain story to be preposterous. Kimberly Peirce didn’t need to be transgender in order to make “Boys Don’t Cry.”

If such restrictions were obeyed, we’d have no movies. We’d be beholden to only tell stories about topics that we’ve had an implicit lifelong knowledge about. Having said that, I did understand the sensitivity around this topic, and my research took place over four years. It all began after I stumbled upon a biography of Mother Theresa that was very focused on her love relationship with God. It really gripped me. It told a tale that was simultaneously romantic and tragic. Up until then, I hadn’t given nuns a great deal of thought outside of the basic pop culture iconography regarding them. I ended up reading around 30 or 40 memoirs by former nuns, and a huge portion of them had been written by women who were in training programs, either as postulants or novitiates in the ’60s. Some of them left the church specifically because of Vatican II, while others seemed more indirectly effected by it, though they also left the church in that decade. What touched me about these stories was how they tackled the broad themes of finding yourself and figuring out who you are while striving for love and intimacy. Many women were trying to fix holes in themselves that hadn’t healed since their childhoods. When I was a young woman in college, my friends and I were dealing with a lot of the same issues that Sister Cathleen is dealing with in the film. More than anything else, these memoirs illuminated the universality of the coming-of-age experience for young women.

Though Sister Cathleen is the film’s central character, I often felt that the film was about a heroine with many faces. There is a sense of oneness to the women, who are instructed to maintain a “denial of the self” in the name of God, which is reflected in the cinematography by Kat Westergaard.

Kat is one of my best friends, and collaborating with her was a wonderful experience. We wanted to work within a very monochrome, black and white world. You have what looks like a very uniform environment where everyone’s wearing the same outfit. There are shots where you’ll see lines or groups of 50 or 100 women, and they all sort of blend together. There is a sense that everybody’s the same person in that regard, but as a writer, I tried to give every character that I could a sense of individuality. There is a rich world of diverse women beneath those habits. We wanted the cinematography to have a formal aesthetic that would represent the ritualistic nature of the pre-Vatican II church. In the opening convent sections of the film, the perfectly symmetrical frames are meant to match the rigidity of the world. Then the edges start to fall off a little bit later in the movie, and instances of handheld start to occur as the formal world is coming undone.

There were little things Kat did that I didn’t even notice when we were shooting. For example, she would move Melissa Leo’s eyeline off by half a centimeter the deeper you got into the movie, causing the audience to suspect that something is off. Cathleen’s household was shot with handheld cameras because it’s such an unstable world. When she goes to church, the frames become locked, but then later in the movie, the handheld comes back, almost as if she can’t escape it. She tried to run away from the instability of her past, but it’s coming back. That feeling of living in chaos and not having a firm grasp on the world returns later in the movie, so even in the convent, her world has begun to shake. Kat and I discussed these ideas endlessly. She knows how visuals can work on the audience’s subconscious to enhance the story in ways that are unnoticeable.

The film often cuts to characters without formally introducing them, providing us with startlingly candid glimpses of various novitiates.

I wanted to present as many different viewpoints as possible without being cluttered. What was fascinating to me was all the different reasons that women ended up in the convent. I wanted to give little hints of each girl’s inner life. There are the pure protégés for whom everything is real, and then there are the people who are chasing some kind of psychological answer for a problem in their background. So many women in these memoirs had alcoholic fathers who were abusive to their wives. It wasn’t until years and years outside of the convent, writing about and digging into their past, that these novitiates realized how the absence of a father figure in their lives may have caused them to pursue their faith. There were also a great many novitiates in the ’50s and ’60s who were sexually attracted to women and were so scared of getting married. They sought out a world of women because they knew inside that they were different from their peers in high school. Since being outwardly gay wasn’t remotely possible, these women may have misunderstood their own feelings, only to discover years later that they were avoiding the trap of marriage. And there were the women who were seeking some sort of transcendence through their vocation. Cathleen had an unstable home life and she wasn’t brought up Catholic. Her faith comes from a pure place within her. There’s no social context to why she would want to be a nun.

I was struck by how the nuns channel their sexuality into the act of worship.

Coming into this world from the outside, I was shocked by the contextual eroticism of Catholicism. I think it was really difficult for these young women because they are talking about and thinking about being in love all day long. In some of the language and imagery of their religion, there is a latent eroticism, and the idea that it wouldn’t at some point boil up to the surface seemed counterintuitive to human nature. That’s not to say that there aren’t some monks and nuns who have lived a full life while remaining celibate. However, sexuality is an absolutely integral part of the human experience, and the suppression of it is generally going to end up a failed experiment.

The scene of intimacy between Sister Cathleen and Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan) isn’t necessarily about lesbianism or even sexuality, but the need for human connection.

There was a scene in one of the memoirs that really, really got to me. This women was describing how starved for any type of physical contact and affection she had become as a novitiate. She wrote about an annual ceremony in which one of the older nuns would kiss each of the younger sisters on the forehead in a very perfunctory manner. For the other 364 days of the year, the author of this memoir was utterly yearning and dying for that day to arrive just to experience that fleeting moment of intimacy. The desperation voiced by this woman definitely inspired the scene between Sister Cathleen and Sister Emanuel.

Margaret Qualley’s eyes are so skillful at conveying a hunger for something more, as previously evidenced by Spike Jonze’s Kenzo World ad, where we first see her seated at a suffocating public event.

Rather than audition my actors, I have meetings with them either in-person or via Skype. For “Novitiate,” I met with around 40 up-and-coming new actresses between the ages of 17 and 21 or 22. The oldest person we cast in the group of novitiates was 24. Within five minutes of Skyping with Margaret, I was completely taken with her. She just had this magnetism and quiet pain, as well as a centeredness and a strength that hit me over the head like a lightening bolt. Apart from all of the research that I did, a lot of this film was a nod to Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story,” which was one of my favorite movies while growing up. In some ways, “Novitiate” spawned from a desire to make an edgier, more contemporary-feeling, slightly darker version of “The Nun’s Story.”

The image of Audrey Hepburn’s face, with these huge eyes, looking up towards an alter, searching for something, had become embedded in my memory. I was struck by the whites of her eyes. The bottom of Margaret’s iris doesn’t quite touch the bottom of her eyelid, and Audrey Hepburn’s eyes had that same little bit of empty white space. Anytime there is an empty space like that, people project their own background, their own feelings, their own struggles onto them. You put yourself in that character right away. Margaret didn’t remind me of Audrey in her voice or body language, but in her similarly wide-eyed look. She’s also such a lovely, hard-working person, not to mention a bit of a loner. She isn’t the sort of kid who goes to clubs and parties every night and has tons of friends and boyfriends. She often keeps to herself.

I’ve been a great admirer of Liana Liberato ever since I saw her shattering portrayal of a teenager targeted by a sexual predator in David Schwimmer’s “Trust.” 

As a matter of fact, I’m co-writing a script right now with Andy Bellin, who co-wrote “Trust.” It was amazing to see a kid her age deal with that sort of subject matter. She’s such a great, naturalistic young actress, and was actually one of the few people cast in “Novitiate” who had a bit of a background in Catholicism. She grew up Catholic and had lapsed later on in life, but the experience meant something to her. There’s a brief moment where you see her character, Sister Emily, praying while alone in her room. I had written some dialogue for that scene, but I ended up encouraging Liana to just talk to God as she normally would, and we filmed it. All I really told her to include was how Sister Emily’s relationship with God had gotten in conflict with her teenage desire to hang out with friends. The take we used in the movie consists entirely of Liana’s own words.

Melissa Leo’s speech to her fellow sisters detailing the Vatican II reforms is heartbreaking. Though she may be stifling the voices of her novitiates, the voices of all the women in the church have been resoundingly ignored by the male establishment.

The mood and the feeling in the room was really magical that day because the extras were so engaged. They were feeding off of Melissa just as she was feeding off of them. None of the 100 or so extras had read the script, and had entered the room without any knowledge of what was going to happen. I told them, “For this particular scene, the Reverend Mother is going to give you news that basically invalidates your whole sense of purpose in the world and your sense of being. You can cry if you feel like crying, you can be angry if you feel like being angry. We’re going to be doing a lot of coverage in the audience and we’re going to be looking at all of your faces really closely, so please don’t try to stick out. If you feel something, just let it happen.” And they were amazing. It was a tribute to Melissa, who was so real and so committed that her tone overtook the room. When we finished shooting that scene, all the extras got up and gave her a round of applause. Melissa is the hardest working person I’ve ever met. When you have done 100 plus movies and you have reached the place in her career where she resides, you don’t have to give 150 percent every time out anymore. But I think that Melissa just loves what she does. This is her art and she cares about it so much.

In many ways, the progressive threat of Vatican II in the eyes of Reverend Mother mirrors the perspective of many conservative Catholics on the policies of Pope Francis.

Though my historical understanding of the church is more contained within the film’s time period, I do think that the possibility of a Vatican III-type moment is on the horizon. The organizing of the Vatican II council preceded the wave of social unrest in the United States. There was something anticipatory about Vatican II in how it reflected the massive changes that occurred throughout the ’60s. In terms of social issues, our world is rapidly changing at a pace that can’t be stopped. I think that the current Pope has a sense of visionary anticipation.  He knows that in order for the church to survive, it will have to adapt. Any institution that isn’t keeping pace with the changing realities of our world will lose a lot of people and not get a lot of new recruits. That tension is happening again, but it wasn’t what inspired me to make this movie. The similarities hadn’t occurred to me while I was making “Novitiate,” but many people who have seen the movie have been drawing those connections. Anytime an institution has to change and adapt, there are always going to be casualties. It is inevitable.

“Novitiate” is currently playing in theaters. Don’t miss it.

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